Learnin’ to dance is like Learnin’ to live!


I have recently re-connected with an old hobby of mine: Swing dancing! This is a partner dance that originated in the thirties with big band swing music. There are many styles such as: Lindy Hop, Balboa and Charleston. They all have the form of lead and follow, where the leader (often but not necessarily the man) leads various patterns and steps that the follower (again not necessarily the woman!) attempts to interpret and follow.  As dancers progress in skill, the connection between the dancers, the movement and the complex variations in the music itself become more and more subtle, flexible and integrated and it becomes more and more satisfying to both do and also to watch.

I have attended many, many classes and workshops from a wide variety of teachers. It has been very interesting to reflect on the progression from beginner to intermediate to advanced skill levels and how this progression is understood by various teachers, especially the place of ‘creativity’ in this process. I believe that there are universal dynamics of development, of the type discussed elsewhere on this Blog, that are very well illustrated by learning to master a bounded skill such as dancing.

Let’s consider a simple three stage progression of learning to swing dance:

The beginner level: This is normally the level of (in)competence which is both enormous fun and totally frustrating. One is enthusiastic and keen to learn something new and exciting, but the ‘rules’ that make it all work are mysterious and baffling. One watches experienced dancers and just cannot fathom how the follower knows what to do. It must be secret signals or whispering in the ear! Beginners can learn the mechanics of the basic steps and then presume they know it completely; ‘Got that, what’s next?’ much to the amusement of more advanced dancers who know that it can take years of practice to truly ‘get’ the subtlety and nuance of the basic moves. One simply doesn’t know what one doesn’t know! In terms of lead and follow most beginners develop a kind of ‘pretend’ version where the follower second guesses what the leader wants and goes through the steps ‘as if’ she’s being led properly. This of course gives exactly the wrong feedback to the budding leader who things he is doing just great! Let’s call this stage of development the Pre-Conventional Stage.

The Intermediate Level: This is the stage of gaining a real understanding of the rules and conventions that underlie the dance. The competent intermediate leader typically starts to collect a vast repertoire of moves as ‘being a good dancer’ is framed as having a wide variety of moves to ‘entertain’ the follower with, usually the more complex and intricate the better, much to the exhaustion of the followers! The basic mechanics of ‘getting the follower to do what you want’ is understood. This is often when the music itself becomes largely irrelevant and is reduced to a simple count of 8 beats. It becomes all important to work out which foot goes on which beat and sequences and patterns rule supreme. let’s call this stage the Conventional Stage.

The Advanced Stage: This is the stage where one starts to go beyond the patterns and set moves that make up the repertoire of the intermediate dancer. Advanced dancers start to realise and aspire to the immense pleasure of the subtle and intuitive connection between the leader and follower, which starts to become more a conversation than a lecture! The music itself, with it’s complex rhythms and changes of mood becomes all important as the dancers try and express their interpretation of it through the dance they are co-creating. Leaders often forget hundreds of complicated moves that they learnt as intermediates and go back to beginners classes run by true dance masters to try and more deeply understand the subtleties involved in the basic moves. Less is most definitely more at this stage and one can dance for a year for one sublime phrase of joyous connection with your partner and the music. True dancing creativity becomes possible as one goes beyond rules and patterns. For the on-looking beginner or early intermediate it can look like advanced dancers are actually dancing a different dance altogether! This stage gives intimations of the true mastery that is possible. Let’s call this stage the Post-Conventional Stage.

This three stage schema is obviously grossly simplified and each of the stages could easily be subdivided into multiple sub-stages, however for the discussion to follow it is enough to use this simple scheme of:

pre-conventional: ‘not yet knowing the rules’

conventional: ‘knowing and following the rules’

post-conventional: ‘going beyond the rules’

I believe that this basic pattern represents a largely universal pattern of development. To be a great poet one needs to master and then go beyond the grammar and syntax conventions of language, to be an accomplished musician one needs to transcend the rules, form and patterns of the genre. We can see it in Bruce Lee’s quest for the ultimate martial art that was ‘beyond form’ and totally without rules, yet based on an absolute mastery of all the forms and patterns of what had come before. These dynamics are captured in the popular phrases:

‘Rules are for the guidance of the wise and the obedience of the foolish.’

‘One should strive to understand the spirit of the law, not merely obey the letter of the law.’

It is very appealing to ‘go beyond the rules’ and be free to creatively express something new and exciting. This is the transition that many teachers, coaches, mentors, guides and guru’s like to focus on. This is largely due to the fact that they themselves are largely post-conventional themselves in the field of expertise in which they are operating, be it a bounded skill such as the type discussed above or a more general ‘growing up’ as in the role of a parent for instance.

(In terms of the general stages of individual maturation discussed  elsewhere in this blog and summarized in the diagram here, pre-conventional relates to the the pre-traditional worldview, conventional centres on the traditional stage and post-conventional the modern/post-modern stages)

This is all well and good but what is much less well understood is, due to the holarchical nature of the sequence pre-con to con to post-con, the transition from beginner to ‘knowing the rules’ is equally important. To put it simply one cannot  transcend and go beyond the rules unless one has understood, internalised and then perceived the limitations of ‘the rules’.

When we are faced with beginners of any kind, be they enthusiastic adults keen to learn a new skill, or ‘beginners’ in life such as children, if the goal is to facilitate their growth to be liberated and creative practitioners or adults then the most crucial step in that journey is the transition from pre-conventional to conventional. The conventional stage just cannot be skipped!!

When a dance teacher tells a beginner not to worry about patterns and steps just relax and improvise, they are giving an instruction designed to help the transition from intermediate to advanced levels. When a teacher or parent refuses to teach young children the rules and norms of social interaction and encourage them to ‘challenge authority’, ‘question accepted truths’ and ‘be your own unique person’ (concepts that would be quite appropriate for a mature adolescent struggling to develop their adult voice) they can unwittingly reinforce and validate pre-conventional narcissistic impulses and hamper the individuals healthy development.

I want to acknowledge my admiration for all those teachers, of all types, who dedicate themselves to laying the foundations of artistic excellence and healthy personalities by helping all us ‘beginners’ become ‘intermediates’, despite themselves being far beyond these stages themselves. It takes a special kind of person to do this, someone who is more focused on others emancipation than necessarily doing work that they personally find fun and exciting. Too many people want to pretend that conventional levels of attainment can be skipped and one can jump straight to liberated mastery!

It just ain’t so!

This post is dedicated to my dear friend and dance teacher Sue Freeman who sadly died recently after a long and heroic battle with cancer. She was a teacher who intuitively understood how to nurture people on their own journey to discover the joys of dancing and I would like to think she would agree with a little of the above. However I suspect she would flick her eye over the first sentence, give an impish grin, yawn and change the subject!!

SUE FREEMAN 1960-2015





Ayaan Hirsi Ali – A Voice That Should Be Heard


I have been following the work of Ayaan Hirsi Ali for over a decade. She has been writing about Islam and the rise of Islamic Extremism extremely eloquently and forcefully since 9/11. The excellent collection of essays ‘The Caged Virgin – An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam’ 2006 and her autobiography ‘Infidel – My Life’ 2007 has recently been joined by her searing analysis of Islam, extremism and the western misunderstanding of it: ‘Heretic – Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now’ 2015.

She is one of a growing number of modern, rational commentators on these issues that, crucially, have a muslim background and heritage and as such have immensely more traction in the muslim world than the numerous analysts from the West. It is crucial that she, and others such as  Maajid Nawaz here in the UK, are given support and visibility from the media and political class to increase the profile of the modern muslim worldview. It is wonderful that she has an occasional column in the Sunday Times and her latest article is reproduced below. She has thrown her weight behind David Cameron’s unfolding rhetoric on the issue but, like many of us, is awaiting with bated breath to see whether the follow through on policy has any real substance and is able to stand up to what will be a withering campaign of moral outrage from the postmodern/left wing intelligentsia.

(Note: For a complimentary analysis from another modern muslim it is recommended that the article below should be read in conjunction with the analysis of ISIS posted here)

A few more ingredients and the PM’s recipe for beating Islamism is ready

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Published: 11 October 2015

TWO wonderful things happened last week to advance the cause to which I have dedicated the past 14 years of my life. First, I heard a British Muslim woman — Nadiya Hussain — say these words after winning The Great British Bake Off: “I am never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I am never going to say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can. And I will.”

Then I heard David Cameron say in his party conference speech that he would “confront — and I mean really confront — extremism . . . [a] diseased view of the world [which] has become an epidemic — infecting minds from the mosques of Mogadishu to the bedrooms of Birmingham”.

Two breaths of fresh air. For, make no mistake, if the extremists had their way, a Muslim woman such as Hussain would never be allowed to appear on television and to express herself in the terms she used. Her face would be covered. She would be behind closed doors. She certainly wouldn’t be hugging her fellow competitors and crying for joy. For such behaviour is seen by extremists as bringing dishonour on her family and her faith.

Since 2001 I have followed the spread of this kind of extremism in Europe. I have followed with almost as much concern the lacklustre response of governments to this lethal threat.

Although things seem calm on the surface, when one walks through the streets of big cities such as London, Berlin and Paris one can sense that something is terribly off. There’s a palpable tension. The growth of Muslim populations has been gradual, as has their penetration by extremist organisations. The difficulties of integrating immigrants into European economies and societies have only slowly become apparent. But this year Europe’s political elites feel suddenly overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants — most of them young Muslim men — when they were already struggling to keep a lid on the rise of extreme right-wing political movements and parties.

Many European voters, and not only on the right of the political spectrum, feel let down by their leaders. This despondency is largely due to the reluctance — in some cases adamant refusal — of leaders to address honestly the challenges of Muslim immigration and integration into the host societies. Platitudes on the benefits of multiculturalism and accusations of xenophobia have done nothing to mitigate what has now become one of the burning issues of our time.

It will probably take some time before we witness a reversal in the spread of Islamic extremism. Yet there is at last a sign of hope that things may change for the better. This sign of hope comes from Britain. Not only do we have a new national heroine in a Muslim woman who refuses to be constrained by antiquated rules designed to make women subservient; we also have, in David Cameron, the first western leader willing to take the risk of tackling Islamic extremism head-on.

Shortly before the election, Cameron called Islamic extremism “a poisonous ideology” that justified “the most sickening barbarism and brutality”, and pledged to come down hard on organisations that “stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred”. By contrast Ed Miliband promised to make “Islamophobia” an “aggravated crime” — as if that were the more serious problem.

The fact that Cameron won the general election, even if the issue was not a dominant one in the campaign, suggests that when an establishment leader addresses Islamic extremism with courage and clarity, voters respond favourably.

Five months after his election victory, Cameron and his cabinet appear close to delivering. In his speech to the Tory party conference last week he promised to “tear up the narrative that says Muslims are persecuted and the West deserves what it gets”; to take on extremism “in all its forms, the violent and non-violent”; to tackle segregation; to zoom in on schools that incubate extremism, even shutting them down; and to clamp down on the terrible practices of forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), promising to prosecute those who perpetrate them.

This is the right way to go and I applaud it. But let me now add the principles that Cameron should put at the heart of his strategy.

First, it’s important to give the problem its real name. Islamic extremism concerns specific beliefs, attitudes and behaviours embedded in the political system of Islam. In his speech Cameron did not refer to Islamic extremism as such, even though he discussed extremist madrasahs, the terrorist group Isis and jihad. Yet leading political figures in the United Arab Emirates now publicly refer to “Islamic extremism” as “the most destabilising and dangerous global force since fascism”.

Second, by focusing on the problematic aspects of Islam, one can learn to distinguish between those aspects of Islam that are compatible with a liberal society and those that are not. It is then possible to form genuine partnerships with Muslims who as individuals and as groups have values that are aligned with British values, British laws and British norms.

Third, if the links between Islam and extremism are made clear, one can develop tools to help identify, predict and prevent extremism. Take a Muslim-majority neighbourhood where men and women mix freely and where they have friendly relations with people of other religions or no religion. If one were suddenly to see women veiled from head to toe and men wearing long beards, demanding that the genders be segregated and pushing for a ban on alcohol, one could readily infer that extremist elements were at work there.

Fourth, good civic values need to be inculcated at school. If combating Islamic extremism is our goal, then Muslim children will have to be taught that armed jihad is bad, and why; that sharia as it exists in Saudi Arabia and used to in Afghanistan is unjust; that obeying one book and one man without question is unwise; that the principles of tolerance, freedom, democracy and equality before the law are sacrosanct; and that it is perfectly legitimate for people to have faiths other than Islam or no faith at all.

When Cameron stated in his speech that we should not just be saying what is wrong with forced marriage or FGM, but should also be emphasising what is right about Britain, I took it to mean that he is prepared to have these values inculcated into every single Briton, including Muslims.

The prime minister spoke boldly last week, and we should all welcome his words — especially British Muslims such as Nadiya Hussain who sincerely want to be both Muslim and British.

What is needed now is appropriate follow-through. To tackle this challenge effectively, many years of strong public policy measures will be necessary. Islamic extremism will not disappear spontaneously.

The Modern Worldview – ‘the birth of reason’

In the last post it was suggested that a common, inclusive framework of values that would unite us as a society in a shared vision is to be found, not in a notion of ‘British Values’ but in ‘Modern Values’. I would like to outline what I mean by this.

Let us delve in to history for a moment. What is generally known as the modern era, or modernity started in Europe in the mid 18th century. In what has been labelled the Enlightenment era, Europe begun moving from a society where the organizing principles were largely dictated by a traditional worldview (see worldviews), to that informed by a modern worldview. We can refer to a table that those familiar with this blog will have seen before.


Expanding on what we mean by the traditional worldview, we can see that it is largely a religious worldview where all aspects of life are largely dictated by theocratic dogma. The holy book (the bible) is seen as the sole authority on the three great realms in life: what is good (morality), what is true (the facts about the universe and its history) and what is beautiful/meaningful (how to find joy and purpose in this life). As we can see from the table this can lead to rigid intolerance and dogmatism. We can also note that life at this level revolves around rules and roles.

It was against this backdrop of theocratic dogmatism that the enlightenment arose, and it was indeed a profoundly anti-religious movement. Voltaires rallying cry was ‘Remember the cruelties’, and those cruelties were the intolerant and often savage imposition of the ‘rules’ by the organized religious authorities (the catholic church).

What triggered this revolt against the theocracy? As noted in the chart above the primary trigger for the movement was what has become known as the ‘the birth of reason’.

So what is reason? Reason is the faculty of mind that fundamentally asks – why? It asks what is that reason for that? It is the mind that asks: How do I know the Bible is true?, What is the evidence? It is the mind that seeks coherence and demands rational explanation. It is simply not acceptable that irrational or unreasonable assertions are left to stand.

For example:

  • Q: How do you know the Bible is true
  • A:  It’s true because it’s the word of God
  • Q: How do you know it’s the word of God?
  • A: Because it says so in the Bible.

This circular argument is perfectly adequate to the traditional (pre-rational) mind and no amount of ‘reasoning’ with them will alter that fact, for the simple reason that they do not recognize ‘reasoning’ as a necessary basis for ascertaining truth. The modern (rational) mind utterly rejects the circular argument as incoherent and invalid.

The birth of universal reason and its growth to have organising influence on society led to the birth of democracy (why is it fair that the few have power over the many) and the birth of liberation movements such as abolition, gender equality, and the declaration of universal human rights. The struggle to truly realise the promise of these movements is still being fought of course, the point here is simply that all these developments were triggered by the emergence of universal reason. The rise of science is of course founded on rational enquiry and the demand for evidence to ascertain truth.

(Note: At a deeper psychological level the faculty we are calling reason is at its most fundamental level: the ability to take multiple perspectives, identify with them and then because of that identification be compelled to integrate them into a coherent whole. You can only truly empathise with the oppressed if you can first take their perspective and then identify with it. It is important to understand that it is this cognitive ability to take multiple perspectives and integrate them that  the level of complexity of mind that is the root of both universal human rights and modern science. In Piagetian terms it is the development of formal-operations (abstract, ‘what if’ cognition) as a level of cognitive complexity that transcends and includes the concrete-operations (concrete-literal cognition) that underpins the traditional worldview.

It is often noted that modernity clearly differentiated church and state. This is true but a more useful analysis is that modernity finally differentiated the three major realms of life: the good, the true and the beautiful. As noted above within a traditional society or worldview these three realms were undifferentiated. Theocratic doctrine gave the final word on all these issues. With the rise of modernity these three realms became distinct:

The Good (morality, or the way we life together) is to be determined by consensus and open debate, based on universal consideration of all people as equals (democracy).

The True (facts!) is to be determined by science, rational enquiry, and observable and shareable evidence.

The Beautiful/Meaningful (how to live a good life) is to be left to the individual to decide without interference from any doctrine, either from church or state. All shall be free to decide for themselves what God to worship and what activities to pursue to find meaning in their lives.

This differentiation was a monumental achievement and is the foundation of what we can consider to be ‘Modern Values’.

We can see from this analysis that the values that underpin our modern world are not a list of rules to be obeyed (this would only demand a traditional mind-set) , but are largely the natural value system that unfolds when one has adopted universal reason as an organising principle in one’s own identity.

This has profound implications for education. Everyone is born at square one, whatever type of society one is in. The goal of child-rearing or education has to be to develop as many adult citizens who share (as a minimum!) the worldview of society as a whole. In the case of a modern society this means that the more people that attain a critical thinking, rational and questioning level of cognitive development the better.

It is a tragedy that schools and colleges do not see their ‘raison d’etre’ as challenging and encouraging critical analysis of all the dogmatic, traditional and limited belief systems that children often inherit from their family conditioning. Under the banner of a non-judgemental multi-culturalism (a pathology of the post-modern worldview – a topic for another time!) young people are left embedded in their traditional intellectual silos and taught simply to ‘tolerate’ each other. The mutual understanding and unity that we desperately need to build a resilient society is not found here, it is only in the exploration of universal reason that a modern, unifying and yes – largely secular vision can be found. After all there is no such thing as Christian science or Muslim Science – there is just science. There is no such thing as Christian gender equality and Muslim gender equality – there is simply gender equality.

This post has emphasised the ‘good news’ of modernity. There is of course a ‘bad news’ as all development brings new opportunities and new dangers. The tendency towards scientific reductionism, consumerism and materialism have led to all sorts of traditional backlashes and complications. Untangling these issues is complex and delicate. I have mentioned them simply to acknowledge that I am not trying to present a one sided rosy picture of the modern world, but am emphasising the underlying developmental achievement that is implicit in all our ‘modern’ debates.