Learning them, practising them, knowing them, understanding them. Anyone who attends dance classes, workshops or short courses of any type (not just Flamenco dance) will know what a massive and important subject this is. And yet, so few people seem to talk about it.
Often the publicity for dance classes makes it sound as if all you have to do is attend the class and you will, as if by magic, be able to learn and master the steps almost at once. If you're ever been to a dance class then you’ll know that sadly, this just isn’t true. Believe me, dance teachers wish it was true. All the planning, hard work and effort which goes into trying to teach and inspire your class, so you end with a studio of happy, fulfilled students who all know the dances inside out, is the goal of ALL dance teachers!
But the truth is that you’ve got normal people in the classes, with their own particular problems and their own difficulties (including often having to miss class). Your students are every-day, genuine people which also means they all learn in slightly different ways. They will have different problems and different needs. They are going to need different types of teaching to help them get the best out of your classes.
One of the most important part of learning dance steps is to recognise that everyone learns and remembers them differently. How YOU learn the dance, how YOU understand the steps, might be different to the person standing next to you in class. The dance class is the first place you encounter the steps of a new dance. Slowly you build up the steps till your dance choreography becomes longer and longer, and then finally it is completed, finished, learned and maybe ready to perform. But you’re only going to be able to make this happen if you leave the class with enough knowledge and understanding of the steps to be able to PRACTICE THEM – and you can’t practice them if you don’t KNOW THEM!
There are roughly five ways for students to learn dance steps. When you read this you may recognise yourself in one of these groups, or you may fall into more than one of these groups. Think about these different groups when you're next in class and maybe, once you've worked out which group YOU are, it will help with your learning. You can tell your teacher which type of learner you think you are and that will help them to focus on the best way to teach you. The five ways of learning dance steps are:
1. Muscle memory.
Your body is amazing. If you repeat movements with your body over and over again your body will remember what it has to do. There are no short cuts with this type of learning as it involves dancing the step sequence over and over again until you can dance it without thinking about it.
If you’re a muscle memory learner you need to make sure that you dance each step sequence through many times before moving onto the next and that you do this every week. PLUS in between classes you need to practice the sequences as well. Using muscle memory as your learning tool can be great, but completely replies on you being able to repeat the sequence many, many times and muscle memory can only be built up with repetition. So repeat, repeat in class and repeat, repeat at home as well.
This is a particularly good learning tool for any type of percussive dance (like Flamenco) as it relies on your brain’s ability to remember the sound and sound patterns of the percussive steps.
For some people this is a very easy way to remember as they literally hear a tune in their head which is made up from the sounds they are dancing. Flamenco dance teachers in Spain use the aural method in class a great deal and often rely on a mix of this method, together with the repetition of muscle memory for their teaching. That's why you’ll hear teachers in Spain (or Spanish teachers in the UK) saying the rhythmic sounds out loud as they teach the steps, which then becomes a verbal rhythm pattern which is spoken out loud by the teacher while the students dance the same steps over and over, and it becomes a type of short hand for remembering the steps. For example “dah, dah, dah, dah DAH, di, di y dididi, dah DAH” may not mean very much to any of you reading it now, but if your teacher repeats this aural patterning out loud every time they teach that step, gradually the sound pattern will make a tune which the student remembers.
Entire dances are learnt by students in Spain using this method (often with the musicians only joining the class when the dance has been learnt) and this helps the students to become familiar with the shape and sound of Flamenco compás, which is very important and incredibly useful as student's move into more complicated dances as their dancing progresses.
3. Learning through body shaping.
This replies on you thinking about the physical sensations that you feel when you move during your dance. Do you remember when to lift your arms or lower them in a certain place and how does it feel when you do it - are your arms soft with a gentle movement, or strong and sharp?
This isn’t the same as muscle memory as it uses a different part of the brain. It's not about being instinctive and it's more intellectual. In class, if you take a part of your dance, your teacher can break down for you and explain where you lift your arms, where you turn etc, but then it’s up to you to remember these instructions.
It’s rare that this is the only type of learning used by dance students and so remembering the shapes that your body makes is used in conjunction with other learning methods.
However, it’s another useful tool, especially when practising alone between classes. As the dance develops and you're practising try to think about how you are using the whole of your body in each part of the dance. In this part, where is your head facing? What is your body's direction and where are your arms at that point etc.
Some people cannot learn through muscle memory or aurally, or through the body shapes they make. There are no short cuts for them and they need to learn the steps, style, shape and whole dance as if they are learning a language. If you are one of these people then there's a good chance you're an intellectual learner.
Intellectual learners are the people who most benefit from writing down the steps and asking the teacher questions and also recording sections of the class to watch later when they practise at home (you don’t have to know dance notation to write down steps, they can be written in a language which no-one understands but you – providing that YOU understand them when you read them back).
Intellectual learners do best when they are taught in “certainties” and given rules about their dance to remember, which they can draw when they dance in class and practice at home. They are often less comfortable with improvising or being told to “feel the music”. Intellectual learners need to know that there are “four steps back and then cross the right foot over the left” etc. Often they benefit from notating a step sequence as soon as they have it, so they can refer to it in class and when they’re practising. Intellectual learners need to know why they are doing what they are doing at that point and exactly how a step relates to that particular note of music.
They need to know the exact positioning of their arms, how they have got them there and when it was in relation to the compás and the music.
However when an intellectual learner understands the dance well their confidence grows and they can often be the person in the class who has the best memory of step sequences, It’s very important that teachers understands this and give them the clear instruction and explanations that they need. Sometimes this is difficult with Flamenco dance as very often the "rules" seem as flexible and slippery as eels!
Some people relate so much to the music that accompanies their dance that this becomes their learning tool. They relate every step and every movement they make to a certain place in the music and they know if they’ve gone wrong straight away, because it doesn’t fit exactly with the music in the way that they remember.
Students that remember like this aren’t always musicians or even particularly musical. This is just another way that brains understands how music and dance can fit together and the one become part of the other.
However, there's two aspects of this type of learning that I'd like to flag up. One is that you shouldn't relate your dance only to the melody of the music or the words of the song, it’s essential you understanding the rhythm of the music as well. Music is shaped by its rhythm structure and never more than in Flamenco. So it's worth making sure you understand the sequence of the music in your dance.
This is particularly true if you are dancing to live music played by guitarists in your class. If your class is taught to recorded music it’s easier because the music will always be the same and the steps will always come in exactly the same place with the same music. In fact you can then also practise at home very easily if your dance is to recorded music. But if your class is accompanied by musicians, they may occasionally go wrong; make a mistake in the tune, or with the length of the phrase or the rhythm or skip over a section entirely and move into the wrong part of the dance at the wrong time (everyone is entitled to have bad days!)
So if your understanding of the steps and the way you remember this is entirely based on what your musicians play in class, make sure you know the structure of the music for your dance really well. Then even if the musicians make a mistake, you won't.
By now you may already have worked out what type of learner you are and as I said at the start of this, you may be a combination of several types. Knowing what type of learner you are may help you in class. Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are will help you to know what you need from your class and from your teacher. It's important that you ask your teacher to explain a step or a sequence of the dance if you don’t understand it. It not always appropriate to stop the class to ask this but you can speak to the teacher in a suitable break or before/after class. You're probably not the only one who doesn't understand something so it's also worth asking others in the class if they’re having a problem with that part of the dance too.
Above all, remember that the goal of your teacher is for you to know the dance well, be happy in the class and to be the best dancer you can be. Their role is to help you to achieve that, using ALL the learning tools!