Getting better step by step

When practicing, it is important to break skills down into their fundamental parts. When a skill stretches your current abilities, your brain can’t process all the elements of the skill at once. As you practice, your brain develops the ability to reliably coordinate the elements for that particular skill, and it becomes possible to put all the pieces together. Until that point, though, trying to practice a larger skill is overwhelming to your brain. Thus, being able to identify the atoms that make up a specific skill allows you to target your practice time more effectively.

Getting better at west coast swing

In west coast swing, moves naturally break into two beat increments. Because of the structure of the dance, we tend to initiate movements on downbeats and complete them on upbeats: anchors begin on 5 and end on 6; walks happen on the first two beats of each pattern, and patterns can be extended by inserting beat pairs after each upbeat.

One consequence of this structure is that the each two beat increment can be practiced in isolation and then linked into a larger sequence. If you are trying to master a new workshop pattern, you should pause after each two beats to make sure that you are where you are supposed to be. As you get comfortable with each two beat increment, the pattern as a whole will begin to flow. In social dancing (especially for followers), being in a familiar position after each two beats can help you stay on track during more complicated moves; that break between parts of the move serves as a checkpoint for both partners to make sure that they’re on the same page.

Sometimes it is necessary to break down a skill that has several elements occurring simultaneously. Pot stirs are an obvious example; no follower can pull off a pot stir without being able to simultaneously keep frame and balance on one leg. In this case, breaking down the skill requires working on each element in isolation. One skill is balancing on one leg, which can be practiced by normal balance drills, and then by doing partial spins on one leg under your own power (working from a quarter turn up to a half turn, then a 3/4 turn, and finally a full turn). A second skill is keeping frame, which can be practiced with a different set of drills. Once the follower is ready to combine all of the elements of the pot stir (and only then) does it become productive to try the full pot stir.

The lesson is: find ways to break down skills into the atomic elements that make up the skill. The more you practice the atoms of the movement, the more success you will have when you try to put the pieces together.

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