Editorial: With the Camber Sands Dance Festival over and Blackpool looming everyone at Wright Rhythm should be getting in to their competative stride. We are probably all wondering how we are going to perform on the day and what we can do to improve that performance. This, then, is a timely article to help us think about our practice routines. Many thanks for an excellent article that will be of benefit to everyone from beginner to elite.
Published Tuesday February 26 2008, by Andrew Dancer
Practice makes Perfect (or at least...better!)
Mention the word "practice" and many of us suddenly find any excuse to avoid doing it? We all want to be better dancers, to feel confident and proud whenever we walk onto the competition floor, but are reluctant to put in the time and effort to achieve those goals.
Most dancers realise that the most effective way to improve their skills is through training, and invariably those who do train, show more consistent progress than those who don't.
To a large extent, to win a competition you need to first believe you can win it. But merely believing is not enough. You need to put yourself in a position from which it is possible to win.
Any champion competes knowing they have prepared, and thus are confident in what they can do effectively. They are able to remain focused and concentrate on reasons why they should perform to potential and not on excuses why it would be acceptable to lose.
Success is not really about talent; it's about preparation.
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent..."
- Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge
Remember - "Potential means you have not done it yet."
In order to correctly perform several different dance elements, the body must be able to function independently of concentration -- in other words, good dancing skills must be habitual. Habits can only be formed through repetition.
"We practice an incredible amount of time, you see, practice is not only in the dance studio, practice is when we walk, when we talk, when we are sitting in the car thinking or feeling a dance, a movement or a principle, a dancer is a dancer 24 hours a day"
- Luca and Loraine Baricchi
Champions realise that preparation is key to success and that competitions are won in the training sessions. Therefore they create their luck by studying the competition, planning a strategy and anticipating the risks. They are always aware that there is someone capable of beating them and so they train, to prepare for that situation.
Ask yourself this:
- Are you someone who believes you do not need help or more preparation and is content where you are; or
- Are you that person who knows you will face new problems and must prepare for them?
Which would you say is the Champion's mindset? A useful attitude to adopt may be this:
"When I get tired and want to stop, I wonder what my opponent is doing. I'd wonder if he/she is still working out. I try to visualize him. When I see him still working, I start pushing myself. I push myself harder."
The key is to believe in yourself - tell yourself that you are good enough. And then practice - outside of having lessons.
As darts players say: "Three rules for becoming a good player - practice, practice, practice!"
Practice makes better -- if not perfect. The benefits of training are that it increases our muscle memory and fine-tunes our skills allowing us to build on what we have achieved, so that we may move onto the next level. It enables our confidence to start to build.
"If you want perfection when people are watching, you have to expect perfection from yourself when people aren't watching. 'Only perfect practice makes perfect.'"
When training, ensure you remain focused, because you will dance like you practice. If you train at 80%, how will you suddenly be able to perform at 100% on the day, when there is pressure? Being focused when training helps to ensure you stay focused when competing?
"To give yourself the best possible chance of playing to your potential, you must prepare for every eventuality. That means practice."
- Steve Ballesteros
Regularity also has a bearing on progress. Too much time between lessons breaks up the continuity of the learning progress. Unless you are training, you may forget a lot of the previous lesson/s. The result is in your next session, your teacher is forced to unnecessarily repeat topics. If nothing else this has got to become frustrating for, teacher and student, as well as an unnecessary expense.
So how much should we practice? Some say a 5:1 ratio is required, i.e. 5 hours of practice to 1 hour of lessons. Whatever the ratio the important message is this - you will never become proficient in ballroom dancing, (or anything else, for that matter) without practice. If you're having a problem with a particular step or pattern, it's acceptable to hang around a few minutes after class and go through it a time or two with your partner. Practice the steps at home once or twice a day, you'll be amazed how much better you retain them throughout the week and it will make the next class just that much easier. A benefit of arriving early for a lesson is it allows you the time to warm up and practice those steps once more before the session begins.
"It is not enough to have a lesson and listen to what the teacher says. You should understand what she/he says and then turn that, into your motion. You have to go and do it all, over and over and over again, to make it your dance experience and your knowledge."
- Jukka Haapalainen four-times world champion
"What I notice from a teacher's point of view is that people want to express, but nine out of ten times they don't have a clue what they are expressing! I ask in the lesson, "What are you doing there?" They almost always say they don't know. How can they express if they don't know what they are doing? Clarity of mind is so important.
"There are thousands of subjects that you can explore but a very simple one is just timing of your choreography. Go through everything and know your timing and rhythm. Then you can decide where to focus and what dynamic to use. The clearer you create that picture in your mind the easier it is to use your soul to express. It's simple. It might sound very off the wall and spiritual, but the brain is not working enough. They come into a lesson and expect me to tell them what they have to do. I feel they should tell me what they want to do while I sit in a chair and just ask questions. Most of the time the student asks the teacher questions, and that comes back to the current system. The teacher has the power, and I don't think that's right. We should be there to give the couples the power to produce whatever they want to produce. If the teacher says to use the arm this way and they go out on the floor and do it, it's really not them is it? Because the teacher is not in the student's body. This is actually more of a teacher's tip but for the dancers as well, get clear in your mind what you are doing. That opens a lot of doors to new areas. And once you know it you can let it go because it's muscle memory. That's what Karyna and I do... we get it clear and do it over and over. Then we both know what we are doing and we don't have fights.
"Also, take one subject at a time instead of ten. A lot of couples practice two hours, five dances, five or six subjects. Then after those two hours they think, "What have I done?" You have so much that you don't know what to do anymore and you don't remember it. We might do one subject for a day, or for a week. Before Blackpool we did one subject for two months! It takes such a long time to change habits."
- Louis Van Amstel
There is something in what Louis Van Amstel says here. People sometimes spread themselves too thin by trying to do too many things at once. Working smart is better than just working hard.
Working smarter means doing the right things, the right amount, and at the right time in order to improve physically, technically, tactically, and psychologically. By focusing and mastering one thing at a time, it gives you a solid foundation that you can then build on.
However, just practicing isn't always enough. You have to be involved in what you are doing. You have to learn from the heart. When you start to do something quite well, don't just repeat that, stretch yourselves further. This is what makes the difference. By only repeating the parts you feel that you can do well, will not make you an expert. It's working on the boring parts, the foundations and baseline fundamentals that make the difference.
"The difference between a good athlete and a top athlete is the top athlete will do the mundane things when nobody's looking."
- Susan True
A Word of Caution
But also realise that, since a repeated action will become habit whether that action is desirable or not, be careful that CORRECT performance is practiced.
You may already know the importance of practicing. But it is the way the practice is carried out that truly matters. If you are just going through the motions, practicing for a certain amount of time each day just to say that you have practiced, then you are really not doing enough.
You have to learn to practice the right way. Instead of practicing to make perfect, we should practice in a perfect way, in order to realize perfection.
This is the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
Attaining a degree of strength and endurance is important but it is not the end goal of practicing - it is only one component of the end goal. After all, what good is having a lot of strength and endurance if it just means you can be a mediocre dancer for a longer period of dance time? The point is that quality practicing is a lot more important than a time based, i.e. quantitative approach to practicing.
How can we check if we are putting our practice and our mental exercises to good use? Try "testing" yourself, periodically, such as, getting someone to video you performing. Perhaps a trusted colleague, who you can rely on, could give you honest feedback. Go to your lessons with an agenda of what you need to be checked and improved on.
It's important to ensure these practice sessions are challenging, interesting and more importantly, that they are designed with specific objectives. The objectives allow you to measure you improvement. Excuses such as lack of talent, dance errors and judges are used to justify poor results. When maybe it was poorly organized practices with specific objectives that might be the real reason for the lack of success. Develop a Practice Plan.
"We try to practice every day, if possible, but we do have days without training too. Our practice has to involve a mental element, running your routines around is not good enough no matter how much you do it. You always have to have a vision of what you are trying to achieve, otherwise you will not achieve anything."
- Sergey Ryupin (UK Open Professional Rising Star Latin 2000)
Even if you are not the most talented dancer, it is still possible to talk yourself into winning. Top sportspeople use visual imagery. Instead of worrying about the others, they concentrate on their most pleasurable dances and visualize themselves dancing the perfect dance.
If you are on the dance floor and something unforeseen happens, such as getting bumped or getting stuck in a corner, what do you do? Focus, Fold or Freeze? The answer will depend on your awareness and training - or lack thereof. A champion's mindset is achievement orientated. They will have rehearsed and prepared for that eventuality so that they will be able to automatically focus, pull it together and achieve.
The complete dancer will have thought through every scenario and worked out their response. The more often they run through those situations in their mind, working out how they would react, the easier it will be in the actual competition.
If you need to reinforce this, you could try saying a little mantra to yourself every time you think about the big day: 'Who is going to win? I am going to win'. It may sound childish, but it's a technique many sportspeople have used - it works. Imagine how good you could be if you took on the attitude in which you refused to lose in any condition that you have control over. Tough concept - but also intriguing?
Mental toughness is just as important as the physical training. On any given day, you may not want to train, however this is when you build up your mental toughness. By forcing yourself to train, you prepare your mind and body to get stronger.
"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Winning has little to do with chance and luck and everything to do with dedication, persistence and consistency.
Practice might not necessarily make you perfect, but it will certainly help you improve and be better prepared. You'll notice that nervousness and anxiety reduce as you feel more in control and familiar with your moves and routines.
You win in the preparation, not in the competition and preparation is what will win you trophies.
"I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself."
- Mikhail Baryshnikov
You may have won, without implementing any of the above. However I believe that is "the exception to the rule". What do you believe?