In a study of super-expert dancers we explored a highly general phenomena: using bodies and other things as simulation devices to physically model things. Mechanics trying to understand a machine may sketch on paper an imprecise or distorted model.  This helps them explore mechanical sub-systems or helps them consider physical principles, often better than looking at undistorted diagrams. Caricatures help. Architects often sketch in fluid strokes their early ideas to get a feel for the way light pours in, or how people might move through a space.  Accuracy is not important, flow is.  Violinists when practicing a hard passage may work on their bowing while largely neglecting their fingers.  They are not aiming for perfection in the whole performance; they are fixating on aspects. These sorts of methods may be common and intuitive; but on reflection, it is odd, to say the least, that practicing (literally) the wrong thing can lead to better performance of the right thing. [Kirsh et al, 2012]

To study this phenomenon we designed an experiment to explore the learning effectiveness of three different ways of practicing dance movements: practicing by gesturing, partial modeling and unenergetic movement – this is called marking in the dance world; practicing by working on the complete phrase, rendering it as realistically as possible – this is called practicing full-out; and practicing by repeated mental simulation, by lying on the ground thinking through the steps and positions of the dance phrase.  We expected that marking would lead to better consolidation of memory than mental simulation, but we also expected that it would not be as a good a method of study as practicing phrases full out - the way they were supposed to be performed on stage or for our judges  

To our great surprise we found that marking surpassed full out practice as well as mental simulation.  The results are provocative and potentially deeply revealing about the nature of practice, attention and physical thinking.


David Kirsh
Wayne McGregor | Random Dance
Dafne Muntanyola
Richard Caballero
Shannon Cuykendall
Souter-Rao, Ethan
Trinity Laban students