Technique: A practical approach II

By Alexander Hoffmann It is my deepest conviction that many dancers don’t tap their full potential, and that this is mainly due to monotonous and one-sided training. Many dancers will experience an unbelievable amount of progress if they follow modern and scientifically proven ways of training.

By Alexander Hoffmann

Part 2 in a 2-part series

7 Paths to technique

Alexander Hoffmann

After the poor showing of the German national football team at the 1994 World Cup, experts around the globe were wondering how such a technically adept team could fail to put into effect their specific superiority on the playing field.

The lessons learnt from this defeat were put into use by the German Football Association: A Task Force was established that was to compare the skills of the German team with those of the superior teams. From this analysis, recommendations for future training methods for young players were to be made.

Soon it became obvious that teams from poorer nations were more playful, faster and more creative. They seemed to be able to make better use of their technique. How could this be, given that the German team was renowned for its technical expertise and had already invested huge sums of money in technically training young team members?

It turned out that in comparison to the industrialized nations’ players the young athletes in poorer countries such as Brazil or Argentina had developed their skills in a completely different way. While young German players were being mostly trained in technique, Brazilian children had been playing years of street football before being trained in a professional club. What the Brazilian children had over the German children was game and, in particular, movement experience. Street football means a very different playing experience which includes taking greater personal responsibility in the game: In the absence of technical education, the children were forced to create their own ideas for solving problems as well as for developing game and movement strategies. These experiences of freedom of movement, of self-responsibility and proactive behaviour led to a wealth of movement varieties – which had never been known by the German children, who were from an early age limited by restrictions and regulations.

Movement researchers discovered that technique is applied best when the athlete possesses the biggest possible repertoire of movement experience. Based on this observation, the German Football Association Task Force founded the so-called “Ballschulen”, where children and young athletes receive a holistic education in technique. The training focuses on coordination skills and the experience of the joy of motion. In the first few years of training, technical skills are less emphasized. Admittedly, there have been various varieties of the “Ballschule” — but they all have one thing in common: in the early years of training, focus is placed on coordination skills.

This is the most effective way to acquire movement experience, which strongly improves the ability to fine-tune and implement technique in later years. Today the German team is considered playful and creative, without having lost its technical prowess. Moreover, according to specialists, the team is now more than ever able to apply studied technique.

But what exactly can we learn from football players, when at first glance our two sports seem to be so wholly different?

In the mid-1990s, the German national football team faced a situation that was similar to the one in which many dancers seem to be today: Technical training is more extensive, while many athletes experience difficulties in how to apply and make use of what they have learned.
Motor research produced the first scientifically validated evidence in this field in the 1970s and 80s, but it was not before the late 1990s that football made use of it, which is late compared to many other sports. Anyway, one of the key findings that are still valid today was that traditional technical training methods are not the best way to learn technique!

Perfect Technique cannot be learned by technical training only!

Technique is a complex compound of different coordinative skills. Only when these are explicitly learned and shaped can the athlete perfect his technical capabilities. What does that mean exactly?

Technical acts are resulting from the ability to coordinate. If the latter is not adequately developed, the former can never be effectively learned. The dancer’s body would simply be unable to meet the demands of fine coordination because it is lacking qualities such as balance, rhythm of movement, orientation and speed.

We have thus already mentioned some of the 7 coordination skills that are the fundamental prerequisite for every athlete, and especially every dancer, to successfully learn and implement their highly sophisticated technique.

The 7 coordination skills are:

1. Ability of Differentiation

This is considered one of the major requirements to achieve maximum athletic performance. It denotes the ability to fine-tune individual movement phases and the movement of individual or specific body parts. It is based on a deliberate and precise perception of the body, i.e. the level of sensory training. Crucial factors for the quality of this skill are movement experience and technical knowledge. The better they are developed, the better and more accurately movements, acceleration, muscle contraction, and dynamic changes can be controlled. The skill of differentiation is closely linked with the skills of orientation and synchronization and is a prerequisite for the skills of balance and rhythm.

2. Ability of Spatial Orientation

This means the ability to rapidly change the position of the body in space through changes in direction or through turns and twists. It is always about the position change of the whole body and not one single body part (> skill of differentiation). Especially in dancing, the training of the position, acceleration and direction sensors located in the head are of major importance, because the head will act as a key component in changes of direction, twists and turns. Velocity, accuracy, focus, precision of orientation and balance can be used to measure the skill of spatial orientation.

3. Ability of Balance

Balance is the ability to keep the entire body or its joints in equilibrium and to maintain balance during and restore balance after extensive change of body position. There is a distinction between static equilibrium (balance at rest or while moving very slowly) and dynamic equilibrium (from horizontal and / or rotational actions). Both types of equilibrium must be explicitly trained, because while they are fundamentally building on each other they are also guided by different systems and sensors. Static equilibrium is the basis for all motor and technical actions.

4. Ability to React

This means the ability to respond to a sudden change in situation in rapidly initiating and executing a specific act to counter said change in situation. This may happen on the basis of optical, acoustic or tactile signals. An example of the ability to react is the artful dodging of collisions on the dance floor (floor craft) or the appropriate response to a leading impulse. This skill is especially important in unplanned and unpredictable situations that require improvisation.

5. Ability of Rhythm

This describes the ability to detect an ‘internal’ movement rhythm as well as an external rhythm (in our case: in the music). External rhythms are to be reproduced or modulated in bodily motions. Naturally, rhythm is the best developed coordinative capability in dancers. However, this is not to be equated with how it is used. The honing of this capability should always be included in the training of rhythmic skills. Dancers are expected to be rhythmical at all times! But do we take sufficient time to train this skill in particular? Coordinative rhythm training will produce more musical dancers.

6. Ability of Synchronization

The skill of synchronization helps us to coordinate movements like arm, head, leg and trunk movements within one body. It is an essential prerequisite for dancing. An example of a synchronization action in Latin dance is when the man is leading the lady with the left hand, while at the same time moving the free arm, rotating and compressing the torso, and performing leg- and footwork. It ought to be self-evident that actions like these can only be executed to perfection when synchronizing skills have been adequately trained. The skills of orientation and rhythm are closely connected to the skill of synchronization.

7. Ability of Adaptability

Adaptability means the ability to develop and execute an alternative plan of action on the basis of a foreseeable change in situation (‘traffic jam’ on the dance floor, partner forgets the choreography, etc.). I remember an article on the WDC Education Wall about the dangers of fast choreography in ballroom dancing. The gist of it was that floor craft was lost at higher speeds and that the couples were at danger of seriously injuring themselves due to collisions. It ought to be stated here, again, that development always requires adjustment. A trend should generally not be tried to reversed. The evolution of faster choreographies therefore has to result in a specific training of differentiation, reaction and adaptability. Otherwise, and here I would agree with the author of the article, harmful accidents on the dance floor might indeed happen. A purposeful training of adaptability skills will help dancers to regain full control over their bodies in spite of higher dynamics and speeds, and thus will bring back floor craft into today’s dancing.

Important information: Whereas technical skills are considered a conscious action, coordinative abilities are considered automatisms. They always run subconsciously below the actual movement. They are thus in the truest sense of the word the “foundation” for coordinated movements. Only when the dancer does not have to think about his balance, orientation or rhythm will he then perfect his technique.

Coordination skills training is multi-faceted and diverse and will thus always result in an increase of movement experience. This enables the dancer to draw upon a large repertoire of learned movements when acquiring and refining his technique – and not before he has mastered this will an athlete become a dancer. At the onset of dance training, students well trained in coordinative skills will be able to learn technical movements more quickly. In due course, the dancer with much movement experience will be able to apply his technique better, more freely and with more individuality. Based on the principles of technique, he will find a path to individual solutions, i.e. to his own interpretation, without “breaching the rules”. He will be able to use technique as a means of expression.

The main advantages of good coordination skills at a glance:

Well-developed coordination skills …

  • accelerate the acquisition of technique and make it more effective
  • help perfecting technique as well as finding the right way to apply it in a given situation
  • enable a dancer to measure the power needed to perform a specific movement and to relax uninvolved muscles – hence to minimalize and
    optimize the energy level
  • lead to a major gain of movement aesthetics, elegance and freedom of movement by fine-tuning of movements, of dynamics, of speeds, of
    rhythms as well as by the versatile, creative practicing
  • require a multifaceted content of the training. Dancers become more motivated because of the diversity in their everyday training. This is especially important when working with children and young athletes
  • make it easier to learn choreographies due to greater movement experience acquired
Important information: Coordination skills must be explicitly trained. Although conventional training of technique teaches components of coordination training, it is seldom sufficient.

Coordination + Information + Stamina = Technique

Another important ingredient in order to be able to apply technique even in challenging situations like the competition is stamina. Stamina, consisting of endurance, strength and flexibility, is as much a fundamental precondition in mastering technique as are coordination skills.

If the dancer lacks one of the three aspects of stamina he will hardly be able to maintain a high level of coordination and technique. He will be facing fatigue related symptoms, resulting in a massive loss in the quality of his movements. Which will lead to stress and frustration, and, in turn, to the feeling of limitation. Often this poor performance will be blamed on a lack of technical skills. The dancer often feels unable to cope with the demands of technique. In reality, though, it is not his technical skills that are poor, but rather his level of endurance, strength, and flexibility. If those are lost during a competition, also lost are all seven coordinative abilities. The dancer is no longer finely coordinated, he loses his focus, his balance declines, his leading is growing rigid, and reactions are slower. This body is now no longer able to perform technique.

A diverse and dance sport-specific training of stamina lays the foundation for the coordinative abilities to be properly harnessed and applied during the competition. Only then will it be possible for the dancer to practice his art free of conditional constraints. Only a fit body can move freely!

The following elements of stamina have to be specifically and systematically trained:

1. Endurance

  • Basic endurance
  • Mid-term endurance
  • Short-term endurance
  • (Sprintendurance)

2. Strength

  • Strength endurance
  • Explosivepower
  • Reactive power
  • (Maximum muscular strength)

3. Flexibility

  • (here we have to ensure effective stretching techniques are applied!)

Every ‘body’ is different

Often, technical training neglects to take into account what normally would never be questioned: every ‘body’ has very individual physical talents and weaknesses. Therefore, it is highly recommended to adapt our current model technique to a fitted technique that is catering to the abilities of the individual.

Model technique

The model technique represents what is considered ideal as per the current state of knowledge. It is not individualized, and its creation is generally based on biomechanical principles, on movement sequences of top athletes, or on practical training value.

Fitted technique

The fitted technique is based on the model technique but adapted to the individual constitution of the athlete. If a dancer is, for example, especially agile, he will be able to command a wider range of movement within the parameters set by the model technique compared to his less agile peers. To constrain this dancer because of rules that do not apply to his body would be counterproductive as he would lose opportunities to express himself individually. The model technique can be adapted to an individual fitted technique that is taking into account body structure and the further path of motion.

Timeline for development of technical skills

Beginners: Major deviations from the model technique.

Intermediate: Minor deviations from the model technique. Additionally, the dancer is improving his mastery of fitted technique and proceeds to find individual ways of expression.

Elite: Deviations from the model technique can be larger in favour of perfecting the fitted technique. Due to his ample movement experience, the elite dancer is able to individually develop his own fitted technique based on the model technique. The model technique’s principles are retained with the dancer finding sufficient freedom to develop his skills freely, according to his own body features and his individual talents.

As it has been illustrated by the timeline, adjustments to the model technique as well as the fitted technique in itself may vary, depending on the individual dancer’s level of proficiency.

If we managed to successfully establish the practice of fitted technique in ballroom dancing, we would most certainly see more individuality and freedom on the dance floor. On top, one important aspect would be practiced which is often difficult to implement:

Dancers would use their technique rather than showcasing it.

This would be yet another step towards technical freedom!

Freedom must be learned

Another paradox that I keep encountering in our sport is that we expect athletes to move in free, creative, and unique ways, even though we have spent years to train them to technical perfection, with all its accompanying limitations. Usually it is just before important tournaments that we as teachers notice that a simple display of correct technique is not sufficient. We then demand that our students free themselves from what they have learned in order to become “real” dancers and body artists within a matter of days. Only few students are able to fulfill this task on the spur of the moment.

Here, we as trainers are called upon. It is important that dancers are unrestricted in their path of development. Therefore it is strongly recommended for all teachers to model their teaching methods accordingly in order to achieve this in the long term.

A teaching method I have encountered frequently may be called ‘memorization’. Here instructions are passed on from the coach, and ideally taken up by the student on a one-to-one basis. Sometimes this way of learning happens through detailed explanations of the movement sequence, sometimes only by mirroring the coach’s movements. This way of learning does not reach deeper levels of consciousness; the utterly important aspect of deep sensibilty is hardly used and trained (deep sensibility — the sensibility of deep tissue (such as muscles or tendons) to pressure, pain, and movement), because prescribed movements are difficult to convert into personal experience. Imitation always remains superficial.

Additionally, most dancers are finding it difficult to transfer what they have learned — to apply one movement’s principles upon another – with that teaching method. Another important aspect is that barely any moving experience is gained through learning by imitation, as the coach usually makes efforts to prematurely eliminate any source of possible errors. The dancer therefore has only little opportunity to learn from his own experience, because he is subjected to regulation and minimization.

This method ought to be accompanied by teaching methods that foster problem solving competence and movement experience. Most of the times, a coach is regarded as good if he has an immediate solution at hand for the couple’s problem. The general belief is that this is the fastest way to make progress. This may be so in some cases. Unfortunately, however, what is mostly left behind is the student’s movement experience. This means that later in the course of their training, students will have difficulty in finding their own solutions and in applying technique in new contexts. It will also impede them from transferring learned principles from one movement to another. They have not learned how to reach their goals that way, since that had previously been left up to the coach to resolve. I often hear coaches complaining their couples ought to work more independently and should better be able to recognize and execute the central theme of the training session. If this is to be a goal of the teaching, then the teaching must also be designed to that effect.

As a coach it is then advisable to avoid catering to the expectation that directions and solutions always have to be provided immediately. We are much more likely to succeed in the long term when educating the athletes to be self-reliant – to be dancers who can put into effect their own solutions, ideas and visions.

To achieve this, the coach should take the role of facilitator and “guide” in the studio more frequently. One approach may be to indicate a problem and to help the students find their own individual solution based upon their level of development. Here it is important that the students are allowed to experiment. It is the teacher’s job to create a positive and liberal learning environment, in which the dancers feel free to be creative and to make discoveries. As facilitator or “guide”, the teacher may give advice – if needed – that enables the student to reach his desired goal. Working in pairs or in small groups is very well suited to this teaching method. The expertise of the coach in this type of teaching lies in giving the right impulse at the right time and in the correct dosage. It can be challenging for the teacher to keep his own impatience under control. This is important, though, since it forms the essential basis for a productive learning atmosphere.

Important information: The advantage of this teaching method is that according to the research on learning, self-learning stays longer and more effectively with the student. In addition, the student gathers valuable experience in the learning process, in our case, positive movement experiences, which he would not have had with learning by imitation. This way, the student internalizes them. They are comprehensible and repeatable, because he understands their origin.

It may be of value, hence, to rethink our teaching methods and to change them if necessary. If we want to see free and inspired dancers WE have to educate them accordingly.

Repeating without repetition

One law of training theory states that monotony is progress’s death. Only if training impulses vary widely and never remain the same over a longer period of time, can our body show long-term improvement. On first glance this seems contradictory, since we all know that movements, technical or choreographed, only settle through constant repetition.

Who enjoys eating the same food day in, day out? Who doesn’t yearn for rain after weeks of sunshine? We are equipped for diversity, be it physically or mentally. This is the reason why competitive sports have been following the maxim “repeat without repetition” for quite some time now when teaching technique. This means we have to ensure that our training sessions become more versatile and creative. Below I am going to provide some ideas which may be used as they are, or changed and adapted according to your own personal liking. Creativity should not be reined in if you want your training to be effective. Not only will efficiency improve much faster that way, motivation will also be higher because of more variation in the daily routine.

Important information: Studies show that the dropout rate is significantly lower when the training is more diverse and interesting, especially when it comes to children and young athletes.

Possible variations in practicing a slow waltz basic choreography:

  • Dance with and without partner
  • Dance at different speeds (improvement of differentiation skills, orientation
    skills and balance skills)
  • Dance at different rhythms
  • Employ resistance tools in order to feel increased muscle activity and to train deep sensibility
  • Dance with eyes closed. Here, too, deep sensibility is trained, as well as spatial orientation and balance
  • Practice after having exhausted yourself, in order to assure technical excellency even in most difficult conditions
  • With obstacles, in order to practice reaction and adaptation skills
  • Change direction at a certain signal. Here, too, reaction and adaptation skills are being trained
  • Setting priorities will make the training more structured, more varied and easier to understand. It will result in the dancer working in more varied ways, because he becomes aware of the monotony. Additionally, he will be more motivated, because he sees the greater effectiveness
  • Sequence-practice: repeated dancing of short dance sequences (e.g. 15/ 30/ 45/ 60 seconds) with alternating priorities. This will improve stamina, automatisms and movement routine, and coordination skills as well as technical skills will be applied.
  • Endurance training, in order to be able to follow the choreography even when under a great deal of physical stress
  • Practice dynamic skills
  • Practice how to breathe
  • Practice how to express emotion

    If the dancer follows the maxim “repeat without repetition” he will be doing himself a big favour. The wide variety of learning content not only ensures a holistic body education but also – and this has been proven – a much faster development. It is my deepest conviction that many dancers don’t tap their full potential, and that this is mainly due to monotonous and one-sided training.

    Many dancers will experience an unbelievable amount of progress if they follow modern and scientifically proven ways of training.

    Training according to the “repeat without repetition” model is a further way to take the limitation out of technique, since the dancer is forced to leave his comfort zone in his search for training content, in order to find new challenges. These will increase his movement repertoire, which will turn him into a more experienced “mover” and, at last, a dancer.

    What did I learn?

    In grappling with the subject of technique I realized how complex and comprehensive an affair it is. No matter whether it concerns definitions, problems, or solutions – there usually are a couple of legitimate options at hand. It occurred to me that it is best to fight the way through the maze of options and to name a few helpful and clear-cut approaches. This is what I tried to do.

    Moreover, it made me realize how huge the challenges are that dancers, coaches and judges are facing every day.

    How do we learn quickly and well? How do we teach successfully and stay motivating? How do we judge dancing? How much room is there in dancing for art? What is the value of technique? In what ways has dancing changed, and is there still potential for development?

    I gained a wealth of new insights; but also an abundance of questions were raised, finding the answer to which is and will remain to be a fascinating and enriching task.

    Alexander Hoffmann

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