Inspired by the very interesting commentary from two readers (Aurora – which if you haven’t checked out her website, you should! Her photography is awesome and very creative, and Speaker In Heels, who is an amazing lady Ellen I featured in this post and who created her own website where you can buy, sell, and trade shoes), I want to tackle the topic of how a person learns how to dance.
It’s not really something I’d ever thought about before except that people often tell me that I pick steps up quickly. I simply attributed this to the many years of practice I had learning combinations in ballet and jazz. My instructor would demonstrate little combinations before we did each exercise at the barre, and then other ones when we went across the floor. We had to remember what we were supposed to do in a short amount of time, often only being shown the exercises on the right foot and then being told to reverse it once we switched sides at the barre to work the left leg.
I have no doubt that the practice helped. I learned little tricks, like if you are doing an odd number of movements and you want your working leg to end in back, it has to start in back – aka the same place you want it to end, you start. If you do an even number of movements, you must have your leg in the opposite position – aka start in the front if you want to end in the back.
I also learned to “chunk” information. This is a technique also used in memorizing academic material. Instead of remembering each individual move I was to make, I’d group them. So instead of remembering individual letters of a word (h.e.l.l.o), say, I’d remember the entire word (hello). For instance: If I was to do tendu front, tendu side, tendu back, frappe back, frappe side , frappe front, I’d remember only 3 tendus going around and 3 frappes going around in reverse. These little “shortcuts” made remembering the combinations a little easier.
I notice that I do much better with short-term memorization than long-term. Ivan has to show me steps a few times before I actually remember them. Like he can show me a combination and I can usually pick it up fairly quickly and perform it with him in the moment, but if I come back to a lesson even just two days later, I will have forgotten how the combination goes.
And it always helps if I’ve had at least a little instruction in the dance step previously. There was one lesson at Inna’s where I went to the International Standard Ballroom class and pretty much froze. I have done so little Quickstep and she had us doing what was considered a basic combination around the floor, and I couldn’t keep up. It is much harder for me to see what I am supposed to be doing in Smooth or Standard Ballroom. It helps so much to have the reference point of the leader’s body positioning to know what I’m supposed to do.
One of the biggest challenges I had when I first started ballroom dancing was how to practice on my own. Seriously, I only knew the basic box steps in all the dances, even though we would do much more than that on lessons. I simply couldn’t do any other steps without my partner. Dancing the half of the choreography that I was responsible for by myself was confusing and mystifying. I also found it difficult to learn the steps alone because it is so different from jazz or ballet where the focus is usually a place in the room, rather than orbiting around another human being. And here I was trying to dance around a human being that wasn’t there!
What I needed were practice drills. Combinations of moves either across the floor or in place that would let me practice all the movements I’d need to make. I learned one in Rumba from the mother of my disappearing instructor but no more until I went to class with Inna. Pretty much drills are all we do and they are great. It takes a lot more energy to move myself by myself in the drills than to do them with the assistance of Ivan, my instructor. Plus, I really have to know exactly what I am doing to execute the drill successfully.
Beyond that, besides just learning the actual steps, I am also interested in learning the shapes my body is supposed to make as compared to those made by the body of the instructor. I want to match them as much as I can. I use the mirror a lot because I think I am a very visual learner. This is my learning strength.
My learning weakness is on the anyalytical side – the details. For instance, I may know a move, but I may not know what it’s called. I am also undisciplined about counting. I now know the general gist of things, the counts for the main dance basic steps, but I’m not that detail-oriented in nature (I rarely count aloud or in my head, but rather dance to the beat of the music). Some people know all the counts, the beats, the names of the steps, the way you should face in the ballroom along the line of dance, center or wall, you know, all the little minutiae. I think probably my engineer dance friends would be like that. Randall keeps detailed notes after every lesson. But me, I just kind of feel the musical rhythm, tune into my partner, and see what he is doing and follow. To me, there is head knowing (all the details), and then the body knowing (getting those details into muscle memory). Learning both is probably best but I rely on learning through my body more than my brain, I think.
Based on the comments from both Ellen and Aurora, there are many different (and opposite) ways people learn. People can dance from their head or from their body. The point is, no matter how you learn, no matter how fast or slow it comes in relation to other people, we are all still dancing!
Of course there is no one right way to learn. Probably the most important thing would be to find an instructor that can effectively communicate information in a way you can process. Like for me to have an instructor who told me all the details, I’d go absolutely nuts! I need someone to just start moving, then fill me in on the few details I really need to know. On the flip side, a person who is more analytical might freak if a person just started moving them – they’d want to know what they were going to do mentally before they did it physically.
You and I will probably get the most out of our lessons when we work with an instructor that can teach material in a way we can absorb. Think about how you learn when you are looking for an instructor or partner so you can communicate your needs. And if your instructor can’t teach effectively for you, that’s okay. It might not be the best fit. Don’t be afraid to go out and find what will work best for you. That is instructor is the perfect teacher for someone else and you deserve only the very best. Don’t settle on something as important as having a teacher that can teach in a way you can learn.
So, how do you learn? What tricks or tips have helped you along the way? Are you better at short-term or long-term memory? I think we’d all like to be more efficient learners so if anyone has any insights, I’m very interested to hear your opinion!