One Two Three, One Two Three, One Two Three…

I am not a natural dancer. My girlfriend reminds me of this fact, accompanying it with one of those pats on the arm meant to cushion the blow of receiving unwelcome news. It’s not a surprise anymore after a year of learning country line dancing, both single and couples dances. I still have some trouble finding the beat and, even if I do find it, staying on it is another matter. I’ve gotten a better sense of the beat over the year and can correct myself to match up, but it’s an ongoing process.

Over the weekend while we were visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was invited to come to her parent’s dance club. The club has an hour lesson followed by about two hours of open dancing. Ballroom dancing, I should add, as it is another kind of dancing that I am not wholly unfamiliar with. I’ve had a single lesson for West Coast Swing, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten outside the rigid formulas of country dancing. While you can add your own variations (“styling”, as I’m told it’s called) to country dancing, there is always a known basic formula for moving around the dance floor. With ballroom dancing, you get to decide what happens next.

This is a relatively new and somewhat foreign concept for me.

On Saturday night, we learned the basic steps of the waltz. It was during the lesson that I experienced an incredible amount of frustration. While I understood and was able to replicate the steps in practice when they were broken down into one or two sets of movements, connecting these different steps together in a continuous flow was proving to be difficult. I felt incredible frustration at an inability to connect my thoughts on what my body should be doing to my actual body movements. I knew that I had to step and move a certain way and my body didn’t seem to be receiving that same message. The steps started to jumble up together like a giant knot and I was trying to pull it apart on the fly paired with a partner.

To put it in perspective, it was the type of frustration that makes you want to run away crying and screaming in rage; sticking it through feels like every part of your brain is calling out for you to quit now. I’m proud that I stuck it through the rest of the night, but it was emotionally and psychologically draining. It left me feeling very vulnerable and in the clutches of a black mood as we drove away back to our hotel room at the end of the evening.

In thinking about this experience on the long drive back to New Jersey, I started to wonder if I had seen that kind of frustration that I experienced in some of the people who have come to my classes over the years at the library. My thoughts lead me to consider the basic computing class that I teach. It’s an excellent example as to how some concepts that are so basic to some can be so distant to others. I thought about the number of times someone expressed being nervous about typing on the keyboard, clicking on things on the screen, or even moving a program window. Had these people felt their own version of the knot, where the concepts suddenly turned into a jumble? How many people stuck it out in the classroom when all they wanted to do was leave and never turn on a computer again? How were they able to deal with their frustration?

Was I able to get them through those moments?

After the lesson and stumbling through a waltz during the open dance, I was relating this knot allegory to my girlfriend’s mother. It felt good to be able express this frustration, but the advice she gave me in return helped immensely. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember her exact wording and I felt like it really hit the heart of the matter.

Another couple was having trouble with a lesson that had both basic and advanced steps and it was really putting a crimp on their evening. The instructor told them that when the dance came up again to go out and just do the basic steps over and over again. Don’t worry or think about the advanced stuff, just focus on the basics. In working on holding their frame and technique, it would help them get create muscle memory and become comfortable with a series of moves they could build on and always return to.

On the basis of this advice, I have to commend my girlfriend for being very patient with me for an evening full of basic step waltzes. (I had enough technique to be able to rotate a little, so it wasn’t that routine.) But this kind of experience is a nice reminder about the difference between people who come to things naturally and those who have to work on it to excel at it. And, more importantly for me, that I need to be more alert and sensitive to those people who might be frustrated in that same way to provide them with the help and encouragement they need to unravel their own knots. Any knowledge can be broken down into “one, two, three”, but translating it into skill is a wholly different matter. The next best thing to being a natural is being someone dedicated to mastering it.

In the meantime, I had better start practicing or else we’ll be doing basic steps forever. I don’t know if she has the patience for that.

5 thoughts on “One Two Three, One Two Three, One Two Three…

  1. I love this post! First of all, it gave me flashbacks to adolescence when I had to take several years of ballroom dancing lessons followed by a couple years of monthly dances and ultimately – lucky me – a debutante ball!! The last was fun, but the previous years were torturous as not only did I have no rhythm but was pretty dorky otherwise as well. A happy fast forward – a few years ago I started Zumba classes & I love it – still no rhythm but having fun.
    More importantly, this does indeed “hit the heart of the matter” in reminding us both to be aware of other folks’ knots and to persevere through our own.
    Thanks, Andy!

    • Thanks Anne for the comment. I think this is the first skill in a long time that I’ve encountered that I didn’t just pick up naturally. So now I have to commit to working on it.

  2. While I understand that one of your points was that the experience with dance helped you to be more understanding of what some students experience in your classes, (which is a good thing), but what struck me was the idea that you are perpetuating of some people being a natural and some are not. While it may be true that some people have an affinity for certain types of skills and experiences, for most people there is a learning curve involved in learning new things. And how we have been taught to experience learning new things, especially things that are unfamiliar or that we don’t have any aptitude or affinity for is often based on how we have been taught to respond to difficulties and discomfort. This came to mind as there was just a very interesting piece on NPR about the difference between east and west approaches to this learning. Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning

    In the article the author identifies how for many of us in the west, we see any struggle with learning as a sign of weakness or a lack of intelligence; whereas in Japan they see struggle as an opportunity and this makes all the difference. Many of us who teach have seen how our students struggle and give up, because they see it as a sign of failure or a basic inability to learn. They often wrongly identify successful students as those who are smarter, better, or luckier – some innate quality that they are lacking. They see learning as a result of outside forces rather than from their own effort or perseverance. What that means for teachers is that we need to emphasize the same message you received about the dancing: start off small, build on what you learn, and hang in there.

    • Very interesting, Nancya. I appreciate the comment and how it brings learning styles into the equation. I’ll have to consider it as I continue to teach computer classes.

  3. My Waterloo was a doctoral level public finance class I was required to take for educational management certification program. It might as well as been in Chinese. What I took away from it is that we all need to dive into some activity where we are completely over our heads at least once as adults to reconnect with the sheer terror of feeling incompetent, inadequate, and even stupid from a beginning learner’s point of view. I didn’t learn much in the class but learned a major life lesson from the class, and the experience has made me a more more patient, sympathic and responsive teacher and librarian.

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