For the first 32 years of my life, I can honestly say that I could not dance. I may have moved along to the music as a young child, but that did not last long enough to have formed a memory.
All I can remember is attempting to dance and realising that I couldn’t do what others were doing. The first type of dancing I would have come across would have been Punjabi dancing at weddings.
This came in two varieties:
The first was old school Punjabi dancing called ‘giddha‘ that my mother and her contemporaries would have danced at weddings.
The songs, sung acapella, were passed down from generation to generation, as were the moves to go with them. Women would gather in a circle and start singing, the intro to the ‘mini-song’ (none lasted longer than a minute). The dancing, which stopped as quickly as it started, was too fast paced for me to pick it up.
The idea is that two women would ‘step up’ and dance the moves that went with the song, it was then up to individuals to step in and out with different partnerships. Good ones would involve the women carrying on until they were tired! Sometimes there would be three or four in the middle of the circle. Anyone who was not confident or assured would just stay in the circle. I wanted to be one of the ones in the middle, but my few attempts landed in failure. The dancing, which stopped as quickly as it started, was too fast paced for me to pick it up.
Mum seemed to get it and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t as she had picked it up largely from watching and learning when attending weddings as a child. In India, all close relatives – which usually means anyone related to your great grandparents and even beyond – would be invited to a wedding so she attended a LOT of weddings. While I know I attended more weddings than many of my non-Indian peers; it was still not enough to help me learn. A later attempt by my cousins on my one and only trip to India ended with similar failure and for the same reasons.
The second type of dancing was Bhangra.
Associated with Punjabi Sikhs, it predates the religion and was a folk dance performed during the Vaisakhi celebrations, which is now better known as the Sikh New Year but was originally a harvest festival. Some of the movements even mimic actions related to harvesting.
Traditionally it was danced in formation by men but it evolved a more free form variety, which led to the modern free form bhangra. This is what I would have encountered at weddings.
Dancing wise it was marginally better as I could mimic the moves a bit but I felt, as I felt dancing free-form to any type of music, awkward, clumsy and strangely out of kilt. So I usually just sat it out saying that I didn’t like dancing when the truth was that I desperately wanted to but just didn’t know how.
I was pre-National Curriculum so no form of dance was taught to me unless you count Maypole dancing (which I do) but that was only at primary.
I was thankfully spared school discos at primary and secondary as it would have involved nothing more than more embarrassment and shuffling.
At home, I would bob along to Bros, Kylie and Take That, imagining what it would be like to actually be able to dance properly but I knew I was just flailing around. I couldn’t even enjoy it in the privacy of my own room away from prying eyes because I knew that I didn’t know how. My move towards more indie and rock music provided some temporary relief from the situation.
Enter adulthood and alcohol. Now alcohol did not help me to dance. It simply gave me the occasional boost of confidence to get my Napoleon Dynamite on in public but unless I was way gone, I was always aware that I was, to be honest, rubbish. I had no rhythm, couldn’t pull off even the simplest of moves and so I resigned myself to a life of not dancing or only doing so when I and others were sufficiently drunk so that I, and they, could not recall what I had actually done.
Now at this point, I can imagine there are people who would think it’s simply a self-esteem issue.
No, improving my self-esteem really wasn’t going to help me learn something I could not do.
I should just dance like no one was watching.
I get that but as I said I wasn’t happy dancing even in the privacy of my own home because I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing.
Occasionally someone would try to show me – my friends at secondary school and university – but they didn’t really get why I couldn’t just do what they were doing and inevitably they and I would give up.
Like an illiterate yearning to read, I wanted to but did not know how. I wasn’t picking it up and I didn’t get what I was doing wrong either.
Fast forward a decade: one of my colleagues mentioned they went salsa dancing. Another colleague then stated how she had always wanted to learn and a few others joined in. I was apprehensive but was reassured that they were proper classes and that they catered for absolute beginners.
So it was one Thursday that we all found ourselves making our way to the venue – Wessex House – across the street from Clapham Junction Station – its small entrance belied the fact that up two sets of stairs was a huge dance hall and separate bar area. The beginners class was in the bar area and contained way more women than men, a fact that was reversed in later classes.
Despite a so-so first lesson, I had a laugh with my colleagues but I barely managed to keep up with the teachers as my feet refused to cooperate, I fell deeply in love with salsa.
This was my spiritual home. Salsa was the religion and the teachers gods (of the Ancient Greek variety), possessed of a wisdom that we could only one day hope to attain. It was a true cross-section of society, all arriving at 7pm to learn to dance like those snake-hipped Latinos.
I culturally appropriated and I liked it.
At a purely superficial level, I loved that the female teacher wore red sparkly shoes. The music was amazing (I was to learn later that the lyrics were tacky but I didn’t understand Spanish and I didn’t/don’t care). In the salsa world, no dress could have too many sequins or fringes. No skirt could be too short or too ruffled. No colour was too bright. No move too outrageous. But while one can look the part and enjoy the atmosphere, it’s not a substitute for the real deal – being able to dance.
Moving in time to the music did not come easily. For starters, they kept telling us to ‘feel the music’. Rolling my eyes and proclaiming I’m British was my natural instinct. Feel the music indeed!!
However, I learnt slowly that one of the reasons I had been going wrong was precisely that. I was focusing on the lyrics more than the music.
Now I did know about beats from music lessons but I obviously had not mastered that knowledge and I certainly did not get the connection to dancing.
To correspond the beats that with the basic step (1,2,3_5,6,7_) was a revelation, as was the idea of listening and finding the 1 (essential for beginners making lots of mistakes so we could tune ourselves back in if we messed up a step).
It took me hours of just listening to music, not even dancing, to really get to grips with it. The basic salsa move was the hardest to learn.
For the first two months, I practiced whenever I got a chance, for hours in the evening. Over and over again, trying to get my feet to move in time to the music, not fall over, self-correcting, starting again, finding that bloody 1 (I could lose it so easily at the time and would have to start the song again where I was surer of where it was).
But there was also the fact that I had to learn to move without looking at my feet, so hard when learning where to put them in the first place. But it had to be done as a bad habit like that was not going to be easily unlearnt. Also, it meant that you couldn’t dance with a partner – you wouldn’t see what their arms were doing or pick up when they were about to turn you.
So I had to listen for the 1, move my feet in time, keep my head up.
Oh, and the arms, the arms had to remain at shoulder level as it is a partner dance after all and also to execute moves.
Trying to learn each skill and bring all of that together was like juggling balls. If I got the timing right, I inevitably had not kept my arms up. If I had kept my head up, I would start off on the wrong foot. Over and over again I had to practice, correct and try again. None of it came naturally. I persevered. I went to class every single week at Wessex House and started to catch a second class on another night if I could, so I could learn from the teachers.
The thing that used to strike me was how it was like teaching and learning in any other context. After a few weeks we moved from the absolute beginners to beginners class. This is where we would continue to practice the basic step and add some turns. However, being able to dance the basic step in time to the music was key. There was no way that one could progress without it. Every time we started a dance, we did the basic step, every time we learnt a new move, there were basic steps in between to make it more manageable.
They told us not to take ourselves off to the next class up without talking to the teacher first. Why? The basic step. One teacher told us of a class in Cuba he had attended where they did nothing but the basic step during beginners lessons until it was truly mastered.
There was also someone who thought they had got it but was hopelessly out of sync with the music. Without a shared understanding we couldn’t dance together. If the turn was on the four then we both needed to be sure where that was, to avoid injury if nothing else!
It was always the first part of any routine and when it came to dancing with people at the club afterwards. Stumble on that and the rest was a mess. All other steps were built on the knowledge of that basic step, it couldn’t be bypassed as that something else relied on the knowledge of the basic step being mastered.
While mostly we danced with a partner, there was scope for a bit of free-form dancing, a part of the dance where your partner would let you go and you would do ‘shines’. The purpose of which was to show off what you could do. You can see my friend Alison teaching one here. You can hear her shouting out basic step because we were expected by the time we got to intermediate class we were expected to be able to just do it whenever we needed to.
I loved learning the shines. There was always a lag however, as there was at every step of the way, between what I could do in class and what I could do at home on my own or when dancing with a partner after the lessons had ended. It took further practice to build up my confidence but it did come.
Once I had mastered the steps I was able to listen to different songs and start to use what I’d learned. I would try to match the shines to particular parts of the song and sometimes this worked and other times it didn’t. No matter, because at this point I was way more confident and mistakes did not phase me as much. This was the first time as an adult I learnt as a novice, and it was way before my days as a blogger and twitter botherer.
It is clear that direct instruction was needed and worked. If I had gone each week and been expected to work it out for myself, I would be sitting here, little better off than when I started.
My prior knowledge was of little help and mostly a load of misconceptions.
Looking back my peers were still learning themselves in many cases had their own insecurities and misconceptions. As teachers, we do ourselves a disservice when we forget that not everyone can break a concept down. The recent criticisms of the grammar requirements in KS1 and KS2 makes me wonder what this is about – lack of knowledge, ability to break it down or unwillingness to learn? Of course, there are a myriad of other reasons, but I would not have countenanced it as a dance student if my teacher couldn’t be bothered to learn and then teach me how to do a turn, for example.
Teaching the basic step several different ways was not going to help someone who was already so lost when it came to dancing!! Multiplicity of methods is no substitute for perseverance with one that works. I agree there is a point at which it has to be acknowledged that something else is needed, but I think we are far to quick to jump the gun in education or assume that a change of tack is required. It’s a fine line between acknowledging a method isn’t working and muddying the waters.
All the little skills had to be practiced by themselves. As Daisy Christoloudou argued eloquently in the Michaela debate held two weeks ago, the learning needed to be able to do something does not always look like what we are trying to achieve. Listening to music to hear the one does not look like dancing salsa. Neither does clapping along to get the rhythm of the eight beat. Neither do the constituent bits of the shines we were taught. Neither did practising the basic step at home by myself look like dancing with a partner.
Good teaching involves being able to see how the constituent parts build up. The constituent parts, all of which I needed to learn, are exactly what those who advocate progressive methods downplay and miss out. Would you pay someone to teach you like that? If not, why not?
As an adult would you pay someone to teach you like that? If not, why not? I know I wouldn’t have done.
In the end, the important thing is not whether some people think the way my teachers taught me to dance salsa is boring, the important thing is I learnt to dance.
As for self-esteem, well that came with improvement and it got boosted when after nine months I was told I could join the advanced class and do the kind of routines that you see here. As you can see Alain was able to be technically brilliant, a good teacher and could have a laugh.
Having mastered the skills I have gone back and learnt to dance to other types of music including modern free-form bhangra which. For the first time, I was able to dance to bhangra music at my cousin’s wedding four years ago. And yes, I was dancing for pleasure.