How to Practice When You Only Have 5 Minutes

Friday, December 17, 2010

I was having a really bad day. I got stuck at work, missed my bus, and when I got home, I discovered that I forgot to defrost the ingredients for dinner. By the time I was home and fed, I was too tired and cranky to put on my practice clothes, much less actually dance.

Now, there's nothing wrong with skipping a practice session once in a while, but when I miss a practice session, it often turns into two, and then a week. Before I know it, I've missed out on hours and hours of practice time.

5 Minutes Would Have Kept Me On Track

If you want to make consistent progress in the dance, you'll have to practice. This is true whether your goal is to become a professional dancer, or just to prepare for your next hafli. But life gets in the way, and things happen.

That's why you need a practice plan for those days when you can't squeeze in a full session. And, surprisingly, 5 minutes of practice can make a big difference.

Why Practice for Five Minutes? Why Not Just Skip It?

When you're tired, stressed, and short on time, it's tempting to skip your practice session entirely. But frequent practice - even in trivially short sessions - tells your brain that what you're practicing is important. And your brain obliges by optimizing the path to that information.

So while you won't make a ton of progress in those 5 minutes, you'll actually accomplish more in your next full-length practice session.

Plus, you'll maintain the momentum of your practice habit. So practicing will feel like a normal and natural part of your day, rather than a guilt-inducing "to-do" on your list.

So How Do I Plan a 5-Minute Practice Session?

When you only have 5 minutes to practice, you can't waste a second, so it's important to plan your session carefully.

Minute 1: Quickie warm-up
- shoulder rolls with plies (knee bends)
- hip circles
- side stretch
- hamstring stretch
- roll up the spine

It's tempting to skip the warm-up when you're pressed for time, but don't do it! You won't dance as well without it, and it prepares your brain to learn.

Minutes 2 & 3: Nit-Picky Practice
Review the material you're working on. Do this very slowly, focusing on the details: alignment, position, which muscles are working, etc. Be sure to work both sides equally.

Minute 4: Tempo Practice
Practice the material at a speed that is challenging but doable. At first, this will be a moderate tempo. Over time, work up to a faster tempo.

Minute 5: Practice in Context
Practice using this material while dancing. You can improvise, or use it in a pre-planned combination.


Here's an example that I did the same day I wrote this article. I've been learning a new choreography, and wanted to polish up the "compass" hip drops it uses. But I was home for Thanksgiving, and couldn't block out much time for practice. Here's what I did:

1st min: warm-up
2nd min: practicing compass drops in slow motion. I started by just sliding my hip to each of the positions, then added in the drops. I did this slowly and deliberately, making the move as perfect as I could manage.
3rd min: same thing on the other side
4th min: practicing compass drops at medium tempo. I also tried it at a fast tempo, but I wasn't able to do it cleanly, so I dropped back down to the moderate pace. I split the time between the two sides.
5th min: practicing the original combination

But You Can't Make Real Progress in 5 Minutes!

It's true: you won't make a lot of progress in 5 minutes. But remember: we're not concerned with what you can accomplish during your mini-session. Our goal is to "grease" the pathways to that information in your brain, and maintain the practice habit.

Besides, even in the worst-case scenario, even if you never do a full-length practice again, 5 minutes a day adds up to 30 hours and 25 minutes of practice per year. Not too shabby, huh?


While you'll need to get consistent practice if you want to make progress, there are some days when you just can't squeeze in a full session. In that situation, it's actually better to practice for 5 minutes than to skip it entirely. That tells your brain that the material is still important, which makes your later, full practice sessions more effective.

To get the most benefit, be sure to do a quick warm-up, practice one topic slowly and deliberately, practicing the same thing at tempo, and then practice it in a dancing context.

What You Can Do Right Now

When you only have 5 minutes to practice, you can't waste a second collecting your stuff. Prepare your 5-minute practice plan now, before you need it.

Write down what you want to work on, pick out a 5-minute song with a suitable tempo, and place your notes, music, and hip scarf next to your stereo.


Angelique said...

Nadira, Thanks for this!! I've done exactly what you've described! One session, turned into two, turned into days, weeks and yeah, months! Then I really get discouraged and it's so hard to get started again. Life happens, but 5 min is doable and if it works one way, why not the other way? so 5 min could turn into 10, 15, 20 before you know it you'll be back on track!!

Nadira said...

Thanks, Angelique. I've actually gone into the studio committed to only 5 minutes, and ended up staying for 2 hours.

That only works for me on evenings & weekends though. I've also overslept, committed to 5 minutes, and stayed for 45 minutes, and ended up late for work. I don't recommend that version. :)

Fotia said...

Bravo! This is great advice and very valuable to remember.

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