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Ballroom Dance

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


This is a critique of the traditional methodology of ballroom dance instruction, which, though enjoyed by many, stands indefensible in relationship to what we have discovered about the psychology of learning. It appears that the current pattern of dance instruction took its form in the emergence of commercial dance studio franchises in the early 20th century, concurrent with the surge in research on human learning, which also enjoyed great advancement in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, those two worlds did not coalesce; thus the ballroom dance curriculum evolved with little influence from research on human learning.

Two principles of learning, long establish by research and fundamental to the practice of systematic instructional design, are Thorndike's theory of readiness and Miller's findings on the limits of short term memory and the consequences of cognitive overload. Thus, the traditional dance teacher attempts to teach the beginner a particular dance style, and the beginner typically repeats beginning classes until they either abandon the effort or manage to learn, most often by inefficient persistence. It is not unusual for the beginner to take several "beginning" dance classes. In contrast, a curriculum based on systematic instructional design would offer a totally different sort of curricular structure.

By ignoring the ideas of "readiness," the traditional curriculum presents significant material for which the student is not prepared to master; the result is frustration and often abandonment. By disregarding the limited capacity of short term memory, the traditional dance class presents sequential clusters of cognitive overload; the result is that the student actually retains less than their potential, and, further, without associated persistent media for reference, does not likely do so in any hierarchical or logical order.

When given the task of designing a dance curriculum for a studio with no ballroom dance program, I took the opportunity use my background in systematic instructional design to plan the curriculum. The result was something unlike anything encountered in a traditional dance studio setting; however, it was highly effective, especially following prototype testing and ensuing adjustments. After completion, students danced with confidence and competence, and they mastered dance styles at the intermediate and advanced levels with minimal introduction. Sometimes it took only a few minutes to add a dance style to their repertoire.

A systematically designed ballroom dance curriculum could do in weeks what previously had taken months, and the success rate would be significantly higher. This would seem to mean that students would need fewer lessons to reach a given level, and, while that is true, it might also mean that students would be eager to add to their repertoire. The economic loss in one aspect could be balanced, or even exceeded, by a gain in another. As far as this writer knows, no other studio has attempted such a curriculum.

From both a theoretical and experiential perspective, the systematically designed curriculum is more effective and less stressful for all concerned, and the student who completes the class seems to have a major advantage over most other beginning dance students who have completed multiple ballroom dance classes. A double blind comparison of the two methods would be advisable, but no studio has, as yet, accepted an offer to implement such a project. Though research in the field is a mark of any profession, I have found no professional society that appears to be involved in such inquiry. If you know of any such research, or if you are interested in implementing such research, please contact me. As a retired researcher and instructional designer, I would be eager to collaborate. See Instructional Design For Dance Teachers. 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.