Practicing Fast and Slow

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The speed that you practice movements matters. In this post, you’ll learn about how to choose the tempo for your practice to best build your skills.

Most of us practice at a comfortable tempo of slow social music (80-100 bpm). This is the tempo we hear in workshops and group classes, and the teachers choose that music because it’s slow enough to allow some thinking time while quick enough to let the movement flow.

The challenge is that this tempo is really bad for refining your movement. The same reasons that the music makes beginners comfortable in class are the reasons why that tempo range conceals skill deficits. You aren’t asked to move slowly enough to require great control, but you also aren’t asked to move so quickly that you need to have clean movements.

Slow Builds Control

Pavel Tsatsouline is a famous strength trainer who has worked with martial artists, Soviet Special Forces (Spetsnaz), and world-class athletes. In his book Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, he remarks on the importance of slow movements to build control: “if you are unable to do a non-ballistic movement slowly, you are hiding something.”

There are some movements in which you need momentum to carry you through: jumping, Olympic lifts, other explosive motions. But if you aren’t doing a ballistic motion—and that includes the vast majority of dance movements—you should be able to do the movement at a painfully slow pace. If you can’t, that indicates a failure to use your muscles properly to control the motion.

Dancing to really slow music is great for building control. By forcing yourself to slow the motion down, you quickly learn what parts of the body actually need to be involved in creating the motion. And, you also learn all the places where you faked your way through at a higher speed by throwing your body into the movement and catching your momentum later.

Moving slowly will dramatically improve your balance, since you need to stabilize yourself through the entire movement. You will also dramatically improve your fine motor skills as your body learns the micro-adjustments you need in order to manipulate the motion.

There are great slow blues songs in the 60bpm or slower range. Dancing to these songs will force you to control your motion at all times. As a bonus, these songs often feature a rolling count, so dancing to these songs can dramatically improve your ability to dance swung rhythms.

Need some slow songs to get you started? Try dancing to some of these:

  • John Mayer – Slow Dancing in a Burning Room (67 bpm)
  • Albert King – Blues Power (65 bpm)
  • Stevie Ray Vaughn – The Sky Is Crying (57 bpm)
  • Brother Yusef – Freedom Train Blues (55 bpm)

Fast Builds Precision

When you dance slow, you need to control the movement at all times. When the music speeds up, you can’t micromanage the movement in the same way because there simply isn’t enough time. During fast music, you can only keep up if you can execute the movement cleanly and precisely.

Lots of dancers struggle with fast music because they are trying to do too much. When you start learning any skill, you have a lot of unnecessary movement. As you practice, you refine the motion so that you are doing exactly what you need to do, and no more. You probably recognized a point in your own dancing when you were no longer exhausted after social dancing for a half hour; part of the reason that happened is because you had refined your basic movement so you could move more efficiently.

The key to practicing fast is to pick a tempo that pushes you but doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s no good to practice at a speed that makes you abandon your technique. You want to aim for a tempo where you can consistently execute about 80% correctly. When you are successfully executing whatever you are practicing 90-100 of the time, up the tempo again until you are down to the 70-80% range.

This method of progressively increasing the tempo ensures that you are spending your practice time right at the edge of your abilities. If you raise the tempo too quickly and your success drops below 70% or so, you are no longer practicing correctly with any consistency, and you risk encoding the wrong skills into your muscle memory. But, if you are consistently succeeding 9 out of 10 times, you aren’t pushing your abilities very much and you won’t improve quickly.

Here are some songs to help you push your personal tempo:

  • Danny Gatton – Funky Mama (135 bpm)
  • Lady Gaga – Applause (140 bpm)
  • Big John Dickerson – Red Beans (147 bpm)
  • Black Eyed Peas – Pump It (154 bpm)
  • Larry Dunn – Avalon (160 bpm)
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