Learning to Move:  That Sweet Education
Patient Practice in the Pursuit of Excellence!

By Barbara Bernstein, Rueda de Casino Teacher & Director of DanceInTimeProductions
An old joke goes as follows:  A woman walking down a street in New York City stopped a passer-by and asked, "Excuse me, but can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"  The gentleman answered, "Practice, practice, practice!"

A new book out by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink) makes a startling proposition about how to explain
exceptional talent.  Gladwell describes a principle he calls "the 20,000 hour" rule.  He says that to be very outstanding at some skill (like a top flight pro tennis player, or whatever) requires 20,000 hours of
practice.  That amounts to 20 hours a week for 20 years!!

You just cannot become very skilled without lots of practice; and you cannot get a lot of practice without comfort making mistakes, picking yourself up and trying again and again!  No matter how talented someone
appears when they dance, they didn't start out that way. They made mistakes and kept on trying till they got it!  Generally speaking, people can learn what they would like to learn if they work hard and continuously at it.  

Moreover, just as children learn to walk before they run, students of dance learn to do things slowly before speeding them up.   The importance of the speed in learning cannot be over-emphasized.   In a sense, "speed is everything."  It is best to learn new material first to very slow music and once the move is in muscle memory, gradually kick up the pace.

One of the issues in learning Salsa, as a matter of fact, is preparing to dance at clubs where lots of fast music predominates.  It is altogether a different animal to dance a move to fast music!  Someone who can get through a step to slow music may not be able to do it to faster tempos.  That is really just a matter of practice though.  Once a step is in muscle memory, doing it faster requires that you know it better and better so you can do it without thinking.

Slow tempos are very "forgiving."  Even if you have for example, excess motion in your lead, you may be able to slog through a move to a slow speed.  But the faster speed requires greater cleanliness to get through the move. 

It's important, in essence, to recognize that "knowing something is really a matter of degree, not an all or nothing proposition."  You don't simply know or not know how to do a cross body lead, for example.  You start out doing it tentatively and a little awkwardly, and the more you practice, the more confident and smooth the movement becomes.  You know the move better and better the more you do it.

Dancers may feel that they already "know" a move, and understandably want to learn new moves rather than review what they "know."   But since learning is incremental, the more you do it, the better you'll do it (at faster tempos, with less thought, adding embellishments, etc.)!   And that smoothness or improved technique is what makes you feel good to dance with and look good on the floor.

Moreover, there is really no clear demarcation between students and teachers, because most teachers continue to train. So they remain forever students as well, working with coaches to continuously improve their skills.  And most students, as they dance with their friends, are also helping them learn hence acting as teachers. 

At the end of the day, the most important thing any of us can do is impart to others our love of learning to dance.  As long as people keep on learning and practicing, everything will come in time---steps, technique, etc.  So in short, a teacher's greatest gift to his students and a friend's greatest gift to a dance partner, is in essence, a form of love.

Copyright Barbara Bernstein of DanceInTime.com, 2005