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Ballroom Dance

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

Teaching for Competence, Confidence, and Comfort

One would assume that the goal of every dance teacher would be to teach their students to dance with competence, confidence, and comfort. Unfortunately, most dance teachers don't seem to do that. Rather, the student is confused, frustrated, and uncertain. It doesn't have to be that way, but to change, the teacher must take responsibility, and that means learning to teach as well as to dance.

Popular perception notwithstanding, there is a lot more to teaching than "show and tell." Most dance teachers are acutely aware of student frustration and the high rate of failure, but the profession seems stuck in a tradition that evolved in the mid 20th century, concurrent to major advancements in research about human learning. Unfortunately, those worlds did not coalesce. It is way past time for our knowledge of human learning to be applied the dance lesson.

A good place to begin is to examine the source of the pervasive frustration and feelings of inadequacy typical of the beginning student. Were one to analyze a beginning dance lesson from an instructional systems design perspective, the cause of frustration would be immediately evident. Furthermore, since neither the student nor the teacher seem aware of the root cause of the frustration, learning is further hampered by feelings of inadequacy. Were either student or teacher aware of the facts, they would likely change their behavior and their attitude. The purpose of this article is to examine some of those facts with the hope of changing both the attitude of the student and the behavior of the teacher. It should take only one, simple fact about human learning to start that process.

The capacity of short term memory is limited to nominally seven items of meaningful information, with a typical range of two either way. (Know your audience. For example, "men begin on the left foot, women on the right" is one item. "Do the first half of a box " could be one item for an experienced dancer and more than twenty items for a beginner. ) Some students might be able to hold only five, and a few might be able to hold nine, but most will be able to hold only seven items. This has been known to psychologists and educators for decades, and it has been demonstrated at every level of human learning. Dance teachers seem unaware of this, so they present much more than the student can retain. Unable to retain all presented, the student is likely to feel inadequate, and, worse, they are also likely to retain even less than normal. Thus, rather than learning comfortably, competently, and confidently, the dance student is more likely frustrated, feels inadequate, and their potential for learning is reduced.

There are other principles of cognitive and psychomotor learning that apply to the dance lesson, but the principle of limited short term memory is the most evident, and its disregard is unquestionably the primary source of frustration and failure. However, there are others, particularly regarding practice. Learning is enhanced if practice is continued beyond proficiency. To gather the import of that principle, one needs to consider the progression associated with psychomotor learning.

When presented with a new motor skill, the initial reaction is confusion, and then the student begins some mental processing in preparation for pursuing mastery. The benchmarks along the way are: confusion, planning, sequencing, replication, proficiency, and, finally, mastery. For retention, the student must practice beyond proficiency. In contrast, the typical dance teacher moves on somewhere between replication and proficiency; that precludes retention, and, when the teacher fills short term memory with additional information, most of the previous procedure is forgotten. Teachers who neither incorporate practice beyond proficiency nor provide the student with detailed notes to promote recall for independent replication defeat their purpose. Furthermore, since dance students seem rarely to practice between lessons, even notes might not salvage much of the class. If learning, as opposed to entertainment, is intended, practice beyond proficiency must be incorporated into the lesson. Fortunately, this can be done without risking boredom, for their is another principle of motor learning to the rescue, namely problem solving.

Incorporating problem solving into the dance lesson has dual benefits. Rather than prescribe; let the student decide. Problem solving enhances motor learning and learning transfer, both important for dancers. Problem solving rather than prescriptive sequences frees short term memory to focus on important items rather than trying to recall a sequence prescribed by the teacher. When the student is struggling to recall what to do, they are more likely to forget how to do it. By allowing the couples to decide when to initiate a variation, they not only retain more regarding the variation, but they are also reinforcing the importance of frame and developing independence on the dance floor, skills all too often neglected during the lesson. Thus practice past proficiency is incorporated without creating boredom.

Though these strategies might reduce the amount presented during a lesson, they increase learning by increasing retention. Thus, at the next lesson, there will be less need for review, and, with a well-designed curriculum, the student will learn more, and do so with confidence, competence, and comfort.

For a detailed exposition of applicable learning theories, instructional systems design, and their application to the social ballroom dance curriculum, see Principles of Learning and the Teaching of Social Ballroom Dance.

©2008, 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.