I see so many students become frustrated with themselves (or with their partners) when learning new things – whether that be a new step or a new dance. In talking with other teachers (school teachers and college teachers, mostly), I’ve discovered that most teachers feel that adults make the lousiest learners. Why? We are impatient. We are accustomed to knowing things, and not accustomed to having to learn things. Children and teenagers, on the other hand, face the task of having to acquire new skills on a nearly daily basis. (I’m pretty sure there’s a biological, neuroscience reason behind this, too, but I’m hardly an expert on neuroscience.)
I watch Wally learn new things all the time. He has recently mastered the art of putting on his own pants, but it wasn’t an easy task at first. He had to sit and think about which way to put the pants, how to get one leg in each pants leg. He had to remember to pull the pant legs up until he could see his feet before standing up to pull them up the rest of the way. He still sometimes tries to pull them up with both hands tugging on the front waistband, then he stops when he realizes that it’s not working right, to try to figure out what went wrong. Eventually, getting dressed will be a mindless task for him, one that doesn’t require much conscious thought. But for now, when it’s still new to him, he’s slow and he has to think it through.
Another example is to think back to when you learned to drive. How much you had to concentrate on the smallest things. I remember having to watch the median line to make sure I stayed on my half of the road, and paying so much attention to achieving a smooth transition from gas to brake and back to gas. And braking without jerking the car! It was so much work, it took so much mental energy. And now I hardly have to think about driving, it’s so automatic.
The same is true of people learning to dance. Before you have developed sufficient muscle memory, doing the steps correctly takes a lot of conscious thought. You have to remember to pick up your feet and move them around, and you have to remember to move your arms and your body at the same time. Not only that, but you have to figure out the right way to move your arms, legs, and body. You have to do it with the right timing. You have to also keep with the music. It’s a lot to think about! And it’s not easy, particularly not at first.
But us adults, accustomed to having things be relatively easy, and not accustomed to acquiring new skills, expect to be able to pick up dancing instantaneously. And we get frustrated when that doesn’t happen.
The solution? Just have patience, and be kind to yourself. Remember the last time you learned an entirely new skill, like driving, or even think back to the last time you changed jobs. It just takes a while for anybody – particularly adults – to develop new skills.
But eventually, through sheer repetition, the movements of dancing become engrained in your muscles. Your body goes on autopilot. At that point, you won’t have to think about the steps as much, it’ll just be automatic – as automatic as driving a car or putting on pants.