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A Summer of Lessons

Learning to Practice More Efficiently

By Kevin Viratyosin

My life, as I think it is for most others my age, seems to happen in discrete phases and often, unsurprisingly, in line with the academic calendar. I organize my life in terms of semesters and summers. As far as dance goes, the past few months seem to have been my summer of lessons.

After my first semester of competitive ballroom dancing, I was itching to not only get better but also push myself to accelerate. If I hadn't had the bug before, I did now. Initially my plan with my partner had been to practice twice a week, focusing on a couple dances each week, and to attend our club’s weekly lessons. It wasn't a very extensive plan; we just figured that we’d be ambitious with our practice. Looking back, it couldn't work as well as we had hoped. With me at my internship in Rochester all summer and her in the Cities, we found that our already sparse practices sometimes got canceled or otherwise shortened. Enter lessons.

Early in the summer, the opportunity arose for us to receive private lessons almost every week. Due to scheduling issues, it would replace one of our weekly practices, but this was a trade-off we weren't hesitant to take. These lessons gave us the focused guidance we otherwise would have lacked. Mid-summer, I found that the ballroom club at the University of Minnesota - Rochester was holding their own weekly lessons, and I started attending those, too. Finally, because I was planning on trying Latin in the fall, I also picked up a couple lessons in Latin technique. By the end of the summer, I was attending three or four lessons a week. It was great, but it brought up the issue of practice. I was learning so much but didn't have a lot of time, much less with a partner, to work what I was learning into muscle memory.

Before I came to college, I used to study piano. I once had an instructor who would insist that the ideal amount of practice was about five minutes each day. It was like one of those cheesy commercials promising everything for almost nothing, the ones where you chuckle, say, “Wouldn't that be nice?” and then change the channel. However, there was some merit to the prescription (after all, it seemed to work for him—he’s performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra). The idea is that if you focus and practice it right a few times without practicing it incorrectly many times, you won’t be building destructive muscle memory. In order to do this, one needs to break the piece down slowly, sometimes only taking a measure (or less!) at a time. I found that the same idea could be applied to my dance practice.

Often when we practice, we practice through a pattern; we might be concentrating on one particular aspect of it, but we’ll run the whole pattern. Most of what I learned this summer was technique-oriented, and I'd learned enough new things that trying to think about it all while doing a pattern wasn't going to work very well. Instead, I broke everything down into the smallest pieces I could. I worked on movements and half-steps. For example, when I was working on preceding the knee in my back natural for waltz, I would start by just practicing lowering and reaching into the step, just practicing preceding the knee. It wasn't particularly fun, but bit by bit, I found that the parts indeed make up the whole.

Maybe everyone already knows this, or maybe it doesn't work for everyone, but I found that it helped me be more efficient in my practice and reduce frustration. As a result, I was able to take better advantage of more of what I had learned during my lessons and grow as a dancer more than I would have expected over the course of a summer.