The Problem

One of the hardest things I deal with when teaching newer dancers a.k.a newbies/novices is understanding their need for context-free and defined rules, yet not compromising my personal beliefs when it comes to dancing.

Probably the biggest philosophy I have when it comes to dance is to pay attention and respond to the music and your partner. Ignoring either is a cardinal sin in my book.  You might as well be dancing with a broomstick to a metronome if you forget either of those things.

Yet, newbies on the other hand just want to be able for the most part to get through a dance and not fall over, maybe learn a few “cool” moves if they get past that. The subtleties I care so much as someone who has danced Lindy Hop for years, will fall on deaf ears due to the general lack of context and holistic view newer dancers have.

I’ve found through trial and error when I have tried to explicitly present this philosophy I have it is either is dismissed as “something for advanced dancers/too difficult” or rarely accepted but in a limited understanding.


My friend John White over at Black Belt Lindy wrote a post the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition which made me think a lot about how I learned and how I taught lessons. Lately, this has been rolling around in my head even more due to I have been learning about Expert Based systems in an Artificial Intelligence class. One of the difficulties of building them is extracting “expert knowledge” from the experts themselves.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert myself under the Drefyus model. However it got me to think of the idea, “How effectively am I taking my acquired skills and knowledge of the field of swing dance and translating it to people who are new to it can benefit the most?”

The Compromise

So what I do is give newbies who take my lessons a decision tree, essentially a manual or a guideline of rules in which some require prerequisites and others have priorities to navigate a dance. For example a high priority rule for a lead would be not to send your follow into other dancers or walls.

However the compromise is I hide subtleties in the lesson that allow the newer dancers who choose to stay after the lesson and dance or practice on their own to discover through trial and error. Because without the context of why those subtle ideas or lessons are important, they will likely fall on deaf ears.


What I would like for anyone who is teaching newer dancers to glean from this blog post is the following : Unless if your explanation for something comes with a funny story or is safety related (a.k.a. engaging muscles to not let arms out and prevent rotator cuff injuries), cut it from your lesson.

The majority of the time the newer dancers will lack a context to understand why those ideas you are presenting are important to their dancing experience.

4 thoughts on “Decision Trees and Newbies

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph. I find that experienced dancers often try to give newbies too much information about pulse and connection and tension and momentum and expression while the student is still stuck on “wait… which is my left foot?” The intentions are good, but it just doesn’t work. It comes across as “It took me years to figure this out, and I’m doing you a favor by telling it to you from the start!” But as you said, without context and experience, it means nothing. We need to let beginners BE beginners. To use an analogy from physics, there is a reason why we teach Newton’s Laws before Einstein’s. And there’s a reason we play with billiard balls and slinkys before we learn Newton’s laws.

  2. Excellent post. That’s something I’ve been trying to feel out; how to present important concepts so they stick. I suppose some of knowing how to do that just comes with time, much like learning how to swing dance in the first place. I’m finding that when I teach, I learn as much from the students as the students learn from me.

  3. 1. The whole “newbies needing solid rules” thing when you feel, as a teacher, you KNOW BETTER and want to impart that knowledge is super frustrating.

    2. …as a Injured Party I harp on about DON’T ARCH YOUR BACK, STUPID. I need to figure our how to tone it down without coming off as a total killjoy.

  4. I’d love to see a written out decision tree for teaching newbies- that would be an interesting project to work on!

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