1.6 On The Way Dancing Is (mis)taught

Most teachers teach dances rather than dancing, because it's easier. But the focus on steps in dance teaching may be the biggest single obstacle to the learning of dancing well. This is best summed up in the following quote: "Bad teachers taught me steps, great teachers taught me dancing." Learning the pattern of the week is not the key to success. Being able to lead that move in a club is much more important. For the lady, being able to follow a weak leader is the mark of a good dancer. A lot of people miss this very important basic concept in any partner dance: We need to teach women to follow their partner, NOT the exact foot placement instructions that this or that instructor says is the "right" way to do it. Narrow-minded instructors who say that this or that way is the RIGHT and ONLY RIGHT way to do it usually end up producing dancers who can only dance with other people who have learned by those exact same rules. I GUARANTEE that Robert Cordoba's rules of WCS are not identical to Mario Robau Jr.'s or Barry Durand's or etc., etc. Teaching dancers lead/follow allows them to adapt to different styles easily. The dancer I teach will be able to adapt to the one you teach and dance comfortably with him/her. The dancer taught exact foot placement rather than following will end up being an elitist dance snob and be unable to dance with anyone who has learned in the different styles which DO exist and are taught in various parts of the country by very reputable instructors.

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:

Techniques that best illustrate the *feel* of lead/follow to students:

Debbie Ramsey writes: I go the extra mile to make sure that I know a pattern both from the lead and follow position. When I teach I explain the lead from both a foot and a body position, showing the leaders where and when their body (center) must move to continue the connection throughout the pattern. I also explain to the followers the need for them to wait to be led and how the pattern should feel. I go to great lengths to teach "lead and follow" in all of my classes and I even go as far as handing out a list of patterns to the leaders (which they do not show to the followers) so the followers follow rather than anticipate the patterns they have just learned.

What worked best for me as a beginner was 1) developing a good lead, and 2) developing a nice repertoire of steps/patterns for each dance. Leading/following is a technique issue. There are other technique items but a good lead/follow will take you a long ways and allow you to start having fun sooner than if you beat frame, posture, balance, arm styling, motion, etc. to death. I have seen students bored to death when there instructors force a lot of technique upon them which can take a long time to master when they could reap short term benefits just developing a good lead/follow. As a single leader without a regular dance partner having a good repertoire of steps led well will take you pretty far. Being able to offer clear leads, follow them, give decent frame, keep time with the music, etc., are important early on. It's inappropriate to have beginners spend lots of time on stuff like sway and swing and head position and foot placement when they could be learning more pragmatic social dance floor survival skills. The better your technique, the better you will dance with an arbitrary partner with arbitrary dance skills. If you find that you can only dance well with certain people who took the same classes that you did, you definitely need better dance technique! :-)

When I was first learning, I wanted to learn 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.

When I first started, 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.

How to learn to dance

  1. Learn a few core patterns and some basic things about dance frame.
  2. Now concentrate on technique, technique, technique, + leading and following (This definitely requires private coaching.) Do this at any pace comfortable to you. Most beginners concentrate on patterns. This leads to frustration and dance partners arguing and fighting with each other. If you instead concentrate on technique, you will focus more on dancing well *yourself*, instead of casting blame on your *partner*. The better your technique, the more dancing pleasure you will give to your dance partner.
  3. Then go back to learning more patterns. You will find it _very_ easy to pick up new patterns.
  4. Now observe those people who started learning about when you did, but concentrated on patterns and neglected . technique. You will notice they are *still* trying to learn the same patterns you saw them learning a year ago.

Keep this in mind as you read this compilation: dancing is taught backwards. They start with a partnering situation teaching steps, and only then work on basics of body movement, lead/follow, etc. Teaching that you're in this position on 1, here on 2, like this on 3... is only a crutch to get you to do the pattern. When you quit trying to be EXACTLY in those places on EXACTLY those beats, and start viewing those instructions as static snapshots of the real goal; CONTINUOUS MOVEMENT, your dancing will remarkably improve. Beginners are generally too impatient and only want to develop enough skills to get around the dance floor. They never would stick with it if they had to spend dozens of hours of practice before they ever got on the dance floor. It's the initial fun, when you don't know any better, that gets you hooked. If it was all work and no fun, few people would do it! If you stick with it long enough, you will learn that one well executed open left or right turn (or what ever) is a lot more enjoyable than ten poorly done "fancy steps."


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This file is part of the lead/follow FAQ list. These are articles compiled from the newsgroup rec.arts.dance by Mark Balzer. Html-isation by Victor Eijkhout, victor at eijkhout dot net. See also the Rec Arts Dance FAQ list Copyright 1996/7/8/9 lies with the compiler, the maintainer and the contributors of various parts.

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