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Learning to Dance

I enjoyed todays lesson very much. I was afflicted with the dancing bug at a very young age as well. From the age of six, dance, in one form or another, has been a part of my life's routine. Primarily focusing on ballet. So adding a new style such as swing to my repertoire excites me. It is strange being in a position where I am a beginner in dance although I have 18 years of training and performance. Brings back good memories...

When I was first learning, I remember how all I wanted to learn were the steps... most people do. While I understand now the *importance* of lead and follow, as a rank beginner I only understood that the guy was supposed to lead a move and that I was supposed to follow it. Partners of mine would get bored if instructors when on about lead and following skills too long. Ultimately, I really learned about following skills/correct arm tension from more experienced partners. It's very hard for two beginners together to learn to get this right. Yes, it's a concept instructors should spend some time on, but most students are just worrying about their feet...

Non-dancers tend to think that dancing is step-sequences. And the more step sequences they cram the more dancing they have learned. Teachers often succumb to this market pressure, and besides, anyone can teach step sequences but few can teach dancing. At least not simultaneously to many students, all of whom have individual needs. What some people like to marginalize as "styling" - posture, balance, weight change, appropriate force, basic timing and footwork, dancing with the music and with your partner ... these are the *essentials* of dancing. The rest is just so many patterns. If you wanted to learn a language, the infrastructure of culture and grammar would be essential. Any dictionary can supply any number of words. Anyone who thinks they can learn a foreign language by translating word for word with a dictionary would be as foolish as someone who wants to learn to dance by concentrating on step sequences.

I learned a basic set of (10) step sequences. Later I realized that those step sequences are purely didactic constructs designed to teach and practice smaller units. They are like molecules, and eventually you learn about atoms, and how to assemble your own molecules from these atoms. Then, once you get to be really good, you discover about quarks ...

As I see it, dancing is not steps. Dancing is posture, balance, connection, leading, following, weight-changes, harmony, flow, and music. But beginners are easily impressed with "fancy steps". And teachers often succumb to the pressure to teach "fancy step sequences". It's so much easier to teach them, than to teach dancing. The best teachers in any dance form emphasize the importance of doing the essentials well. Imagine learning a language. A lot of people want to learn slang words, impressive big words, or simply many, many words at the beginning. And usually students memorize standard conversational phrases. While the canned phrases are useful because they provide the student with material to practice with, language really means having something to say, and being able to say it, not having a large number of phrases memorized and drilled.

One danger with fancy steps is that it's tempting to think that if we can do the steps in the sequence, that we have accomplished something. So we keep doing the sequence, but we neglect the underlying basics. And practice makes permanent. It's like talking with all sorts of big words, but not having mastered natural pronunciation, or basic grammar. Another danger is that the very process of teaching fancy step sequences to beginners conflicts with their learning to *dance* -- their attention is focused on the teacher, their own feet, their thought processes and memories, instead of being focused on their partner, the music, and being conscious of their surrounding environment.

Many teachers don't teach connection, instead they teach step sequences which make beginners feel that dancers just happen to be holding on to each other as they trace out memorized step sequences with their feet. Lead/follow exercises are an essential foundation to provide students with, possibly the most important thing dance instructors do. The most essential things -- posture, balance, appropriate force (tiny), small steps, appropriate contact (incl. eye contact), rhythm recognition, leading/following, etiquette, floorcraft -- these are hard to teach, and most teachers would rather "have taught 20 moves" than "have developed 10 essential concepts". The trick is to overtly teach dances while covertly teaching dancing. Surreptitiously. Rather than lecturing you want to drop little messages from time to time, such as ::

So yeah! I like to dance....

::

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