At ballroom and Latin dance competitions around the world, the most outstanding dance couples gather to show off the skills they’ve been painstakingly developing, often from the time they’re old enough to walk. The judges are instructed that only one couple can win, and that the second and third place dance couples will also receive notable mention. In other words, one couple will receive an “A,” and two others a “B” and “C” and everyone else a failing mark, even though the dance skill of every couple is outstanding compared to anyone’s standards. Imagine the blow to your morale if you are the couple in the requisite fourth or fifth place.
Not just in this case, but in most cases where grades are given or standards are measured, the assessment says next to nothing about the work done or the knowledge gained. Really, giving a grade or a placement doesn’t measuring mastery, but, instead, puts students or practitioners up against each other. For instance, in most law schools, a bell curve grading style is used so that very few people get an “A” and very few people get an “F” and most people get clumped right in the middle with a “C.” So, if you’re the unlucky one who gets a 90% while the majority of your classmates got a 95% and one lucky person scored a perfect 100%, you’ll be the one stuck with the bad grade, even though you successfully answered almost all of the questions correctly. This is just like at a dance competition: just because you get 8th out of 8 couples doesn’t mean you have terrible technique and partnering skills. It just means seven other couples were thought to be better by the dance judges, even if immeasurably (oftentimes, these types of assessments are purely subjective).
In Alan Watts’ book, The Way of Zen, he uses the metaphor of a sculptor seeing inside of every block of stone the potential for a beautiful sculpture. All the artists needs to do is remove the unnecessary parts of the stone. This is our approach to teaching at Ballroom Dance Chicago: rather than comparing our students to each other or to the standards of professional dancers, we focus on removing what’s getting in the way. We focus on changing perception and chipping away at what keeping our students from developing dance skills and self-expression.
We call this the “Ideal Student” exercise and we’ve found it an enlivening approach to teaching dance to people of all skill levels.
For us as dance teachers, it’s important to know the learning habits and perspectives on learning our dance students bring with them. Most of them come out of our formal education system in the United States, which has engrained a few things about how they perceive the learning process: that the value of an assigned task is the grade they receive at the end (this creates an expectation of seeking validation, rather than seeing effort and insight gained as a useful pursuit unto itself) and that the grade they receive determines their worth in relation to everyone else (which affects our mindset relating to our own capabilities).
When people see learning solely as the way to pass a test and therefore gain approval, it makes them value the end goal over the process. Many times the way that people have been educated supports this system of learning. People complete projects and assignments because they know the teacher will be giving them a grade on it. That grade will affect their ability to move on. Education is seen as completing a set of assigned tasks to be approved by a person of power, without a regard to the exploration or the understanding gained from completing each task. This sort of pseudo engagement creates a disinterest in seeking real understanding and dampens a curiosity for exploration.
We see this in our students when they come in and view learning to dance as a list of steps to master, and when they go through each step once and say "Ok, got it." They see this learning process as a series of endings, rather than a continuous path of progress and development. As dance instructors, we hope to foster a deeper engagement in the learning process. We hope that we can make people pause and dig in so that they have a true understanding and opinion about dancing, rather than a checklist mindset.
Another issue common to the traditional education that our dance students come from is the creation of hierarchies based on worth. By creating hierarchies in a learning environment (class rank, comparing grades, giving grades at all), we're influencing the learner's perception of their capabilities and their expected results upon completing the exercise. When a student continuously receives "Bs" in biology, they come to doubt their abilities and begin to expect that they will always receive "Bs". Eventually, they begin to strive for "Bs.”
This method measures a student's worth based on a very strict set of expectations, and is teaching the student that all of the so- called "wrong" answers were an invaluable use of time. Our goal at Ballroom Dance Chicago is to reshape this view of failure. As Thomas Edison said in regards to inventing the lightbulb, "I didn't fail. I just found 10,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. I only needed to find one way to make it work." While learning to dance perhaps has more room for variation than creating a lightbulb, this quote is still reflective of how we value the process over the product of learning to dance. We don't see missteps as wasted time, we see them as versions of correct that aren't as comfortable.
This idea of competition, scarcity of resources, scarcity of good grades, and emphasis on correctness rather than process is deeply engrained in all of us throughout childhood and adulthood. By the time we’re old enough to make our own decisions and choose our path and outlook on life, we have a set belief that an “F” means failure. A wrong answer is an end, rather than a prompt to continue exploring. Incorrect makes us feel stupid and incapable, rather than inspiring us to push harder and challenge ourselves. So not only does failing make us feel incapable, it also makes us fearful of trying. No one wants to be incapable, so we avoid the possibility of being labeled as incapable.
We see this every day at the studio. Students come in, often believing that they’re bad dancers. Perhaps someone has already given them an “F” and those individuals see that “F” as a part of who they are.
Carol Dweck, founder of the psychological concept of “Growth Mindset” states in her TED talk, The Power of Believing That You Can Improve, that if we raise kids to believe in the future of “not yet,” we can create confidence and persistence. She found that simply explaining to children that every time you push outside of your comfort zone to learn something new, that new neurons are forming stronger connections and you’re getting smarter, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail or face challenges. She also found that awarding children for their effort instead of their right answer helps them engage in the process of learning and realize that they can change themselves through effort. You can’t be “bad” at any given subject, just bad at learning that subject. At Ballroom Dance Chicago, we help our students relearn how to learn, focusing on their level of focus, perseverance, and improvement, rather than getting the steps 100% correct. We take this approach because, unlike math where there is a right and a wrong answer, there truly isn’t a 100% correct answer in dance. There are only concepts and schools of thought. Dancing is about finding what’s correct for you as an individual. As dance instructors, our job is to build confidence in our students so that they can persist through difficult moments, push outside their comfort zones, and become smarter, more confident dancers.
We don't just give our students at BDC an “A” and let them cruise through the process. We assess what they're capable of and are consistently pushing the boundaries of what it means to receive an “A.” It's different from lesson to lesson, and even from minute to minute and the only way we can succeed is by treating everyone in the lesson as if they are a pertinent contribution to the success of the lesson.
Giving everyone an “A” can be quite uncomfortable for some people because they think it denies differences in accomplishments. No one wants to hear a saxophonist squeaking out unclear notes and no one wants to go into surgery with a doctor who skipped out on all of his anatomy classes. We do like standards and measurements when they can help us understand what knowledge is necessary to be competent.
Measuring people’s performance against standards is necessary if said person will be going to a competition where they measure these standards. We’re not proposing that every student no matter their goals, goes willy nilly into the process without direction. Rather, we believe in giving the “A” so that we as teachers can align with our students to measure them against the outcomes they create and desire. If our students’ goal is to look confident and smooth dancing the first dance at their wedding, we don’t suffer through hours of training in dance technique. Instead, what we do is focus on what will build the confidence of these non-dancers so they think they can do it and then focus our attention on taking out the seams of their movement so that things flow smoothly throughout the entire dance. It doesn’t matter if they’re dancing to “The Way You Look Tonight,” by Frank Sinatra, which is a traditional foxtrot. We employ the technique of foxtrot as long as it serves our dance students’ partnering skills and visions for the first dance.
Believing that everyone is an ideal student has two primary benefits: (1) as instructors, it makes us meet our students where they are and continue examining how we can best engage them in the process of learning, and (2) for our students, it subtly reshapes their opinions of their own capabilities and the expectations they hold themselves to.
We don't expect the same results and process with every student. Rather, we’re asking our students to be a willing participant in creating their assessments. We want to think of and treat everyone as if they are an “A” student, but each student requires a redefining of what that means. Perhaps for one student understanding the workings of a step is worthy of an “A”; perhaps for another student keeping their eyes off the floor is what they’re working towards; maybe what it means for someone to be an “A” student is supporting their partner and allowing them to focus on a detail. In redefining what it means to get an “A,” we are shifting the focus from an external measurement scale to a personal achievement.
Our goal is not to make everyone conform to what it means to be an “A” student. We want each individual to feel as though they can create their own definition of what success looks like. We want to empower our students so that they feel as though they’re doing “A” work, regardless of what they’re achieving.
As we have discussed in previous blog posts, what we think about becomes our reality, and it’s no different in learning to dance. One of the largest hurdles we encounter as dance instructors is reshaping people’s beliefs about what they think they’re capable of. When people come in with negative opinions of themselves as dance learners, it often takes them longer to learn to dance, not because they’re less able to learn, but because their mindsets subconsciously inhibit their progress. By believing that everyone is fully able to learn, we’re coming to the dance lesson with the mindset that our students will succeed. If your teacher believes you won’t be great, they will treat you that way, even if they don’t mean to. We know that you can be a great dancer: you just have to trust that you can be a great dancer. You have to give yourself an “A.”
We understand the difficulty of overcoming our own perceptions. If you believe you will fail, you will. If you believe you will be great, you will be. Until our students can fully take on this mindset, all we can do is encourage them to try their best. We’ve had students who continue to disbelieve their abilities until the very last moment. Until we take a video of them dancing and prove to them that they’re doing well, they think that we’re simply being encouraging because we’re nice people. Here’s the truth: we don’t want to lie to you. If something isn’t working, we’ll talk about how to make it better. But until our students believe that they’re doing excellent work, they will continue to lack a certain imperceptible “something”.
For instance, we’ve all seen performances that had an ensemble of great dancers, but for some reason or another one particular person draws our attention. What separates the mediocre dancer from the astonishing one is not their technical abilities, but their faith in themselves. At the studio, we tell our students that there are moments where we focus on fixing tiny details and there are times when we have to just let go and dance. When it comes time for the performance, trust that you’ve put in the work necessary to succeed, give yourself an “A” and you will succeed.
In one great workshop, the teacher reminded us that when you’re performing, people are watching you live. People don’t want to watch you trying. People are satisfied by a performance where the performers are trusting their instincts and living so much in the moment that they are as surprised and inspired as the audience. This is the necessary ingredient to performing and learning as well.
As instructors, we don’t see ourselves as all-powerful assessors. It is not our job to give grades. While we do diagnose issues and strive to improve problem areas, as instructors, we’re not here to fit our students into arbitrary levels that we’ve created. We’re hoping to empower our students to take ownership and pride in the work they’re doing, whatever that work may be. One of the most difficult pieces of teaching people to dance is trying to un-teach their relationships to people who they’ve known as instructors.
They oftentimes see us as having all the answers and seek approval upon the completion of a certain dance step.
We’re hoping to not only reframe our students’ view of us as teachers, but to reimagine what our roles are as instructors of dance. Knowing that many of our students come from and continue to exist in a world of comparison and measurement, as opposed to individual pride and inquiry, gives us the task of reforming their views. Our goal in giving everyone of our students an “A” is to engage them in the process of learning to dance, to see us as mentors, not as graders. And by giving all of our dance students “As” at Ballroom Dance Chicago, we force ourselves as teachers to reimagine what it means to contribute to our students’ learning process.