Learn like a Pro: Part 1

Though I talk about methods and tenants of education through the lens of dance all the time, I have never thought to write on the subject before. See, I am a PA state certified teacher, holding two Bachelors of Science in Education and a Masters of Science in Education, too. I am certified to teach Spanish K-12, Business, Computers, and Info Technology K-12, and technically, I also earned a certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language in a post-grad program, though I never officially added it to my license. My M.S.Ed was in Early Childhood Literacy, though I did not gain any particular certificate from it. I have also spent the last 9 years teaching Spanish to thousands of K-5 students at a public school in Pittsburgh. So basically, I live and breathe this stuff. I can’t separate my career life from my dance life, even when I make an authentic attempt to do so. That’s why I’m going to endeavor to write a blog (and if this one goes well, a series of them) to break down some educational methodology for dancers. If you are a teacher, you may use this to restructure your thinking about teaching dance, and if you are just a dance student, you can also use it to increase your self-awareness as you learn so you can monitor and readjust your own learning as necessary.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

For no particular reason, I will begin with the Zone of Proximal Development in today’s blog. Thanks to a Russian psychologist and researcher named Lev Vygotsky, who lived and did his work in the early part of the 1900s, we have this understanding of how we can grow our learning. We can place all skills into the Zone of Actual Development, the Zone of Proximal Development, or the Zone of Frustration. I’m not sure that Vygotsky himself defined the Zones of Actual Development or Frustration (I myself learned these in one of my many education courses from the past), but the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is one of his greatest contributions to the world of psychology and education.  To help you understand these zones in a very concrete, visual way, picture this: You are trying to reach something up high. Where you are now and all the things you can currently reach are your Zone of Actual Development. You’ve got this zone. You can handle it all by yourself. The next zone, the ZPD, is everywhere you can reach with a little help, such as a boost from a friend, a step ladder, or one of those dino claw grabbers that your Grandma used to have. You can get it, but you need a little help. The Zone of Frustration is any place too high or too difficult for you to do right now, even with all the tools you possess.


In dance, these zones may get conflated or confused, as learning dance can be as complex as the layers of an onion. I can appear to have my basic step down, yet there can still be more to learn and perfect before it’s really where it should be. The key to understanding the ZPD is that you can do it with a little help. So maybe I can do my basic step off time, but with some counting by my instructor and some guided activities, I can learn to do it on time. Being asked to do it on time with no guidance and high stakes, however, could perhaps send me right into the Zone of Frustration. Let’s talk about what to do in each zone.

Zone of Actual Development: If I can do these things alone, does that mean I’m great? Yep, but it also means that you could be moving on to new territories of learning. You can stay here if you like (hey, you’re an adult now – you do you), or you can venture out into the much wider world. It can be scary, but its rewards are also great.

Zone of Frustration: If I am feeling hopeless, frustrated, and like I totally suck at this, does that mean I am bad at dancing? Maybe I just can’t do this…. Nope! It just means your learning is not at your “just right” level (think Goldilocks). Ask your instructor for more appropriate content, different activities, choose a more appropriate class, or even change instructors if necessary. But this does NOT mean that you are not capable of learning. (More on this to come in future blogs…. probably.)

Zone of Proximal Development: I can kinda do this, but I still need my instructor/dance partner/friend to help me through it. I feel okay about myself, maybe excited sometimes for what’s to come, and other times maybe a little frustrated that I’m not the awesomest yet. News flash: This – is – a – good – zone! This is where aaaalllllll the good stuff happens. This is where change happens, where growth happens, and where self-esteem is built because you accomplished something that you weren’t sure you could just a little bit ago. If you’re not challenged above your current level at all, you will simply not grow as a learner/dancer. This zone is just right for you, and it’s already doodled your initials in its notebook. Give it a chance.


Now for dance teachers who may not have a formal awareness of this topic, what can you do to help your student turn their current Zone of Proximal Development into a Zone of Actual Development (thus moving their former Zone of Frustration into a ZPD)? There’s many specific things you can do, but all of them would fall under the category of scaffolding.

What is scaffolding?

You know what real scaffolding is, right? It’s the temporary staging we build around a structure so that workers and materials can be supported to complete a task, such as building, cleaning, painting, or what have you.  In education, it’s fairly similar. Scaffolding is all the things that another, more knowledgeable, person does to support someone’s learning. Directions, tips, questions that promote thinking, physical materials, and activities can all be forms of scaffolding. As a Spanish teacher, I scaffold students’ learning in a multitude of ways, such as hanging up vocabulary posters, giving them packets with vocab, directly teaching them how to say something in Spanish, writing phrases on the board to prompt their speaking activities, giving them cards with questions/sentences to prompt their speaking activities, breaking large tasks into smaller pieces, prompting them to sing a song to remember the vocabulary that they just forgot, and sooooooo much more. I could go on for days about this. I actually teach my older students what scaffolding is, and I show them how I scaffold their learning (“We can use our folders for this….. because we’re still new to this topic and may need some help”) and how I take it away when they are ready to be pushed out of the nest of safety and fly freely like the fledglings they are (“Do it without your folders. Push yourselves.”). Allowing your students to have a cognizant role in the process can reduce anxiety and actually increase motivation. Kids who are “too proud” to use their folders, but can’t do it otherwise, will finally accept that they need scaffolding, and students who always want to do it the easiest way possible will finally put down the folder and challenge themselves to see if they’ve moved on to the next level.

Some common dance scaffolding practices that are almost always in place are:  modeling the move, explaining the pieces of the pattern/move, and inviting students to try the pieces or repeating sequences in varying lengths, combinations, and speeds. But are these enough? Maybe not. The same, formulaic lesson style can get boring and can lose the interest of the students. The same, formulaic lesson style can also totally fail to tap into the individualistic learning needs of students in the lesson. I can talk about learning styles and motivation in later blogs, too, but it should suffice to say that we could all be a little better for thinking of more ways to teach dance than just model, break down into pieces, and practice in pieces and wholes. What teaching activities could your creative brain come up with that can teach dance skills, feeling, musicality, timing, and connection without being the same basic activity as last week? It thrills me to think about what the modern dance classroom could look like. (Man, why am I not teaching Bachata? I have butterflies thinking about the possibilities.) If someone taught dance that had a greater variety of activities, I would totally sign up. Just because we’re not kids anymore doesn’t mean we have to learn without variety and fun.

Now as a disclaimer, I’ve taken a lot of fun lessons. I’ve also been challenged, underwhelmed, and frustrated. I’ve reaped the rewards of challenge, enjoyed creative activities, and also left early because it wasn’t for me. This last piece of advice for teachers to try something new is not condemning anyone – it’s just a request to take a moment and play with the possibilities in your mind. Even the best teachers in the world can come up with something new and fresh, and you will be more excited to come back next week for doing so, too.

Do you have any fun activities to share? Write ’em down below in the comments. I’d love to hear what you’re doing!

P.S. If you’re interested in learning how to teach dance better, I HIGHLY recommend checking out the next Teacher Training series by Carlos Cinta: https://www.ccbachata.com/copy-of-workshops. He just finished the last one this past weekend in Chicago (I was there) and I give it 10/10, five stars, two thumbs up, and one passionate teacher “HECK YES!” Stay in touch with him to find out when the next one is.

Learn More:


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.

To Reach for the Stars or Not to Reach?

To answer the question posed by the title of this blog post I will say simply this: It doesn’t matter. As long as you know there are stars, you’ll make the right decision for yourself.

I see too many people around (not just in the dance scene) trying to hold others back because, by forcing them to remain below them, it keeps their self-esteem high. This is a form of oppression via ignorance.

Anyone who tells you that you don’t need to explore or learn more, that you shouldn’t try to improve yourself, that you don’t need to know what else is out there – is trying to hold you back. Question these people.

You can only make an educated decision about what you want when you know the possibilities. If you know what’s out there and then decide you are happy where you are, then that’s wonderful and perfect for you! By no means should anyone put any expectations on you in either direction. But if you don’t know what’s possible, how can you be sure that staying put is what you really want? In other words, if you’ve never been permitted to see the stars, how can you be sure you don’t like them?

Educate yourself. Explore. See. Hear. Feel. Learn. THEN decide what you want. Don’t live in a cave of darkness and ignorance. Allow yourself to live to your fullest and happiest capacity every day.