Corrective feedback and experiential aesthetics

My very first tango teacher once looked at a performing couple from Argentina and said: “They’re making a mistake”. He didn’t say what specifically he was referring to, or whether the whole thing that they were doing was a mistake. Since the couple looked great this at least gave me the idea that a couple could look great and yet could be making some sort of a grave mistake.

It’s difficult to talk about correctness in the context of social dancing, or anything for that matter. Whatever you’re teaching you have to make some sort of a decision about what is correct and what is not. This often seems either (a) arbitrary, or (b) authoritarian. Who am I to say what is the “correct” way to dance, speak a language, or play an instrument? Isn’t this a matter of personal expression?

Since a lot of teachers are politically on the left we can be sure that every attempt has been made to get away from correcting students and to give them the maximum autonomy in learning. These sorts of educational experiments have been around since at least the 1960s if not longer and have consistently failed. Students expect corrective feedback and without it become confused and demotivated.

The only conclusion is that providing corrective feedback is the burden of being a teacher. On the other hand, correction which is excessive, poorly targeted or doesn’t lead to visible progress won’t work either. For correction to work it needs to be targeted, justified and lead to tangible progress in short order. The teacher needs to explain why a particular technique is the correct way even if he can’t explain everything as this would take too much of valuable classroom time.

Ultimately in teaching the proof of the pudding is in the eating and if the eating isn’t there then the students drop out or act up. A sure sign of a teacher who fails in this regard is the heavy reliance on marketing instead of word of mouth. Good teachers have successful students and don’t need heavy marketing to attract more students.

So we need to look at two things that provide the context for technical correction: (a) a relatively specific set of goals or outcomes that the technique is supposed to produce; and (b) some sort of a understanding or theory of the functioning of whatever systems responsible for producing these outcomes.

Let’s consider the example of Starting Strength. This is a training system designed to make you stronger as defined by the amount of weight you’re able to move. Someone who squats 150kg and deadlifts 200kg is stronger than someone who squats 100kg and deadlifts 130kg. The outcome of the Starting Strength program is to get the trainee to move from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

Starting Strength achieves this by getting the trainee to add weight to the barbell at each training session on the theory that (a) the body adapts to the heavier weight, and (b) the heaviest weight can be moved only by movements like the squat, the deadlift and the press. The body does not adapt to more repetitions, or doing more specific exercises, only to the heaviest weight that can be lifted right now. The more weight you can push the stronger you are.

All systems of teaching need to either explicitly or implicitly follow some such schema. If progress is slowed down this may be due to some problem with technique. In the case of strength training and dancing this would be either (a) the position or (b) the movement.

The effectiveness of the corrective feedback about the position or the movement should be experienced either immediately or within a short period of time. For example, if the trainee’s progress in the squat hits a plateau, then effective corrective feedback should restore the expected progress and he sees himself adding more weight to the bar at every workout once again.

So it is necessary to specify the outcomes of dancing instruction and the systems that are functional in the production of these outcomes. What is it that competent dancers can do that novices can’t do and want to be able to do? My assumption is that they want to (a) be able to move in sync with their partner and with the music, and (b) they want to be able to enjoy this movement.

The key assumption is that the movement is enjoyable, because we’re not talking about performance dancing, we’re talking about social dancing. So the aesthetics of the dancing are experiential, they’re the experience of the dancers themselves, not people looking at them from a distance.

Steve Paxton’s Material for the Spine

So then we need to ask, what systems are responsible for the production of experientially enjoyable movement to music with a partner? The movement modality that deals with experientially enjoyable movement is Somatics, which includes the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Contact Improvisation and Steve Paxton’s Material for the Spine.

Somatics assumes that movement which is efficient is thereby also experienced as aesthetically pleasing, whether we’re dealing with ordinary movement like walking or standing up, sports performance like running or lifting weights, or dancing. Efficiency of movement is defined as movement which follows structural or anatomical principles of body and movement functioning (see eg., Posture and the head-neck relation, Tango milonguero embrace).

The American philosopher Richard Shusterman coined the term “somaesthetics” to refer to practicing somatic care “through intelligently disciplined body work aimed at somatic self-improvement (whether in a representational, experiential, or performative mode)”. While Shusterman’s project is a complex and broad philosophical one, my main interest is in the narrow sense of developing practices that eventuate in movement and posture that is experientially more efficient, pleasant and fluent.

On this definition, the correction of technique is based not in some arbitrary cultural understanding (see cultural aesthetics), eg., how it’s done in some part of Buenos Aires, but in an understanding of how the body functions as this relates to movement with partner to music. The goal of training understood in this way is movement which fluent rather than strained, which allows the dancer to connect and express the music, and to connect their movement to that of their partner.

So in the narrowest sense, the variables involved: (a) movement, (b) music, and (c) partner. An effective training program needs to move the learner in a relatively linear progression toward being able to move with their partner in sync with the music in a way that is experientially pleasant.

If the learner is stuck because he or she is unable to lead or follow or to respond to the music, and they are practicing regularly, then there is something with either their position or movement that needs to be corrected. The correction should result immediately or in short order with the ability to connect with the partner and the music in a way that is enjoyable.

If this doesn’t happen this may be due to either (a) the teacher, or (b) the program. It may be that the teacher is not competently following the program or system. Then they need to find another teacher who is more competent in this. Alternatively, the program or system of teaching does not produce the outcomes that it claims to do, or there is a mismatch between the program and the expected outcomes. In tango this is most often the case, as it is falsely assumed that visually appealing choreography (visual aesthetics) is experientially pleasant (experiential aesthetics or somaesthetics) in a social dancing context.

In my experience, the program is the main variable in determining success or failure in achieving the desired outcomes. An effective program, if it is written down with clear instructions, illustrations, videos and audio, if it explains how and why it works and gives the specific procedures and movements, can be be self administered in a way that leads toward the desired outcomes such as competent dancing.

A teacher or coach who is competent in administering the teaching or training program is most necessary with complete beginners to the form, eg., people who’ve never danced anything, and also can make progress faster and more pleasant with fewer mistakes. But if the program is effectively designed, so that it’s not overly complicated, focuses on relatively narrow well-defined objectives and clear instructions, can provide the basis for self-correction.

On the other hand, having a teacher will make little or no difference if the program is not effectively designed to reach the required goals because it fails to connect the outcomes (aesthetically pleasant movement) with body systems and functioning that are responsible for producing them. Sure, the student will pick up something simply by virtue of the fact that he or she is moving with a partner to music. But progress will soon stall and the ultimate goal of proficient dancing which is efficient, effortless and fluent will remain out of reach.