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