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WHY am I not improving 


Article provided by Will Pagan of

"Why Am I Not Improving?"
By Will "Willie Fuego" Pagán

Anyone who has pursued their dancing for any significant length of time has asked themselves the question "Why am I not improving?"  It stands to reason that if you are investing so much time and effort (not to mention money) in developing your dancing, that you should always be noticably improving, right?  Wrong.  There are several reasons why, despite your best efforts, you either may not be improving, or may not appear to be improving.  Identifying the reason behind the stagnation of your development is absolutely critical to overcoming it.

In my previous article entitled "The Willie Fuego Medical Handbook of Common Salsa Ailments," I discussed several common problems that salsa dancers experience while developing themselves as dancers.  While the article is largely tongue-in-cheek, the content is entirely valid.  Many of the conditions detailed within the article can severely retard or even completely block your progress as a dancer.  Further, the article only discusses a few stumbling blocks and is by no means comprehensive.  A comprehensive listing of all the different salsa conditions would require an enormous article that would be immensely unwieldy to read.  Be that as it may, if you feel that you are not progressing, you may wish to read up on some of the so-called illnesses detailed within that article and see if there are any that can be applied to you.  If you feel that you are being hindered by some particular flaw in your dancing, you absolutely should discuss it with your instructor.  A qualified instructor should be able to diagnose what is impeding your progress if your development is being hindered by a particular "syndrome" or compulsion toward incorrect form, for example.  If you are not satisfied with your instructor's diagnosis, GET A SECOND OPINION!  Some instructors not only overlook certain flaws but actually encourage them, so if you are serious about developing yourself as a dancer, then it is absolutely imperitive that you gain insight from as broad an audience as possible.  A problem that goes unnoticed by one instructor can be completely obvious to another.

If you are truly concerned with improving your dancing, then certainly you are taking instruction from someone.  It is important to realize, however, that depending on your level, the type of instruction that you receive is almost just as important as the fact that you are taking lessons at all.  This is because your level of dancing will dictate the type of instruction that you will most benefit from.  For example, an absolute beginner will benefit a good deal from both private and group instruction, for example.  As the beginner develops, however, the benefit gained from group instruction will begin to dwindle.  Dancers that seek a comfortable group setting for all of their instruction will only end up eternally intermediate and the intermediate levels are where dancers require the MOST private instruction.  As my wise kung-fu instructor once told me, the middle ranks are the most dangerous time for martial arts students as they have learned just enough to get their asses kicked.  The same is true with dancing.  At the intermediate level you have learned just enough to make every mistake in the book and fall victim to every common problem there is.  This is why it takes so long for most dancers to progress beyond the intermediate level.  The graph below indicates my estimation of the amount of benefit you receive per instruction type depending on your current level of dancing.

Graph of benefits per instruction type for each level of dancing.

Be careful not to deceive yourself as to what your true level of dancing is when placing yourself on this chart.  Often one does not know how bad they were until they have become much better.  In any case, it is important to note that if you wish to develop yourself in the most efficient and effective way that you be sure to maintain the proper balance of private instruction, group lessons and independent study / practice for your level of dancing.

Within Salsa, there are several areas of study that can be explored.  Many people say that they are taking lessons, but to develop what?  Good private instruction will help to focus and guide your training, but do you consciously know what your training focus is?  In order for you to continue developing, you must maintain a balance in the growth rate of the different aspects of the dance.  For example, there comes a point in which followers absolutely must learn to spin properly in order to learn how to perform certain moves.  Endlessly training at spinning, however, will have a minimum benefit you unless you have trained first at prepping and spotting.  Certain moves require greater body mechanics or better tension.  Until the prerequisites of each move are fulfilled, by properly developing your dancing across the different areas, you will be unable to perform that move and will therefore be unable to progress.

When training, consistancy is essential.  Some students will not progress because either they, or their instructor, is flip-flopping.  If we examine spinning again, for example, there are many different ways one can spin.  The fundamentals are all the same (i.e. you need to spot, you need to prep, etc.) but almost no two instructors will teach you how to spin in the same way.  As such, you will never become a good spinner until you select a method that feels right to you and stick with it.  Eventually, you will begin to learn your own way of doing it that feels even more comfortable, and your way will also be different than everyone elses.  Until that time comes, however, stick with one approach and practice it rigorously.  If you encounter a new way of doing things, see if you can somehow incorporate it into what you have already learned.  Try not to completely contradict yourself.  If you have been receiving good instruction, there will be very few occassions where it will be to your advantage to completely eradicate your progress in one methodology in order to adopt another.  If you allow yourself to flip-flop, or if your instructor consistantly contradicts himself/herself, you will find yourself at an educational impasse and your development will come to a halt.

It is not uncommon for dancers to periodically stop developing and then promptly resume.  If you find that after a brief period of stagnation that you then recover and continue to develop, do not be alarmed.  This is indicative of your hitting an obstacle, being stuck for a while and then working through the problem.  Good private instruction will help to reduce the amount of time you spend in a developmental "holding pattern" and will get you to continue growing more rapidly.  Growth spurts are not bad in and of themselves, however, if you feel that it is taking you too long to overcome each hurdle, you may want to consider increasing your rate of private instruction, increasing your practice time or finding a different instructor that will be better able to address your specific needs.

There comes a point where no amount of further instruction will help you unless you put in more time to practice on your own!  The higher your level of dancing, the more rigorous your practice regimen must be in order to advance.  If you live in an area that does not support the practice level you require, then you will have to train yourself elsewhere.  Many dancers travel to major salsa hubs on a regular basis in order to ensure that they periodically get a proper dose of good ol' fashioned practice.  Often times this means that leaders have to get over their timidness and ask others to dance.  Followers that are serious about improving also should not wait around for others to find them if they are not satisfied with the amount of dancing that they are getting.  Followers should also be proactive in finding others to dance with.  Remember that ultimately the honus is on you to improve your own dancing.

There are many reasons why you may not be developing as quickly as you would like.  Your progress toward professional level dancing will be hindered by any number of obstacles that you will be forced to overcome.  In short, remember to:
- Be introspective and gain insight from others into your dancing to avoid typical, well-known problems.
- Maintain a proper balance of private and group instruction as well as independent study / practice for your level of dancing.
- Keep a holistic training approach (i.e. remember to pursue a well-rounded training regimen that develops you all around so that your development in one area is not impeded by your lack of progress in another).
- Avoid excessively contradicting yourself (i.e. flip-flopping).
- Growth spurts are normal!  Don't worry too much over them!  Pauses in development that are exceedingly long, however, can be shortened through private attention from a qualified instructor.

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