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?

Contradiction in terms

It happens more often than it should, to the detriment of the student, that two conflicting pieces of information are presented by two different teachers. This presents the student with a dilemma: in the pursuit of the “right” or “best” way of doing things, which one to choose?

I would argue that these types of conflicts are really simple misunderstandings. Contradictions are often either 1) two different ways of approaching the same fundamental idea, or 2) complementary rather than contradictory, usually a difference between technique and style.

For example, consider the notion of two centers. Skippy Blair is a prominent instructor who has done more than anyone else to create effective teaching tools for important technique and mechanics. Personally, I think she’s fantastic, and I think she has a gift for being able to communicate complex topics into easy-to-apply exercises (though I should note that I don’t always agree with the technique or ideas she teaches).

Skippy teaches that there are two centers: the Center of Mass (CM), located somewhere around the hips, and the Center Point of Balance (CPB), the point from which we move, located higher near the diaphragm. Like any good teacher, she helps the student to understand these concepts through practical exercises.

On the other hand, Mario Robau, an amazing dancer and an incredible teacher with a real gift for breaking things down into information people can readily digest, argues that there’s only one center, since, after all, it’s the center, which logically means there’s only one.

So who’s right?

I would argue that they both are. Mario is technically right: there is only one center to a given object, human or otherwise. And it is from this center that we move. However, we move from our center with forward pitch, meaning that our upper body is set slightly in front of our lower body (this is true both forwards and backwards). Thus, the two center explanation has great value as a teaching tool for people to mentally understand proper posture and pitch and translate it into a physical response. One teacher gave the straight truth, the other gave advice to produce a specific desired outcome. Both are being effective teachers in their own way.

Another seeming contradiction: heel first or toe first when walking forward. From a strictly mechanical perspective, as far as I’m concerned, this is a no-brainer: heel first. Why? Because that is how your body naturally moves, was designed to move, and how your body facilitates forward movement by rolling through the foot.

So why would someone teach toe-first? Simple: styling. Some people think it makes a nicer line to have a straight leg, others may think the music calls for it. The truth is that as long as you’re moving from your center and your feet are underneath you when you transfer weight, it doesn’t really matter whether you go heel first or toe first. They aren’t contradicting – it’s just two different ways of moving, one being the basic mechanics of walking and the other a stylization.

What other contradictions have you come across while learning to dance? Where does there seem to be a contradiction that is really two ways of approaching the same thing? Where does there seem to be a contradiction that is really the difference between fundamental technique and advanced style? Teachers, how do you reconcile the difference when asked about contradictions?

The mystery of frame

(Hi all – Apologies for the silence these past few weeks. My day job was eating up a lot of my time and I had to put this aside. However, I am now back and will post new entries more frequently, at least once or twice a week. Thanks for reading and responding! – Eric)

How many times have you heard an instructor use the word “frame” in a dance class? No doubt, plenty of times.

And how many times have you been told to “maintain your frame” or “don’t break frame” by an instructor? We all have at some time or another.

Now how many times have you heard a dance instructor actually give a definition of the word “frame” in a dance class? Think carefully. My guess is, for most of you, the answer is: never.

Think about what “frame” means to you, then post your best definitions here on this blog. What is the definition you know? What is the definition you use to dance? What is the definition of frame you use to teach? Share your answers here!