Get It Right and Keep It Tight: The Importance of Sound Instruction

In a recent private dance session, I was covering the fundamentals moves with a student that I had taught in my public class for years. I’ve been working with this student for a while now, emphasizing the importance of her knowing and understanding what she’s doing in her execution of the basics. Typically in my private sessions we begin the hour with a run through of the fundamentals from top to bottom, and the student must execute the moves as proficiently as possible, given their level of expertise, in order and without error before we can begin any additional instruction.

If a student fails to execute the moves properly or executes them out of order, they must begin the entire exercise again from the beginning. I repeat the exercise over and over again from the beginning until every move is executed in order and with a degree of proficiency that I find satisfactory. The purpose of this exercise – which many a student has viewed as punishment – is two-fold. First, the exercise drives home the need to practice in between sessions because students know that we will not proceed to the most enjoyable aspect of the sessions unless they get through the exercise. Secondly, performing this exercise at the beginning of the sessions allows me to determine where I need to focus my instructional attention for the remainder of the session as each move in the exercise has a specific purpose in the dance.

By focusing on where the student is struggling – by the numbers – I can easily resolve technique flaws – by the numbers – and show them how the particular move they are struggling with actually looks, once perfected in the dance. I can then demonstrate modified versions of the same move, which motivates them to try harder, focus more in the sessions, and walk away from the session more enlightened at the end of the hour than at the beginning. Students are also motivated more to learn the dance faster because they can see where the mastery of the exercises will take them.  In essence, what I’m trying to say here is that I prefer my students be fundamentally sound.

Now to the point of this blog (I know, get to it already, right?!). The particular student coming to me for privates stated that she has been dancing for a little over three years. In my assessment of her skill set I observed a consistent degree of proficiency in her dance, so I agreed to instruct her privately because I felt there wouldn’t be much to do to refine her basic skills. We’ve only had a few sessions, but I think the sessions are productive and that she is progressing reasonably well. What took me by surprise in our last session was the fact that we talked more than we danced. We probably talked for more than thirty-five minutes of the one hour session, with many of the questions being about how to properly perform a move, how she needed to step into the moves, the importance of foot placement to begin a move, weight shifts, timing, positioning, etc.

Near the end of the session she asked me what I thought was a most profound question, thus forming the basis for me writing this blog. Her question was simple. She said: “I’ve been dancing for three years now. Why haven’t I learned about this exercise or the moves in the exercise before now?” Because I’ve heard the question many times before, my answer was just as simple. I replied: “Because everyone that teaches Steppin’ doesn’t know it. It’s just that simple.” Her question spoke volumes to me. It spoke to me about the “quality” of her prior instruction. Her question spoke to me about how people can be taken advantage of in their pursuit of this dance. The student’s question also brought to light yet again, a major problem we have in the propagation of this wonderful dance: the lack of instructional standardization.

The problem of instructional standardization aside, please allow me to share a few of my personal observations as both a student and an instructor that provide perspective for those aspiring to become better Steppers.

To be confident in the dance the quality of instruction you receive must be solid and it’s foundation sound. I know that while I may not be the best in the dance, I know that the execution of my technique while dancing is sound and my timing is impeccable – because I have a solid foundation. The proof is in the pudding. There is no way I could dance the way I do, with a degree of confidence and proficiency, without the mastery of the fundamental moves that I learned in Steppin’. I give credit to my instructor  for emphasizing from day one the importance of mastering technique. I incorporate my fundamentals in everything I do in the dance, from basic moves to the execution of dips, drags, sways and carousels. I don’t know how anyone could become proficient in the dance without knowing them, yet apparently some steppers have.

To be exceptional in this dance requires both mastery and discipline. Mastery of technique can only be acquired from those teaching the fundamental aspects of the dance. A good instructor will not only tell you what to do to learn the dance…they will “show” you how, and more importantly, tell you “why” you’re doing what you’re doing. “Show” and “Why” is what’s missing when you’re not receiving sound instruction. I don’t waste time with instructors who can’t provide the rationale for what they’re doing. I shy away from instructors that say “Just do this”, but they can’t break down exactly what they’re doing for me, they can’t tell me why I’m doing it or they can’t tell me how it applies to the dance overall.

Mastery allows you to maximize the level of enjoyment you get from dance – you know, real FUN because that’s what the word “dance” implies – because I know what I’m doing. In sports, the players who get the most enjoyment from their particular sport are the ones who mastered their skills and learned the rules of the sport they’re playing. And within the confines of the particular sport and the player’s mastery of the principles and techniques of their sport, the athlete plays at a higher level because they have a higher level of understanding of what they’re doing and how to apply the mastery of their skills to the game. Chicago Steppin’ is just like other social dances; when you know what you’re doing, the dance is simply more enjoyable. There’s a degree of freedom you experience in the dance that comes across in your body language. The smile on your face is brighter because you feel more confident. Your level of participation in the dance is more engaged. You feel more. You give more. You “experience” MORE!

As a consumer, you deserve more. If your “common sense radar” is telling you that you’re lacking in the way of sound instruction, you probably are. If you don’t believe you’re maximizing your investment in the dance with your current level of instruction, chances are you aren’t. Spend your time, money and energy wisely. Do your research before receiving instruction. Find out who taught the instructor you may choose and who they’re connected to. Note the style of dance of the students under the instructor’s tutelage. Pay very close attention to “what” is being taught, pay attention to “how” it is being taught and most importantly “why” it is being taught. There’s no question that a competent instructor can’t answer and there’s no such thing as a dumb question. If you’re asking questions and not getting answers, you may need to rethink what you’re doing. If there is no structure or organization to the class you’re attending, you may need to rethink what you’re doing. If you’re not growing or evolving in the dance – establishing a higher level of proficiency and confidence – you may need to rethink what you’re doing.

Mastering your fundamentals gives you options.  By doing so, you can fully and actively participate in a class or a workshop and get the most out of it. Your private sessions with guest instructors are more fulfilling. You can travel anywhere in the country and experience a great dance with others who have mastered the dance. Your overall dance experience is more enjoyable and a whole lot more fun when you’ve mastered your fundamentals.

There are competent Steppin’ instructors across the country. Make sure that you find the one that is right for you. Do your homework. Look for the instructor with the personality and style of teaching that fits your needs as well as your learning style. And once you find an instructor that you’re comfortable with, I encourage you to remain with that instructor until you’ve mastered all that they have to offer. If they are competent in how they provide instruction and highly skilled in the dance, I can assure you that it will be the best investment you can make in yourself. You’ll quickly become the dancer you want to be. And in the end, that’s all most of us are striving for.

Feel free to share your experience and/or your perspective on the mastery of the dance. Share your comments below. Thanks for stopping by to read the latest blog from Artistic Motions!



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