Topical Series #2: How Do You Learn To Dance?

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!


7 thoughts on “Topical Series #2: How Do You Learn To Dance?

  1. Aurora says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Stefanie–as well as for a post that I think is bound to be very reassuring to people just starting to dance! (I think it’s human nature to assume that everyone else is doing it right…and you’re doing it wrong, when you’re starting out!)

    I think my favorite part of this, was your advice on finding a good instructor–which is SOOOO right!!!!! A lot of times studios will start you with one of their more charismatic teachers–someone who can take the rankest beginner, and literally HAUL them around the floor, making them feel like they’re a dancer. Good for business, that!

    Once you become a regular, though, they may push you over to another instructor, who may or may not be the best one for and your learning style. (My first partner and I had that experience–and it was a bit of a shock! In our case–it worked out well–I honestly think we wound up with the best instructor at the studio, if not the flashiest…but we didn’t know that at the time–and I don’t think we would have had the courage to shop around for another instructor, if ours hadn’t worked out for us. I would now–but we were unsure of ourselves, then.)

    One thing that can help a beginner get the most out of their private lessons, is to be very up front with your instructor, right from the beginning, about your learning style, and any problems you may have. When I finally got up enough nerve to explain to my teacher that I couldn’t make my mind follow his instructions (even though my partner could!), and that even things like him saying, “left” or “right” confused me, and took longer for me to process, he changed his style with me, and would touch the arm or leg that was supposed to move…and if I still seemed to have problems understanding, he’d move it for me!

    It felt like I was making excuses–but the truth is, it made our lessons much, much better–as he didn’t have to waste time on things that wouldn’t get through to me–and I didn’t feel stupid, because I couldn’t understand him.

    If you’re too new to dance to KNOW how you learn, then as your lessons progress, analyze where you have problems, and what makes it easier for you–and then share that, with your instructor. And like Stefanie mentioned already–if that doesn’t help, then shop around for another instructor! (Remember–someone not being right for YOU, doesn’t mean you’re saying they’re a bad teacher–just that they’re not right for you. I’m a photographer–but I won’t take all clients! I pre-screen them, and make sure that I feel I’m the right one for them. If I find that they’re looking for something more modern and edgy–I’ll happily refer them to someone else, who will suit their style better–so don’t stay with a bad fit, because you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings! A professional should understand! :))

    • loveablestef says:

      Great points, Aurora! I especially like that you expanded upon my post for people who are so new they don’t know how they learn just yet. I also love how you make it okay to learn differently than your partner. I think it is great your dance instructor took such a hands-on approach with you. That is amazing – what a true professional. Do you have a dance-related blog, yourself? You have a lot of great knowledge to share and your personality shines right through your writing. I’d love to read it if it exists, and if it doesn’t, I’d encourage you to start one if you are at all interested!

      • Aurora says:

        It would be a very dull world, if we were all just alike, wouldn’t it?! We celebrate diversity–but then we tend to expect ourselves to learn just like everyone else, which is just silly!

        (And yes, I feel very, very blessed in the instructor I wound up with, although at the time, my partner and I were very disgruntled about the change! Kari was not only a fantastic dancer, but even better, was a very skilled teacher.)

        And no…I don’t have a dance related blog…just a photography blog that I keep meaning to finish, and get up and running–and somehow, never do. (I know how much work it is to get a blog going–so I really admire the work you put into yours!!! :))

        Your blog is a breath of fresh air, though–and very, very encouraging for me, as I had to give up dancing about a decade ago, due to knee problems…but I’ve recently started working with a personal trainer to build up muscles around my knees, and hopefully, get myself in shape enough to dance again in a year or so. So thanks for continually reminding me of how much fun ballroom dancing is! 🙂

  2. I agree with everything Aurora said – about your blog and about learning to dance and finding the right instructor. I remember when Kate Gosselin was on DWTS and everyone thought she was being a DIva telling Tony Dovolani that she didn’t learn how he taught. I thought “bravo for her” because I had the same issue/discussion with my instructor and it isn’t an easy one to have. Many instructors take it that you are saying they are teaching poorly – be clear that this is not about them- it is about you and how you learn. All you are asking is that they adapt to how you learn. I used to /still drive my instructor crazy because I don’t “feel” things – especially when they are “right”. He or visiting coaches will make a change and say ” can you feel the difference? ” and I cannot. But I can always feel when things are “wrong” – I can tell when i’m off balance, or I’m off time, or I do the wrong step – I can get the “big wrongs” but cannot differnetiate the subtle positives. It is frustrating for the instructor and coaches – but ok for me – they consider me “negative” but I know it is just how I learn.

    As for more about how I practice – I know my steps. I can get on the floor and do my entire waltz or quickstep, or slow fox routine by myself ( granted my heel turns stink – I have crappy balance) but I know my steps and practice them so I can do them myself. Of course I do International Standard so it more about consistent patterns than about lead and follow.

    • loveablestef says:

      Ellen, I’m super impressed you know all the Standard Ballroom patterns and steps. That is my area of weakness! I find it very confusing to dance by myself doing both Smooth and Ballroom. You just have a different, brilliant kind of intelligence than I do. It’s like that saying often attributed to Einstein (I’ll paraphrase as best I remember) – we are all geniuses at something, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid. You are a better fish than me and I’m a better tree and who cares cause we both love dancing! Also, I love your perspective about Kate Gosselin. I never would have thought of the situation like that. I just goes to show how many filters we all have and how that influences our reality and how we perceive things. I like your perspective because it generates more compassion in me for her (another human being) even if I still think she was being petulant and bratty about it! lol. I already had compassion for Tony in that situation. Thanks for all you contribute to my life and the blog. I’m so excited that you inspired yet another person through your story today. xoxo.

  3. This is a topic that has been on my mind lately. My first three+ months of ballroom dancing have felt like trial and error at times. I’ve felt that I’m not learning as fast as I should (in comparison to how quickly I can pick up in a ballet or jazz class). I realized that the tough early period of picking up ballet technique happened so long ago that I couldn’t remember what had worked for me in terms of mastering those early steps. So, I had to relax a little, try different methods, and observe what was working. I’ve found that I’m very visual (something I’d forgotten after years of law school and case books). Watching the teacher demonstrate at a normal tempo while I copy the motion and compare in the mirror is by far the most efficient way for me to start with something new. Then I love to get into all of the details (however, I don’t pay much attention to the step names). I really struggle if the teacher starts the learning process with a lecture or by breaking the steps up so much that the flow isn’t recognizable unless the step is something I recognize from youTube videos (I watch the pros on youTube when I have spare time and this has been helpful in developing of a visual of how the steps, lines and shapes should look).

    My own practice time ranges from a rumba walk warmup (I walk the perimeter of the studio close to the wall–good if you have bad balance or are still adapting to heels) progressing to cha cha locks. Then I go through my competition routines focusing on whatever teacher notes I have received that week. If I feel like my routine or a series of steps looks sloppy, I take out my iPhone’s metronome app, start at a low bpm, bumping up the tempo only when my steps look acceptable, until I can produce clean steps at tempo.

    If I need to learn a chunk of choreography, I ask to use my iPhone to video the teacher doing the steps at tempo once from the back and once from the front. I am able to take this home and learn it relatively quickly on my own time. Then, when I come in for my lesson we work on the details. This saves time (and money in the form of lesson time).

  4. Aurora says:

    Paragon–love your description of how you learn! (GREAT topic, Stefanie!!!!) Using the iPhone to film steps is especially clever–I love that idea! 🙂

    It sounds like you’ve pretty much realized this already, but in my experience, learning a new skill tends to follow a pattern:

    1) Oh my GOSH–this is so HARD and so CONFUSING and I’ll NEVER get it right!!!

    2) This isn’t hard at all! Why does my teacher make such a fuss about it? It’s a piece of cake! I’m a genius!

    3) I was a complete idiot. I’m not a genius–I was just a slightly above average [insert new skill name here] -er, and now that I’ve learned more, I see that I have a long, hard slog ahead of me, before I get really amazing.

    Seth Godin calls the third step “the dip”–and it’s the thing that most people can’t be bothered to push through, to the greatness on the other side…but for those who are wired to get off on that hard work, it’s pretty satisfying to reach it–because you can’t really get there, until you’ve accumulated enough knowledge to accurately judge yourself against the rest of the pack.

    Of course, the third stage is also full of ups and downs…but they’re never as horrible as the first stage…and stage one IS compensated for, very nicely, by the euphoria of stage two! 😉

    So keep it up–you’ll find yourself at that third stage sooner than you think–and we’ve ALL been there! (Oh…and you mentioned taking other types of dance…I think that actually makes it harder for you, initially…because other types of dancers aren’t used to following–and it’s VERY hard to give up that control, particularly when you’re dancing with a less than confident male–and most of them, are, at first! The good news is, the other types of dance will pay off later, after you’ve mastered the initial steps–but I’ve noticed that people with dance backgrounds tend to struggle more, at first, with ballroom.)

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