23. Lessons and Practice, the crucial hours

Had I been writing a book on competitive dancing instead of a series of articles for weekly publication, I would have started at the beginner level. From learning the basic steps of each dance, I would gradually have progressed through the various stages of essential knowledge until, in the crucial final chapters, arriving at the advanced stages of The Making Of A Champion. That is how a book would have come out; i.e. as a logical ladder of development (although I might have written the end chapters before the middle, the middle before the first).

The advanced dancer, picking up such a book, could move direcdy to the chapters which concerned him or her. The intermediate dancer could, perhaps, skip the first two or three chapters, while the novice would start at the beginning. As an author, I would be aiming at a specific target audience; the most obvious (and largest) being the groups of social dancers, medallists and dancers in all countries who might be in the process of being attracted by the charms of the hobby of Dancesport.

The book would be set out in order of development from competitive beginner upwards: (a) How to start studying for competitions, the fundamentals, (b) The early and middle stages of progression as a stylist, in technical accuracy, in quality of movement, (c) The advanced dancer’s route to the final objective of championship success. But in writing this series of ‘The Making Of A Champion’ articles for Dance News I have used a different method to fit the circumstances. Most readers, from championship level downwards, are already hooked on competition dancing. I do not, therefore, have the task of trying to convert them into keen competition dancers. In assembling a list of subjects in order of priority, I gave precedence in my opening article of this series not to the basic principles of the standardized technique but to the evolvement of the vital driving force of an indomitable ‘Will-To- Win’.

This, by implication, also means the laying down of a solid foundation of total dedication to practice as a means of consistent improvement. Dr Henry Holcomb, a psychiatrist from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, and Dr Reza Shadmehr have been doing research on the human brain and its ability to learn new skills. The results of their study were published in the magazine Science. Apparently, they used ‘magnetic resonance imaging’ – whatever that is – to record the areas of the brain that were used in the initial learning of a skill. They found that the information about the new skill is, at first, accommodated in a temporary storage area at the front of the brain.

It is then, over a period of six hours or so, encoded in a more permanent form in an area at the back of the brain.

The message, which applies to dancing as well as all sports and ‘motor’ skills seems to be that you cannot rush — ‘pressure-cook’ — your lessons! This important 6- hour period after the lesson must be used for reinforcement of the ideas/concepts which were the subject of the lesson.

As a teacher, I have long been aware that, following the giving of a lesson in dancing, for maximum retentivity, there must in all cases be frequent refreshing of the work learnt; even though individuals might differ widely in the speed with which they acquire a new skill and in their inborn capacity for retentiveness.

I assessed this ‘re-capping’ process as being especially important during the first 24 hours after the lesson. In my early years as an amateur dancer, there was no question of my ‘rushing my lessons’ one after the other. I could afford only one hour-long lesson a week, providing my partner shared half the cost. This lesson was taken in the Blackpool Winter Gardens building in the interval between finishing work (my place of work was very near the Winter Gardens) and the start of the evening public dancing session at the Empress Ballroom which we attended nightly.

The big advantage of this was that our partnership would be engaged in mentally and physically reinforcine the information given in the lesson during the following three or four hours of dancing (and every evening thereafter) until our next weekly lesson. The findings of these two research psychiatrists show that we had achieved the correct balance between lesson and practice. Totally unaware of the scientific reasoning behind this principle – the relationship between a lesson and its subseauent practice – for maximising retention we were, by sheer luck, doing it right.

This raises interesting questions over those dancers who do the rounds, going from one teacher to another in one day or who, perhaps, visit several different coaches in a week. The basic question being, “What benefit do they really get?” Certainly not an appreciable improvement in performance, if psychiatrists Dr Holcomb and Dr Shadmehr (and the results of my own experiences) are to be believed.

To summarize: A second lesson following too closely after the first will cause problems of memory retention of the initial lesson. Equally, so will failing to practice or failing even to think through the lesson within this crucial period of six hours while the brain is at work encoding from the temporary into the permanent storage area.