Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Tips for Learning

Being new at something and learning again can be a vulnerable place to be as an adult. There's no shortcut to getting good at something but there is definitely a shortcut to having fun while you're learning. I love learning: it keeps me alive and engages me like no other.

It occurred to me that it would be worth sharing why I feel this way and share some tips to help others who are beginning to learn something new, like dancing for the first time.

Here's what I love about learning:
  • Discovery mode: a mode I associate with young children learning about something for the first time. Its a lot of wonder with a lot of "Aha!" with some things that make you go "hmmmmm!" mixed in. 
  • I'm back at the beginning which is a place that holds an excitement and energy that only comes with being at the start of something new. 
  • Sponge mode: when I'm in learning mode, my mind is more open and focused on absorbing and trying to soak it all in
  • Mind blown: When I'm learning, I'm actively connecting dots in my head as I relate what I'm learning with other things that I already know. Every now and again, my brain gets a bit of a twist when I see something in a different light, get a little confused or just have an "aha!" moment.
  • Geeking out with others: I'm connecting with other people just like me who are learning.  
You may read this list and think "Um, these are the LAST things that are going through my mind when I'm starting to learn something new."

Well sure, BUT that doesn't mean I don't go through some of the other things that a beginner goes through: 
  • Fear of looking like an idiot
  • Fear of not being good enough
  • Fear of being rejected
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Fear of not getting it
And so, my first tip is:

In my opinion, this is the biggest and most impactful thing you can do. When a child is learning we  tell them that its ok to make mistakes and just focus on learning. Well, that's true for everyone regardless of age. Just because we got a few years older, doesn't change the fact that in a state of learning, you have to cut yourself some slack. In fact, I believe that learning mode connects you to your inner child and well, that's just rejuvenating.

That inner perfection god or goddess that drives you to be good at everything: tell them to take a chill pill and head to the spa for from rest and relaxation. As a student, you're focus should be on learning and absorbing and being part of whatever learning community you find yourself in: even if its is for only one hour every week. 


I am a firm believer that once you say "I can't do that." then you create a resistance that hinders your learning. Its fine if you don't believe that something will ever happen - just don't say it out loud and keep the thought suspended for a little bit.

I remember starting lessons with a dance instructor who basically said "By the end of our sessions, you'll be doing this." and proceeded to demonstrate a spin drill. I just laughed out loud and said "Sure, whatever you say." when what I really meant was "Are you crazy? No way!!"

He walked me through the exercise which was hard but doable and well, it took some perseverance over a few months and lots of practice and while I'm nowhere near the level of my dance director (I've been learning from him for that past 5 years), I can definitely do those moves that I thought I laughed at doing in our first lesson together.


If you consider yourself an expert at something, anything, then when you're learning something new, you should just put all that aside and become someone "fresh" again. Every experience teaches you something, even if it teaches you that you never want to experience it again. Every master teacher that I've admired and aspired to be is a master student at heart. Learning is not just about how good you are or can be, its also about the process so enjoy it and just immerse yourself in the discovery.

OK, that's the mental part, now for the more practical part of learning.


Life is busy, you've finally set aside one hour a week to learn something and that's a great 1st step. If you're truly wanting to get better at something you'll need to set aside a little more time to absorb and assimilate what you learn. This is especially true of dance.

Part of the fun in learning is the satisfaction that you get knowing that you're getting it and improving. So, for social dancing, acclimating your movements to music is a must if you're not used to it. 

A few minutes a day will make a world of difference on top of  just one hour a week. The constant repetition is key to reprogramming and learning. When you're learning to dance, you have to get used to the movement and then map that to music and it helps to do a little bit every day.


Dancing is great because there's this complex thing that happens: you have to move to music you hear and then if you social dance, you have to communicate with your partner how to move with you. When these things align, its a magic moment which you can repeat and enjoy.

Coordinating movement to a rhythm can be done many ways and here's how I like to learn things and it basically starts from the group up:
  1. Learn how the feet move AND listen to the music. 
  2. Learn the rhythm of the movement AND listen to the music.
  3. Learn how the rhythm fits with the music.
  4. Learn how the rest of the body moves.
  5. Learn the signals to communicate back and forth with your dance partner.
  6. Express and have fun with the dance.
The faster you get to 3 above, the better off you are. It doesn't really take a lot - but it does take time. I always recommend counting or sounding the rhythm as quickly as possible to the music. Sometimes you can't do that if you're too busy figuring out how your feet move which is why I recommend getting that out of the way first. So you can do 1-3 above in parallel.

In practicing movement, be more aware of your own body and how it naturally moves. In the beginning, we spend a lot of time mimicking our teachers to look just like them but to truly own your dancing, you have to eventually do what works best for you. You do have to look at the mirror and see what works and it often helps to get feedback from someone you trust and can work with. Mastering techniques for movement is one thing and owning your own movement is another that is equally important.


If you can say "this feels or looks like something I already know" then you learn things faster. As you increase your vocabulary of movement, learning other movements can become a bit easier by association.

Of course, if you're doing something for the first time, there's nothing to associate with but just remember that you can associate movements or leanings with things that you've experienced in other contexts besides the one that you're learning in.


New things can be uncomfortable so you have to embrace being uncomfortable while you learn. When you confirm with your instructor that you're doing what he/she is asking you to do, and it still feels "weird", then just remind yourself that its something new that your body/brain has to get used to.


People try to be helpful and if they can help you, they will, sometimes without you even asking. That's kind of like getting a ton of advice from everyone while you're still trying to figure things out and it can be overwhelming and confusing. Focus on the instructions of who you're learning from, ask LOTS of questions if you're not sure and just be thankful that everyone is so helpful.

"Patience Grasshopper."

That line is from an old TV series call Kung Fu and its what the old master tells the young boy as he tries to master the discipline. It takes time.

Take these tips to heart and the time it takes will pass in no time - at least you'll be having fun while you learn and get better.

Sometimes you will meet and encounter things that are discouraging and negative. Focus on the fun and positive things, cut yourself some slack while you're learning. Remember that struggles are just steps along the way and don't get discouraged. If you do stop having fun, then perhaps a break or pause in the learning might be needed but I recommend pushing through your discomfort anyway and focusing on those times when you have a big smile on your face.

After all is said and done - you have to be happy with who you are and own what you do. This applies to learning how to dance (or anything else): take the learning and make it a part of you.

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