Learn to Dance Faster by Going Slower

Road sign: slow down
The Paradox: To learn new skills quickly, slow down

I originally wrote this post for my Feldenkrais blog. But it completely applies to learning dance, so I’m re-posting it here. Enjoy!

Some people relish the opportunity to slow down and pay attention to themselves, such as doing a Feldenkrais or yoga class, or meditating. But some find this slowing down to be tremendously difficult or boring. “I like to move quickly and DO things,” I’ve had students tell me.

Feldenkrais classes certainly don’t have the pumping cardio and music of a Zumba class, and may not include the feeling of really exerting your muscles like you might get from lifting weights or holding a tough yoga pose. But the purpose of Feldenkrais isn’t to exercise your cardiovascular system or a specific set of muscles—it’s to learn and to improve all your systems, your whole self.

Learning (at least kinesthetically) happens by noticing differences. When you’re going fast, hard or repetitively, it’s difficult to notice anything other than big, glaring differences. [Notice anything in this photo of stuffed animals?]

Dog hidden in group of stuffed dogs
When you slow down, you start to notice things that you’d otherwise miss.

I used to have a dance student who wanted to improve his spinning. He’d do one spin after another after another without stopping. He’d be completely off balance from one turn as he threw himself harder into the next. To him, all that energy and trying hard felt like he was doing something, yet he certainly wasn’t improving much of anything. This example is obvious, but we’ve all done this, maybe in less overt ways.

To learn or refine a skill, your nervous system needs trial and error, and to notice difference. Each time you do a spin (or throw a ball or speak a foreign word), you gain a lot of information about the nuances of how you use yourself, such as where the weight is on your feet, where you look and how you breathe. You also get a lot of feedback in terms of the result, such as how much you turned, if you were on or off balance, if something felt easy or strained, etc.

By slowing down and pausing between attempts, each new movement can incorporate adjustments based on all the information you gathered. Then you can also reduce the intensity of what you’re doing—that is, make it lighter and smaller. By going slowly and lessening your effort, you are able to actually start feeling what the heck you’re doing.

It’s this process of sensing and becoming aware that allows you to make the distinctions necessary for learning (e.g., oh, I’m pressing more with my right foot than my left). We notice what works, both consciously and unconsciously, and begin to weed out what doesn’t. When we don’t take this time to slow down and do less, we just repeat our poorly organized movement and excess effort over and over, as my spinning dance student did.

Chart of Human Perception & Detecting Differences
Sensing differences will improve your dancing.

This natural way of learning—by making distinctions and differentiating—is utilized in Feldenkrais lessons to achieve optimum results. As humans, we have very fine senses capable of distinguishing surprisingly fine differences. However, this requires development and practice that most of us don’t get in today’s modern world.

There are laws of human perception for how fine a difference we can notice when it comes to sight, sound, weight, etc. For weight or muscular force, the just-noticeable difference we can distinguish is roughly 1/40th. For example, if you’re carrying a 40-pound backpack, you won’t be able to detect a butterfly landing on it or even a small bird. But you will notice if a crow weighing one or more pounds does.

Now imagine you are carrying a 400-pound refrigerator. In order to notice, there would need to be a change of at least 10-pounds. This means that the more weight or muscular effort you use, the bigger the difference needs to be for you to be able to notice it. Another way to say this is: the less effort you use, the finer distinctions you can make.

Man pushing car uphill
When you use a lot of effort, you can’t notice much else

You can use this law to your advantage when learning a new skill. The less you do, the faster you’ll learn. Because if you can’t sense differences in your effort or movement, you’re not able to make the refinements necessary to improve what you’re doing.

So while it might not feel as though you’re “doing” a lot, you are actually achieving a great deal. Beneath your conscious awareness, your nervous system is digesting information, getting rid of what’s not necessary, and making a myriad of adjustments to get it right, just like when you first learned as a baby to successfully reach and grab an object, crawl and walk. Going slowly also gives you time to consciously focus on things you notice yourself doing that are impeding your intention, such as holding your breath or fixing your gaze.

But this “moving slowly and doing less” business isn’t a prescription for how to be in your daily life (although many of us could use more of this, myself included). Rather it is simply a learning strategy you can employ at certain times to clarify and refine movement or other skills.

Once you’ve got the thing well organized and smooth, you can do it at any speed and with as much power as you like! Just think of how much better and more efficiently you’ll be able to do the action when you need to if you’ve taken the time to slow down and learn it well.

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