Technique and Experince

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Technique and Experience

The start

My first private dance lesson took place in small fitness room in the basement of a 1940s country club smelling of mildew mixed with chlorine. During the entire hour, my instructor explained the Rumba “basic step.” Facing the fitness mirror, we “stroked” the floor with the inside edge of our big toe, counting 4-1, 2-3. We never touched or danced together. Four weeks of talking and showing went by before I learned a single figure. Even when we did begin to dance together, the focus was on the body mechanics and technique of my movement, the hips, the rib cage, and the feet. But on Fridays, at our social dances, I was terrified to dance with him because I never knew what step was coming next. I didn't want to look stupid and was certain I would.

My first year

I spent a year like that - taking private lessons and attending the social dances hoping one day I would figure out what the leaders wanted. At the end of that first year, my instructor left on a four-week trip to visit his parents. While he was away, I took a lesson with an experienced female instructor who set me straight. That one hour with her was like a spiritual awakening in which I was baptised in the art of following. She showed me how to “interpret” the leader’s signals. She led me through the different dances and showed me how to establish connection, place my weight a little forward and pay attention to her shoulders to “feel” which way she wanted me to go. She taught me how to trust my instincts to interpret the movement. I couldn't believe how easy it was!

A reflection 

Thinking back on those days makes me wonder, what good is theory without action to back it up? And what good is action without a foundation that determines WHY we do what we do?

I understand it is a chicken/egg kind of question and it applies on many levels to almost every area of our lives. It is easy to get caught up on either side of the fence, placing too much effort in the mental study of something or plowing ahead in action without any training?

Don’t get me wrong. I think theory, fundamentals and technique are definitely important. Placing an early focus on body movement technique is a common practice that works well for training young dancers. From the outset, students learn proper technique and focus on moving their body correctly, with good form without the stress of partnering. Once they do begin partnering, they already demonstrate good movement and can turn their focus on working with another body and applying what they know to communicate better with each other.

But by itself, talk is cheap. It doesn't inspire or fuel excitement. For older adults who want to dance right away, too much emphasis on body movement at the expense of learning how to lead or follow creates female dancers who have to “guess” what’s next, and male dancers who only know a set of patterns. I’ve been in this situation. Even though I was spending a lot of time and money “dancing,” I couldn't really dance with anyone. Too much emphasis on technique undermines confidence in action.

The flip side

On the flip side, action alone without reasoning produces mixed results which can be confusing. We had a nice lady who began showing up at dances and just jumped right in with complete abandon. In the beginning, her enthusiasm was sweet. We embraced her because she was new and we wanted her to enjoy her early dancing enough to come back. But unfortunately the time came when her actions weren't cute anymore and the better dancers began to avoid her, not wanting to spend two minutes dragging her around the floor because she doesn't know how to move herself correctly.

So it’s clear that both theory and practice are necessary to succeed at anything we set our sights on. But taking the mixed approach is slow and sometimes emotionally painful. The instructor has to be careful to talk about technique and work on teaching a student figures at the same time. It seems that going back to the basics is a daily occurrence, even when the student is capable of working with more difficult patterns. As a student, the mixed approach can sometimes feel frustrating as the student questions, why do we have to keep going back to the basics when we are doing more advanced work, silver or gold level figures? But for the adult student, teaching the leaders how to communicate better and teaching the follower how to be patient, and listen with their body can enable the student to begin dancing effectively with others right away. Although it might seem counterproductive to spend time practicing technique during the hour lesson, it helps the student understand the importance of moving correctly and prevents them from developing poor habits that can later be hard to break. Few students will work on the drills needed for proper technique on their own. Setting aside time in the hour will encourage them to work harder on their own to improve their movement and skills so they can at some point spend more time dancing.

I know that we hear about people with natural talent or ability – people who seem not to need practice of fundamentals, but that is not the norm. I once had a dance teacher say, dancers who practice will turn out better than dancers with talent every time.

About the Author:

Tracy Martin contributing writer to CountryDancePros. She is an Author, Life Coach, Soul Searcher and former successful competitive ballroom, swing & country dancer. She has spend countless hours on the floor as a student as a teacher and even more time contemplating and writing about her journey.

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