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.