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Suggestions for Learning to Round Dance

by Kaye West

Learning, because it represents growth and change, is the most exciting and enjoyable activity in which one can engage. There are a number of suggestions that might make the learning of round dancing the most rewarding it can possibly be:

1. Ask Questions.

Whenever you learn something new, you must make that information YOURS. To do that, you must be able to integrate the information into your existing thinking. Even if you have never danced before, you have some understanding of what dancing is because you have seen others doing it, either in person or via the media.

As you learn more about dancing, you will be including new information into your existing mental constructs of how you perceive "dancing" to be. In a large measure, what you will be learning will be added to your existing information. That is to say, your fund of knowledge will simply be enriched because you will be adding terminology and personal experience to your accumulated information.

At other times, you might experience yourself scratching your head, frowning, and/or exhibiting some other behavior indicating that you can't quite grasp what is being explained. Learning theorists call this "cognitive dissonance" and it occurs when one's mental constructs cannot take in the new information because it doesn't "fit" into one's previous mental constructs. What is needed is a change in one's mental constructs, so that the information will fit. Sometimes your own brain is able to work out the problem and you experience an insight with the "Oh, now I see" or "Aha" experience. Other times, you need an outside source to help you check and straighten out your own thinking so that you can process the new information.

So, when you are experiencing cognitive dissonance or you are unable to grasp what your instructor means, identify the elements that are unclear to you and ask your instructor about it. Sometimes you may not yet have the terminology with which to ask a specific question, so a request to "show that last part again" might be the beginning step to get to the root of the problem.

Never feel embarrassed that you didn't "get" something. Remember that you had to be pretty bright to discern that you have encountered something that you have not understood. Frequently, when one person in a group is unclear, there are others who are likewise unclear. Be brave and request assistance not only for you but also for the other folks. Remember that it takes one hundred repetitions to learn something. Even those who "got it" can stand to repeat something so it becomes more firmly planted in their memory banks and muscle memory.

2. Memorize the Terminology and Conventions.

The vocabulary that is used in any field of study provides the handles for "getting a hold" of that discipline. The terms that are used are critical, and they are precise. Memorize what the terms mean and be able to distinguish one term from another -- especially when the terms or meanings are similar.

One thing you can do to help yourself in this regard is to group terms into categories of closely related terms. Find the common denominator and use that as the base. Identify how the related terms are different from the one you used as the base. What you are doing in this kind of a procedure is relating information to what is familiar to you. This is a technique for learning more information faster. If you consider everything as a brand new piece of information and do not associate it with what you already know, you are making the job of learning much more difficult than it needs to be.

Each of the figures is composed of smaller "steps" or single actions. At one point in the history of round dancing, all figures were taught as a sequence of "steps" in order to make it "easier" for the dancers because it was assumed that the more diverse the cues, the more difficult the dancing would be. What actually happens in human minds, however, is that when they are exposed to greater amounts of information, it is advantageous to "chunk" bits together to make larger pieces. Since on the average we can remember in our short-term memories "seven plus or minus two" items, less can be learned when the figures are conveyed as individual steps or, to put it in positive terms, more can be learned when the steps are combined as "figures" and new names are learned for them.

In any case, the terms are critical to learn. Learn the round-dance fundamentals: the movements, actions, and other cues that make up all the figures. Master the various conventions associated with round dancing.

Generally in round dance classes, you get a great deal of built-in repetition of the basic terminology. Program yourself to be receptive to the vocabulary and notice the dance terms your instructors use.

To make your learning faster and possibly more long-lasting, review material outside of class.

3. Coordinate Your Ear-Mind-Foot Action.

In round dancing, you are doing several things simultaneously. You are listening to the cue for the next measure while you are completing the figure cued in the last measure. Some dancers want to be sure that they do not forget the next cue and therefore begin it as soon as they hear it instead of waiting for the beginning of the next measure, and consequently rush the previous figure or disregard the timing of the rhythm that they are dancing.

One way to make sure that you complete the figure is to count out the timing (for example, 1-2-3 in waltz or 1-2-3-4 in two step) or to name the steps to yourself (for a two-step box, for instance, say: side, close, forward, hold; side, close, back, hold) as you perform the figure and as you listen for the next cue.

4. Learn To Translate From the Perspective Of the Man.

Round dancing direction (cues), both figures and positions, are given for the man. This is fine for the men (shortened form of "gentlemen" for those strict grammarians wishing to have parallel terms), but it can present difficulties for the ladies (Roundalab prefers the term "ladies" to "women" for cueing in round dancing) who have not yet learned to translate cues through the man's perspective. It is essential that ladies learn to "think backwards," as some ladies call it.

Additionally, as dance figures become more complex and varied and the part the lady and man perform are different, the name of the figure is determined by the footwork of the man (for example if in Banjo Position, the cue "through side close" means that the man steps through to face partner, then steps to the side, and then closes. The lady, however, does the "counterpart." In this case, she would step behind (not through), side, and close.

5. Maintain A Positive Attitude.

a. Focus on the portion you are learning.

You can eat an elephant, a spoonful at a time. That is a great piece of advice to remember about round dancing. It is impossible to learn all there is to know about dancing in a short period of time. I would be so bold as to say that probably no one knows it ALL. At each step of the way, there will be a portion for you to learn (like a helping from a smörgåsbord), and one bite at a time, you will master it. Focus on the portion that is on your plate and use that as a measuring stick to tell how much you CAN do. Don't look at the totality and get discouraged by all you CAN'T do. Concentrate on measuring your own growth and being pleased with the progress that you've made rather than worrying that you aren't as good as someone else.

b. Appreciate your partner.

If you and your partner have disagreed about how to do something, it is very helpful for your relationship to seek an outside source for clarification. You might even think about the way that you acknowledge to your partner that something is amiss. For example, if you say, "That didn't feel very smooth -- I wonder what is wrong or how we can do it better," it is much more helpful than stating, "You didn't do such and such very well."

Sometimes one partner will have understood the part and sometimes the other will. Sometimes you are both wrong. Try to remember that it doesn't matter in dancing WHO is right, but it does matter WHAT is right. As you learn to dance the right way, you both win. You are partners; you are both on the same team. As you learn to partner each other you will both enjoy the dancing more. Learn to value the strengths of the other and appreciate how your partner is growing.

Remember to compliment your partner for a job well done. You wouldn't look good without the effort of your partner. This is a team sport.

When you feel grumpy and wish your partner were doing better, think about some of the folks you know who don't have partners at all and be glad for the one you have. If you are negative and a grouch, the activity won't be as pleasant as when you are pleasant and upbeat. Put a smile on your face (it takes less energy than a frown or a scowl) and makes you much more pleasant to be around. When you are overtly negative and argumentative, it can also make those around you feel uncomfortable.

Remember that you won't do everything perfectly -- if you did, there would be no need to take lessons! Remember that all human beings have off-days and make mistakes. Be patient with your partner if you expect your partner to be patient with you.

c. Be flexible and tolerant.

Even though Roundalab is standardizing cues, the process is a dynamic one and will always be somewhat incomplete. Cuers are modifying their long-established habits to use more standard cues, but for various reasons, some cues persist that are recognized by some dancers but that are not universally popular. While it is strongly recommended that standard cues be used by cuers, a sophisticated, knowledgeable, and flexible dancer is identified by knowing variations in cue terms. Such knowledge can help dancers adapt to various cuers and read cue sheets that were produced prior to standardization.

Remember that the reality of life is that it is impossible to mandate people's language. Linguists and educators have been attempting to standardize English for centuries, yet there are numerous regional, colloquial, and other differences in our language in pronunciation, vocabulary choice, and grammar.

We all use a variety of terms in our language and we adapt to this readily. For example, the noted motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says that when he is talking about his wife, she's "The Redhead"; when he talks to her, she's "Sugar Baby"; her name is Jean. We all have variations in our terminology to some degree. Adjusting to terminology may be difficult at first, but eventually you will have heard the various cues so many times that you will be able to adapt to differences with ease.

d. Expect variation.

Even though there are a considerable number of figures that are described in class, in manuals, and in books, every nuance or variation known will not be included in any one place. Figures can be combined in endless ways. Some of the ways variety is achieved in dances include:

  1. The figures are done in different directions.

  2. The figures are done in a position different from "normal."

  3. The figures are begun with the opposite foot from "normal."

  4. The figures are combined in a different order.

  5. The tempo of the figures is altered (slow to quick and vice versa).

  6. The man does one figure while the lady does another.

  7. The first part of one figure is combined with the last part of another.

  8. The figure is modified slightly for a particular dance (for example, to end in a different position).

  9. Figures typical for one rhythm are incorporated into a dance with another rhythm (the Fishtail, for example, is traditionally a quickstep figure that has been "adopted" into the two-step rhythm).

  10. Two rhythms are combined in one dance (for example, two step and foxtrot).

  11. The man and/or lady does footwork most commonly done by the other.

  12. The figure is "interrupted," which is to say that the figure is begun, then another figure or action is performed, then the original figure is completed. In other words, a figure or action is inserted into the middle of a figure.

  13. The styling of the figure is embellished or enhanced, sometimes making the figure look and feel quite different.

  14. A new figure is invented or adopted into round dancing from another form of dancing.

There are differences from one dance to another -- if they were all the same, we would all eventually get very bored. The differences in the dances provides the variety that yields the spice for the dancing activity.

There are also differences from one teacher to another in approaches to teach specific figures. Teachers teach the best information they know. They are constantly growing and improving their dance knowledge. When they learn new ways themselves, they modify their teaching accordingly. No teachers should be faulted for teaching the best knowledge they have at the time.

e. Try each rhythm and dance.

Many dancers do not like new rhythms or new dances. It is human nature to consider with less favor unfamiliar things or skills that are not yet perfected. After you have gained some expertise with a rhythm or with a dance, you will doubtlessly enjoy it more. Give all rhythms and dances a fair trial by being willing to experience them. You, like many other dancers, might surprise yourself and develop tastes you never thought you would.

f. Be kind to your teachers.

Teaching takes a great deal of study, preparation, patience, dedication, and even personal sacrifice. Many round dance teachers are trying to balance other full-time employment, family responsibilities, and personal desires with their round-dance teaching. Remember that your teachers are not perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes, blow cues, forget the sequence of a routine, say something incorrectly, or whatever.

Show your appreciation by supporting dance events, helping to carry dance equipment, doing some of the routine jobs, and giving them a "warm fuzzy" every now and then.

6. Stick With It.

If you have the motivation (the will to learn) and perseverance (the fortitude to stick with it), you'll become a very fine dancer before you know it. Remember that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly -- until you can do it well. The more you practice, the better you will be. There is a wonderful formula that states that ACCOMPLISHMENT = BEGINNING + PERSISTENCE. Whenever you are not succeeding in reaching your goal, identify which of the two ingredients in this formula is missing, and DO SOMETHING to remedy the situation. This applies as readily in learning to dance as in other areas of living.

If you do all these things, you will truly have accomplished


and that is what this activity is all about!

From Fancy Footwork, The Art of Round Dancing by Kaye West (formerly Kaye Anderson), Ph.D., Dance Action, PO Box 7162, Mesa, Arizona, second edition, © 1992. Kaye is associate professor emeritus from the Department of Teacher Education, California State University, Long Beach. Reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May thru Sept. 2011.


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