Taking classes is the first step in really mastering a dance. However, there are several things that you can do to really improve your retention, understanding, and application of what is being taught.
Identify Your Learning Style
Think about the last time you were in school. Did you learn best from reading a textbook, from listening to a lecture, or from physically doing problems and workbooks, puzzling things out for yourself? This can give you insight into your dominant learning style. Most people will be a mix of all three to different levels, and this can have a high impact on what they get out of a class.
Identifying this can help you target your learning in class. If you know how you learn, you can ask instructors for questions that will help further your learning (ex: Show me, Explain it to me, or What does it feel like/help me feel it). It can also help to remedy frustrations over ‘not getting something’ during class.
That being said, there is new evidence that states that the three ‘learning styles’ may be an artificial construction. Personally, I’ve found most people have a combination of all three modes of learning. As a teacher, I use ‘learning styles’ as a guide to make sure that I’m hitting as many expressions of an idea as possible.
What the types are: Auditory, Tactile, and Visual
Auditory learners learn best when instructors explain concepts verbally. Many times, these people will ‘zone out’ on the visual application and concentrate primarily on the words being said by an instructor. Theoretical understanding often comes easily to these people.
Visual learners learn best by watching. Slow motion breakdowns and copy-what-I-do teaching works well for them. These are the watch-and-learn’s of the dance world, and they often excel with looking good on the dance floor.
Tactile/Kinesthetic learners gain knowledge by doing. They feel things, and often struggle with concepts until they get ‘the feeling’ of what it is supposed to be. They also learn well by relating what they are learning to other sensations or concepts in other areas of their life. Connection often comes more easily to these people.
Bring a Pencil, Notepad and Camera/Video Recorder to Every Class… and Use Them
Keeping track of what you’re learning can help with retention and application immensely. Written notes provide a reference that you can refer to if you find yourself forgetting the topic. It also helps you remember the terminology being used, which becomes more important the more you learn. Even if you don’t write it during class, write it down before leaving the studio!
Instructors will also usually be willing to provide a video’d demonstration for your use. Although this is standard at congresses, it is also a good idea to bring to regular classes and even private lessons.
Take Advantage of Your Learning Speed in Class
It can be easy to rush through things because the class is calling out a pattern at a faster speed than you are comfortable with… but then you are not truly learning the concept. Every dancer learns at a different speed, so it is important to go through the pattern at your personal pace rather than rushing to keep up. Even if an instructor goes faster than you are ready for, take your time to puzzle out problems that you’re having. The extra 10-15 seconds will likely help you remedy the problem rather than missing an important component. This is especially important for tactile learners.
It is also important to listen to your partner. If they need more time, slow down and ensure you’re both on the same page. Follows shouldn’t speed through non-existent leads to catch up, and leads shouldn’t wrestle a follow through a movement.
Locate Yourself Well
It is very important to be in an area where you can hear and see the instructor properly. It may be nerve-wracking to be near the front of the class, but it puts you in a better position to learn the material properly.
It’s tempting to leave class and not work on it until the next social dance… but scheduling practice time dramatically improves retention. Whether with a practice partner or solo drills (your teacher can give you some!), sticking to a practice schedule helps you to internalize movements that you don’t have the time to perfect on a social dance floor or in a regular class setting.
Although it is sometimes cringe-worthy to watch yourself on camera, it is an important critique mechanism. It is also a tool you can bring to your regular teacher (or even to a private with a travelling pro) to get feedback on where you need to improve. Specific angles, reasons you lose balance, etc. can be much easier to identify when you see yourself on camera (particularly since things don’t always look how they feel).
Find a Teacher Who Works For You
Every teacher has a different way that they will relate concepts. It is important to find a teacher who works for you. It is also important to recognize that the best teachers are not always the best dancers, and vice versa. Dance teachers with a rich background in learning methodologies and teaching can be more successful as your coach than a great, natural-born dancer. Think about Olympic coaches: not all are or were ever great athletes, but they are able to coach the talent out of their students.
This teacher should be your ‘home base’, so to speak. They should provide you with a solid sounding ground for any fears, questions, or goals that you have. The concepts they teach should also make sense. A good teacher will not leave you feeling like you haven’t quite ‘got it’ after every class. ‘Got it’ doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the technique after that class, but you should at least understand where the material you are learning is going (in short: it shouldn’t be a massive grey-area of ‘I have no clue what I’m doing!!).
Diversify, but Keep Your Base
As important as your ‘home teacher’ is, it is also important to expose yourself to other instructors, or even other genres of dance. This diversification also allows you to take material you have learned back to your home teacher, and ask about ways to integrate the new skills into the existing repertoire.
While your home teacher provides your base, outside teachers help you create a personal style and expand your creativity and application. Often, the base techniques your home school/teacher provides should work to help de-mystify complex patterns or additional techniques taught at other schools.
However, it is important not to lose your base despite diversification. The ‘base’ gives you something to return to, and an instructor who can track your progress and help you amalgamate these techniques is vital. That ‘base’ is the only place where an instructor has a long-term personal picture of your dance development.
Take advantage of Re-takes
Most studios offer either discounted or free retakes of previous classes you have taken. It is worth it. While you may not learn a ‘new’ pattern or technique, retakes give you the opportunity to focus on smaller details in your dancing that you missed on the first, ‘big picture’ pass.
You know how when you watch a movie a 2nd time you catch things you never saw the first time? Yeah, well, it’s the same in dance. Yeah, you know the plot… but it’s important to not get cocky and think you’ve mastered all the material.
Questions are your best friend. If you don’t know, ask! No question is too silly or too stupid, and the instructor would rather you ask than not get the answers you need and do poorly in their class.