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 fluent, effortless and fluent will remain out of reach.

Base: true and false beginners

Beginner level students fall into two categories that affect the rate of progress:

1. True beginners have no dancing experience of any sort at all. The whole dancing thing is completely new to them and so really they are just getting into the world of dancing and movement.

2. False beginners have done some dancing before, whether tango or some other dance, and have some foundational skills, what we might call a ‘base’, which will allow them to progress at a much faster rate.

False beginners already have some knowledge of working with movement and with a partner to music so that they are able to coordinate better and sooner than a True Beginner who has to learn a host of skills related to partner dancing. Those are therefore very different learning tracks and learning curves. However, even in false beginners it is necessary to start of with the basics and practice in a slow and deliberate manner without end-gaining. True Beginners will usually take more practice sessions in the basic skills to get these under control.

On the other hand, the difficulty teaching false beginners has to do with attitudes to learning dancing acquired in prior dancing lessons. There are two types of movement lessons. The vast majority of movement lessons are of the steps-and-figures variety taught using the demonstrate-and-drill methodology. In such lessons, students come into the classroom expecting to learn a new choreography or technique, piling ever more of these. A tiny sub-segment of movement classes teach what might be broadly called “movement awareness”, including things like the Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, or Contact Improvisation.

So the difficulty is that, while false beginners may have a physical base in movement, they typically lack a base on awareness, and come into the class expecting to learn choreography. And teachers, even if they started out trying to teach movement awareness or culture or whatever, fall back on meeting the student’s expectation of teaching choreography. Therefore, part of the goal of a teaching system has to be to build a “base” in movement awareness for both types of beginner. The way to do that is to teach simple choreography but instead of falling on the demonstrate-and-drill method, to use movement awareness teaching techniques such as visualisation.

Motivation

I enjoy lifting weights and I get a lot out if doing it. I feel better, look better, have more energy and can get more done. Still, there is always the issue of motivation. I don’t always feel like doing it and if I miss a couple of workouts I find that I quit lifting for 2 or 3 months and then need to get back into it which means that I have lost some of the gains I was making. I found that to minimise this I need to design a system that minimises barriers to training. I bought a home gym set so that I don’t need to go to the trouble of going to a gym. I invested in equipment that is of adequate quality to make sure that I enjoy training on it and that I have everything at hand. It’s right there at hand and the steps needed to start training are minimal.

There is also the mental game. I find that if I focus on some distant goal of lifting some really heavy weight that is at the moment out of reach this is too distant. It does not make me feel so good about my current workout. On the other hand, if I focus on having a good workout, eg., getting through the workout, having good form on most of my worksets, and improving the amount I lift at each workout by a small amount, I find that I feel more satisfied and feel better at the end of the workout. This helps me to keep motivated to get back into it at my next scheduled workout day. I also find that imagining myself having a great beach-ready body, or if I don’t feel like lifting a heavy weight that I had to work in a laboring job I’d have not choice but to lift stuff and that’s a normal thing, these help me get through any motivational blocks.

Motivation is a function of what is immediately in front of you or present in your consciousness at a given moment in time. If the completion of an action or set of actions mentally appears too distant, requires the completion of too many complex or indeterminate steps to getting a satisfaction, then this is bad for motivation. We lose interest and look for distractions or excuses not to do it. We want to learn a language but it seems such a distant goal. Yet we find that we have sudden onsets of high motivation, eg., there’s an image that inspires me to try to learn Chinese. There are other images or situations that kill that excitement. Certain language-learning apps are fun to do and I can use them when i’m bored but moving along the learning path increases my motivation. Other times I try something else like do language exchange or take a course and I find that it’s all too complicated and my initial energy is dampened.

Psychologists usually talk about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They find that some people are motivated by the results of learning: they want to learn English to get a better job, or to learn dancing to meet people. They are not really interested in the subject matter itself but rather what it can provide for them, the effects of the learning. Others are intrinsically interested in the subject itself. They love learning the language and meeting people in that culture, or they love dancing, etc. But this distinction is really to say that if you start rewarding a person for doing something that they would do anyway, then their motivation will tend to shift so that they lose the initial intrinsic interest and become instrumentally motivated. If you take away the reward they are no longer interested in the activity. This is often a problem in studying for the test and presents teachers with an apparently insoluble dilemma.

Its not clear whether this is a really useful way of looking at the matter because motivation seems to be quite fluid. What seems to affect motivation appears to be whatever is the most immediate to the consciousness, eg., whatever is right in front of me, or whatever is on my mind at the time for whatever reason. Recently I decided to go on holiday to Vietnam and so I had to book a flight and accommodation. I was busy with other exciting projects at the time so doing the decision-making and booking seemed like a chore which had to be done otherwise if I delayed further the prices would go up. So initially I’d say I had a purely instrumental motivation to do the booking.

So I wrote the task in my To Do list that I have on a whiteboard so that it’s clearly visible when I sit at my desk. This put this undesirable chore in front of me so that when I felt the least resistance to doing it I would put in the necessary time and effort. However, when I started searching accommodation and looking at images of my destination I got really excited about my trip and my motivation shifted. I now had a visual image that was exciting and motivating and this image kept my mind on planning the holiday throughout the next few days. This is because I could clearly visualise and anticipate the satisfaction of enjoying the culture, the food, the architecture, the people, the street markets, etc. The satisfaction of my holiday went from something that felt abstract and complicated to something immediate and exciting.

So motivation is very fluid but also responsive to specific sorts of stimuli. We might start with a purely instrumental reason to do or learn something: I need to go on holiday, I need a hobby, I want to meet people, I want to get fit, I want to participate in a cultural activity. As we take action in that direction, we can then shift and build that motivation by making the satisfactions associated with it immediate and palpable.

What we don’t want is to set goals that are distant and involve many complicated steps. I try not to overplan my holidays because that would require me to make all the decisions before going which would be a mental drain and I would lose interest. I try to spread the decision-making leaving options open as I go along. This might not work for others. But I feel that it’s good to have some flexibility so that things are available for you to follow an impulse. I feel that it’s good for motivation to have a fairly linear progress, but that within that you will find that there are moments when you come across obstacles, unforeseen opportunities and bursts of progress or energy. That means that you may need to rewind or de-load on some things, fastforward on others, and exploit unexpected opportunities.

Training vs demonstration of skill

When we watch competent people dance what we are observing is them demonstrating a level of skill that they already have. This skill was acquired through a process of training which was most likely progressive, that is, involved a series of steps whereby they started off with no skill and then progressively acquired the high level skill that allows them to dance skilfully.

This is important because many people seem not to realise that what you do in the process of training is going to be very different from what one sees when dancers demonstrate skill that is the result of a process of training. Many (perhaps most) people see skilful dancers do a certain pattern of steps or some movement and they want to immediately learn how to do that specific pattern or movement.

They want to learn that without apparently taking into consideration that they are not at the level to be able to execute that pattern or movement simply because executing it would require a level of skill that they do not yet possess. I think that the idea that many people have is that learning the pattern of steps and movement just requires a lot of practice of those steps or that movement in order to acquire the skill.

This, however, is a major confusion about the relationship between the process of training and demonstration of a skill acquired through that training. The pattern of steps or the movement is not the skill itself but a demonstration of movement skills that are distinct from the pattern, and that are presupposed in executing that pattern skillfully. By analogy, one does not learn to drive fast by driving fast. One first has to learn to drive slowly and then progressively faster. You do not learn to beat champion chess players by playing them from the start. You have to go through baby steps.

The problem is that in many (perhaps most) areas of expertise the skill required to perform an action is not acquired by performing that action repeatedly but rather by a completely different and separate process. The teachers typically know the process that can get the student from his current level of skill to the level required to perform the action that the student desires.

Whether the student undertakes the correct training depends on both the teacher and the student. The student wants to learn to perform the action and the teacher can bamboozle the student by teaching what the student thinks he wants. Alternatively, the teacher can tell the student that the process requires doing something else to get to the desired destination. It is then up to the student to trust the teacher to show the right path. The image of the Karate Kid washing the car is the correct view of the situation.proxy.duckduckgo

This applies in many areas of expertise where the skill demonstrated and the training required to attain that skill are quite different. Many sports require physical strength that cannot be achieved by doing that sport itself but by lifting weights or some other sort of more basic training. In music, learning to play long sequences of fast notes typically requires the patient practice of short sequences of notes at an excruciatingly slow pace to train the muscle memory in the hands.

If you just think about it, tango teachers would not be so generous handing out their spectacular stage choreography if they thought that the students could actually effectively execute it because then they would be creating unwanted competition. They know too well that attempting to perform these sequences sets the students back more than anything else. Also, many people naïvely think that if they practice these sequences they will be able to set up as teachers themselves. They often find that they never really get anywhere close to the level they expect. They were too impatient.

Like it or not, the reality is that the fast way to mastery is through slow practice: to execute a complex set of movements fast one has to first practice executing simple movements in a slow and focused way. These are not going to be the eye-catching choreographed sequences that one sees performed by champion dancers who then teach them in workshops. Trying to execute these complex patterns merely results in the acquisition of inefficient movement habits.

Performance of sequences is the demonstration of a skill that was acquired through training, and training is not merely the practicing of the performance of these skills but a completely separate process which is progressive and culminates on the skill demonstrated.

Further reading

Thomas M. Sterner The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process  [Amazon]

Rationale

Learners attending classes in Tango Argentino are usually presented with a series of set step sequences, progressing from basic to complex, that are modelled, drilled and then practiced. This type of dance training results in a form of dancing that does not provide adequate repetition of technical skills, emphasises the rote memorisation of showy step patterns that provide for little control on the dancefloor and over emphasise the action of the feet.

The objective of this program is to move away from the model-drill-practice model and to offer a structured movement practice that provides a technique basis for improvised dancing. The question is: How it is possible to teach movement for improvisation without teaching set step sequences using model-and-drill method?

Steve Paxton, the creator of Contact Improvisation, observed that improvisation cannot be taught, and people who learn contact improvistion through exercises do not necessarily thereby learn how to improvise movement.

Paxton observed that the practice of naming movements, movement patterns or exercises changes their fundamental character. Coming to the conclusion that improvisation cannot be taught Paxton developed Material for the Spine, a set of exercises that develop basic movement skills that can be used in developing coordination and understanding of the body that can form the basis for improvisation.


… the practice of naming movements, movement patterns
or exercises changes their fundamental character …


 

So this presentes us with a third alternative which is to teach basic movement explorations that can form the basis for dance improvisation in Argentine tango. These explorations should be simple and progressive and provide the basic awareness of movement and habits of efficient movement. They should be reasonably close to tango dancing so that they have face validity and provide some basic movement habits that can be immediately utilised in tango dancing.

Dance improvisation cannot be taught explicitly but is rather a skill acquired through practice. Given that (a) improvisation cannot be taught directly; and (b) the alternative of teaching fixed sequences of steps is ineffective and prevents the development of improvisational skills, the alternative proposed is movement explorations that provide the basis for improvisation in tango dancing.