Category Archives: learning

When you know more than your partner

This is one scenario we see over and over in our classes. One partner already knows how to dance, the other partner is a rank beginner. It either goes really well, or it’s a disaster. Want your experience to go well, and not be a disaster?? Keep reading.

What makes this situation so hard is that it’s very tempting for the person who already knows how to dance to want to help their partner. This “help” often takes the form of giving LOTS of feedback, like “you’re supposed to…” If the experienced dancer is a follower, she often will just perform the steps she’s supposed to, without waiting for her partner to lead them (aka “backleading”).

It’s understandable to want to help – of course you want to help! But what’s challenging is that the help your partner most needs is for you to stand back a bit and wait for them to catch up. There’s no rushing the learning process with dancing – students need time for their muscles to remember what they’re supposed to be doing.

The main hindrance in learning to dance is the human brain – our brains just get in the way so often when we’re learning to dance – and having to process verbal directions – or criticism – or react to backleading actually slows the whole process down.

I LOVE it when folks who already know how to dance bring newcomers to our classes or dances. That’s what swing dancing is all about – bringing in new, unsuspecting victims! The hard part is toning down your own enthusiasm for spreading the swing dancing love while you let the new dancer learn at their own pace.


Swingin at the Crossroads Lessons

One of my favorite parts of attending workshops such as this weekend’s Swingin at the Crossroads is listening to other instructors – hearing how they teach, the things they say, etc. It’s nice confirmation to hear out of town instructors saying the same things I say. But it’s especially nice to hear them say largely the same things I say when I’m teaching, but phrase them differently.

My favorite example from this weekend is Alison answering a student question about how the follower knows whether or not to put her hand on the leader’s shoulder during any given move. Alison responded that she never assumes a basic step, she notices the leader asking her to move forward, and then when she notices his hand has connected with her back, then her hand is the last thing to connect with his arm. The last thing.

This is a concept I also convey to our classes, but I don’t phrase it nearly as succinctly nor as clearly. I usually dance (pardon the pun) around the concept a bit, talking about how I can do the dance without using my left arm at all, that I am not holding or grabbing onto the leader, etc. Then hearing Alison say the same thing but using about 1/4 of the words… well, that’s my strange idea of a good time!

Being the best dancer you can be

As many of you know, we recently asked Swing Des Moines members to participate in a survey to gather their opinions and thoughts. Several of the responses have made me do quite a bit of thinking about what we do here at Swing Des Moines and why, and a few of the responses have given me some food for thought regarding my own processes.

One of these responses was an answer to the question “What goal should Swing Des Moines be pursuing” and it was along the lines of “Make sure all your students are good dancers.”

I’ve been pondering this during recent months, as I compare students to one another – something I don’t normally do. Though I’ve never really defined my personal philosophy about this in words before, I came to realize that it’s long been my goal as a swing dance teacher to help each student be the best dancer they can be. Not to help them measure up to anyone else, or to some standard of what makes a “good” dancer, but to be the best that they can personally be at that time.

This means that some students, I am ecstatic to see them come to Jive Junction and move their feet more or less in time with the music, because I know from watching them struggle that just doing that is an accomplishment to be proud of. A few months down the road, maybe I’ll see them leading moves I know they’ve worked hard on, and even though those moves are not exactly smooth and seamless, they represent an accomplishment nonetheless. They are being the best dancers they can be. They might not measure up to anyone else’s ideal of a “good” dancer, they might be awkward to dance with, but they are trying their hardest, they are really working at it, and they should be so very proud of their achievements.

Other students learn more quickly, dancing comes more naturally to them. The bar is higher for these students. Seeing them dance slightly out of time with the music and using choppy leads would be a disappointment, something I as a teacher would encourage them to improve because I know they are capable of doing better.

Each class brings us a mix of these types of students, and it can be a challenge to keep the class challenging enough for the faster learners without leaving the struggling ones in the dust, but our feedback shows that we do at least a reasonable job of this, which makes me happy.

I also want to add one final thought to this – we don’t tend to compare one student to another in terms of ability or ease of learning to dance. Please don’t compare yourself to others, either.

Getting Better

So often, dancers say something along these lines, “gee, I wish I were a better dancer, but I’m not sure what to do to get better.”

Well, ladies and gents, I am here to provide that answer!! Here are five tips to get you moving down the path to being a better dancer than you are today.

1. Practice. Practice, practice, practice, practice. Nothing takes the place of simply doing something over and over again until it’s second nature. Consider any other skill you wish to develop. Want to become a better piano player? Play the piano more. Want to lift more weight? Lift weights more. Want to dance better? Dance more.

2. Go out dancing. Go to dances. Go to places where there is music. Go out in public and dance. Dancing at a dance is different than dancing in the privacy of your own home. In your own home, you might have a tendency to stop and start, to work on something you feel needs improvement, and this is a good thing. But you also need to just dance, to have to start and then complete a song without stopping in the middle.

3. Dance with others. This is the other benefit of going out dancing. The opportunity to dance with others. You will get better faster (and better, period) through dancing with people other than your regular partner, if you have one. You and a regular dance partner will tend to do two things: 1: fall into bad habits with each other, 2: get really predictable, and lose your lead/follow skills. Dance with others!!

4. Record yourself dancing and watch it. Watching yourself dancing can be very humbling. I remember the first time I watched myself dance. I was so embarrassed that I had been out – in public – dancing like that! yikes!! But it gave me a great opportunity to notice a few really visually annoying things that I did, and it also showed me some places that I needed to work on my technique.

5. Learn some new skills. Some people need more moves to feel more confident, some people want to learn or develop their skills – leading and following, footwork, improvisation, whatever. Sometimes these skills can be learned best through a class, sometimes through experimentation.

Have Patience, Grasshopper.

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.

Practice Makes…

Practice makes what? If you answered “perfect,” well, I disagree. In reality, practice makes permanent.

Practice is the process of developing muscle memory – training your muscles to peform a task without conscious thought. It is only through practice that we eventually reach the point where we can dance without thinking “step step triple step,” or we can lead our partners without thinking “pull her in, bring her through.”

But if your practice time involves repeating the same step over and over incorrectly, you’re going to make a bad habit, bad form, or just wrong movement, permanent. Because this is what you’ve trained your muscles to do.

What does this mean in practical terms?

1) Check with someone else (like your teacher) if you’re unsure whether you’re practicing something correctly.

2) Don’t do your learning from video tapes. Video tapes have their place, that’s for sure, but one of their main drawbacks is that they provide no feedback. If you’re not doing something right, the video is not going to clue you in.

3) Focus on executing your steps with precision when you practice. When I was taking piano lessons, I was told to slow down when working on a piece. Slow down to a tempo I could play without missed notes, then practice at that tempo for a while before trying to speed up again. Now, sometimes dancing slowly can be a challenge, but it’s a good challenge – one that forces you to get it exactly right, and gives you the time to do so. (watch for a future article on slooooowing down.)

Beyond merely rote repetition and muscle training, practice is also a process of analysis and problem solving. If you continually stumble, jump, run, or take “catch up” steps during a particular move, you must stop and figure out where the trouble is. If your partner consistently doesn’t catch your lead, you must stop and analyze the difficulty. Oftentimes, this leads us back to the idea of slowing down to determine exactly where the trouble lies. Once you’ve found the trouble spot, you can devise a solution.

This is actually one of the best reasons to practice between classes, rather than saving all of your practice for once a class series is over. If you’ve had a chance to practice and discover what’s giving you trouble, you can return to class and ask your instructor for help in solving the problem. Good dance teachers should be able to pinpoint the issue and offer a solution.

Now, what are you waiting for? Go practice!

some ideas from this article were inspired by an article in Mothering magazine called “Go Practice the Piano” from the winter 1997 issue. I happened across the article while writing this post and the author so eloquently captured my jumbled thoughts.

How to Learn Dancing

I’ve been thinking about this lately as we watch a new class slowly learn to dance. Some of the students will excel, coming back each week having mastered the material from the previous week and ready to learn more. Some of the students will founder, wanting more and more review as the weeks go on, never quite able to remember the steps from one week to the next. They will finish the class being able to competently peform the basics, but they won’t remember much more than that.

The same thing happens to more advanced learners, as well. I can remember very distinctly learning a complex (or at least it seemed at the time) jazz dance routine from Frankie Manning’s at-that-time teaching partner Debbie something. It took all day. It was fun. It was exhausting. I don’t remember any of it.

So what’s the secret? What’s the difference between those who grow and excel at their dancing and those who founder and ultimately fall short of their hopes to become comfortable and confident dancers?

After teaching people to dance for nearly 10 years now, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe, and here are my thoughts.

1) Taking notes. Not mental notes. Physical ones. The students who do well generally write little notes to themselves to help them remember what they learned. Many of our students have requested that we provide them with notes, but I have decided that this is not in their best interest. The best notes, that will be the most meaningful to you, are ones you take yourself. You can write down the things you need to remember in a way that makes sense to you.

Sometimes, my notes have consisted of little stick-figure drawings combined with arrows and notes. Sometimes, just count-by-count descriptions of what happens during a particular step. Sometimes I like to make comparisons. “Just like jump charleston except…” or “Starts like The Dream, but then…” What makes sense to me will not always make sense to you.

2) Practice. Of course the best notes in the world won’t do you any good without practice. I do still have my notes from the abovementioned jazz routine class. They make a little sense, but not enough sense to enable me to complete the routine. Practice helps develop muscle memory, which means that your muscles can do the step without you really having to consciously move your arms and legs to the right places.

Muscle memory is what enables me to sit down and play Fur Elise at the piano even today, though I haven’t seen the music for a good 12 or 13 years and I learned it when I was in junior high (in the 80s!!). I practiced the song to death, but my muscles still remember how it goes.

Practice can be as simple as walking through the steps you have learned a few times during the week between classes. Or you can set aside a few minutes each day to dance with a partner. Of course, our monthly dance Jive Junction provides a perfect practice opportunity. I’ll have more on practice next week!

3) Attitude. Don’t underestimate the power of attitude. Time and again, I have seen students with absolultely no sense of rhythm or coordination, but who come in thinking “this is going to be fun and it might be challenging, but I can do it!” generally leave class able to dance fairly well. They are not only determined to learn, but they have also determined that they CAN learn it.

I have also watched students with excellent rhythm and coordination come into a class thinking “this is stupid and I can’t do it.” They are the ones who, when we are demonstrating a move, say “oh, man, that’s HARD!” No matter what we say, their answer is “I can’t do this.” That attitude quickly become self-fulfilling. They have decided in advance that it is too hard, and so it is too hard. This is unfortunate, but there’s little I can do as a teacher to change the attitude of a student in four short weeks! I can do my best to help them see the fun in dancing, to make them laugh, to lighten their mood, and to encourage their learning process, but I cannot fundamentally change someone’s attitude – that’s up to them!

4) Dancing socially. Those students who dance socially – that is, with more than one partner – tend to learn faster and learn “better” than those who do not. Even if it is awkward at first to dance with strangers, it is ultimately much better for your dancing. Dancing with different partners really helps you to become a stronger leader or a better follower, not to mention affording you the opportunity to learn from those who are more experienced dancers.

And there you have it – the secrets to learning social dancing. Take notes, practice, have a good attitude, and dance socially. Of course, it helps to seek out instructors who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and to take classes that are appropriate for your level and goals, as well!

See you on the dance floor! (or in class?)