Dance Theory and Practice

Skill Acquisition in Dance

How do you become a more skilful dancer? In this blog, I’ll explore how you can increase your dance expertise beyond your current skill level.

In general, if one seeks the safety of rules, one will not get beyond competence.

Stuart E. Dreyfus, “The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition”

I’ll use Dreyfus’s model of skill acquisition to break down how you should practice, which depends on your current skill level. It’s not rocket science, but it does require matching your current skill level to your practice strategies to your future dance ambition. I won’t be examining how to make time to practice in this blog post, but check out my post on using ritual to anchor your dance practice for some help on this matter.

Your practice strategies will depend on what developmental stage you’re in with your dancing. The first step to figuring out how to practice is figuring out what your skill level is. Here are Dreyfus’s developmental stages (summarised from College Info Geek). Which one resonates with your current dance level?

  1. Novice. You follow a clear set of rules regardless of context. In dance, you are learning basic belly dance movements and following simple combinations and basic dance routines to music.
  2. Advanced beginner. You are beginning to draw on your (limited) experience to apply the rules in new situations. In dance, you can do most basic belly dance movements, can follow a beginner routine, and can create a simple combination yourself to music.
  3. Competent. You don’t just blindly follow the rules. You still make mistakes, but learn from them to know when and where to apply the rules.  In dance, you can do basic belly dance movements, and are starting to do advanced movements like isolating and layering. You can follow beginner and intermediate dance routines. You are starting to analyse music, and with help on the structure, can create and dance a simple choreographed or improvised routine.
  4. Proficient. You know what to do in a given situation. You can consciously choose among several ways, but usually know what the right course of action is. In dance, you can do most basic and advanced belly dance movements. For ones you can’t, you know what your problems are and how to fix them. You can (consciously) analyse music to independently create and dance a choreographed or improvised routine. Again, if it’s not right, you know how to fix it.
  5. Expert. You act according to intuition, making subtle and refined discriminations. You can recognise a problem and (unconsciously) fix it. In dance, you can do all the things a proficient dancer can, but you can do them intuitively, without conscious thought, and seemingly without effort, to create beautiful and refined dance performances.

Your current dance level will inform your practice strategy. If you are just starting out and aiming towards novice, you should seek out rules and straightforward tutorials, like on how to do simple belly dance moves and combinations. If you are a novice aiming towards advanced beginner, you should experiment with the rules in different contexts, like following belly dance routines in different styles or creating short combinations to music. If you are an advanced beginner targeting competency, you should make mistakes in an environment that provides feedback, like taking group or private dance lessons at a suitable level. You should try to create and dance simple choreographed or improvised routines, and get help and feedback on them from a skilled mentor or teacher. If you have achieved competency and are working towards proficient or expert, hours of deliberate practice are required. A teacher can help direct your practice, but by this stage you should be capable of self-correction. Now sure how to practice deliberately? I discuss Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery and what it has to do with belly dance on my blog post.

Be aware that the leap to proficient and then expert takes longer than previous stages. Competency can be achieved relatively quickly, but many hours of focused practice are required to move beyond. Focused practice also means counteracting a natural tendency towards automaticity. What that means is that as skill level increases, your performance becomes more automatic and less conscious. This is expected, as your training and experience help you adapt to the typical demands of dance. However, experts can counteract this automaticity to continue learning (see K. A. Ericsson, “Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance”). This is where deliberate practice comes in. You must practice deliberately to increase your skill level beyond competency on your path to expert.

How can this help you? First, identify your current skill level and where you’re aiming towards. Would you like to be a competent dancer who follows others’ routines? Would you like to be an expert soloist who creates your own (improvised or choreographed) routines? Let this inform your practice strategy. If you are aiming for competency, focus on learning the rules and applying them to a variety of situations. If you are targeting expert, build a deliberate dance practice. Happy dancing!

References

Stuart E. Dreyfus. “The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition”. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society.
Ransom Patterson. “Use the Dreyfus Model to Learn New Skills”. College Info Geek.
K. Anders Ericsson. “Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview”. Academic Emergency Medicine.

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