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Ballroom Dance

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

Pedagogy: the antithesis of dance instruction

The average person can retain from five to nine distinct items of new information at a given time. 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 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 one-hour lesson creates cognitive overload; students feel overwhelmed. The traditional approach to teaching ballroom dance, known as "whole to parts" in the world of pedagogy, can cause considerable emotional discomfort.

A better approach would be a curriculum design using "parts to whole." Though this might 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. Such a course would require an instructional design process rarely, if ever, applied to commercial ventures such as a dance studio. Though it would be highly efficient, it might not seem as "glamorous" as taking a class in a specific dance style. Thus, most beginning ballroom dance classes continue the inefficient 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 easy to defend. The data have been in the public domain for more than half a century. Though psychologists know a great deal about teaching and learning, that knowledge seems to have had woefully little affect on commercial dance instruction.

Cognitive and Psychomotor Limitations. Miller (1956) discovered 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 and learning.

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:

Limit each lesson to seven important items
Present information in small amounts
Connect new knowledge to existing knowledge
Build new behaviors on existing behaviors
Identify underlying relationships
Encourage higher order thinking
Emphasize learning transfer
Provide persistent media for review
Prescribe multiple modes of reinforcement

Instructional Systems Design (ISD). Where learning outcomes are critical, the ISD professional has often been the principal figure in the development of instruction, superseding both the subject matter specialists and the presenters/teachers. Public school teaching requirements generally include instructional design competencies, but the structure of public schools preclude the best that ISD can offer. Interestingly, and incongruously, ISD is essentially ignored in higher education. 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, it is the rare studio that defends its curriculum based on methodology. Dance curricula appear to be based on popularity of dance styles and studio marketing strategies. Instructional quality appears to be measured by the ability of the teachers to demonstrate specific syllabus figures. Few seem to care about pedagogical aspects of the dance lesson; thus, few dance teachers can say with any degree of confidence whether or not the average person can be expected to comprehend and retain the material in a lesson. Few studios seem 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 seems all but nonexistent.

I don't know for sure whether the aforementioned pedagogical issues are ever considered within the world of commercial dance instruction, but I took my first ballroom dance lesson about 50 years ago, and I have had several since, as recently as October, 2007, and I think not.

c. 2007, J M Nelson 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.