The Importance of Deliberate Practice in Dance- The Psychology of Performance

Published in  
Sports Psychology
October 21, 2020
In Dance, achieving excellence is a journey that we embark on by putting our shoes on. But what would ensure that we are continuously moving forward in that journey? The answer is simple- practice.

In Dance, achieving excellence is a journey that we embark on by putting our shoes on. But what would ensure that we are continuously moving forward in that journey? The answer is simple- practice. You have probably heard a million times your dance teacher leaving you with “Make sure you practice this before next lesson” Even though you are sure they mean it, because you’ve heard it so many times, you become immune to the phrase.

Ballroom dance practice- sports psychology

“Practice doesn’t make perfect; it only makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect!”

Perhaps, you listened to your dance teacher and determined to achieve greatness, you “practiced.” The hard to swallow truth is that…… you’re probably doing it wrong. Frankly, most people are, including me, until I studied Sports Psychology. There is a science to it that many people are not aware of.

Hopefully, this article will shed a little bit of light on that word, so commonly used in the dance studio. It might change the way you develop your skills in any area. You will discover that, in most cases, talent is highly overrated. This means that you can truly do anything— but at an incredible investment.

What is Practice and Why Do We Need it in Dance?

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It is as simple as- a repetition of, in the case of Dance, a movement over and over again, until the desired skill in that movement is acquired.

For example- you have just had a Rumba lesson; your teacher decides that a piece of your routine is not very suitable for you and changes it. After the lesson, you are told to practice the new material. But do you know what that means?

It can mean many things- learning the new piece's timing, learning the sequence of steps, acquiring the proper body movement and leads, executing the correct focus directions, and many more.

In Dance, like in other athletic disciplines, the skill of your body is your only tool for producing results, in the case of Dance- beautiful body movements with a partner, to the music. Already in its description, it sounds like a complicated process. I am a firm believer in the statement that our brains are extremely developed and "smart" but our bodies are quite inflexible to change unless… the body repeats a pattern over and over and over again. That is why practice is so important. Your body has to produce this complex task of moving itself to the music with someone else in perfect synchrony and across the floor.

On another note, I believe that endless repetition is merely enough to attain a skill. I can count many times when I have practiced my Feather step without actually "fixing" my problem in it. The bottom line is that repetition alone does not help acquire skills; only purposeful, deliberate repetition with a clear goal makes a difference.

TIP: Make sure that you are always clear on WHAT needs to be practiced and HOW. Sometimes as dance teachers, we "think" that because we know how and what needs to be practiced, our students know that too. But that is far from the truth. My suggestion is to spend the last 5-10 minutes from the lesson to make sure that the student is very clear on the plan of how they need to practice the plethora of knowledge that you just dumped in their backyard.

Ballroom Dance Practice- How and What

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What is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice - Ballroom Dancing Sports Psychology

Understanding Deliberate practice is the key to understanding steady improvement in any area of life. Before we dive into it, there are a few important pointers that I would like to talk about.

Genetics and talent don’t work unless you do! There is no “dance” gene that will carry you to greatness. Or at least science has not discovered one yet. But one thing distinguishes experts, which is not size, talent, or strength- it is the amount of time they spent in deliberate practice.

In all areas of performance, be it football, playing an instrument, or dance- science tells us that success is upon those involved in only the right kind of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time. As a result, we create our own potential. There is no such thing as predefined ability.

When it comes to practice, on one end of the spectrum, we have Deliberate practice. It has particular, well-defined, priority-based, and measurable goals. You have to know exactly what you want/ need to accomplish with every repetition and how, ideally, based on how experts do it.

On the other, we have just practice, where we do something repeatedly, expecting that the repetition alone will improve performance. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Unfortunately, without knowing exactly what you want to do, you aren’t progressing. Our most precious resource- time- is wasted.

Defining Factors of Deliberate Practice

  • Prioritization- understanding what needs to be practiced first in order of importance
  • Specific goals - clear, measurable, outcome is required
  • Intense focus- very often, during naive practice, we are going through the motions without being fully engaged, either because we lack a specific goal or we’re just not bringing our full attention to the moment.
  • Getting out of your comfort zone- we don’t like that. We have a fundamental need to feel competent, and pushing ourselves to do things we don’t know how to do goes against that- but for growth, pushing the limits is a requirement. We push into an uncomfortable place and adapt until it becomes comfortable. Then we push again until it gets comfortable and then push again, over and over, in a faithful, persistent way. This is how we learn and develop. This is the only way we improve in anything.
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To understand how you can apply those to your practice approach, I have put together an example from my teaching experience to give you an idea.

Case Study:

Once we reopened for private lessons after the initial COVID lockdown, one of my juvenile couples came in for a jive lesson. Since they haven't had a competition in a while and I haven't seen them, I wanted to take a look at their dances one by one. I found that their Jive needs work to improve the basic action.

Each week (for about four weeks), we took a small piece of routine in which we identified areas for improvement and worked on them. For example, weight transfer on a rock step, bounce action in the triple step, etc.

After each lesson, we sat with the parents and made a plan on how to improve that aspect. We decided that each practice's priority should be the technical element worked on in the last lesson for a week, until the next lesson. The specific goal set was to dance that element with the required technique for at least ten times without making some of the old mistakes. As you can imagine, juvenile kids get easily distracted, so we employed the parents to keep the kids intensely focused on the task at hand every time they get distracted. (It is essential to understand kids and their innate desire to play; if they have a hard time returning to focused work, give them a break and time for play and then back to work). In the beginning, it was difficult for them to focus and execute the movement for ten consecutive times without bringing some of the old habits. If they make a mistake on the 7th time, they have to go back and repeat from the beginning. It took getting out of their comfort zone to achieve the changes needed.

Later on, we had to shift our focus/ priority on executing those to music. We used the same specific goal- repeating it ten consecutive times to music. It took a lot of intense focus and going out of the comfort zone before the little ones were able to achieve the specific goal set. But they did, because of the perseverance and clear outcome goal.

Why Does Deliberate Practice Work?

When you lift weights, you build stronger muscles that are able to lift more weight later. A study shows that with deliberate practice, you get more brain in much the same way. Brain imaging is discovering that brains of people with particular skills differ from their peers without the acquired skill. Their brains did not differ in childhood or before the mastery of the skill; they did so after. With training and repetition, the brain builds adaptability.

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Deliberate practice in dance also involves more efficient mental representations, which are cognitive structures that relate to a movement, structural music patterns, spatial awareness, a collection of information, or anything else that you might think about. The development of mental representations allows a person to see meaningful patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less developed representations. Developed mental representations also facilitate planning.

The primary purpose of deliberate practice is to develop mental representations that will enhance performance. But then these improved mental representations will inform our deliberate practice. Our ability to detect—and then correct—mistakes are enhanced. And then we get a positive cycle of improvement, with refined and more challenging deliberate practice further developing mental representations, better-informing practice, and so on.

This is the process of improvement. What determines who becomes the best is the amount of time you spend in deliberate practice. The challenge is that it is labor-intensive and not much fun.

The Rule of 3 Fs- FOCUS, FEEDBACK, FIX provides a mental representation of the deliberate practice model. Remembering those 3 trigger words can help you unlock your practice potential.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, the rule of 10000 hours was popularized. It states that it takes about 10000 hours of deliberate work to become an expert in any skill. Some tasks and people can take more time and others less. The important part is to be dedicated to put in the work.

How to apply deliberate practice in your daily routine

  • Your teacher/ coach would likely be clear on the deliberate practice model. Ask them for help in figuring out the best way to go about practice.
  • Deliberate practice takes place outside your comfort zone, which is not enjoyable but bears fruits.
  • Requires well-defined, specific goals designed to improve some aspect of your dance performance. Set them consistently, revising and improving them as you progress.
  • Your full attention and conscious, intentional actions are required. Be fully engaged, don’t just skim through the movements.
  • Deliberate practice requires feedback and modifications of efforts in response to that feedback. A coach is extremely helpful here, but over time, with improved mental representations, experienced students can monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. Feedback can be difficult to take. Learn to love it.
  • Deliberate practice both produces and depends on useful mental representations, with one improving the other. Be sure you have a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve and keep it in the front of your mind, continually striving for it and improving it.
  • Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously learned skills by focusing on specific aspects of those skills that can be improved, over and over again—constantly striving for the next level, breaking records, creating training techniques, and being the first in your field to do what you’re doing. This is true for every skill but especially for ballroom dancing, where your technique needs to evolve to create a bigger and stronger impact constantly.

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Motivation and Practice

Motivation is that tingling feeling that gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you going day after day. A lack of motivation may be the most significant barrier to developing expertise. Most people get to a point where they think they are good enough and that it isn’t worth it anymore. To strengthen your motivation, you can either strengthen the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit.

People don’t often need bigger motivators; instead, it’s the costs that get us. Here is how to guard against them.

  • Start by choosing an activity that you truly and deeply want to be better in.
  • Set aside a fixed time to practice that is cleared of all other obligations and distractions.
  • Get more and better sleep.
  • Limit practice sessions to no more than an hour at a time; you can’t maintain intense focus for much longer than that.
  • Set things up so that you continually see concrete signs of improvement.
  • Surround yourself with like-minded people—people who believe in you and what you’re doing. Believe in yourself.

Believe in yourself, indulge in productive, deliberate, deeply focused practice. Don’t work hard; work smart! Inspire and Create! Happy Dancing, Everyone. Please leave a comment below and let us know if you guys have a particular tactic with which you approach practice.

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