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Ballroom Dance

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

Learning Theory and the Social Ballroom Dance Curriculum

The current pattern of social ballroom dance instruction took its form during the emergence of commercial dance studios in the early 20th century, concurrent with a 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. These theories have formed the foundation of all subsequent theories of learning and related research. Research on human learning has been highly influential in the development of quality educational materials and strategies for the early grades and is central to military and industrial training, where lives and profits are primary concerns. In contrast, these theories seem to have had no influence on the social dance curriculum.

With seemingly no influence from what we know about human learning, 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 eventually manage to learn, most often by inefficient persistence. It is not unusual for the beginner to take several "beginning" dance classes. 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. In contrast, a curriculum based on systematic instructional design would offer a totally different sort of curricular structure.

A systematically designed ballroom dance curriculum could do in weeks what currently takes 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. From theoretical, economical and experiential perspectives, the systematically designed curriculum would be more effective and less stressful for all concerned, and the student who completes it would have a major advantage over dance students in a traditional class.

As an example of a traditional strategy in conflict with proven theories of learning, Miller established that human short term memory is capable of retaining about seven "chunks" of information, where a "chunk" is any meaningful unit. (e.g. "do two basics" or "do one underarm turn.") When dance teachers prescribe a series of items during a lesson, they take up several "chunks" of short term memory with things that the student does not need to retain, thus taking up valuable space for items that should be exercised in order to establish them in long term memory. Furthermore, most traditional teachers teach only by rote memory associated with "demonstrate and replicate" sequences. Though important, this represents a lower level of learning, and it precludes higher order learning, specifically problem solving, one of the best techniques to increase both learning and retention.

By disregarding the psychology of learning and the principles of instructional design, the traditional social dance curriculum creates more frustration than necessary and imposes egregious inefficiency on the dance curriculum. Though it might seem more profitable by requiring the student to endure an increased number of lessons, even that argument is weak.

For a summary of some related learning theories, see Learning Theories

For more about the relationship between the traditional and the Nelson approach, see A Side By Side Comparison

For more about how this approach evolved, see: Teaching Ballroom Dance: A Rationale For an Alternative Approach 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.