We often like to envision learning as a simple process: you go to lessons on a regular basis, and after each lesson you dance a little bit better than you did before. If we were to chart out our learning on a graph, with time on the bottom and proficiency on the side, we imagine the result would be a constant slope, perhaps a gentle slope for someone who takes very few lessons and practices only a little, and a steep slope for someone very dedicated who takes many lessons and is always practicing, but a stead rate of progress nonetheless.
I am sorry to inform you that this idea is a lie.
Dancing simply doesn’t work that way. Our chart would instead look like a staircase: completely flat for a while, then a jump up, then flat again, then jumping again. Furthermore, as one gets farther along, the flats become longer and longer. Frustrated yet? You will be.
I have heard many theories about why learning dance occurs this way, but I didn’t really understand until I started Viennese waltz. Unlike other dances, such as American slow foxtrot or jitterbug, where the dance will function, if awkwardly, as long as one places one’s feet correctly, Viennese waltz depends on a number of techniques to even move. Yes, foot placement matters, but one cannot place one’s feet without driving from the standing leg, or pointing correctly on 2. One cannot move past one’s partner unless one moves through one’s partner. One cannot keep up the rotation without the sway produced by stretching through the ribs. Without the technique, the dance doesn’t work.
That technique requires time, however. Until I was doing everything, my Viennese waltz couldn’t function. I remember long afternoons (due to my physical learning style I always booked my Viennese lessons as double-lessons. I wanted to tire myself out so that I would be too exhausted to make ineffecient mistakes) drilling on reverse turns over and over and over again, focusing first on feet, then on toes, then on the core, then on the ribs, and so on. It never seemed to make a difference, until one day something clicked.
Once it clicked, the dance became magical. Effortless, even. The once frantic tempo felt incredibly, ludicrously, slow to me. We glided and flowed across teh floor with an ease I’d often envied from afar. How could this dance have given me such trouble before, when it was this easy?
Of course, it was only easy because I’d drilled the technique and had everything functioning. If I’d left even one aspect out the dance it wouldn’t have worked. Even now, if I forget my frame and my shoulder creeps forward destroying our connection, we come to a crashing halt. But still, I’d moved from the first plateau (“I can’t do this!”) and jumped up to the second plateau (“It sort of, kind of works, sometimes.”). I then plateaued again until I attended a master-class workshop and jumped to the third plateau (“It works great as long as I’m concentrating. Don’t distract me!”). I’m just now getting into the fourth plateau (“Wow, I don’t even need to think about this!”), at least for my reverse and natural turns.
While these jumps can be encouraging – in fact, I’ve often compared them to an addiction – the plateaus are incredibly frustrating, all the more so for their greater and greater lengths at higher levels. For some people, the frustration is enough that they stop their lessons altogether: the’ve reached a level of proficiency they’re satisfied with and it’s not worth the time, effort, money, and frustration required to reach the next level. And each of these items is a resource, one that must be paid in greater and greater incremements for each subsequent jump. Some students, however, want to see how far they can go.
The best way to break through a plateau is to take a new appraoch to training. Maybe you need to see a different teacher, especially if your current teacher as taken you as far as he or she can. If that’s not the case, perhaps some time with an outside coach, either a private lesson or a master class, may help by providing a new persepctive and feedback but retaining the teacher who knows your dancing and learning styles.
Another way to break through is to vary your practice routines. We’ve extensively written about practice before; applying some of the more intensive techniques, particualrly the idea of dancing consciously. Don’t just go to practice, put on a song and dance to it, but really focus on one technique. Use a mirror and practice by yourself, as slowly as possible, making sure to do every movement your teacher is pushing you to do.
A third way to break through a plateau is to make dancing a more regular part of your life. This can mean doing more – more lessons, more classes, more social dancing – but I like to think of it as deliberately including dance in your routine. Get a few technique videos and make a daily habit of watching and practicing one for fifteen to twenty minutes. Join a dance website and participate in the discussions. Leave a comment on this blog.
Another way is to set a goal. Training for a competition, performing a routine, or taking an examination (including both teacher certifications and student medal examinations) can provide the focus to learn the material in a new way that just saying, “I want to dance better,” doesn’t always offer. By having a quantifiable measure of progress, as well as a deadline, one can reach the heights of ability via a regular, ordered system of improvement.
Above all, don’t let yourself get discouraged. It’s easy to see where one wants to be and realize how far there is to go as a dancer, but think of all the progress you’ve made so far. Watch a video of yourself dancing from a year or even six months ago, and I think you’ll see you’ve already made a jump.