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Ballroom Dance

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

Pedagogy: the antithesis of dance instruction

A student beginning a specific dance style (e.g. foxtrot, waltz, rumba, etc.) must learn, according to at least one needs assessment, 18 distinct items of information to execute a basic step in closed position. Most of these items require a specific motor skill, and most will be new skills, or, if not new, will be in a new context, thus a new item of information.

Mastery of so many new items within a short time frame, such as a one-hour lesson, creates cognitive overload; students feel overwhelmed. Research shows that the average person can retain from five to nine distinct items of new information at a given time. Therefore, the traditional studio approach to teaching ballroom dance, known as "whole to parts" in the world of pedagogy, can cause considerable frustration and emotional discomfort.

A better approach would be to design the dance curriculum using “parts to whole.” Though this method does not “get you dancing immediately,” - an oft stated but seldom realized goal of the traditional method - it would get students dancing comfortably, and, within a few weeks, with confidence. It could also prepare students better to learn new dances efficiently and effectively.

A parts-to-whole course in ballroom dance is not generally found in commercial dance curricula, likely because: 1) such a course would require an instructional design process rarely, if ever, applied to commercial ventures such as the traditional dance studio, 2) it would be too efficient and too effective for it to be economical, and 3) it is not as "glamorous" as taking a class in a specific dance style. Rather, most beginning ballroom dance classes continue the inefficient tradition of whole-to-parts instruction, guaranteed to create frustration and often discouragement. Such an allegation, harsh and incongruous as it might seem for such an enjoyable sport, is not difficult to defend. The data for such a conclusion has been in the public domain for more than half a century. Though psychologists know a great deal about teaching and learning, that knowledge has had woefully little affect on education and seemingly no effect on commercial dance instruction.

Cognitive and Psychomotor Tasks. Miller (1956) presented the idea that short-term memory could only hold 5-9 chunks of information (seven, plus or minus two) where a chunk is any meaningful unit. The concept of chunking and the limited capacity of short term memory became basic elements of all subsequent theories of memory. Gestalt theory was the idea that characteristics of stimuli cause us to structure or interpret a visual field or problem, and applies to all aspects of human learning. (Wertheimer, 1922) The Operant Conditioning theory of B.F. Skinner perceives learning as a function of change in overt behavior subsequent to a response to stimuli. According to Structural Learning Theory (J. Scandura), we should teach as many higher-order rules as possible as replacements for lower order rules. Psychomotor skills are also an important category of learning in many tasks and occupations as well as all forms of sports.

Sequencing of Instruction. One of the most important issues in the application of learning theory is the sequencing of instruction. The order and organization of learning activities affects the way information is processed and retained (Glynn & DiVesta, 1977; Lorch & Lorch, 1985; Van Patten, Chao, & Reigeluth, 1986). A number of theories (e.g., Bruner, Reigeluth, Scandura) suggest a simple-to-complex sequence. According to Gagne, sequence is dictated by prerequisite skills and the level of cognitive processing involved.

Design Principles. A study of learning theory leads to numerous principles that can be used in designing instruction. Some that seem particularly applicable to dance include:

Short term memory is limited to seven chunks of information
Information should be presented in small amounts
New behaviors should be built on existing behaviors
Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student
Rules must be composed of the minimum capabilities possessed by the learners
Behavior is hierarchically organized
Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur
The learner should be encouraged to discover underlying relationships
Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation

Instructional Systems Design (ISD). Principles of learning theory precipitate methods of assessing both the learner and the learning objective, and there are methods for systematically designing an environment wherein the learner can best succeed. Where learning outcomes are critical, the ISD professional has often been the principal figure in the development of the instruction, superseding both the subject matter specialist and the presenter (teacher). Public school teaching license requirements generally mandate some mastery of instructional design; colleges and universities, both private and public, tend to ignore it altogether. ISD is probably at its highest level in military and industrial training programs where the outcomes are crucial to the success of the organization. There is little evidence of ISD in traditional dance curricula.

Though many principles derived from established learning theories are applicable to dance instruction, no studio appears to defend its curriculum based on methodology; the curriculum is generally based on popularity of dance styles and marketing strategies. Instructional quality is measured by the ability of the teachers to demonstrate specific dance figures. No one seems to care about instructional quality issues, such as, most critically: the number of items, whether cognitive or psychomotor, introduced in each lesson. Lacking that information, one cannot say whether or not the average person can be expected to comprehend and retain the material in a lesson. It is also rare for a studio to provide even an outline of a course, much less reference materials, specific assignments, or practice regimens. Encouragement of higher order thinking that might lead the learner to discover underlying relationships is all but nonexistent.

I don't know for sure whether these and related pedagogical issues are ever considered within the world of commercial dance instruction. I took my first ballroom dance lesson about 50 years ago, I have had several since, and I think not. Dance Home Page Dance Curriculum Dance Articles

Copyright (c) 2006, J. M. Nelson. All rights reserved. Reproduction of contents prohibited without prior permission from the author.