WHAT MAKES A GOOD STUDENT

by Loui Tucker

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This quiz appeared originally in the May 1992 issue of The Grapevine.

        Much has been said and written about what makes a good dance teacher. This article looks at the teaching process from the other side of the equation: what are the key ingredients of a good student?
        It's more than just paying attention or not talking during class, which are as much a matter of courtesy as they are good learning techniques. It's about optimizing the learning process. It is obvious that some dancers learn more easiliy than others, but it isn't just years of experience that account for this. Sure, with more dance experience you'll learn more efficiently, but I believe anyone's ability to learn dances quickly, and remember them, can be improved with a few simple techniques.
        Stop watching. While learning, the dance movements must travel to the eyes and ears (what the teacher does and what the teacher says to do), through the brain, and out to the feet, arms, torso, etc. Think of it as a 3-step process: EYES/EARS to BRAIN to FEET. As long you continue to use the cues provided by the teacher, all three steps in the process must take place. The sooner you can eliminate the EYES/EARS step, the faster the BRAIN will give up control and allow the FEET to shift to Automatic Pilot. That's when a dance becomes yours.
        Most students continue to focus on the teacher and his/her footwork far longer than they should. You don't actually have to close your eyes, but as soon as you can, shift your focus away from the teacher. Force your BRAIN to provide its own cues.
        NOTE: When you're copying a dance by learning behind the line, you are, in essence, by-passing the BRAIN part of that 3-step process. A direct hook-up makes the FEET do what the EYES see. The reason you frequently don't remember the dance the next time you see it is because your BRAIN was not involved.
        Cue yourself. After the BRAIN stops acting as a conduit for movement information, it can be used to self-cue. A good teacher gives cues (either verbal or with a hand movement) just before a movement needs to be done. You've probably all seen teachers make a circling motion with one hand to indicate a turn is coming up next, or point in one direction or another. These are cues that a good dancer quickly provides - internally. For example, while your FEET are doing a left Yemenite, your BRAIN should be cueing the next step. As you're finishing Part I, you should be mentally cueing the first steps of Part II. If Part III reminds you of the beginning of Eich Af Hazman, self-cue at the end of Part II. As you repeat the dance, you'll need fewer and fewer cues.
        Focus on errors. Many teachers point out any tricky parts in a dance -- an unusual weight or direction change, or a different rhythm for an old step pattern. "This is like a Double Yemenite, but in waltz rhythm." If a teacher doesn't point it out but you discover it because you're always making a mistake at that point, focus on it. As you do the new pattern, put a mental "tag" on it and pay extra attention to mastering the step.
Name that step. Sometimes a new dance step will stick if there is a mental image to go with it. I remember overhearing a dancer learning the first part of Shabechi Yerushalayim remark that the movement of bringing the arms up and down as the knee is raised and lowered reminded him of breaking a stick over his knee. This visual image helped him (and me!) remember the step. You may develop new terminology like "Yema-turn" or "Pull-and-switch".
        Couple dances are more than footwork. Learning a couple dance incorporates all phases noted above, but both people have to follow the guidelines in order for the process to work. One additional trick is to pay attention to body position, arm movements, and hand pressure. It is frequently helpful to look beyond the footwork to note what your hands and arms are doing to help you remember a sequence.
Anticipate a change from side-by-side position to ballroom position so you avoid fumbling and missing the first steps of that section. Which hands drop and which hands remain held? Are your joined hands moving between the your bodies to assist in a turn? Does it help to remember to press with the left hand and "push off"?
        If you can take the time to listen to the words of the song, they sometimes provide a clue. For example, in "Od Ve Od," when the singer sings the words of the chorus "Od ve od..." [which means "again and again..."] the dancers do one turn and then immediately another.
        I hope you've found these ideas interesting and thought-provoking, if not helpful.