Saturday 25 April 2015

Approach to Leading

Since about January 2014 I've been taking my leading more seriously. I was curious, and wanted to dance with the women as well. They're great. So that meant I needed to choose an approach to how I was going to do that.

I have had a lot of education and I know a lot about how I learn. If I take a class as a leader, with not much experience of leading, then I will spend 99% of my time and effort trying to work out what the teacher wants me to do. Physical actions that you cannot already do yourself are very difficult to comprehend visually. It takes a lot of time and repetition. Actions you can already do, intentionally not just physically, are easy to comprehend.

This is true even in high quality classes. If the class covers something I can't already do, I'll be very lucky indeed if I ever get to work on that thing in any meaningful way.

For basic classes, there's also the problem that I'll be dancing with beginners, which is fine for an enjoyable dance if you already have the skill-set for it as a leader, but is extremely inefficient for learning.

I've also already taken a lot of classes, in which I paid attention and stored the information which I'd never have been able to remember if I'd been trying to lead at the same time. Most classes are, in my experience, much more potentially useful to the followers than the leaders, even - and often, especially - the kind where they don't really talk to the followers at all. I say potentially, because you have to think about what's happening to get the best out of them. But as a follower switching partners, you get the opportunity to really listen, plus lots of great practice and reliable experimental data.

As an experienced follower learning to lead, I already know what I should be doing, what I can do, what I can't do, and what I want to learn. I also have a lot of friends who are really good followers, and who are willing to help me out, and in some cases are doing the same thing themselves, so we can swap.

When I have access to a suitable floor and a suitable person to practice with, I want to spend 100% of my time putting in the miles and the physical effort and experimentation that's necessary to go from knowing it to doing it and understanding it. If you have a full time job and you dance socially as well, practice time with a floor and the motivation and a good follower is a scarce resource.

But I still need to decide what to do in each session.

Everybody knows that collecting moves doesn't work; the right approach is to work on skills. If you have the skills then the moves are not a problem, you just do them. If you don't have the skills then you can learn moves, but you'll be faking them and it will show. But - you work on skills by doing some particular movement. And there is absolutely no substitute for dancing in the milonga.

So, from about this time last year, I've been making sure I lead sometimes in social dancing, practicing, and studying.

Studying? Yes. Since I started dancing, there has been an explosion of high quality videos of high quality dancing. I can download the ones I find useful from YouTube using something like, put them in my secondhand tablet, and study them on the Underground on the way to and from work. I can watch people do things and try to deduce how they're done.

So, my approach is to work on a skill if I know exactly what it is that I need next, and can work on it in isolation. I always have in mind some overall idea of what skills I am currently working on; what it is that my body needs to get the hang of.

But when deciding where to start in a practice session, I can pick something from a video that I want to do and can't do, watch it over and over on the Tube and try to imagine how it functions, and when I actually have a partner in front of me I can try to do it. Normally, it won't work at the first attempt. We can then both try to find out why not, or find some part of it or some related thing that does work. Then I can go away and watch again, armed with this new information, and I will probably discover what I misunderstood or what skill was missing and has to be learned first, before whatever this is will work. Often, I find that I totally misunderstood what was happening; I've sometimes been doing a mirror-image. Then I can try it again next time I have access to a partner to practice with. Something, even if it's not what I aimed for, will click that time or next time. If not, I can work on something else and come back to it later. By repeating this process, I will almost always learn something, and whatever it was has a decent chance of staying learned.

Another thing videos are useful for is seeing different approaches to music. I might have danced a certain orchestra with someone who hears it one way, and liked it, but then find that that approach just doesn't work for me as a leader. I may find a video with an equally good one, that does. Or I may find a video with a particular orchestra that suggests a more practical, achievable or floor-friendly way of dancing it than my first instinctive response.

One thing I've really noticed is that as I learn more movements as a leader, it becomes easier to comprehend visually what other people are doing. I recognise more and more elements of what I see. I spot movements that it would not have occurred to me to make, and how they are being used. Suddenly I realise which different things are really the same, or have something in common.

Once I can already fairly easily do most things in the class, only then does it become possible to take the class without feeling that it's a complete waste of time. Most of the time, though, they aren't my best opportunity for progress.

The process is also a ton of fun. I enjoy doing it myself far too much to pay someone else to help me, beyond advice and feedback if I get stuck with technique. Although that doesn't mean I don't want to hear people's thinking and different descriptions of how they do things. I do. You can learn a lot from the differences and the common ground.