Sensory Overload

daniela teaching 2

Daniela giving aural cues!

I hear from many of my students that sometimes they feel overloaded after a weekend festival. I know this feeling too and I was reminded recently of this fact.

As you all know I have recently moved into a new home and studio space, which is fantastic! And in the process of this move came the need to purge stuff. Stuff that I have held onto for many many years including a small article I had saved specifically about the topic of sensory overloading.

The article written by dance and science author, Margaret Skrinar was part of a Science and Dance series that she contributed to the Boston Dance Alliance newsletter during my modern dancer days. She says, “No other physical endeavor places greater demand on the sensory nervous system than dance.” Aren’t you feeling better already knowing this? She goes on to say that the nervous system can only effectively attend to one sensory item at a time and in a sensory overloaded situation like a class or workshop, each sensory mode becomes interference for the others.

As we are learning to Argentine Tango we are picking up information from our hearing – both cues from the instructor and the music; our sight is used to watch the demonstration of 2 bodies and their orientation to each other and the orientation in space; kinesthetically we are receiving information through pressure changes on the skin from our partner, the instructor, and the floor; and there’s proprioception, which is the ability for one part of the body to know where it is relative to the other parts, like where your left leg is relative to your arms in your embrace.

There are dancers who are accustomed to specific teachers and are able to handle multiple stimuli through what Skrinar calls “chunking and anticipation”. So if you have already taken class with me you filter some sensory information for another, you might tune out what I am saying to work on the visual, what I am doing and what you are seeing. Chunking has to do with putting information into big chunks as opposed to single units. I see this with my intermediate dancers who are able to identify a cruzada, for example, in a series of movements. They are able to chunk movements by identifying parts of it as la cruzada, this similar movement becomes one unit rather than six or seven or eight distinct steps.

So what can you do to reduce your sensory load and still improve?
Chunking and anticipating seem like good plans to me. Maybe begin by looking for elements that seem familiar. Crossed feet system or parallel system for example or that cruzada that you know so well. Do you know what kind of learner you are? Rely on that information to help you learn. Maybe listen more or listen less, or what about humming demonstration patterns or ideas. I know some visual learners who doodle as they see the movement, which helps their bodies understand what they are seeing. My students know that I have language that I use to express the timing of certain phrases ie: “taca taca tum” or “bum and bum and bum”. And then they imitate me to remember those phrases.

Some ideas for teachers:
1) Skrinar suggests lessening the visual stimulation, which would work for dancers who use the mirror to imitate their teacher. Which could be useful to turn away from a mirror to do drills, for example, requiring the body to rely on its own proprioception and kinesthesia to learn.
2) Show and don’t talk – decreasing the auditory stimulus. Or showing movement without music. (And I am sure this could be argued as I find movement so intrinsically tied to music that I need the music to learn but maybe you don’t.)
3) Ask dancers to just watch and not try to imitate to reduce interference.
4) After dancers try a phrase give them a moment for proprioceptive and kinesthetic information to be processed by the brain.
5) Give dancers time to try movements without visuals and aural interference.
6) Teach in chunks, which I think is a very popular strategy in tango!

What other strategies do you use to learn or to teach by that work for you? Share on the accesstango Facebook page @

Skrinar, Margaret. “Sensory Overload: is it slowing your technique development?” Newsletter Vol.9 Number 4 of Boston Dance Alliance Newsletter. Boston, MA: July/August 1997. Print.

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