ADF 2: The Cognitive Scientist in Residence - Dance and Memory

"I'm interested in how the mind works," Dr. Ruth Day says. This is the thread that connects her research areas: medical cognition (how doctors and patients understand and remember information), courtroom cognition (how judges and juries understand laws) and memory for dance. From this last area she gets her enviable title of ADF Cognitive Scientist in Residence -- which makes her, so far as she knows, the only cognitive scientist in residence at any dance festival. As you might imagine, memory for dance is a niche field. How did Day get here?

She danced as a young girl -- enough that she imagined a career in dance. "I considered it very seriously," she says. "But I decided to follow the life of the mind. I figured the mind would last longer." She couldn't drop dance entirely, though. Years later, after she became a professor at Yale, she returned to classes -- modern dance, this time, instead of the ballet she grew up with -- and found herself struck with a peculiar problem. Although she could do the individual steps making up any phrase, when the music started, "I'd stand there and they'd start moving. I'd get stepped on!" She couldn't remember what to do. This puzzled her, and being a scientist, she began to scientifically research the question, through interviews, surveys and experiments: how do dancers learn and remember?

Her answers are of obvious interest to dance students. Being able to quickly grab choreography immensely increases your visibility in auditions and, once hired, your value to a company; many companies have dancers who serve as choreographic sponges, keeping track of movement as the choreographer invents or alters it.

So what did Day find? In the first place, modern dance is especially hard to remember because of its potentially infinite range of motion. Unlike ballet or other classical forms, modern lacks defaults (a ballet foot, unless otherwise instructed, points; a ballet hand curls into a certain shape) and agreed-upon names for steps. Dancers overcome this in various ways -- by using words (naming steps or using rhythmic non-words), mental images or kinesthetic feeling (memorizing a motion pathway). Day found, further, that companies share ways to remember, and dancers will be more successful if they are able to remember in the same way as their company. For example, if the company calls one movement "Y arms" (or doesn't give it a name, as the Cunningham company did not), but you call it "salutation," you're apt to add an emotional quality the choreography doesn't call for.

From these studies (which are ongoing), Day got interested in a related issue: what do dance audiences remember? Surveys at ADF returned a rather dismal answer: mostly, audiences remember costumes. Sometimes audiences recall lighting or overall feeling -- but movement quality, specific steps, all that dancers work so hard on, that is mostly lost. (Day points out that these studies involved recall for dances seen earlier in the festival, sometimes weeks before. When audience members are quizzed immediately after watching dances, as in some later tests, they do recall more detail.) Curious to know why audiences didn't remember more, Day tackled this topic with a battery of cognitive scientific methods.

Again, her conclusions: dance simply overwhelms audiences. For most people, it's as confusing as watching a new sport without knowing the rules (an activity, incidentally, that Day enjoys). Thus, people have trouble even perceiving dance, let alone lodging it in short-term memory. Our short-term memories, in turn, need rehearsal to become long-term memories -- but, bereft of ways to summon up dance, audiences often cannot recall enough for this happen.

As scientists do, Day turned her data this way and that, tinkering with her experiments to isolate different variables. One result: while overall general audience memory is poor, audiences and professionals suffered similar oblivion for certain pieces -- those without clear structure and at least some repetition.

Another result was encouraging: people remembered much more of a second dance clip after being questioned on a first. (Day's research runs through more variations than I can report here; she's currently compiling a manuscript of her dance studies). This suggests that audiences can improve their recall. So Day began offering workshops for audience members. Her tips: "chunk it" -- that is, consciously notice and mark sections in the dance. "Capture it" -- seize a brief mental image (you may need to close your eyes) or mark the movement as a dancer would (yes, while you're sitting there in the audience!). "Name it": give the steps and sections names. Finally, "recall it" -- which you should be able to do, given your attentive encoding of the dance.

But let's backtrack a moment. Day's initial results about how little audiences recall prompt me to some juicy questions -- mainly, is it a problem that audiences don't remember dance? Is there a connection between memory and value?

My questions don't quite compute for Day. She studies memory; its value is practically axiomatic for her. However, she substitutes "appreciate" for my term "value," and points out that people cannot really appreciate what they can't remember.

Note, though, that some dances intentionally induce trance states in viewers. I vividly remember -- if this isn't too much of a contradiction -- some performances of which I recall nothing but the reverie they plunged me in. It's also easy to imagine audience members shy to confess what they do remember: how certain dancers looked, for example, or what they thought about the dancers, or their own daydreams of motion. Finally, dance is live performance, and live performance derives some value from its fleeting nature: that you can't take it home is precisely the point of being there, sharing in that evanescent present.

Still, I doubt whether most choreographers and dancers would be happy to hear that, weeks after a performance, audience members admit to remembering mainly costumes. And that leads me to a heretical question: is dance failing its audience?

This brings me to an even more heretical answer: I wouldn't be surprised if touring concert modern dance (the type of dance Day's audiences primarily see) does indeed fail its audience. There could hardly be a less propitious arrangement for memory: personnel, companies, pieces, even movement styles are generally unfamiliar to the audience; the dance was created elsewhere and often at another time, rather than in response to local conditions; the dance is often primarily abstract, its themes supposedly universal and therefore not specific; and the audience generally does not do this sort of dance themselves, nor are they encouraged to join the performance through anything other than applause.

Contrast this situation with a hip-hop cypher, in which only temporary divisions hold between dancer and audience; or a bharatanatyam performance for an Indian audience, who know the stories and poems invoked, recognize the symbolism of the dancers' gestures and frequently have family members who've studied the dance; or even with NYCB's audience of New York balletomanes, people who've tracked the company and its repertory for years; or, really, with practically any other dance audience in the global history of dance.

I'm sure you can hear my frustration. It's not that I don't value the works in question -- they're beautiful dances, delivered by some of the world's best dancers, artworks we're lucky to have. As Day notes, despite their difficulties in remembering, the audiences she surveyed were happy to see the dance. And certainly Day's techniques can help audience members appreciate this dance, help mend the divide between dance and audience. But it's the divide that concerns me: why are we so cut off from art we so need?

You can find more about Day's studies here:
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