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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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.