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Introduction to the four stages of learning to dance as an adult
Several years ago, I went to see a Flamenco dance performance, and was so entranced that I decided it was something I wanted to do. I have danced all my life in styles like ballet, jazz, and contemporary, so I thought Flamenco would be easy to pick up. I was wrong. It has many differences to the styles I’d learnt, and while my past training did help, I was still at the very early stages of what so far is a six-year journey. As an experienced dancer and teacher, it was eye opening to go back to being a beginner. It has been beneficial for me as a teacher to remember first-hand what it’s like to be at the start of learning something.
My experience is not uncommon. We all start out at the beginning dreaming of the beautiful movements we’ll be producing, and being somewhat surprised by either how difficult it is, or how different the movements you do in your first class are compared to what you imagined.
In this article, I want to share a learning theory that explains the process we go through from novice to experienced dancer. The theory is called ‘the four stages of competence’ and is generally attributed to Noel Burch in the 1970s as a way to explain how employees learn new skills. As a dance teacher, I’ve used this theory many times to explain to my students what they are going through whenever they learn a new skills.
The theory applies to learning new skills, or correctly errors, even when you are an experienced dancer. In this article, I’m going to focus on the journey of the novice dancer.
I believe it’s important for adult dancers to be aware of this process as it helps them to stay motivated whenever they are learning something new and struggling with it. As Dragonfly Dance tap teacher, Krystal Venables, put it
“It can be difficult to manage the expectations of the learner. Especially at the first stage, because it can lower their initial confidence level at a time when you’re likely working with them for the first time and needing to establish trust.”
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence (Ignorance)
In the first stage of learning something, you don’t know how to do something, but you don’t know you don’t know how to do it. In other words, you are not conscious of your lack of competence. This stage is called ‘unconscious incompetence’. I know, it doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s not meant to be judgmental or a criticism.
In this stage of your journey as an adult dancer, you are in a state of blissful ignorance regarding the depth and intricacies of dance. You may have a casual interest or curiosity about dance, but you’ve yet to realise the level of skill, knowledge, and practice required to excel in this art form. At this point, you might attend a class or watch a performance without fully comprehending the intricacies of the movements.
Motivation can be high at this stage, sparked by curiosity and the desire to explore something new and exciting. You may feel uncertain or apprehensive about your ability to learn dance.
Tips for this stage:
Start with a beginner class in that style, even if you’ve done other types of dance
Be aware that all beginners feel nervous and sometimes out of their depth
Set realistic expectations (it takes time to master new skills)
Persevere, even if it is harder than expected
Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing in the class, just focus on yourself
Give it a chance, even if you don’t feel like you’re ‘dancing’ in the first class (you’ve got to learn the building blocks first)
Do more than one class in a particular style to get a real taste for it
If the style you chose doesn’t suit you, try another style
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence (Awareness)
After you’ve tried your first class, or once you start to learn a new movement of skill, you enter into the ‘conscious incompetence’ phase. This is a phase of awareness, where you still can’t perform the skill, but at least now you know how challenging it is.
During this phase, you become aware of the complexity of dance. It can be a frustrating phase, as you begin to realise that movement, technique, and coordination require attention and practice. But rest assured, once you become aware of how difficult something is, you have already made progress. Rest assured, with dedication and practice, you will improve.
In this stage, you may begin to feel discouraged and doubt your ability. Alternatively, you may decide that the beginner movements are ‘boring’ or ‘too basic’, and nothing like the amazing moves you thought you’d be learning. I remember my first ballet class, as a 13 year old who had done calisthenics for ten years. I was taken aback by the barre exercises, which were nothing like what I imagined myself to be doing. I’ve also heard from plenty of beginners who express surprise that they are doing exercises in a class, and not leaping around the room in their first class.
Tips for this stage:
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Set realistic expectations and remember that becoming a proficient dancer takes time and practice
Don’t be discouraged by the initial challenges or feeling of being a beginner
Don’t give up on the dance style if the basic technique you are learning is not as excited as you expected
Proceed at your own pace and don’t compare yourself with others – you don’t know what their background is and what experience they may have had before
Keep reminding yourself of why you started whenever your feel your motivation begin to dip
Set aside time to practice the basic steps and movement, as repetition is a key part of progressing through to the next stage of competency
Don’t be afraid of mistakes. They are a natural part of the learning process and offer an opportunity to learn and improve
Celebrate your small achievements and acknowledge your growth, no matter how small they seem
Find joy in the learning process and enjoy the pleasure of moving to music
Break down more difficult movements into easier elements and practice those repetitively (for example, if you are trying to do a move that requires coordination of both arms and legs, practice them separately as well as together).
Stage 3: Conscious Competence (Learning)
Eventually, you’ll make it to the learning stage, or conscious competence. This means you are able to successfully execute the movements, but you still have to focus and concentrate.
Learning dance is a multi-layered process, and as you develop competency in one skill, you may be in an earlier stage of competency with other skills. The way I see it, you want to make sure you master the basics so that you don’t have to think about them when you progress to much more challenging movements.
If you are learning ballet, some of the things to focus on early include:
maintaining correct postural alignment
articulating and stretching your feet
correct placement of arms and hands
engaging turnout muscles
keeping your eyeline lifted (one of the things most people do when they are concentrating is lower their eyes, but, as one of Dragonfly Dance teachers, Belinda Cooper, says ‘you won’t find the answer on the floor”.
There are similar fundamentals in other dance styles, such as:
spinal articulation, parallel feet, and qualities such as momentum and suspension in contemporary dance
slight bent (soft) knees and loose ankles in tap
low and wide stance, inclusion of inverted, parallel, and turned out leg lines, and pelvic placement in jazz
Tips for this stage:
Maintain focus and concentration, being attentive to details so you are performing movements accurately (rather than reinforcing errors through repetition)
Play close attention to posture and technique to build a solid foundation for later progression
Each time you practice or perform a movement, consider choosing a specific element to focus on, such as the sequence of movement, coordination, rhythm and musicality, expression, which will help you improve competency for each of these elements of dance.
Practice the movements you’ve learnt in different variations and combinations to help build your versatility
Embrace the challenge of stepping out of your comfort zone to learn new movements or combinations that may feel daunting at first
Pay close attention to corrections and make a consistent effort to incorporate them into your movements. It’s common for incorrect habits to feel more comfortable, so when you start doing things correctly, it might initially feel like a step backward due to the unfamiliarity.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence (Mastery)
The classic example of unconscious competence is driving somewhere and then not remembering your journey. This is because you have mastered driving, and no longer have to think about it, so your mind drifts off somewhere else. At this stage, you can perform the movements correctly, and you don’t really need to think about it.
If you look at experienced dancers, you’ll notice that without even moving, they already look like dancers. This is because they have mastered the skill of correct posture.
This final stage represent mastery, a point where movements flow effortlessly. You no longer need to think consciously about each step, or the elements of technique. It comes naturally. This stage is marked by an intuitive understanding of dance, where the body and mid work in harmony. It is only achieved after countless hours dedicated to practice and honing your craft.
You might think once you reach this stage you can ‘rest on you laurels’. But dance is a lifelong pursuit, and there isn’t really a point where you can just relax. Consistent effort is required to maintain the strength, flexibility, neuromuscular coordination, and more. There is always room for improvement, and as time passes, your mind and body will age, and effort is required to maintain what you have achieved.
Tips for this stage:
Maintain consistent practice to reinforce muscle memory and refine your skills
Challenge yourself to explore more advanced movements or different approaches or styles, which will help keep you engaged and enthusiastic
Focus on the ‘softer’ skills such as expression, artistry, musicality, and storytelling.
Continue to engage in conditioning exercises for strength and flexibility to maintain your skills
Stay humble and remember there is always more to learn, whether from teachers or other dancers
My intention with this article was to clarify the process of learning to help adult dancers have realistic expectations for each stage of the journey. Keep in mind that dance is not just a single skill and a linear path. Learning is multi-layered and cyclical. You will go through this process over and over again as you learn new and more complex skills. The learning is never over, but to my mind, that is a wonderful thing, making dance an endless, fascinating, and fulfilling journey.
At all stages, you need guidance and feedback from a teacher with more experience than you, but you also need to contribute your own focus, mindset, practice, and observation skills. Without a teacher, you may be practicing mistakes. Without your own focus and practice, you don’t repeat things enough to truly progress.
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