A Slow Accumulation of Competence

Today in modern class we did a neat little combination that involved a kind of hunchy, quasi-parallel barrel turn[1]. My first thought (after, “I probably really shouldn’t do that,” which I promptly ignored) was “I haven’t done a barrel turn in a while—I wonder if I still have it.”

  1. That is to say, one of the stylized Modern-flavored ones, launching and landing in parallel, but moving by necessity through turnout, since you sort of have to rotate your knees out to do a barrel turn in the first place.

So I tried and discovered that I did still have it, and that it was comparatively easy to do.

In fact, I managed to do it in such a way that landing in either direction it didn’t make my foot hurt: lightly, softly, with just a little loft.

It’s weird to think that the barrel turn was one of last year’s Ballet Goals, and that it probably seemed like something really quite difficult, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been one of last year’s explicit goals. In essence, there are always a million things to learn where ballet is concerned, and if you make all of them explicit goals, your head will explode, so you have to come up with some way to decide which goals will be explicit (and hope, of course, that the rest will just happen along the way, I guess). My lists of explicit goals are apparently driven by Persnickety Details and Grand Allegro Pyrotechnics, with a universal criterion of “oh, that sounds hard.”

So, anyway, the barrel turn is still there, in the same way that I discovered my tour jeté and assemblé battu and entrechat quatre still waiting in a dusty corner of my somatosensory memory like so many disused bicycles when I started dancing again.

I couldn’t begin to tell you in words how to execute the barrel turn, by the way. I have absolutely no conscious notion of how I do it. I know that there’s a plié at either end and in the middle both your knees are sailing through space, but if we’re honest that could be a description of almost any jump in which both legs are bent.

If I worked through it about seventeen times right now, capturing mental “video” of the things I do and see and feel in the midst of a barrel turn, I could learn to describe it … maybe. But right now I can’t (because my foot is still healing).

Anyway, I just know that the barrel turn is still there, because as long as I don’t try to think about how to do a barrel turn, I can do one. It’s a bit of a centipede’s dilemma.

I was going to put a picture of an innocuous-looking centipede here,
but then it occurred to me that no matter which one I chose,
it would probably creep someone out. So I didn’t.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, I think a lot of learning to dance—and, indeed, to do almost anything physical—is like that. You don’t have to accumulate the ability to explain how you do what you do any more than a toddler has to be able to explain how she runs in order to make off with your keys so she can drop them in the toilet. How do you use chopsticks? How about a fork? A zipper? Try describing how you skip.

It’s not impossible to describe any of these things, of course—if we think about them carefully, we can describe them, though any student in a Physiotherapy or Kineseology program will tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.

It’s not impossible to describe them, it’s just hard—and it’s hard because, in general, we don’t learn these things by thinking about them verbally, but by mucking about in our bodies until we get them down.

The best exception I can think of to the rule that physical learning tends to be, you know, physical is horsemanship: but I think, really, that’s because as a riding student, you’re learning how to give instructions to the horse as to how he should use his body as an instrument as much as, if not more than, you’re learning to use your own body as an instrument.

As such, a riding instructor teaching a student (especially in dressage) will often offer a correction that might seem ludicrously specific to a non-rider: “…More weight in your left sitz bone, and apply your left ankle at the girth and the right one a little behind the girth,” or what have you[2].

  1. This isn’t, by the way, a complete set of instructions for any specific thing. It could mean a lot of things in a lot of contexts: maybe you’re asking for a lateral bend; maybe you’re light in the left sitz bone and it’s confusing your horse; maybe your riding instructor needs glasses or to lay off the sauce. The last horse I rode regularly would, if you did this basic set of things at the halt while collecting him between seat and hand, give you a nice turn on the forehand, which was really handy for opening and immediately closing gates. On the other hand, at the walk in the ring, he would toss his head like a teenage girl at a parent-teacher conference unless you collected the frack out of him all. the. time. Retired field hunters, amirite?

This isn’t to say that dance can’t be analyzed using the literate part of the mind. It can; the works of Vaganova and Tarasov demonstrate that it can (though trying to read a description of a step that’s well above your “pay grade” can be a real headache).

As a student, D really benefits from a very thorough verbal description of what he’s supposed to do with his body when it comes to dance or aerials. I find that difficult to grok. Then, he’s such a verbal thinker and I’m such a non-verbal thinker (with good translation software that sometimes crashes) that we actually find it really hard to imagine each-other’s modes of thought[3].

  1. This would be less difficult for me if it weren’t for the fact that D is pretty capable of mentally manipulating objects in space, even though he can’t picture them in his head. I’m great at that, too, but that’s because I can picture them, and rotate them, and toss them around, and shuffle them, and assign various qualities of mass and so forth by feel in my head. 3D sensurround is my native mode. He, meanwhile, apparently keeps some kind of giant spreadsheet of more-or-less verbal data in his head—a kind of tabular reference, if you will. Basically, in short: the human brain, WTF.

Anyway, I can’t help but think that this is part of the difficulty of teaching dance—especially to beginners, and perhaps especially ballet.

Beyond a certain level, as a teacher, you’re probably mostly dealing either with students who are strongly kinetic-spatial-visual thinkers and/or students who have developed really good compensatory mechanisms for not having strong mental visuo-spatialization ability. Beginners, on the other hand, are likely to be a mixed bag of all kinds of thinkers, and so you have to figure out how things are done and, even more dauntingly, how to convey that information to your students.

Later, as your students accumulate their own competencies, you’ll be able to say things like, “Then you just do this [insert visual demonstration]” or “Yes, but don’t rond the leg” and they’ll get it.

In the beginning, though, it seems like there’s a lot more explaining, and that it has to be done incrementally.

This Sunday, M, one of my friends from Trapeze, finally found her way into our dance class. AM very soundly and rightly gave her only one or two corrections to work on, and later checked me when I wanted to funnel too much information her way. I constrained myself and ultimately only asked her to reduce the rotation of her ankles a little bit in turnout so her knees would track over her toes.

Anyway, being prevented from drowning a new student in information was a good thing: I’m still very much learning how to teach.

I suspect that, for me, learning to teach will be harder than just plain learning. One involves the simple accumulation of competence; the other involves the intelligible description of the elements of competence.

One last anecdote from Sunday’s class: AM give the class an exercise with a sauté fouetté in the mix. Interestingly, only M did it right the first time.

The other two did something else entirely. I was sitting on the sidelines, watching and offering what guidance I could, and noticed that our other two students were doing something that wasn’t sauté fouetté, but was somehow familiar.

The third time I saw it, I realized what it was: they were executing rather nice révoltades, presumably because nobody had bothered to tell them that they—as dancers with very little ballet background, and definitely no men’s technique—couldn’t possibly know how to do nice révoltades.

So, there you have it. The human body is a mysterious thing, and apparently a révoltade is just a sauté fouetté executed, um, more or less inside-out.

Not that I could possibly begin to explain what I mean by that.

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About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2017/05/02, in balllet, dance, it is a silly place, life, modern, teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Our ballet teacher usually tries to give us only two corrections at the time, which is apparently something she learned at uni. It makes a lot of sense in ballet, since you could technically correct it all the way to infinity and beyond!
    Also, I had no idea riding was so complex. I always thought it consisted of only two basic steps: 1. sit on the horse and 2. don’t fall off the horse. Which is silly, I realise.

    • In a way, horse riding does kind of boil down to those two steps, as a kind of meta-narrative 😀

      I’ll have to keep the “two corrections” idea in mind. It’s a good one, especially for working with new students!

  2. Anyway, I just know that the barrel turn is still there, because as long as I don’t try to think about how to do a barrel turn, I can do one. It’s a bit of a centipede’s dilemma.

    Yeah, it’s the corollary of flow psychology I guess.

    I first learned it from fighting (I used to get bullied a lot in school). If I thought about things like keeping my guard up and where my centre of gravity was I used to get pounded. When I finally learned how to remain situationally aware without deliberating about what I was doing I discovered I could stay a bit ahead of the situation and was actually a pretty good fighter. Mind you, gaining my full height, reach and leg power sure helped too.

    Mostly I credit my much younger step-brother for teaching me. He just seemed to have an inborn instinct for it. These days he’s a 6th dan black belt instructor in Zen Chi Ryu karate.

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