What you need to get better now

If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you want to get better. (I mean, why else read a bunch of articles on dance if it isn’t something you’re passionate about?) And improving at any skill requires passion and motivation, proper instruction, and mindful and focused practice. A lot of us are passionate and motivated, and there are plenty of good instructors out there to study with. The clincher, at the end of the day, is practice.

I recently had the privilege (it’s always a privilege) to take a workshop with Brandi Tobias. Among the many amazing insights she shared with us, one that stuck was this: “It’s not about years. It’s about hours.” And the truth is that few of us put in the hours. Acquiring any new physical skills requires frequent and consistent repetition, drilling the new behavior until we develop what we call “muscle memory” – the ability to execute a task well without mindful focus. And as Brandi also reminded us, practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.

For my students, I know many of them don’t put in the hours. Heck, I personally don’t put in as many hours as I’d like to. But when I do put in the hours, when I’m social dancing, I’m working. I’m focused and mindful, all the time, every dance. (Which is probably why I don’t smile often. Sorry to all my followers.) Because I know staying focused and practicing is the only way to get better. After all, if you’re not working on developing a new skill, you’re just going to keep doing the same old skill, the skill that keeps you where you are.

So as February rolls on, and we renew our commitment to achieving those New Year’s resolutions, here’s one for you: resolve to practice – and to practice frequently and consistently. Because without practice, your New Year’s resolutions might not stick.

How often do you practice? How do make sure to practice regularly and consistently? Teachers, how do you help your students commit to practicing? Leave your comments below.

Mind Over Matter: Attitude and mindset

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In the last posts in this series, I discussed the importance of self-awareness for learning and improving. Having knowledge of your body, how it moves, and the corresponding effects of that movement is what helps us work towards our dance goals.

At the same time, it is important to maintain the right mindset when assessing or analyzing our own movements. When working with students, or sometimes even just dancing with them, I noticed they’ll suddenly make a face of disapproval. When I ask what the matter is, I get a response along the lines of, “Oh, I messed up” or “I did that wrong.” My partner is chastising herself for doing something other than what she wanted or meant to do.

The problem with this self-reprimanding approach is that it infringes upon our own progress. Our attitude and state of mind are directly associated with our ability to learn. This has been examined with respect to students in other countries who are studying English. One study of students in northern Malaysia found that attitude was significantly correlated with performance in English classes (motivation, however, was not a significant factor in performance). In fact, the more positive their attitude, the better their grades. A similar study also found that attitude was positively correlated with learning English, and even revealed that anxiety significantly and negatively affects learning. So not only does a positive attitude help, but stress and anxiety hinder one’s learning.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, studies people’s self-conceptions (mindsets) and how they affect their behavior, their achievement, and their success. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she describes two different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In the former, people believe that their traits and characteristics are fixed, and failures and incompetence are reflections of their deficiencies. In the growth mindset, however, people believe they can develop their traits through passion, education, and persistence, and they see failures as opportunities to learn and grow. They also pursue learning for its own sake, rather than seeking achievement to prove their skill and worth.

When we chastise ourselves for mistakes, we are adopting a negative attitude, and when we get negative about improving, we run the risk of reinforcing a fixed mindset – especially if we focus on our ingrained habits.

The trick is to adopt the growth mindset. To do this, we should first observe our movements objectively, without judgment. Recognize what you did as if it were matter of fact, rather than classifying it as good or bad, right or wrong. Then accept that whatever you observed can be done differently the next time – that the way you’ve done it in the past is not reflective of who you are or what you are capable of. After all, the truth is that while we may not learn as quickly as we would like, we can in fact learn and improve, with the right combination of motivation, instruction, and perseverance – and mindset.

A negative attitude and a fixed mindset can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy, whereas a positive attitude and a growth mindset can accelerate our learning. So stay positive, remember that you have the capacity to grow and improve, and enjoy the process of learning.

When you observe your own dancing, are you positive, negative, or objective? What do you do to stay positive about your progress and adopt a better mindset? Teachers, how do you talk to your students in a way that reinforces a growth mindset?

Mind Over Matter: Know thyself

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In the last two posts in this series, I discussed the challenges of focusing on what not to do and trying to focus on too many things.

Of course, any instruction is ineffective if the student is not in tune with his or her own body. If you can’t tell if or when you’re doing something right, how can you consistently maintain or practice it?

Self-awareness is vital to self-improvement. Self-awareness informs us when we’re doing something wrong, helps us work towards developing a new habit, and hopefully helps us distinguish between the two. Feedback from your partner can be helpful and informative, but it can also be misleading, and it may not help to fix problems. Knowledge of yourself and your own movement provides a different kind of independent feedback that allows for self-correction.
Self-awareness is tied to being present or being in tune with what your body is doing and how it feels. Even if you can’t identify what exactly is happening, recognizing how different positions or movements feel is important for making adjustments. And, as with any physical movement, self-awareness requires practice to improve and become more comfortable with it. 
Of course, self-awareness can be a very internally-focused endeavor in a dance that involves a lot of external activities: leading and following, floorcraft, the music, etc. Finding the right balance between internal and external focus can feel schizophrenic. This is why I often suggest students practice self-awareness when practicing by themselves or in class, where the external distractions are limited.
How aware are you of your own movements when you dance? How has this changed over time? What has helped to improve your self-awareness? Teachers, how do you help your students become more self-aware?

Mind Over Matter: Staying focused

This is the third in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

The previous post in this series looked at the danger of focusing on what not to do. Another common problem with the way we’re taught is that we’re often given too many things to focus on.

Focus is a critical skill needed for advancing our dancing. It’s how we train our bodies to develop new habits that replace the old ones. By focusing on continually and consistently doing something new, we learn to retrain our bodies, building muscle memory and a higher skill level that makes the new behavior become a habit – something we don’t need to focus on any longer. However, without focusing on new behaviors, we’re bound to continue repeating our old ones.

At the same time, the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time, and multitasking has negative effects on our ability to pay attention, control memories, and switch between tasks. So how can we make progress on any one thing when we’re trying to work on several at once? How do we focus when there are half a dozen priorities?

It’s hard enough to focus at all, given all the distractions while we’re dancing. It’s too easy to just revert to our usual dancing and not focus on anything. So imagine the challenge when we’re given a laundry list of things to work on.

Learning to focus is important for progress, as is knowing what to focus on. Getting to the root cause of our problems and finding the right solution is sometimes difficult but makes learning and improving so much easier. And a good solution is something that addresses root causes while being easy for the mind to focus on. After all, if we can’t focus on it, then we can’t do it consistently enough to make it into a habit.

How do you stay focused on building new skills? How does staying focused affect your dancing? How do you prioritize what you work on? And teachers, how much do you consider your students’ ability to focus when giving feedback or things for them to work on?

Mind Over Matter: Don’t not do that…

This is the second in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In my first post in this series, I discussed the amazing influence of the mind over the body, particularly in how the mind can interrupt what we might otherwise do well.

An important element that affects the way we dance is the way we learn to dance. In recent months I’ve been thinking more and more about how the way this dance is taught in our community is often detrimental to our mastery of it. Our bodies know how to do some things naturally and yet the way we talk about the dance sets up a mental frame of reference that gets in the way of that. 

One key component to this mental paradigm is our focus on what not to do. We all know this line of thinking. We’re told to not do something that we’re doing wrong, and the focus is on undoing a bad habit. A prime example is tight arms, the solution to which is to relax them.

There are a two main problems with this method of instruction. The first is that when the mind is focused on a particular body part, we tend to engage that part most. Think about exercising. If you’ve done any weight training or yoga or Pilates, you know that where you concentrate is where you will work the hardest. This is especially true of compound exercises, where more than one muscle group is engaged. The muscle you think about while exercising is the muscle you will engage the most. It’s not because you’re doing anything to consciously engage that muscle more. Rather, it’s a subconscious reaction to where your mind is focused. So when you think about relaxing tight arms, you are actually more likely to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.

Another problem is that knowing what not to do doesn’t always tell you what to do. If I said, of all numbers from 1 to 100, don’t pick 56, that’s helpful to a point, but it doesn’t tell you which of the other 99 numbers to choose. Likewise, telling you to relax your arms is somewhat helpful, but in essence, it’s the same thing as saying “don’t be tight” – it doesn’t tell you what you should be doing differently in a constructive way.

I’ve found that good teachers will redirect your attention to solutions that help you develop new habits, rather than simply telling you to not do something. And good students ask their teachers for constructive problems, trying to understand, “If not 56, then which number is it?”

What habits have you tried to overcome with the instruction of “don’t do that” and did it work? Was there some other helpful instruction that allowed you to undo your bad habit? Teachers, do you provide constructive advice that helps your students develop new habits to replace the old bad ones? How do you communicate that advice to your students? Post your responses below!