How to Learn to Dance

Can learning the Lindy Hop make you a better thinker, doer, internet user? Lessons from Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind hint that it might

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared...

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Johnny is balancing on a log over a creek in the Catskill mountains, and Baby is watching him.

“So where’d you learn to be a dancer?” Baby asks.

“Well,” Johnny says, lowering himself to straddle the lucky log, “this guy came into the luncheonette one day and well, you know, we were all sitting around doing nothing, and he said that Arthur Murray was giving a test for instructors so if you passed—” Johnny swings himself easily back into a standing position, stretches out his muscular arms, and shrugs—he’s modest. “They teach you all these different kinds of dances, show you how to break ’em down, how to teach ’em.”

Then the soundtrack kicks out the first strains of “Hey Baby,” and Patrick Swayze crooks a finger at Jennifer Grey. “Oh no,” she says, but soon they are bumping and grinding over a ten-foot drop, kept steady by the simple grace of core strength and young love.

That was in 1963. Funny enough, the Dirty Dancing scenario happened to me in 2005. Not the part where I lost my virginity to a sensitive working-class boy in the Catskills, but the part where I was minding my own business when a stranger smiled at me and when I smiled back she asked if I was interested in being a ballroom dance teacher at the Arthur Murray dance school. I was clinging to a strap on the green line of the Montreal metro. I told the woman I didn’t have any dance experience, but she told me it didn’t matter. “I think you have the right attitude,” she said.

The studio was a small, sweaty walk-up on Ste. Catherine. When I arrived the next day, the woman—whose name I forget—was there with two other girls, Melissa and Artemis. It seemed that the school had held open auditions the previous week and only these two had been promising. The school wanted to hire one instructor, so they would spend a month training the three of us in the waltz, the foxtrot, the tango, the merengue, the salsa, and the Lindy Hop, and then pick one of us. Melissa had worked as a professional swing dancer, and Artemis had several years of salsa training. I had smiled at a woman on the subway.

Spoiler: I am not a ballroom dance instructor. As it turns out, learning and remembering both the leads and follows for six different dances in the space of a few nights a week over a single month takes more than a positive attitude. But what exactly does it take?

*

We live in the Information Age, in which our encounters with new facts and ideas are seemingly infinite. In his new book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin writes, “Five exabytes (5 X 1018) of new data were produced in January 2012 alone—that’s 50,000 times the number of words in the entire Library of Congress.”

The Organized Mind starts with good news and bad news. The good news is that some neuroscientists believe that everything we’ve ever seen, heard, read, or thought is still camped out somewhere along the hairpin turns of our neural pathways. The bad news is that our brains are not the efficient grids favoured by modern urban planning. Instead, they’re London built on Lundenwic built on Londinium built on Brythonic settlements crammed with goats. (One thing the human brain is not well designed to do is prioritize decisions, which is why the question, “Should I have lunch now or in an hour?” can actually take mental resources away from the lawyer wondering, “What kind of charges should I bring against this defendant?”)

Levitin is interested in how we cope with information overload in both our careers and our personal lives. His main answer is simple: offloading. “More than ever,” he writes, “effective external systems are available for organizing, categorizing, and keeping track of things.” In other words, keep information somewhere other than in your brain. Write down your to-do lists and keep stray thoughts on index cards. Start actively sorting your tasks to identify what is urgent and what is not. Things won’t rattle around because they are battened down—our information will be in its correct place when we need it.

As it turns out, learning and remembering both the leads and follows for six different dances in the space of a few nights a week over a single month takes more than a positive attitude. But what exactly does it take?

But what about information that comes in a form that doesn’t lend itself to externalization? For most of us who went through the conventional education system, strategies for processing non-verbal information have never been presented in a formal way. And what Levitin is talking about—creating a set of categories to help us label and organize information—isn’t just about remembering when we’re supposed to do the laundry. The idea of looking out on the world from the vantage point of an organized mind means gaining agency over how we pay attention—and therefore what we see.

Dance is an art form that does not lend itself well to transcribing, recording, or archiving. Its practitioners need to rely on their bodies and minds to learn and retain complex sequences—and in performance, infuse their execution with emotional expression. How dancers deal with the barrage of highly detailed information coming toward them in the studio carries hints about how our brains can learn to separate, capture, and make sense of the frenetic world we live in.

*

Over the past decade, cognitive scientists have been asking how dancers perceive, recreate, and remember abstract movements. It’s a challenge unlike the struggle to remember facts and figures. In the classical ballet tradition, steps have names—plié, pas-de-chat, arabesque—and remembering the sets of motions these tags refer to is hard enough, since the names are not always descriptive. But in modern dance, choreographies are idiosyncratic and there is no standardized vocabulary or repertoire of steps.

If you are listening to a lecture about the French Revolution and are reasonably good at typing or writing longhand, you can transcribe everything the professor says. If you aren’t so quick, you can at least write down “sans-culottes” and “1793” and “January=Pluviôse,” and expect these key terms to jog your memory when you review your notes later. The content of a dance class is harder to articulate, and it is not generally possible to take notes. Instead, students are expected to learn by watching the instructor and trying to reproduce what they see with their bodies. When they leave the studio, the steps must be stored in their minds and their muscles, and the information must be retrievable for the next class or the next performance.

In this phase, visual and auditory information is saved together—the sound of your teacher’s voice as she demonstrates a movement is knitted together with the flickering of the overhead light and the feeling of your bare feet touching the floor where there are holes in your socks

In the fall of 2007, a suite of neuroscientists, dancers, and choreographers met in Bielefeld, Germany, to discuss how the discoveries of neuroscience might help dancers learn steps more easily, and how the experiences of dancers might illuminate the field of embodied cognition. In her contribution to the book that emerged from this conference, The Neurognition of Dance: Mind, Movement, and Motor Skills, neuroscientist Bettina Bläsing explains the basic processes that underlie our perception and storage of new information: “Anything an individual sees or hears is available for several milliseconds in a sensory storage, like an afterimage or echo,” she writes.

From this initial mental imprint, information our brains consider relevant is transferred to our short-term or working memory. In this phase, visual and auditory information is saved together—the sound of your teacher’s voice as she demonstrates a movement is knitted together with the flickering of the overhead light and the feeling of your bare feet touching the floor where there are holes in your socks. From here, relevant information is transferred again into long-term memory.

Long-term memory is stored in two different forms: declarative and non-declarative. Declarative memory is memory you can put into words—that Paris is the capital of France, that two and two is four, and that you once went to the zoo and followed a blue set of painted monkey prints to the monkey cage. When a dancer first learns a dance step, the movements are stored in a declarative way—step left, shuffle right.

Non-declarative memory, also known as procedural memory, is harder to put into words; you know how to swim, but you can’t necessarily explain it. As the dancer performs and rehearses the movements, the accumulation of sensory experience—what the motions feel like in the body—rebuilds the sequence as a non-declarative memory. Soon, it no longer requires the dancer’s conscious attention (and may not even be accessible for him or her to explain in words).

Levitin writes:

The easiest way to get someone to fall off a bicycle is to ask him to concentrate on how he’s staying up, or to describe what he’s doing. The great tennis player John McEnroe used this to his advantage on the courts. When an opponent was performing especially well, for example by using a particularly good backhand, McEnroe would compliment him on it. McEnroe knew this would cause the opponent to think about his backhand, and this thinking disrupted the automatic application of it.

The paradox of dance as an art form is the paradox of any art form, which is also its mystique: it’s a highly labour-intensive process that ends up looking and feeling natural.

But the expression of skill and the acquisition of skill are utterly different brain-states, and only the first conforms to the romantic notion of what it is to be an artist. “Don’t think,” beginners will sometimes be advised, as if the brain is nothing but a set of muddy fingerprints on the spirit’s windows.

*

One of the imperative cognitive and emotional struggles of the modern age is to stand up against the firehose of new information trained on us at work and at home. Part of our sense of information overload—and what makes us feel lost and panicked in the face of so much we don’t understand—is that the ideas, facts, and events we learn about feel disconnected from one another. The world is incoherent in its details, and the details are what scream toward us at terrible speed. In a dance studio, the body needs to move as a harmonious whole, but it’s incredibly difficult for a novice dancer to keep track of what both the feet and the hands should be doing at the same time.

Professor Ruth Day is the director of the Memory for Movement Lab at Duke University and Cognitive-Scientist-in-Residence at the American Dance Festival. She spoke with me from her office at Duke, where she conducts experiments on how dancers perceive and remember movement. As she explained, there is great scope for dancers to apply neuroscience’s discoveries, especially in the very first phase—perception.

Non-declarative memory, also known as procedural memory, is harder to put into words; you know how to swim, but you can’t necessarily explain it.

“If you are a beginning dancer and the teacher shows you this next phrase or combination, it’s probably going to be too much for you to take all of it in,” she told me. “So what are you going to pay attention to?” Eventually, Day said, the dancer needs to be able to reproduce all of the dance’s movements, but focussing too much on creating a perfect copy of what the instructor is doing can be counterproductive at first. “There are different strategies—I’m not going to say there’s one best way because there are some differences across people—but some things to think about are what is the overall shape? Does it move?… Is it fast or slow, is it jumping, is it angular, is it round?”

Day has developed a technique that helps dancers to “chunk” information. Cognitive chunking is the name scientists give to how perception and memory work to segment information into meaningful packets. Levitin explains it this way:

Consider a question such as asking a friend, ‘What did you do yesterday?’ Your friend might give a simple, high-level overview such as, ‘Oh, yesterday was like any other day. I went to work, came home, had dinner, and then watched TV.’ Descriptions like these are typical of how people talk about events, making sense of a complex dynamic world in part by segmenting it into a modest number of meaningful units.

If you ask your friend what they had for dinner, he continues, they might tell you about making a salad. Press them for more detail, he says; ask them to explain the process as if to someone who has never made salad in their life. Then you might get a response like this:

I took out a wooden salad bowl from the cupboard and wiped it clean with a dish towel. I opened the refrigerator and took out a head of red leaf lettuce from the vegetable crisper. I peeled off layers of lettuce leaves, looked carefully to make sure there weren’t any bugs or worms, tore the leaves into bite-sized pieces, then soaked them in a bowl of water for a bit. Then I drained the water, rinsed the leaves…

One difference between an expert and a novice dancer is that where the novice sees a string of meaningless physical details that seem to run into one another, the expert sees an ordered progression of meaningful movement events. What Johnny talked about in Dirty Dancing—how to break a dance down—is what Day’s lab is working on refining. “Now dancers sometimes talk about ‘breaking it down’ or ‘going into sections,’ but those are kind of by convenience of whoever made the piece usually,” Day says. “We’re talking now more about what are the chunks that you perceive.”

A dancer can take control of how he or she remembers a set of movements by deliberately chunking and then labelling the sequences in a meaningful way. This phase—the capture phase—is where individual differences are important, Day says. She categorizes the main ways dancers tag the chunks they’ve perceived as linguistic, visual, or kinesthetic. You might capture a chunk with a word—either a name the instructor gave to a step or a name you make up yourself. You might have a mental representation of what you looked like doing the step in the mirror. Or you might remember what the muscles in your abdomen felt like as you moved.

Understanding these three systems, Day says, can help teachers enrich their instruction style by making use of what she has termed a hybrid cue. “So picture some kind of dance phrase in your head—one way to do it would be just counts: ‘one and two, three and four, five and six, and seven-and-eight.’ Or you could say, ‘reach around,’ etc. Or you can say, ‘one-reach-two, three-around, five-and-up, and six-and-a-seven-and-a-down!’”

Humans crave a sense of connection and meaning—we want to feel a harmonic resonance between the different parts of our lives and our thoughts. In recent years, the science of creativity has popularized the idea of “flow states,” a term first used by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a flow state, the individual seems to dissolve into the task at hand. That sense of cosmic oneness, in which instinct seems to take over from conscious thought and processes once painstakingly learned have become automatic, is what happens once the brain has arranged itself to be most receptive.

I spoke with my friend Lia Grainger, a journalist who moonlights as a professional flamenco dancer. “When I’m learning a choreography, I have to be really consciously thinking—it’s the opposite of performance,” she told me. For a difficult sequence, she’ll have a running internal monologue describing how her left foot is placed, how the ball goes down and then the heel, then the right foot moves behind, and so forth.

Humans crave a sense of connection and meaning—we want to feel a harmonic resonance between the different parts of our lives and our thoughts.

During performance, however, all of these thoughts drop away. “Ideally I’m not thinking about the steps or the dance,” Grainger says. “Flamenco is so emotionally expressive and to be able to dance that way—to be in the moment and feeling what the song is about—you have to be past the point where you’re thinking about the steps.”

The neuroscientists who have studied expert dancers have found that this expressive, seemingly free emotional state is a result of an orderly, tightly structured set of perceptions and memories—what some call a cognitive architecture of dance. When Grainger was starting out as a dancer, she felt she lacked a framework to make sense of new movement information. Over the years, that structure has been built up, and she has a context for new movements she is working to assimilate in the studio.

“Learning to dance,” writes Martin Puttke, the former artistic director of Berlin’s State Ballet School, “means learning to think!”

*

In 2005, I didn’t know how to think. As Melissa and Artemis moved in time to the Arthur Murray instructor’s demonstrations, I trailed along a beat behind feeling as if there were something wrong with my eyes. I saw the movements, but I didn’t understand what I was seeing. They were like sentences in which the nouns and verbs were all jumbled together, and I couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began. Every time I left the studio, I forgot what I had learned.

There came a day when I simply couldn’t absorb anymore. We were learning one of the basic figures in the Lindy Hop, and we had just switched our lead and follow. I had been following, and now I would be directing the movement. “They’re the same steps,” Melissa said; she was paired with me and would be following my lead. “It’s exactly the same, except you step forward here instead of back and as you step forward you raise your left arm.” We tried, and at the point when I should have raised my arm I didn’t raise my arm. “It’s exactly the same,” she said, and we tried again. I didn’t raise my arm. The instructor came over and watched as we started over, and this time I forgot the rhythm of the footwork.

As it happened, Melissa, Artemis and I all quit together. When they finally showed us the contract we would be signing, it stipulated that, since the Arthur Murray school had just spent considerable time and resources training the new instructor, it would effectively own her for the next several years. Our cognitive architecture, it turned out, had live-in landlords.

Still, vestiges of what the school was trying to build continue to haunt some out-of-the-way neighbourhood of my brain. What I loved most about those sessions in the tiny studio, where the smell of garbage rose up from the street, was an exercise we did to prepare for learning the tango. “Shut your eyes,” the instructor said, “and walk.” With our eyes closed, we took turns walking in pairs across the room, facing each other, the lead’s hand on the follow’s ribcage, the follow’s hand on the triangle of the lead’s bicep.

For the follow, walking backwards, the trick was to be fluid enough to be moved, but firm enough not to be stepped on. You moved as a whole, so you never lost yourself. To approach our fast-moving information age with a dancer’s flexibility is to allow ourselves to be moved—by facts, ideas, emotions, and events—without allowing ourselves to be lost.

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