In my previous post, So What Now? (Part I), I wrote about what I currently use as the general structure of dance to improve my dancing. You, Your Partner, and the Music were three basic elements of a dance, and for dancers who are stuck on what to work on, I think getting a big picture perspective of elements of the dance besides our own moves or specific techniques might be helpful.
In the next section, I’ll talk about how to go about improving, and list what I think are a few essential elements of progress.
You, and only you, are responsible for your progress as a dancer. Not your teachers, not your partners, not the DJ, not better shoes, not a hat. Although at the beginning stages a dancer may learn primarily through lessons, as they progress the majority of skilled dancers supplement their instruction with independent practice. The dancer who goes home, and works on a move or concept, and tests to see whether he or she really understands it, will progress much faster than the one who ends each lesson with, “I got it, what’s the next move?”
With that in mind, here are some of the elements that I think are essential for progress.
Input and Inspiration
In order to progress, dancers must have some source of new material or ideas. This could come from classes, videos, performances, listening to music, or watching others dance, the possibility of sources is endless if you have an open mind.
But input alone is not enough, it needs to be inspiring. Look for moves or concepts that you feel you MUST learn. Find dancers you enjoy watching and take lessons from them, or find out who they learned from, or try to figure out how they dance. Inspiration doesn’t fall from the sky like rain – it is constantly nurtured and stoked.
To improve the quality of your input, try to hone your ability to observe and differentiate. How is this lead’s swingout different from that lead’s? What makes this follow’s swivel unique? Why do you like dancing with one partner over another? Your ability to differentiate and observe will improve your rate of progress.
Processing and Refinement
There is a difference between “knowing” how to do a move, and really owning a move. That difference is defined by the level of processing and refinement a dancer undertakes.
By “processing,” I mean the basic work of understanding a move or idea so that it becomes muscle memory. Classes do a decent job of this, but the majority of the processing occurs on the dance floor, under real world conditions, and it is only then that a dancer acquires the confidence to really “own” a move.
The notion of refinement is hard to explain, but easy to spot. Good dancers are always refining their moves and movements – improving technique, discarding ideas, adding new concepts, changing styles. Like the tools on a craftsman’s bench, they are continuously being maintained, honed, and improved. They’re not just acquired, and then left to rust. Constantly question your beliefs and ideas about dancing, and look for ideas that may contradict things you’ve heard previously.
This last part I think is the most important part of learning, but also potentially the most dangerous and/or the most painful. This all stems from one important observation – it’s never possible to assess yourself in a fully objective manner while dancing. It manifests in two broad ways.
As a matter of technique, there are simply things that you can’t know or observe while dancing. I can’t know that I should be doing X if nobody ever told me to do X. I can’t know I look too Y if I can’t get an outside observer to tell me I look too Y.
Luckily, these technical problems are relatively easy to solve. Classes, private lessons, observant friends, video of our dancing, and trusted partners are all valuable sources of the kind of nitty-gritty technical details that form the basis of improvement.
But, I think that a dancer’s personal attitude towards feedback is one of the largest determinants of their long term growth potential.
I’ve seen far too many dancers feel “burnt out” or plateau. In my opinion, this is usually because they’ve been avoiding real feedback as much as they’ve been taking lessons or acquiring new moves. In the terms of my philosophy, they have too much input, and not enough feedback for refinement.
I mean something very specific when I mean “real feedback.” Real feedback is someone or something that might tell you something you might not want to hear. It can be as benign as a partner saying “I don’t think that move worked, can we try that again?” But it can be as painful as watching yourself on video, and wanting to hide under a rock and never dance again. (Don’t ask me how I know.)
“Advanced” dancers will search for honest feedback from trusted sources, and incorporate what they learn into their practice. Dancers who plateau or burn out do one of several things.
- They surround themselves with people who only say positive things about their dancing.
- They have no feedback sources at all.
- Or, they blatantly ignore feedback from sources they do have.
On the opposite side of the coin, no matter how positive we are, negative feedback can always hurt, or it can be disheartening to realize how much work it will take to get where you want. All too frequently, people just give up when they don’t improve as quickly as they’d like.
Don’t give up! If you love swing music, and you love good dancing, it is worth all of the pain and hard work. The dancers you admire and respect were the ones who had the tenacity and passion not to give up when the prospects of improvement seemed slim.*
So those are the three elements I think are essential for a method on dance improvement. Inputs/Inspiration, Processing/Refinement, and Feedback. I’ve avoided dictating precisely what should be done for two reasons. First, different methods might be more or less effective for different people. Second, dancers who want a more mechanical statement of ”Just do Secret Technique X and you will be awesome” probably aren’t ready to move on yet, and need to spend more time thinking and listening about dance and music before they progress. The only secret is that it takes hard work, and I hope my thoughts will help structure or guide your efforts. See you on the dance floor!
*On a sidenote, here is a wonderful clip of Ira Glass talking about the struggle between taste and ability.