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Ballroom Dance

J M (Mike) Nelson
Phone: 612-810-0157

Improving the Dance Lesson
Suggestions for the Amateur Dance Teacher

Though quality ranges widely among dance teachers, there are three aspects of the psychology of learning that are ignored by most, perhaps all, dance teachers, namely: Short Term Memory, Practice, and Independent Discovery.

Short Term Memory. The human brain is capable of retaining only five to nine "chunks" of information; most people are limited to seven. A "chunk" can vary widely among dancers; for example, a "basic step" could range from one to to eight "chunks," depending on the experience of the dancer. Loading short term memory with prescribed choreography, typical of most group lessons, creates two impediments to learning. It crowds out more important information, and it limits dancer involvement in the process. (See Discovery below.) To maximize retention, teachers should be constantly aware of their demands on short term memory. Every class preparation should clearly identify the five to seven new items demanded of their students' short term memory.

Practice. No one denies the importance of practice in learning, yet many do not seem to understand the manner in which practice affects retention. Even the best teachers often proceed to another variation as soon as most of the class are able to replicate. Learning doesn't work that way. Practice progresses through: confusion, sequencing, replication, proficiency, and, perhaps, retention. For retention, the student must practice beyond proficiency; teachers who move on when they observe replication essentially guarantee that no one will retain much of anything, no matter how much they seem to enjoy the class. Furthermore, one cannot later improve the proficiency of that which they have not retained.

Independent Discovery (aka. Problem Solving) While the capacity of memory limits learning, and insufficient practice precludes retention, the benefits of independent discovery are extensive, and there are many ways to introduce discovery into the dance class. The introduction of almost any variation provides opportunity for discovery. Even the first class offers such opportunities. For example, after the traditional box step has been taught, and students have had opportunity to "practice beyond proficiency" so that some might retain it, ask: "Are there any other directions or ways you could step?" Let them think about it for a bit, and some will discover that they could step to the side, or continue to step backward or forward. Even an elementary class might deduce for themselves hesitation steps, side breaks, and perhaps several other variations. This increased sensory involvement not only enhances learning, but it also helps build confidence, making them better learners, and making you a better teacher.

Recommendation. Monitor carefully your demands on short term memory. Be sure to extend practice well beyond proficiency. Look for ways to involve the class via independent discovery. Retention will increase, and your prestige will escalate. (For more on dance pedagogy, see the Pedagogy section of Articles and Information.)

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