On 2nd May in 2013 I conducted a survey of dance teachers about what they think students struggle with most when learning social dance and what students should do to improve their dance skills the fastest.
Teachers were asked what they thought male students had the biggest challenge with, what female students had the biggest challenge with and what they thought would best help students improve. Each of these questions were multiple choice - they were allowed to choose three options for each of the first two questions and two options for the third question. The responses to these questions are summarised graphically below.
What do these results tell us?
The most obvious result is that the two major issue teachers see with their students is leading & following, and musicality.
This was true for both men and women; however, there was a difference between men and women when it came to musicality. For men, the focus was very much on timing. For women, there was a near equal split between timing and expression. This could mean that most teachers think men just need to work on timing before even thinking about expression while women have timing and are thus ready to move on to expression. It could also mean that teachers think that the expression of the music is more in the domain of women and that this is not fully understood by many women. In either case, it is likely that as a student musicality is something you need to work on. Along with leading/following.
If musicality and leading/following are the two biggest challenges for students, then it would be expected that this would be at the forefront of the teachers' minds when considering what students could do to improve. The top responses are all related to practice outside of lessons. There was an even split between practicing alone, practicing with another and dancing socially. While there were differences between the teachers regarding the specific type of practice, there was definitely agreement that practice was the one thing that students need to do more of. Practice is always a good thing, but we can probably extract from this that leading/following and musicality are things that can really only be learnt from practice.
Teachers were given other options that they could highlight when thinking about the challenges faced by students new to social dance. These covered things ranging from learning to memory to physicality. While there seemed to be a slightly higher response to the option of physicality for women, there seemed to be relative equality between the response rates to these other options. This would suggest that while musicality and leading/following are challenges faced by most students, once these challenges are overcome each student will have their own unique combination of challenges that they need to deal with.
A variety of issues would probably mean that there would be a variety of solutions as well.And this is what was seen in response to the third question. After a strong emphasis on practice (regardless of its nature) there was an even spread between things such as using different methods of learning, trying harder, improving fitness and paying attention. Therefore, it does appear that once you have improved your leading and following, you will need to determine your own strengths and weaknesses to work out what you needs to be improved.
The first three questions were multiple choice. This means that key issues could be missed. To account for this, teachers were asked if they had any other comments on what they thought students could do to improve their dance ability.
Comments in response to this question did reiterated the issues highlighted in the earlier questions. It is thought that after being limited in the multiple choice questions, they wanted to highlight the importance of the other options. Therefore, the conclusion that there are a variety of issues you might face remains true.
However, there were other themes that presented themselves.
A number of teachers made reference to things such as confidence, ego and reactions to things going wrong. In summary, teachers want you to realise that dance will not come to you instantly, but you can get it with practice. This will be especially so if you have not done much dancing before or if the physical demands of dance are new to your body. You will likely make mistakes, you will need to work to get better (including practice outside of lessons) and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's expected. As one teacher pointed out "this is not Dancing with the Stars - you are not practicing 6-10 hours per day. Be brave. We were all beginners once."
"Understand the difference between social dancing and competitive." this was a comment from a teacher that seemed to summarise what a number of other teachers said. As a student it might worth thinking about what kind of dance you're actually interested in. And it need not be only one type. Once you know what sort of dance you're after, you can then make sure that you are taking the right perspective for what you want to do. This then carries over to the next theme.
"NO SUCH THING AS BAD STUDENTS, ONLY BAD TEACHERS!!" This was from a teacher who also said that everyone learns differently. I have said in the past that there is really only such thing as a bad student teacher relationship. However, this quote does summarise what a number of other teachers talked about. Your teacher will likely do their best to help you become the best dancer that you can. nevertheless, they can't read your mind, and do not always know what you need to be able to progress further. For this reason teachers want to know "what works" for you and to "Ask better questions". Basically, they want you to think about your learning and work with them so that you can progress faster. Try thinking of your teacher more as a partner working toward the goal of helping you get everything from dance that you want from it. I am sure that you have noticed how this theme aligns with the diversity of issues and solutions apart from musicality and lead/following.
It is pretty clear that you need to work on your musicality and lead/follow ability.
If you do want to work on your musicality, then I can recommend Don Baarns. He came to dance later in life, but is a musician so he has some excellent advice.
Leading and following seem to simply require practice there is no secret that will make leading and following instantly easy - you just have to work at it. However, you might find this website dedicated to leading and following helpful.
Once you have improved musicality and your lead/follow ability you will need to take stock of where you want to go with your dance and what you will need to do to get there - this will be unique to you. Ideally, you will talk regularly with your teacher about this so that you can keep track of what works best for you. To do this you need to be confident enough to dance and practice no matter your level and really think about what it is that you need to know/understand so that you can improve your dance ability in the direction you want and communciate this with your techer.
Dustin Saiidi has a social dance hypnosis CD to help you stay motivated for practice and dance confidently no matter the level your at or the situation your in.
If you want improve your ability to understand your learning style and how to better understand what you need to do to master dance, then take a look at Part 2.2 of Dance Better Now - you can get this specific chapter at this webpage.
You can still have other issues so it's always good to keep reading on the topic. If you haven't, then read as much as you can, be it books, e-books, email newsletters, blogs etc. You can get a free e-book here if you do not already have it.
Limitations on this research
I have never asked teachers to do a survey. Normally I don't ask for any specific group. Usually it is possible to get 1000s or responses, but because it was only teachers, the response was around 70. This just means that we do not have as large a sample as we might like and some key issues might be missed.
Another limitation is that there was no strict screening. It is possible that people other than teachers filled the survey out, and corrupted the results.
It's just good to keep these things in mind when reading the results of such surveys before you take action based on those results.
I really do need to thank the teachers who took the time to fill out this survey. There's is a very unique perspective that we often ignore. It's especially good to get the combined wisdom of a large group of them. It was really fascinating to read the results and get this insight that I had never really come across before. So thanks again - we really should look at organising some kind of world dance teacher day I reckon.