This post is the third entry of a three-part series on practice models. The first two entries looked at the music model and the chess model. In this post, we will turn our attention to the sports model of practice.
Practice for sports generally falls into two types: conditioning exercises and drilling specific critical skills for that sport. Both of these types have analogues in WCS.
Conditioning work involves preparing yourself physically and mentally to be able to perform at a high level. Some of the physical aspects of conditioning for dance are relatively obvious: stretching to improve your flexibility and developing your cardiovascular fitness so that you can make it through a 140-bpm song without passing out are two straightforward areas for conditioning work.
However, there are less obvious physical conditioning exercises to work on for WCS. Do you regularly practice your standard foot positions, rolling triples, and your footwork for the basic patterns? These elements are the building blocks for this dance; overlooking them because you already know your basics is an open invitation for sloppy technique to creep in.
In addition to physical work, conditioning can involve strengthening underlying mental skills that are necessary for an activity. In west coast swing, the mental skills involved include identifying where you are within a musical phrase and knowing what foot you will be on after a complex footwork series. You can condition these skills through practice. To identify where you are in a musical phrase, drag the iTunes slider to a random time within the song and see how quickly you can identify where you are in the phrase. To become better at knowing where a syncopation will leave your weight, you can map out rhythms (e.g., & kick ball change & point & step) and quiz yourself on what foot will be weighted at the end of the sequence.
Specific Critical Skills
This is the most common practice model in dance. You identify a specific skill and work on that skill to the point where you can use that skill in any situation. This practice model is slightly different from the music/routine model because in a routine, you know exactly when you will be doing a ronde on an anchor. In social dancing, however, you may only have a half beat to realize that you can do a ronde on this anchor, and you need to be able to adjust your movement in light of where your partner is and what he or she is doing.
The ability to adjust on-the-fly develops from—you guessed it—repeated practice in a variety of scenarios. The easiest way to practice the specific critical skills is with a partner so that you learn to adjust to what your partner gives you. Solo practice certainly has its place, and may be necessary initially in order to become sufficiently comfortable with performing the skill at a basic level. However, the extra challenge of adjusting to your partner is an important element in being able to perform the skill in a social or competitive dance setting, and so partner work should be an eventual goal for this level of practice.
If you don’t have a regular practice partner, an easy way to get in this level of practice is by picking a specific skill to work on when you go out social dancing. If you focus on a single skill through the entire evening, you will probably get close to the 500 repetitions that are necessary to form a new habit. Mario Robau practiced this way when he began, and in fact turned it into a game. He had written specific skills on slips of paper and put those slips in a bowl by his door. When he left to go dancing for the evening, he drew one of the slips out and worked on that skill for the evening.
Keys to the Sports Model of Practice
- Works well for physical or mental preparation work
- Benefits from revisiting frequently
- Repetition in a variety of situations is essential!