Tag Archives: basics

A Conversation

This is a re-post from my informal, catch-all blog.


[Author’s note:  I have numerous advisers, mentors, and even peers I bounce ideas off of.  I also have a dance mentor who lives inside my head.  The advice he gives is a synthesis of all the advice I’ve gotten from real conversations, arguments, and “ah ha!” moments.  This is one of those discussions.  If you recognize your words, that’s because I probably absorbed your lesson.]

“So what is it that you want out of Lindy Hop,” he asked me.

“I want to be an advanced dancer,” I replied.

“Where are you now?”

“I think I’m solidly intermediate.”

“And what does becoming an advanced dancer mean to you?”

“That’s tough to say.  I’m not worried about flash. Or performing.  Or competing.  But I am worried about making a dance fun for my partner.  I’d like to be able to dance with a beginner or a visiting pro and have that person walk away thinking, ‘Now that was a fun dance.'”

“That’s a good goal.  What do you think you need to do to achieve it?”

“Well, I feel like I’m solid in what I can do now.  But that I need more moves, more vocabulary…”  I stopped as he shook his head.

“No.  What you need is basics.”

“I’m … not sure what you mean ‘you need basics,'” I replied, trying not to be offended.  I mean, I knew my basics.

“Well, you said you needed more vocabulary, right?  You chose that metaphor, and one of the old tropes you hear instructors use feeds right into it: ‘Dancing is a conversation.'”

“Sure….”

“Well, have you ever thought to yourself, ‘I need to learn some more words so I can have better conversations with my friends’?  Of course not!  You have better conversations by mastering your basic vocabulary then using it to maximum effect.  Ever seen a poetry slam?  Or a ‘spoken word’ showcase?  Or an actor doing a one person show with multiple characters, accents, and points of view?  Or a great stand-up comedian with the audience in the palm of his hand?  Or a an political orator swaying the feelings of an audience?  Those people don’t use words you don’t know.  They have mastery of basic vocabulary.”

“That can’t be all they have.”

“Of course not.  They’ve also mastered the artistic use and effective timing of their words as well as the ability to read a crowd.  The way they use vocabulary might be different from yours.”

“But I see advanced dancers doing moves I don’t know all the time.”

“You’re forgetting that this is about having a conversation.  Can you conceive a thought, begin it, and complete it with clarity and directness?   Can you construct a thesis statement and supporting points?  The first step is working on your basics.  Variations and new moves come after that.  I’m sure you can probably think of local dancers who know lots of moves, but they don’t seem … quite right.  Or people will complain after dancing with them.  About clarity.  Or harshness.  Or injuries.”

“Yeah, I can, now that you mention it.  So you’re saying I need to learn how to express my feelings…”

“Feelings?!  No, not your feelings.  I’m saying you should learn how to have the Lindy Hop equivalent of a polite, clear, superficial, conversation with no nuance.  Feelings?!  Feelings are a whole other conversation!!!”

Are there any conversations or observations that you can remember which changed your dancing?   What is the metaphor for dancing that you use most often to express basic concepts?  Has anyone ever told you that you needed more work on your basics when you felt they were already very good?  How did you take it?

Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

One of my main motivations for starting this site was to discuss some of the mental models that I use to think about dancing.  I previously referenced my reasons for calling the blog “Black Belt Lindy,” which implies the use of the martial arts as a model.  Unfortunately, the belt system in martial arts is a system of colors and can be fluid in the meaning of certain colors.

About a year ago, I read Andy Hunt’s “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning” which stimulated an avalanche of thinking and re-thinking.  It’s nominally about computer programming, in that it’s written from the perspective of a programmer and a lot of the examples reference programming, but the lessons are quite easily applied to things like dancing.

Today I’d like to focus on a single idea I was exposed to: The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.
The idea behind this model is to classify someone’s skill level so as to better give an instructor guidance on what a student needs to work on to advance.  Here’s the description from the wikipedia page on the Dreyfus Model:

A helpful summary of the model is provided by Eraut (1994)[2]:
1 Novice

  • rigid adherence to rules
  • no discretional judgment

2 Advanced beginner

  • situational perception still limited
  • all aspects of work are treated separately and given equal importance

3 Competent

  • coping with crowdedness (multiple activity, information)
  • now partially sees action as part of longer term goals
  • conscious, deliberate planning

4 Proficient

  • holistic view of situation, rather than in terms of aspects
  • sees what is most important in a situation
  • uses maxims for guidance, meaning of maxims may vary according to situation

5 Expert

  • no longer reliant on rules, guidelines, maxims
  • intuitive grasp of situation, based on tacit knowledge
  • vision of what is possible

6 Proficient Expert

  • Knows the evidence base and underpinning knowledge to entirety
  • Can teach the skill to others
  • Can utilise the skill interlinked with other skills

This is evocative of so many memories!  Being a novice all all about needing the rules explained.  Ever remember a someone asking, “How do I know when to do six or eight count footwork?”  Someone looking for a hard and fast rule is placing themselves solidly in the novice range.
What about the inability to understand priorities?  I remember acting as a teaching assistant at a workshop and asking the instructor what the priorities in fixing problems were.  Frame before footwork?  Footwork before lead?  The inability to prioritize the focus of my instruction was the mark of an Advanced Beginner.
As we shade into Competent practitioners, we start to see more of the big picture.  We can see how decisions we make in our dancing affect the aesthetics.  How actions in one part of a move affect latter parts.  How the end of one move naturally feeds into the beginning of another.  How changes in the music should elicit changes in the dancing.  How the structure of the music helps us to anticipate future decisions we’ll be making.
I don’t claim to be a Proficient practitioner, though maybe I’m shading towards this level.  I’ll be working for a while at getting enough practical experience to really claim this.  At this level, rules get abstracted into maxims, which might be so nuanced as to seem meaningless to the Novice.  One I’ve heard is, “Dance the way you walk.”  That meant almost to nothing to me until I was shown a practical application.
OK, so how does this help us become better dancers?  Well, I’ve never talked to someone in swing dancing who’s heard of this model, so I kind of doubt any workshops will be adopting it to mark teaching levels.  To be honest, I’ve never talked to anyone who’s heard of this model, so it’s not something unique to swing dancing.  What it can help us do is to better understand where we are in the process of learning.  It’s actually a continuous spectrum, not a series of discrete steps, so you may have characteristics of multiple levels.
I’m classing myself as a Competent shading towards Proficient swing dancer.  I can very quickly see whether someone is fitting my aesthetic sense and kinesthetic sense of “good dancing,” and figure out why with minimal review.  I’m someone who’s able to think before I walk, so I feel like I grasp some of the ideas behind being Proficient while I lack a lot of the experience.  For example, I’m usually fine on the social floor at most speeds, but tend to freeze up when asked to jump in and do 8-8’s in the middle of a song.  I need a lot more practical experience before that becomes a natural part of my dancing.  I’ve spent most of the past 18 months ironing out my basics and adding in rhythm changes and very minor footwork variations as my styling.  I need to add a lot more styling variations and get comfortable with them as part of a “flash” library.  My personal style tends to be more subtle so I need to be more comfortable with a “bigger” style if I want to compete.  My reactions aren’t geared towards “listening” to an assertive follow telling me she needs extra time or wants to play with a theme.  I need a lot more practice at being responsive to this.
So let me throw this out there.  Where do you rank yourself as a swing dancer at the moment?  Do you have any specific memories that are linked to anchoring you at a point in time to a specific characteristic in the Dreyfus model?

How does this affect your thoughts on basics vs. styling?

Why Black Belt?

“Black Belt” is verbal shorthand I used to describe the advanced form or level of something.  If you were doing some badass knitting, well, that was black belt knitting.  Know what I mean?

When I’d been swing dancing for a long enough to be focusing on intermediate classes, an instructor mentioned that he taught a different version of the fundamental move in Lindy Hop, the swing-out, to beginners.  “Here’s your beginner swing-out.  Here’s what I teach to an intermediate dancer…”

“Ah!”  I couldn’t help but interjecting my terminology.  “Are you teaching the black belt swing-out today?”

That stopped him for a moment.

“That’s a really interesting way to think about it.”  He cocked his head to the side for a moment, thinking, then moved on with the class.

That moment has stayed with me during the intervening years.  Teaching different movements to different levels of dancers is probably worth a philosophical discussion, but strip that issue away and we’re still left with fact that there are layers of understanding that go into just this simple, basic movement.

My desire isn’t to turn this note (or this blog, for that matter) into a discussion of the actual movement.  (I’m sure there’s an abundance of instructional video available now).  I would like to marinate in the idea that learning how to do a swing-out is a process, and one that exists on multiple levels.  There’s a basic level of learning footwork, rhythms, connection, lead, and follow.  Then there are deeper and deeper layers of understanding in each of those topics.  I’d really rather be having meta-discussions on the process of learning in all of these stages.  And not just on the black belt level.

There’s so much to learn about the fundamental moves in Lindy Hop, and yet as humans it’s easy for us to not want to focus too much on them.  We judge ourselves and each other by variations, not fundamentals.  So is it a sign of a black belt to be focused on fundamentals rather than flash?