Words, words, words

Hi all – Sorry for the long silence, though as many of you already know, I recently relocated from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area. This post is one I’ve been meaning to finish up, but my next one – as promised to my students in Boston – will discuss the material I presented in my last classes at Arlington. Appropriately enough, I’m posting this Tuesday night, when I would normally be teaching… I hope you enjoy this blog, and please share it with other dancers! Thanks, Eric

The role of a teacher is not simply to share information, but to ensure that the information is absorbed, processed, and acted upon in the right way. Teaching, then, is all about communication – conveying a message in the appropriate manner so that the audience not only receives the message but understands it as it was intended.

A big part of communications is picking the right language to package and transmit the message. Good teachers know that students are coming into class with a preexisting understanding of the world, with preassigned meanings to certain words or concepts. For instance, students have a preconceived notion of what good posture is, what the word “connection” means, and even what it means to dance. To effectively teach the student, you must first understand what the student knows – and how s/he knows it. This is difficult for experienced dancers, given that they have the curse of knowledge.

Nevertheless, teachers throw around words like “frame” and “posture” and “step” without ever clearly defining what these terms mean in dance. It is particularly important to define terms for which the students may already have a preconceived notion or definition. When you ask a beginner student what he thinks of when he hears the word “frame,” odds are he will think of something like a hard, stiff, outside border. Unfortunately, this is contrary to what the student is aiming to achieve in dance – relaxed, soft arms.

Even worse, I’ve seen great dancers and admired teachers use words like “pull” and “push” to describe how to lead. Not surprisingly, I see the leaders in class use their arms to pull and push their followers through patterns. It’s not what the teacher meant, but because he used the words “pull” and “push,” and because the students already had their own meaning of what those words meant, the students interpreted the teacher in their own way. The result? Arms leads and an uncomfortable follower.

The trouble is that in dance we use certain words or phrases that have a meaning outside of dance, and if the two conflict, it is up to the teacher to help the student understand the meaning in dance – and how it differs from the standard definition. This is critical to the student’s ability to succeed, since how we understand the dance determines what we set out to achieve.

What words or phrases did you struggle with while learning to dance? What terms does your instructor use now that you don’t fully understand? Teachers, how do you ensure that your students understand what you say the way you meant it? What terms do you think teachers should do a better job of explaining to ensure the student learns properly?


  1. Center is always a tricky term to hear teachers talk about, and to try to explain to someone else. When I started, I had no prior dance experience, and I'm not sure it was until Mario's intensive that someone explained what that meant in a way that made me go "ah!!! I think I get it." Of course, students should feel comfortable enough in a group setting to be able to ask "stupid" questions — but usually that comfort comes with time and not caring what others think about you!! Frame is definitely another one — again, if you've come from some other dance, you probably have a different understanding of what that means than if you are just guessing. And I've heard some instructors say that there is no frame in WCS — so that just makes things even more confusing! From an instructors standpoint it is tricky. Instructors shouldn't assume people know what certain terms mean, and shouldn't assume that everyone's working definition is the same as theirs. Knowing how to explain a term or concept in multiple ways I find is priceless. If I don't understand what was initially said, saying it the same way again doesn't help! I think the true gift of teaching is being able to explain a concept in multiple ways, and being good at identifying the one that clicks for certain students. Of course that's harder to do in group classes than privately. It was really interesting to me when assisting Marc in class how students ended up copying things I was doing, even though I never mentioned them or why I was doing them. So, I think there's a power that instructors get that they certainly need to be aware of, and they need to explicitly describe as much as possible to students so they aren't blindly mimicking but are choosing to do something and understanding why they are doing it.

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