A new study by a research group from UC Santa Cruz in dance has been published in Psychological Science, the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology.

The new research indicates that dance marking--loosely practicing a routine by “going through the motions”-- may improve the quality of dance performance by reducing the mental strain needed to perfect the movements.

The new findings in the top journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that marking may lessen the conflict between the cognitive and physical aspects of dance practice, allowing dancers to memorize and repeat steps more fluidly.

Researcher Edward Warburton, a former professional ballet dancer and professor of theater arts (Dance) at UC Santa Cruz, noted that he and his colleagues were interested in exploring what he terms the “thinking behind the doing of dance.”

“It is widely assumed that the purpose of dance marking is to conserve energy,” said Warburton. “But elite-level dance is not only physically demanding, it’s cognitively demanding as well. Learning and rehearsing a dance piece requires concentration on many aspects of the desired performance.”

Warburton added that marking involves a run-through of the dance routine, but with a focus on the routine itself, as opposed to making the perfect movements.

“When marking, the dancer often does not leave the floor, and may even substitute hand gestures for movements,” said Warburton. “One common example is using a finger rotation to represent a turn while not actually turning the whole body.”

The study involved asking a group of talented dance students to learn two routines: practicing one at performance speed and the other one by marking.

Although the routines were relatively simple and designed to be learned quickly, differences emerged when the judges looked at the quality of performance.

The dancers were judged significantly higher on the routine that they had practiced with marking--their movements on the marked routine appeared to be more seamless and the sequences more fluid.

Warburton said that the study suggests that practicing at performance speed didn’t allow the dancers to memorize and consolidate the steps as a sequence, affecting their performance.

“By reducing the demands on complex control of the body, marking may reduce the multi-layered cognitive load used when learning choreography,” said Warburton

He added that marking could be strategically used by teachers and choreographers to enhance memory and integration of multiple aspects of a piece--precisely at those times when dancers are working to master the most demanding material.

Warburton observed that this area of research could also possibly extend to other kinds of activities, including language acquisition.

“Smaller scale movement systems with low energetic costs such as speech, sign language, and gestures may likewise accrue cognitive benefits, as might be the case in learning new multisyllabic vocabulary or working on one’s accent in a foreign language.”

Co-authors on the study include UC Santa Cruz associate professor of psychology Margaret Wilson, and Molly Lynch and Shannon Cuykendall of the University of California, Irvine.