COMMENTS ON LEARNING AND DANCING----

WITH SOME GUIDANCE FOR DANCERS ALONG THE WAY


THE BENEFITS OF PRACTICING MOVES YOU ALREADY "KNOW"

In my opinion, practicing Rueda moves (or other moves) that you "already know" is far more useful than it may seem. The more you dance, the more your technique improves, and these gains cut across all the steps that you do, so they are far-reaching.

Let me give you an example of how this can work. If you've been to any of my classes, you've heard me say to take small steps. (That applies most of the time, although there are exceptions when big steps are needed.) Whatever you may be doing a tad wrong as you learn (such as throwing your weight too far back on a back-rock, etc), its effect is often minimized in direct proportion to the smallness of your steps.

If you are taking big steps, that often delays you in getting to the next step on time, for example. As you practice dancing, hour after hour, generally speaking, your steps will become smaller on their own because you will feel the need to be on time and weighted properly in order to get to the next step. This is one of many things that gradually corrects itself over time.

I think of it like using sandpaper to smooth down the surface of a piece of wood. The longer and the more you dance, the smoother your dancing tends to become. A teacher  greatly accelerates this process, but lots of practice definitely helps, too!

In addition, as you practice, you get to know the steps you are doing better. So you naturally execute them more competently---at faster tempos, with less thought, adding embellishments, etc. So practice clearly improves your dancing, even when you are practicing steps you had already learned.   (See footnote 1.)

Click here to see DanceInTime practicing!

THE RELATIVE IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING TECHNIQUE AND IMPROVING EXECUTION OF MOVES, COMPARED TO LEARNING NEW MOVES

Rueda dancers come to know the Rueda moves increasingly well as they repeat them over time.  So the repetition is like drill--it enables you to know the moves well enough to do them at faster speeds, to recognize what the move is from how it starts (in case you miss the call), to begin adding style and flair to the moves, etc.  These things take time---so the practice is more valuable in learning this dance than it might seem to a new Rueda dancer. 



My point is that I suggest you not measure progress by how many new moves you learned at any lesson.  Rather, what counts is the gradual familiarity with the steps so that eventually you know their names, hand signals, and the movements very well and can do them almost automatically.  Trust me----if you join a Rueda circle during club dancing, you'll see the tremendous value in this.  The music at a club is much faster than what it is possible to learn to, and the calls are very hard to hear and recognize, and different callers say the names of the moves slightly differently (so you even need to know the names very well to recognize them, also!).  To dance Rueda successfully, you have to know the moves "like the back of your hand."

Time spent in class is educational even if you don't learn new moves, as you are refining your technique and smoothing out your execution.  That is at least as important for being a strong dancer as how many steps you know.  (It also makes your lead/follow feel comfortable to your partner, which makes it fun for others to dance with you!)  So in the long run, any time spend practicing moves that you have already covered is just as beneficial to you as acquiring new ones.

RHYTHM AND TIMING, PLUS TIPS ON HOW TO IMPROVE TIMING

When someone has trouble with timing in Salsa, the most common error is that the "slow" step is shortened. As a result, the three steps in the musical measure are equal or more equal in time than they should be. (See footnote 2.)  The "slow" step should be twice as long as each "quick" step.

Timing issues are a very hard thing for people to correct on their own. If they could feel the correct rhythm, they'd be doing it. Progress can be made, but it is long and slow. Generally, when I teach in a Rueda circle, if I say "quick quick slow" or "step step step" in the correct rhythm, people can match their steps to my words relatively well. So that tends to help dancers stay on time and keep the Rueda circle flowing in class.

But how can someone practice and improve this when they are not in a Rueda circle with a teacher hammering out the beat? I've found that it can help to practice very slowly, to get the feel of the slow step taking twice as long, as they walk through a specific step. This is particularly true if the timing error only kicks up when the person does turns. Many people can keep the rhythm ok in the basic step but lose it as soon as they are turning or doing anything other than the basic.  For example, people often will be fine in guapea (the basic step) but they lose the quick quick slow timing when they do a turn like vacila.  If they walk the movement through very slowly in the correct rhythm, they may feel the way their feet are supposed to be stepping as they turn, possibly for the first time. Remember not to expect overnight improvement if you have trouble with this. Keep plugging away---this improves gradually with lots of experience.

Since many people who have trouble with timing are aided by having a teacher on hand to count out loud for them, I made a CD on which I voiced over the quicks and slows for students. Using the CD, dancers can be sure they are practicing correctly! (That is what motivated me to make the CD. I was saying "quick quick slow" for the umpeen millionth time, and it occurred to me that I should just record it!) There is ordering information on this website for my CD.

If you have had a teacher tell you that your timing is off, it's a good idea in a Rueda circle to pay special attention to what others are doing. Many students don't take advantage of the benefit they can get by watching others and trying to match them. You move when they do. For example, if the ladies are coming across for the cross body lead too early, just watch when the other women step across, and try to mimic them. Likewise if guys are moving to their next partner on the dame too early or late, just watch when the other leaders in the circle move and try to match them.

Or if you are aware that you have a problem with timing and are doing partnership (one on one) Salsa, pay special attention to your partner's timing. I have watched couples dancing where one person is off time and the other is attempting to step correctly. If the person who is off time were aware of the issue and tried to be responsive to his/her partner's timing, that would no doubt help.

To complicate things further, be aware that Salsa and Latin music change tempo a lot, so you really have to be listening to the music constantly!


COUNTING SYSTEMS---THE PROS AND CONS OF VARIOUS METHODS AND THE LIMIT OF THEIR ROLE IN LEARNING

The most common way for dancers to count when they practice, teach, learn, etc. in the D.C. area is by the beats. Most dance music is in 4:4 time. That means there are 4 beats to what is called a "musical measure." The first beat of each measure gets a slightly stronger accent.

Salsa music is written in 4:4 time. We take two quick steps each lasting one beat and one slow step that lasts two beats. The phrasing in Salsa music is that every other measure receives a particularly strong accent on beat one. So we think of Salsa music as being constructed in sets of 8 beats where the first of those 8 is the very strongest accent and beat 5 is the next strongest.

When experienced dancers count Salsa or Rueda moves, if they are "dancing on one," they most commonly count 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. These are the beats on which people take steps.

If a student is learning a move and is unsure of the rhythm or when to do something, he/she may ask what beat the action occurs on. For example, "Do I lift my hand on beat one or beat two?" etc.  Experienced dancers often think in terms of beats so that is an accustomed way for them to count. It is also a very logical counting system. If you just count the number of steps, then you can't easily answer the above question if the movement occurs on beat 8. You'd say it is on the 6th step, but it is really during the last half of the sixth step and there is no convenient lingo to convey that. So counting by beats has some clear advantages.

But I believe that one of the things a teacher does for students is enrich and enlarge their understanding and ability to grasp information. It is useful to be able to respond well to other approaches in counting, so there is value in varying how counting is done. Some teachers simply count the steps---6 of them in an eight beat phrase and then start again at one for the next eight beat phrase. Some teachers however, count beyond 6 to 7, 8, 9 etc.  There are some benefits to this approach. For example, if I say that an exhibe starts on beat one, it isn't clear which beat one I am talking about. If I am counting the steps all the way through a move from one to "n," then you know exactly where to do the exhibe if I tell you it is on 13.

If I am teaching people who have trouble keeping time, I often count "quick quick slow." That is the most helpful approach in that situation, I have found.

If I am teaching people who fail to lift their foot and shift their weight each time they take a step, then I count by saying "Step, step, step; step step step." In a sense, this is literally a verbal reminder that every step is "truly a step" in the sense of walking. We lift a foot off the ground and put it down to take a step when we walk. I have found that this wording helps students remember to lift their foot off the ground!  (See footnote 3.)


WHAT IF ONE TEACHER TELLS YOU ONE THING AND ANOTHER TELLS YOU THE OPPOSITE?

When is advice from teachers, or from any two people, contradictory? I would submit that just because one teacher tells you to have tighter arms and another tells you the opposite, that doesn't mean one of them is wrong. Lots of things are correct in one place and not in another. Or it is a matter of degree what level of tension to use and teachers draw the line a bit differently. Or your arms are right for dancing with one person but not for another (due to the level of tension your partner has).

Different teachers emphasize different things, conceptualize things differently, explain them differently, and have different taste, strengths, and weaknesses. All these things affect how and what they teach. So they'll sometimes say opposite things, but no one is necessarily wrong.

Often times, I hear students comment in frustration that they are told opposite things by different teachers or by the same teacher (including myself) at different times and they don't know which piece of advice to follow. This is a difficult matter, and it happens to many people as they learn. You have to evaluate and analyze what is meant, and how you can best understand the intent of the advice. Teachers are generally trying to help students learn to dance as smoothly and comfortably as the student is able.  That may lead the teacher to say something to exaggerate a point, for example, if the teacher feels that is the only way to be heard.  You can see where this might lead people hearing the comment to think that it is wrong.

My point here is that contradictions are not always an indication of an error. As you progress in dancing (or in your understanding of anything), you get more of a handle on the sense in which two opposite pieces of advice can fit together and both be valid and valuable.  That kind of sophisticated understanding requires a broad perspective and comes from experience. 

MISTAKES---LEARN TO LOVE THEM!

My philosophy on mistakes is that they are the best learning tool anyone has. When I taught mathematics, many moons ago, I preferred that my students write in ink and not erase their mistakes. It is very instructive to look at your errors to be sure you are clear on why you thought that way and why it's incorrect.  I'd much rather have students guess wrong if they aren't sure so we can address the matter, than guess right and squeak by, still confused.

If you have taken a dance class from me, you've probably heard me ask the class one time or another, if they can figure out what I did wrong that messed them up. For example, calling is a frequent source of error. No one can mess up a Rueda circle like the caller can. One bad call---too early, too late, too soft, a mixed up step name----and the whole circle is shot to hell.

If I make an error, I like to use that as a learning tool just as I do with students' mistakes. When the students can assess what I did wrong, they are on their way to understanding the dance better.  I don't sweat my mistakes and I'd like students to feel the same way. Indeed, if students didn't make mistakes, they wouldn't need a teacher. Then I'd be out of a job---and where would that get me?

If you can think of your own errors as opportunities to learn and go forward, you'll be more comfortable making them. And you can't learn much unless you are willing to make mistakes, especially not in dance!!

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT MISTAKE??-------------------IT'S ALL ABOUT US

There is another dimension to errors that I'd like to point out. When two people dance together, as when they do anything together, what they do affects each other in a profound and ongoing way. Let me give you an example of what I mean. If a couple is dancing together and the lady doesn't have quite enough tension in her arms, the man must lead more forcefully to get her to follow him. To avoid feeling yanked, the lady may loosen up further. The man must then lead even stronger.  See what I mean? As 6-year old kids on a playground might say, "You started it!"   But the reality is clear---they are both creating this situation.

The interactive nature of dance understandably gives lots of opportunity for partners to subtly affect each other. Naturally, when there is a mistake, it can be hard to parse whose error it was, and really it doesn't matter. It was the partnership that failed, so to speak. Better to grasp the complex nature of this mini-ecosystem where everything affects everything else, than to regard matters as simple. (See foonote 4.)

Moreover, sometimes when a mistake is made, a good many people all played a small role. Here is an example: I was dancing with a wonderful, considerate friend, and while turning, I lost my balance slightly. As a result, I swung out a bit farther from him than he had reason to expect. He moved toward me to "stabilize the partnership" but before that maneuver was complete, I lightly bumped into another couple on the floor. The truth is that they were dancing "a bit large" if you know what I mean.

My partner immediately gestured that it was his fault, since it's the guy's responsibility to watch out for the other couples on the floor. The other couple apologized because they knew they were taking up a lot of space. And of course, I felt my partner was just being nice; it was largely my fault for swinging out too far. He couldn't have anticipated that I would do that. Truthfully any one of the three parties involved could have avoided that collision. Whose fault was it? Many things are joint affairs just like this. To learn from mistakes, it is helpful to appreciate the complex nature of how they come to pass rather than regard one person as causing the error.   

Here is another way of thinking of this matter.  Many times there is a range of what is correct in terms of how a move is done. For example, consider the matter of how partners stay connected.  Each partner has a certain level of tension in the hand hold and a shape for holding their hand to enable the partnership to stay in contact.  However, there is a range of tensions that will be satisfactory.  If the gentleman is in the proper range but at the low end and so is the lady, they may disconnect even though they were both dancing correctly.  There is a temptation for an individual to feel that since he/she did a move correctly, if it failed it must be the other person's fault.  But again, it can be the partnership or the union of how those two individuals dance that caused the error.  Just because you were "right" doesn't mean the other person was "wrong."  Often no one was exacly wrong!  But the partners need to learn to work together more effectively, looking at what happened to figure out how both can contribute to avoiding that in the future.

CONSIDERATION ON THE DANCE FLOOR

Dancing is a social experience and a contact sport. (My friend and fellow teacher, Susan Leiter is fond of saying that so I have to reference her here!) This has many implications. It is nice to smile (but not stare) at your partner. And men should dance with a partner in a manner that suggests they are relating to her! If you are dancing with a lady who has difficulty doing certain moves, for example, try to adjust what you do to her ability.

Some people worry that they won't look good if they "dance down." But your partner will appreciate your leading things she has some hope of following, or slowing down your pace to a level she can keep up with. And overall you may look better than if you are forcing a lady through moves she can't gracefully do.

Besides, everyone who goes to clubs knows very well the level and style of everyone else's dancing. If you dance with someone who is more of a beginner than yourself, what you really look like is someone who is generous and willing to share your talent with others.  There is absolutely nothing that endears you to other dancers more than this! Plus, dancing for fun shouldn't be just about how you look, anyway!!

FOOTNOTES

  1. I want to point out something else here. People sometimes regard learning as a relatively "all or nothing" proposition, but that's not really the way it works. By that I mean that we tend to feel that we either know a step or we don't, or maybe just some mid-point in between. But I believe that there are many more degrees of learning than is commonly appreciated. Even if you can do a move well from memory, if you practice it more and more, it will probably improve in some ways. I see learning as highly incremental, and I think it's helpful to appreciate the implications of this.

    Let me give you a simple example of the incremental nature of learning from my days as a math teacher. If you teach a class to add fractions, you can start with a simple problem like 1/6 plus 3/6. You can "move up" to a problem where they have to get a common denominator like 1/2 plus 1/4. Students can almost visualize these problems, imagining that fraction of a pie and they'd know what the sum is just from experience. A teacher might feel that if the student can correctly solve these problems, then he/she knows how to add fractions.

    But if that student cannot also find the sum of 2/9 plus 5/20, then I would submit that he/she doesn't understand how to add fractions that well or that fully. It is the level of complexity of problems that someone can correctly solve that measures how well they understand. Understanding is very incremental, and the harder the problem a student can solve, the better they have to understand the material. All learning is like this, including dance.

  2. I used to sing in a barbershop quartet for women, and the most common error that was made in singing was also for the timing of the notes to be equalized. That is, short notes were lengthened and long notes were shortened to make them all more equal in length. I originally became aware of this because I harmonize by ear and often "resolve a chord" over the course of several beats when I sing with others. But many times, before I can achieve the final resolution, the person I am singing with has begun the next phrase----very frustrating!!

  3. If you buy any of the major Salsa Studio's instructional videos, you may note that they sometimes count inconsistently. One way to interpret this is that they don't consider how the move is counted to be that crucial or they would have paid closer attention to the matter. The truth is that counting is helpful but one can teach and learn capably without consistently using the optimal counting system. After all, look at the success of those studios! So don't be put off by various approaches. If you are a student who is confused on a certain step and you think a particular counting system will help, just ask your teacher to count that way while going over that step.

  4. I once took tango lessons from a teacher who spent a lot of time analyzing in great detail this kind of interaction. There was virtually no dance problem we encountered that didn't have a contribution by both partners. I consider the teacher a sort of "psychologist-dancer." Those lessons were really fascinating and I learned a tremendously valuable lesson.

 

Copyright Barbara Bernstein of DanceInTime.com, 2005