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Ballroom Dance

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

Why It Fails, How to Fix It

"It" is the beginning ballroom dance lesson. Any experienced dancer or teacher should admit that pre-dance lessons are primarily for entertainment and, from a learning perspective, are of little value. In contrast, the first lesson in a beginning ballroom dance class is intended to teach, yet, like the pre-dance lesson, it teaches very little. Beginners generally need a complete review in lesson two, and are often still struggling with the basics weeks later, when the teacher is trying to move on to more interesting variations. Some studios try to alleviate this by designing a dance class that introduces several popular styles, such as "Beginning Foxtrot, Waltz, Rumba, and Swing." Unfortunately, that doesn't work either, though it might be less frustrating than a series for a single style that seems not to get much past the box step in closed position. The following sections will explain why the aforementioned classes were doomed from the onset and offer some changes that will assure greater success, but first, consider a few facts about human learning.

Short Term Memory. Our immediate memory can retain nominally seven, plus or minus two, items of meaningful information. For some people only five, for others nine, but for most, seven. This has been demonstrated at all levels of learning. Exceed seven, and the learner is frustrated. If the learner does not know that the demands on their memory are unreasonable, they might also feel inadequate, and that could further reduce their capacity to remember. Incidentally, and "item" is much less than novice teachers might imagine. For example, "men begin on the left foot, women on the right" is one item. "Do one basic" could be more than twenty items.

Sensory-Motor Learning. When presented with a new motor skill, the initial reaction is confusion; 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. The typical dance teacher moves on somewhere between replication and proficiency; that precludes retention, and the student leaves class knowing almost nothing new.

Problem Solving. Problem solving can increase retention in motor learning, and it is important to learning transfer, a critical skill in social dance. Yet problem solving is almost unheard of in the ballroom dance class, even though opportunities for introducing it appear at every level.

I took my first beginning dance lesson in 1958. After 50 years, there has been no significant change, and no evidence of any effort by the professional community to improve things. Almost all areas of human activities have seen improvement in last fifty years except ballroom dance instruction and religion. Yet research has provided ample information for both to improve their tenets and their practice. The beginning ballroom dance class seems as ritualistic as any religious service; students are asked to attempt a basic box step in closed position. They can't. Though I would gladly address a wide range of topics at this point, I will forgo religion, a plethora of dance styles, and limit the discussion to the popular, smooth ballroom dance styles based on the box step. The principles, however, are applicable to all areas of human learning.

Systematic analysis of the enabling behaviors required to execute a box step, forward and backward, in closed position, quickly exceeds twelve items of information. Account for a few who lack requisite behaviors and the number approaches three times the capacity of short term memory. Memory overload is unquestionably the primary source of student frustration and failure, and it is likely the indirect reason that many studios offer an "introductory" class in foxtrot, waltz, and rumba. However, even that class is almost invariably ineffectively designed. The following will present an argument as to why it almost works and suggest how it could be made effective.

There is an 80% to 90% overlap in the motor skills associated with foxtrot, rumba, and waltz, especially at the social dance level, more if one begins foxtrot at the "silver" level, which is much easier and more versatile than the "bronze" level. The multi-styled beginner class sequentially repeats most of the basic elements, thus increasing the likelihood that the student will learn some of the basics. Unfortunately, such classes are complicated by the syncopation associated with waltz and the musical incongruence associated with beginning foxtrot.

The Fix. "Slice" the curriculum differently. In lesson one, teach people to walk to the music, add the SQQ cadence, get them to do it in every conceivable direction, perhaps holding hands in "open position" with elbows kept near the torso, perhaps using a stick to help students get the "feel" of lead and follow. When most, if not all, are proficient with that, add forward/backward on step one, to the side on step two, and close on step three. Then spend the remainder of the lesson time with practice, letting the students explore options for moving in different directions. Emphasize seven items, and give the list to them on a piece of paper:

1. Step normally, forward, backward, or to the side
2. The music and cadence tell us when to step, we decided where to step
3. Step forward/backward on beat one
4. Bring moving foot near stationary foot on beat two (in 4/4, on the "&" in waltz)
5. Step to the side on beat three (in 4/4, on beat 2 in waltz)
6. Close on beat four; close in dance means to step adjacent to stationary foot (in 4/4, close on beat 3 in waltz)
7. Keep forearms horizontal or sloping downward, and don't pinch your partner

These seven might challenge short term memory; some of the "items" are a bit complex and arguably contain more than one meaningful item of information. Even so, they clearly demonstrate that including the closed frame exceeds any expectation for a successful lesson. The good news is that this lesson plan is both theoretically and experientially defensible, though even this seemingly sparse first lesson can be a challenge for many. However, if the lesson is long enough for practice beyond proficiency, most will master it and, even if they do not practice diligently for the next lesson, most will be ready to attempt the box step in closed frame. Furthermore, including a bit of elementary problem solving, such as allowing the students to explore possibilities for each step, can help alleviate the fear of boredom.

Lesson two would add closed frame to the skills in lesson one. Lesson three would add a twinkle (i.e. exactly one step in promenade followed by a return to closed position) and emphasize the role of the frame in lead and follow; if the class permits, one might include the options of ending the twinkle facing wall, facing line of dance, and facing opposite line of dance. Task analysis of most other variations has proven excessive for one lesson; however, mastery of the box step in closed position, the twinkle, and the ease of going from open to closed position that results from the experiences of lessons one and two provide sufficient requisites to introduce almost any other variation in lesson three. Caveat! Watch for memory overload, and be sure to incorporate practice beyond proficiency if you intend for the student to learn, that is, to retain the skills replicated.

Lesson four will find most of the class comfortable with the box step and the twinkle, and ready to learn a bit of styling for foxtrot and rumba, or, perhaps, add side breaks or underarm turns. They might not know many "styles," but they will be able to dance to almost any music encountered in our culture, style notwithstanding. Furthermore, for these dancers, styles and variations can be added with great efficiency.

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.

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