Algebra, Seinfeld and Ballroom Dancing!

By Joe Donato,
all rights reserved © 2007


Have you ever rushed to get to a math class, and arrive about five minutes late, only to remain completely lost for the entire lesson? If math is not your forte, here is another example of the same phenomenon. Ever tune into an episode of Seinfeld about ten minutes too late, and you don’t get any of the jokes? Kramer will walk in to Jerry’s house wearing a red sweater and say “how do you like my new sweater?” The audience will break out in laughter and you’ll be left in the dark. That’s because you missed the setup; important exposition that we need as the glue to connect all the other bits of information. Learning to dance offers the same potential problem.


Students will tell me they “just don’t get the basic Cha Cha step” even though I saw them do it just last week. Students will also ask about advanced steps and figures, but if I show them, without having taken them through more basic patterns and technique, they get lost in the process. I am a visual thinker by nature. I am also a non-linear thinker. This is both a blessing and a curse. Things like fractions, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and musical analysis are a breeze, but balancing a checkbook can be a real challenge. Even though I can come up with amazing new variations and seemingly complex amalgamations in many different dances, it takes a lot of focus, repetition and concentration for me to memorize a new pattern or technique that I was spoon-fed. This has made me quite sympathetic to students who are trying to learn the basics, but simply “aren’t getting it”. Here’s how you “get it”: Dancing works just like mathematics or complicated plots in movies, television and literature. Complex patterns are built on top of basic patterns and scripts that we’ve already accomplished and/or established.


Here’s an example from foxtrot: Before I can teach someone how to do a progressive twinkle in foxtrot, they must first learn the basic twinkle. And in order to dance the basic twinkle, there are several important techniques they need to start mastering. First they need to develop the discipline of collecting their feet at the right time. Then they need to develop the proper contra-body movement as they dance. And on top of that, their partner needs them to maintain a strong frame throughout the figure. If they forsake any one of these, their progressive twinkle will simply not work properly. And nobody I know of has ever mastered the disciplines of collecting, contra-body movement, and the half-dozen things that comprise a strong frame in one lesson. That would be very much like the scene in the Matrix when Trinity downloaded a program through a cable attached to her brain, and within a matter of seconds, learned how to fly a helicopter. That would be great, but our technology is not there yet. We can juggle each of these techniques half-heartedly, but if we want them to be strong, we have to work on them one at a time.


It has been said over and over again by education experts as well as advertising executives, that humans need to hear something at least six times before we “own it”. That’s why, a good teacher will not be upset if they have to repeat something again, and again, without making the student feeling guilty for “missing it” the first, second, or third time. As a matter of fact, I make it a point to repeat the same things over and over again in my lessons. The same is true for our muscle memory, Our bodies have to repeat the same maneuver properly over and over again, until we find ourselves doing it unconsciously at any given time. Usually you will discover it “catching” during your daily routine, somewhere outside of the dance floor. You’ll find yourself dancing with the shopping cart in the supermarket, or when you’re waiting in the doctor’s office reading a six month old copy of People, you’ll suddenly notice your feet moving to the muzak, and you’ll say to yourself “Oh, now I’m on the ball of my foot, now I’m on the heel; ball-heel, ball-heel. I get it now!


I remember the first time I saw Argentine Tango. I walked into a dance hall and I thought "what, what are they doing? they're not allowed to do that, they're breaking the rules! The Ballroom rules, that is, which were the only rules I knew at the time. (There were new rules for this dance.) I tried it anyway, and found myself thinking "this stinks, I suddenly don't know how to dance again. I thought I was way past that phase of my life. Now I have to feel incompetent on the dance floor all over again!" I might have walked out right there and never returned, but instead I reflected back to when I was first learning the other ballroom dances. Particularly Foxtrot and Tango. I remembered that I had zero interest in them at first, and it wasn’t just because I felt awkward. It was actually the opposite. I had no interest because they were the basic versions, and I wanted the fancy stuff. I turns out I was having a similar problem with the Argentine Tango. Here’s another analogy: baking a cake. We can say the basic version of most dances are like the plain vanilla cake, without any frosting, or layers, or edible flowers. And plain vanilla cake is not very exciting to a non-linear, visual mathematician like me, who gets bored very easily. But before you can enjoy the cake with frosting, at least four things have to happen in a very specific order; mixing ingredients, baking, waiting for the cake to cool, and then applying the frosting. All that means I need yet another ingredient: patience. I already knew I had to get the basic foot positions and timing ingrained into my muscle memory to the point where I was bored with them, and hungry for something more. Once that happened, I knew I’d be ripe & ready for the next layer. I knew that if I could just have patience, and wait until I was ready, then the intimidating and complicated patterns I saw others enjoying, will no longer be daunting and frustrating to me. They will suddenly be in my grasp, and dancing will become exciting and palatable once again.


Keeping all this in mind, I accepted my "beginner status" at the Argentine tango and started learning at the basic level. When I allowed myself to undergo this season of humbling, something amazing happened. I discovered that I progressed in a few months to a level it took others years to get to. But if it wasn’t for that first month of just learning the basic rules, I know I’d still be out there floundering. Now I can't wait to take even more lessons and get humbled again and again. So, when (not if, when) you walk into a lesson a few minutes late, you just may need to find out what it was you missed. If you don’t get those valuable pieces of information, it will be like trying to add the eggs to a cake after it’s been baking for an hour. It just won’t work. Your experience on the dance floor won’t be much different than failing a math exam in high school. By the end of the episode you will feel wholly unsatisfied, with a lot of unexplained open ends rolling around in your head.


Going into a lesson with the attitude that I know nothing is not always easy. It takes a conscious effort to set the ego aside, start at the beginning and let the teacher lead. But when I do it, it opens me up to see things in a way I was blind to before. And that's the joy for me. With each new accomplishment, no matter how basic or complex, there is an ever growing assurance that if I just continue and persevere, the joy will always be reborn anew. Now that I'm exceptional at the Ballroom Tango, Foxtrot, and the Argentine Tango, I love them all. But if I was always good at them from the beginning, I'd probably never have the same joy that I have now when I dance them; the joy of accomplishment. It all starts with starting at the beginning and learning the basics. Gotta go, Seinfeld is starting. Can’t miss the beginning!


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