Dance Skill Progression: The Cruel Reality

I was having a conversation recently about this trend of new dancers who catch on to dance really quickly — has anyone experienced the same? The person is learning really fast and suddenly – BAM – they say something arrogant and position them as a better dancer than you when they are still working on their basics. Some I’ve heard over the years include “Are you ready for ME to show YOU how it’s done?” and “I don’t really want to dance bachata. I just feel like I have no where else to go with it.”

Personally, I NEVER want to discourage someone from learning — EVER — but I also want to find a way to show them that, though they have learned a lot in a relatively short period of time, that there is a wide world of dance skills out there that they don’t even know exist yet. I, too, was guilty at one point in time of thinking I was hot stuff because I could handle the lead of most people in my scene after just 8 months of dancing. Thankfully I had a teacher (shoutout to Sonny Moyer) who encouraged me to travel to see that yep, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. There’s much more to social dancing than I ever realized at that time.

While discussing this situation with a friend, my brain borrowed something I know about language proficiency learning (I’m a state-certified Spanish language teacher) and I created this upside-down pyramid representing the stages of dance skill progression in the (albeit, rough) likeness of language proficiency development. While most people probably think learning to dance is like a normal pyramid with the most learning taking place in the largest, beginner layer and the advanced portion representing a relatively small set of skills, it is actually quite the reverse. If you are working really hard when you begin dancing, of course you’re going to move into the 2nd layer (notice, the first layer is actually the “newbie” AKA “I’m just learning what the essential elements of this dance are” layer) relatively quickly. Should you still be proud? DEFINITELY! Any progress should be celebrated! You SHOULD feel like a million bucks for accomplishing this feat! However, at the same time, it’s important to create new goals for growth at this point and identify the skills that will help you progress through the next layer instead of becoming complacent at your accomplishment. Sometimes this is hard, and I can’t even claim to know all layers of this pyramid. On my best day, maybe I’m half-way through the pyramid. Maybe.

So what can you do now that you know about the pyramid? (1) Find a progressive dance series from a (2) qualified instructor. You want a progressive series instead of a bunch of random, disconnected lessons because you want someone to bear witness to your growth and guide you in the direction of the skills that you need to work on most at this point in your education. (There’s a place for taking lots of different, disconnected lessons — I’m just saying be aware that you will need a progressive series if you want to advance your skills systematically and efficiently.) Also, you want to make sure you get a qualified instructor that knows a lot more than you do. As a certified public school teacher, I feel truly that a teacher cannot bestow 100% of their skill to their students. There is always a percentage of our own skills that we just do — we don’t know why we do it. That portion of our own skill cannot be transferred until we, the teachers, learn even more and begin to understand those more recent layers of skill acquisition. (By the way, make sure you are also investing in a teacher who invests in themselves. A complacent teacher that has not taken lessons themselves in awhile is probably not the best investment of your time and money.) (3) After awhile with the same teacher, it’s okay to switch and find someone new to take you through another progression of skills. In fact, a good teacher will TELL YOU to take lessons with other people to ensure that you become a well-rounded dancer. (4) Finally, I recommend that you begin traveling to other cities for dancing and especially to big dance events so that you can see all that’s out there in the big, wide world of dance. In my personal dance growth, I feel that these experiences are what have made me the dancer I am today. Not only did I become aware of new skills, new genres, and new passions, I also had the opportunity to dance with people way more skilled and/or different in style than what I was exposed to in my home scene. Through that social dance practice, I learned to follow a variety of leads and become a more versatile dancer.


Do you agree or disagree with the chart I’ve created? Leave your comments below.