On Remembering the Combination

On Remembering the Combination

Photo Courtesy of Joe Duty

Zach: “Sheila, do you know the combination?” Sheila: “I knew it when I was in the front!”                                                                ~From A Chorus Line

Imagine this: you’re at an audition. You learn the combination, even though it’s really long. They split everyone into groups and your group is near the end so you have lots of time to practice it. You go over it with every group that goes up. When they call your name, you go up with your group, get in the formation, the music starts, you notice the casting team watching you, and suddenly your mind goes blank. How does it start? Is it a glissade? There goes the first beat, and you missed it. The moment is gone, but you remember that feeling forever. How could you have done things differently?

Maybe for you it’s not so much nerves as concentration. The teacher is explaining the combination and all you can think about is what you want for dinner or that horrible thing that happened at work. I used to have a teacher with such a beautiful point that when she explained combinations I would just stare at her feet and then have no clue what we were doing!

If you’re a beginner to ballet, you may be still struggling with the vocabulary of the moves. Learning ballet is like learning a language except that besides just words and their meanings, there are also moves that go along with them! Here are some thoughts on each of these issues.

Trouble picking up combinations:

  1. When you are learning a combination, move so that you can see the teacher. Most people are visual learners so don’t make it harder for yourself. Move to where you can see. If you can’t see, raise your hand and ask. You’re in class to learn, and your question may help others too!
  2. Getting it into your body may help by doing it with your hands, or marking it with your feet. This goes along with how you learn – if you are a kinetic learner you learn through movement. Mark it with your body and you may see a marked improvement. 🙂
  3. Sometimes the explanation of a combination doesn’t make sense. Actually doing it may make more sense. Sometimes we spin things and they seem more difficult in our heads. When you just do it, you realize oh, it wasn’t all that!
  4. Always anticipate the next steps that will be coming up. Anticipating is a great skill that can help you avoid that dreaded feeling of “oh no, what’s next?” Practice thinking of the next thing even while you are doing the previous thing.
  5. Hang on and keep trying!  Do as much of the combination as you can. Follow someone who knows it and do it as well as you can. The movement will start to get into your body. Don’t give up!
  6. Start slow. Forget the tempo to start and just work on getting the movement. If you can do the movements and remember them slowly, you will be able to build up speed and do them up to tempo.
  7. If the combination is really long, try breaking it into sections and learning it peice by peice. If you have time between learning parts of the dance, write it down. Practice it again after a good night’s sleep.
  8. If you are struggling and the teacher gives you an easier option, do the easier option! For now. Getting correct alignment in the beginning is going to go a long way to helping you advance later on. Take advantage of being a beginner!  There’s plenty of time to be advanced. You’ll get there!  Leave your ego outside.
  9. Ballet is a language made up of big steps like verbs and nouns and connecting steps like pronouns and prepositions. If you learn the “connecting steps”,  like tombe, pas de bourre, glissade, it can help you join the “big steps” like sautĂ© de chat, tour jete, sautĂ© fouettĂ©. If it sounds overwhelming, don’t worry, it will come.
  10. When you nail the combination it’s going to feel so good!

Trouble concentrating in class:

  1. Leave the world outside when you step into dance class. That way, your troubles with your mother or boyfriend or whatever doesn’t hinder you when you’re trying to dance. Step out of your world and into the studio. It’s like a mini-vacation in the middle of your day!
  2. If you are distracted by someone in class, or your spot in the room, move to a different spot. If that isn’t possible, redirect yourself from that distraction. Concentrate more on what you’re doing and do your best to stay focused on the teacher as much as you can. Breathe.
  3. Notice if you are getting distracted and bring yourself back to what the teacher is saying or doing.  Sometimes it’s as simple as noticing when you’re not focused, and bringing yourself back.
  4. Use your hands, mark it with your body. I said it before, and I’m saying it again. It can really help.

Trouble picking up combinations in an audition setting

  1. If you are nervous, if you are in an audition setting or it’s your first time in a new class, go easy on yourself. Take some deep breaths. Don’t give yourself a hard time. Make a plan of where to stand in class, where to look when you are auditioning, like above their heads. The more you audition or take class, the more comfortable you will feel, and that is part of the equation.
  2. The more fun you can make it for yourself, the less nervous you will be. Team up and audition with your friends or make new friends with the people you audition with! Focus, but enjoy the process. Auditioning is about showing them who you are as well as what you can do, so as much as you can, smile and show them beautiful you!
  3. Concentrate on the beginning and the end, and when to start with the music. If you begin strong and end strong, those are powerful moment. If you miss something, keep going as much as possible. In one audition I blanked out and I kept going and made it up. I was in front, and did it with such conviction, everyone behind me copied me! (Heh!)

When all else fails:

  1. Forgive yourself like you’d forgive your best friend. You did your best. I know it feels horrible to mess up but it’s going to be okay. Be kind to yourself.
  2. Check in with yourself on the basics. Did you get enough to eat today? Did you eat fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks? Did you get any protein? Did you get enough rest? Are you hydrated? Are you getting sick? If something might be off in one of these areas then it very well could be affecting your ability to concentrate and pick up choreography. Go easy on yourself. Get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow is another day.
  3. Don’t be so serious! Laugh at yourself. I have to bring my sense of humor when I take (any class, but partiularly) a hip hop class, because that is a different language for me and I struggle with it – so I try not to take myself too seriously doing it.

I hope this helps you! Any other ideas? Tell me in the comments!


Please see the Classes page for my current teaching schedule. I’d love to see you at the barre!


  1. Sarah, this is a fantastic post! I’m printing it out even though I’m not doing musical theater auditions, these pointers will help me with my ballroom work and all auditions. Thanks for gifting us!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Maybe for you it’s not so much nerves as concentration … Check in with yourself on the basics.”

    So true! This was me this morning — after two nights of really poor sleep followed by one night of somewhat poor sleep, I wasn’t quite awake yet when class started at 10 AM. I found myself zoning out, then sort of shaking myself back into the present and thinking, “Wait, what was the combination?”

    Also, thank you for the great points about humor and about forgiving yourself like you’d forgive your best friend — I never thought of it that way, but I’m incredibly hard on myself in ways that I would never be with anyone else. I’m going to try to keep that in mind at upcoming auditions (and in class, and for performances). I think it’ll help me stay in the moment if I remember that screwing up happens to everyone and isn’t the end of the world.

    Also, I love your analogy about the physical grammar of ballet ^_^


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s