After four years of lessons, I still can’t dance.  I’ve attended six classes (four of them regularly, albeit consecutively) in three styles: salsa, tango and swing.  Nontheless, I’m still insufficiently proficient to use go beyond classes and try ‘social dancing.’  So, if I can’t do this…

…what have I learned?

Modelling matters – and not just at the beginning…  So much so that there were complaints recently in my swing lesson when people at the back couldn’t see.  It is only through seeing the steps and moves modelled repeatedly that I can understand what I am supposed to do.  Conversely, there comes a point where further demonstration ceases to be helpful – I have to try it.  Then, having made several failed attempts (but managed some parts of a move), is the most helpful time to revisit the model, to see what I’m missing.

Progress isn’t linear…  “It’s always the same, whenever we concentrate on the steps, our footwork falls apart, but when we work on footwork we forget how to do the steps.”  I’ve used my former teacher’s line as an epigraph for a blog before; it remains a helpful anchor.  As I try to incorporate some new step, my concentration leads me to forget long-practised and familiar techniques.  It is only later, the new move mastered, that I can bring these other figures back up to their former standard.

The ‘click’ can be a long time coming…  Many, many times, it has taken almost an entire class to ‘get’ a particular technique.  There’s usually a good reason – a small but crucial detail of weight, movement or turnout that I’ve missed, despite all the models and explanations.  It is only the instructor’s careful eye which reveals what this is.  It is only when the whole move comes together that you understand how it all works and each part fits together.

Education helps you see the world differently…  I’m not particularly musically-aware, but I can now recognise and explain beats, movements and muscles which meant nothing to me in the past.  Watching Argentine Tango is no longer a blur, but a series of movements which, (with a good deal of practice) I could imitate.

Making mistakes in public is horrible…  Most classrooms have somewhere to hide- at least temporarily.  A partnered dance offers no leeway – an especially cruel feature of learning for a novice who is ‘dancing’ with far more experienced.  There are few things more humiliating than the repeated missteps of a performance in which your partner is relying on you; this makes starting new classes or moving up levels particularly stressful.

Practising small skills in isolation is key to progress…  At intermediate tango, the teacher would introduce a lengthy sequence (occasionally beyond twenty beats – and a greater number of steps) all at once; which we would then attempt to master all at once.  I moved from this class to one in which moves were built up: we would learn and practise two or four steps until they were familiar, then attempt the next, eventually reaching a similar level of complication as in my previous class.  In the latter, I spent far less time in confused missteps.

Seeing the big picture and enjoying the dance is key to progress…  Yet it was in the former class that the teacher helped us to dance from the earliest possible stage, teaching variations of techniques and encouraging us to experiment with their combinations, rather than simply imitating his models.  While the latter class had its merits, I left it almost voluntarily.  In the former, we enjoyed what we did and could see our growing proficiency.

Sometimes, life gets in the way of learning…  I want to be a good dancer.  If I danced more frequently, I’d get better faster.  I can’t make that time given the competing requirements of work, friends and life.  Sometimes, exhaustion and weather make attending even one weekly class a struggle.  Missing one lesson makes it far easier to skip the next.  Even with long-term, intrinsic motivation, perseverance in getting better remains a struggle.

Learning is much harder than it sometimes seems…  One insight that has struck me more often than all the others, as I struggle, for the hundredth time, to follow simple directions and master basic steps, irrespective of the instructor’s best efforts.  It is that my current incapacity undoubtedly mirrors the feelings of any number of my students during my lessons today.  As I struggle, willingly but with inexperience and ineptitude, my sympathy for them is renewed.

And what have I concluded?

1) As I first considered this post, it occurred to me that, like my less-exciting but more-effective tango teacher, I needed to spend more time breaking down the construction of sentences explaining significance with my Year 7 students.  I put in more time practising and modelling these last week.

2) Being a learner – a novice – is good for my soul as a teacher: it provides frequent chances to consider models, explanations, practice and support, but its greatest merit lies in making me look and feel stupid on a regular basis, and thus reminding me of the need to retain patience and sympathy for those to whom I have explained concepts poorly or not yet offered sufficient support.

3) With these excuses in mind, far better to go out dancing than stay in marking.

Fred Astaire

Reader recommendation
Like this, but done far better, Fiona Vaz’s ‘Reflections for school leaders from the kitchen,’ is one of the most enjoyable and insightful pieces I’ve ever read on educational leadership (I say this as someone who holds an MA in Educational Leadership).

Dance class recommendations
Tango in North London, try Freedom Tango.
Tango in Central-ish London, try Tango Fever.
Swing dancing across London, try Swing Patrol.

Film recommendation
‘Take the Lead,’ from which the clip above is taken, shows how tango can succeed with inner-city kids where everything else has failed.  I look forward to the EEF study.