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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Human Brain is Built to Mimic or I Talk Too Much

I just had one of the most successful in-class sessions of my entire teaching career. Why? What did I do differently this time?

I shut my mouth!

Before I get into the details let me give some quick background:

We were working on Waltz Clog Pullbacks. I have explained to the class before how to do these and the kids have had mixed levels of success with them (some get them, many don't). Usually I will explain how to do it and then give them all time to work on it while I go around giving individuals pointers to help them get it. The results of this are usually some slight improvement.

This time I did it differently. I had a contest with the kids based on them mimicking me. Basically I did a waltz clog pullback then counted them in and they all did one together. If they all do it right (for the most part) and most importantly if their sounds are all together, they get a point. If their sounds are almost all together it's a tie, and if their sounds aren't together I get a point. No it's not remotely fair and I tell them this up front (don't worry about that, their competitive spirit will kick in anyway).

In the interest of full disclosure I have taught them these before and we have worked on them before but the level of success I had this time is unlike any success I've had ever. And we're talking in 27 years of teaching.

I had nearly every student doing the step exceptionally well with the proper timing and separation of sounds. And it was all based on them seeing me do it correctly, then trying to match it - rhythmically. It worked. It actually worked - better than anything I've ever done. Maybe it was a fluke but if it was it was a most glorious one.

What I didn't do this time is explain it to death. I didn't tell them how to fix this, or adjust that or anything. Either they sounded like me and got a point or they didn't. And just having that feedback of "it sounds good you get a point or it sounds bad I get a point" was enough for them to unconsciously make any and all adjustments they needed to do it right.

I'll have to try this again with a different step, but I may be on to something here!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

I'm Doing It Wrong Again or Reality is Unforgiving

Okay so in my last post I wrote about new warm-up:

I have all the kids get into a line.  Then I teach them a short simple pattern - step heel, step heel, step heel, stamp.  All the kids do it together first, then the first kid in line does it solo.  Then all the kids do it together again, after which the second kid in line does it solo.  And we continue to alternate from group to solo until we get through the entire line.  If I think the kids still need more work on the pattern we go through the line again

This simply doesn't work long term for warm-up. Why? Because we cover at most 4 patterns (at most). There are simply too many steps to cover that we will never get to. Also this usually takes a while so it becomes a mix of warm-up and technique. The net result is that the number of steps the kids actually do in a class is greatly reduced. Yes they are getting to really hear their own feet and yes that's helping to make their steps sound better, but too many steps simply don't get done at all this way.

So what to do?

Currently I have returned to my old style warm-up where I put on music and have the kids following along with whatever steps and/or patterns I do. This allows them to do a wide selection of steps, improves their ability to quickly learn new patterns, and strengthens basic steps.

However we are still left with unresolved issue of the kids not being able to hear their own feet and/or not properly executing the steps. I don't have a good solution for this, but I have an idea that may help (I'll try it tonight in class):

During warm-up I'm going to have the kids face to the right when they have done a step/pattern correct twice in a row. If they mess up after facing the right they have to face front again. (Having them face directions is just so I can easily tell who thinks they are doing it right.)

The point of this is just to get them to focus on their feet more. In order to face right they have to do it correctly (in their estimation) twice in a row. Ideally they'll pay close attention to their feet to assess if they're doing it right or not - so even if they aren't always right, just them paying closer attention to what their feet are doing will be a big win in my opinion.

After warm-up we do an across the floor combination and then we do the "All/Solo" pattern I had tried as a new warm-up (see above) to focus in on a few steps/patterns. My kids came up with name ALSO so now I just call it "ALSO".

So that's where I'm at right now. As always it's ever-changing:)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

25 Years of Doing it Wrong or I'm Still Learning

After 25 years of teaching tap dance I think I've been doing warm-ups wrong the entire time.  Granted there is no official right or wrong way to do warm-ups, but I measure their success by how well my students can execute the steps we do in warm-up each week.

Before we go on I want to share my thoughts on the purpose of a warm-up.  In most cases I don't think it's really about "getting warm" or "warming up the muscles".  At least not for the young kids I teach who can break out into a full-on run with no preparation whatsoever, or who can drop into the splits without first stretching for a few minutes.  I'm a little older so for me it does serve a bit of the "warm up the muscles" before we torture them purpose.  But the kids I teach are good to go.  So why do it?

I do it for 2 reasons:

1.  Reinforce basic steps.  There is no substitute for repetition.  If you do 100 step heels a week I promise your step heels will sound infinitely better than someone who does just ten.  When you add in all the other steps that incorporate a step heel, the number of steps improved by having good step heels grows quickly.

2.  Teaching the kids to pick up new patterns quickly.  Recently I've been alternating between a pre-recorded warm-up and a live warm-up where I do a short pattern for a number of steps.  Having to pick up a new pattern for each step helps the kids' learning skills and teaches them to pick up more quickly.

So my typical live warm-up is to put on some music and tap out patterns using a variety steps.  We'll do some patterns with just our toes, then heels, then step heels and so on.  Each week the patterns tend to be a little different.  We usually cover all the major steps too like buffalo, cramp roll, irish, maxie ford, waltz clog, etc.

But it isn't working.  How do I know?  Simple - just ask the students to do any of the steps or patterns in the warm up by themselves.  Yep, just one at a time.  You will hear inconsistent rhythms, missed sounds, scraping sounds, weak sounds, etc.  And it's not because my students don't care or aren't "good tappers".  They really try during the warm-up (most of the time), but they're missing an absolutely key element - they can't hear their feet.

It's not just that music is playing during warm-up, it's that there are 12 other kids tapping at the same time.  I'm pretty experienced and I still have to listen very closely to check my own sounds when a class is tapping with me.  But even I find I have the same issues they do.  There are some steps that I think I'm doing well when we are all tapping together (and I'm listening close) but that I find are slightly deficient in some manner or other when I'm tapping by myself (usually there's a sound that's just a bit early or late somewhere in the step) .

So what do we do about this?  I'll tell you what I'm doing now, but I'm still in search of a better solution.  I have all the kids get into a line.  Then I teach them a short simple pattern - step heel, step heel, step heel, stamp.  All the kids do it together first, then the first kid in line does it solo.  Then all the kids do it together again, after which the second kid in line does it solo.  And we continue to alternate from group to solo until we get through the entire line.  If I think the kids still need more work on the pattern we go through the line again.

After each kid does their solo, I give them feedback regarding what to fix and/or how to fix it.  As valuable as my feedback may be, it pales in comparison to when the kids can hear their own mistakes.  There is no substitute for immediate and clear feedback.  And NOT feedback from someone else, but from yourself.

If you try to throw a ball through a hoop and miss, you don't need someone to tell you that you missed.  You know it.  You can easily see if you threw it too high or too low and then make a correction.  I can tell a student their shuffle is too early all day long, but when they hear it themselves their eyes light up with realization.  It becomes real to them, because they heard it themselves.

They now have direct feedback.  That feedback makes all the difference in the world.  It doesn't guarantee a fix.  I'm still there to give them advice on how to make the shuffle start later, but for the most part they are no longer focused on trying to hear the issue I'm pointing out to them, they are now focused on fixing it and evaluating how well they're doing so based on immediate feedback.

Most of the students like this system despite not having music playing and despite having to tap solo. There are some who are less confident with their footwork that don't like it precisely because they have to go solo.  However I suspect once their footwork improves they won't mind it so much.

There are drawbacks of course.  The primary one being time.  I can only get through 4 or 5 patterns with this technique.  During my old warm-up I would do maybe 20 or 30 patterns.

I'm still in the earliest stages of implementing this.  I've thought about keeping my old warm-up and just making this new system the "technique" portion of class, but there's a flaw in that set-up.  If the kids are doing the steps wrong in warm-up, then they're essentially getting worse because they're practicing the steps wrong.  What is the point in that?

I don't have all the answers.  I'll keep you posted as this develops.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Partner Week or Two is Better Than One

In my never-ending quest keep class interesting, for both me and my students, I tried something new a couple of weeks ago.  We had partner week.

For warm up I pulled a student up in the front of class to be my partner (if there was an extra one to be had - an even number of students meant I was on my own).  We did a simple pattern like 4 toes together then I did two stamps and then my partner did two stamps.  The fun and interesting part is that it was all done on the fly.  I didn't go through which partner would do what part ahead of time other than some general guidelines:

1.  Sometimes you and your partner will tap together and then do separate parts (like I explained above).

2.  Sometimes you and your partner will do separate parts first and then tap together (I do step heel stamp, my partner does step heel stamp, and then together we do three step heels and a stamp).

3.  When reverse a pattern or switching to the left foot, the partner on the left (this was not me) would go first for the separate parts.

In some classes this whole process went smoother than others but most students enjoyed the change of pace.  However the classes where I had no partner and could only motion towards my "invisible partner" had a harder time grasping how it worked on the fly.

After that we did a short combination traveling across the floor that had each partner trading off steps throughout the combo.  This went fairly well.

From there I gave each set of partners a short series of steps to work on with the main goal being to execute the steps as together as possible.  Having to execute this task together brought an elevated amount focus to the students' tapping that was well above what I usually see.  By and large the students did an excellent job tapping in time with their partners.

Then we moved on to turns and I had each set of partners turn at the same time in opposite directions.  Frankly that didn't do anything special for anyone.  I'll make note of that for next year.

After turns we did pullbacks, again adding some trade offs in a short combination.  This went fairly well too.

To finish we did our standard combination we had been working on for the previous three weeks.  Thinking back I would do partner week at the beginning of the month and start a new combination that also incorporated partner work.

All in all it was a great change of pace and earlier today I even had a student request to do it again.  It really brought a breath of fresh air into class and I highly recommend giving it a shot.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Big Jump or HOLY COW!

Every so often you see a student for whom everything suddenly clicks and like a rocket they take off to unbelievable heights.  I had the fortune of recently seeing this in not one, but two students at the same time. Often when a tapper reaches the top of the class I recommend they straddle classes by continuing to take the current class and also taking a class that's the next level up.

The straddlers typical have a hard time in the harder class but are usually ready for the challenge.  What I almost never see is a straddler who takes the harder class and just eats it up straight away.  I recently had two tappers do just that.  For one of the tappers I could see this coming - she's been tapping well and has been very focused in class.  The other one has always been a good student but her amazing jump came out of nowhere for me.

And Man is it EXCITING!  It's so fun to see kids suddenly make a huge jump forward like this.  As tap teachers we struggle week in and week out to make sure our students know what they need to know and that they sound good.  Progress is usually relatively slow and steady - most kids only tap once a week (twice if you're lucky).  So when a couple of students can suddenly do things they couldn't before and do them so well to boot it's a very happy teaching day!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer Format or Tech Ketchup

So basically from late January through June/July I have ben working on recital routines in my classes.  I did take a few weeks off here and there to work on technique but by and large I was working on routines.  Naturally when that happens I find the students (and my) technique suffers.  So as summer classes ramp up I have decided to focus almost exclusively on technique including omitting my longer combinations I usually do at the end of class.  I figured I'd share my summer class format with all of you:

First 10 minutes - Warm-up or as I call them "Drills".  I've never liked the term warm-ups for tap even though I use it.  As I get older it applies to me more and is more of a process of actually getting the body moving and warmed up but for most kids I teach - they come from other classes and are ready to go.  I prefer to call them drills because it is a chance in my view to drill steps they already know as well as easy steps and keep them strong.  We tend to think advanced tappers are automatically good at the easy stuff even if we don't drill them at it but that's not true.  Even advanced tappers will find the simple things getting rusty if they don't drill them from time to time.

Next 10 minutes - Across the floor.  I'm starting with simple things like flaps, flap heels and flap ball changes.  As I said above these things do get rusty when they haven't ben worked on.  I do combine them to make the kids think a little.

Next 10 minutes - Work on your own stuff.  I have the kids spread out, picke any step they want, and work on it for 10 minutes.  I think it's good for the kids to have some self directed time. It's good for them to take charge of their own tapping and not just wait for me to tell them what to do.  I walk around to each student while they're working and give them pointers to improve the steps they're working on.

Next 10 minutes - Turns.  I'm starting withe basic things like step heels and buffalos.

Next 10 minutes - One at a time.  A really nice commenter suggested the following:  when you go one at a time, after one person goes have everyone in the class do the step they were working on.  It was a brilliant suggestions and keeps the kids much more interested.  So this past week I had them get in a circle and each person could choose what step they wanted to do.  They did the step and then I asked them what they heard.  Some could tell me what was wrong and some could not.  If they couldn't tell what was wrong I asked the other kids what they thought.  Many times the other kids heard the mistakes.  If no one heard I repeated the steps doing the same mistake the kid did but exaggerated it so the kids could more easily hear it and sometimes that would help them to hear it.  So after each person went everyone else would do the step they did twice just to get a chance to tap.  It went really well.  It has ben the best set-up for going one at a time I've ever used.

Next 10 minutes - Wings and Time Steps.  I find wings are largely a question of strength once you understand the basic mechanics.  Repetition builds strength.  Also it was good to review time steps.

Overall this format worked well and I look forward to seeing how it goes for the rest of the summer.  I'll keep you updated.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pick a Card or Simple Motivation

I like my students to be self motivated but sometimes we all need a little push in order to pull out our best work.  Try a deck of cards.  An old deck of cards, preferably (or a cheap deck).  Here's how it works:

Split the deck of cards in half based on color - half red, half black.  Now have your students perform the dance or combination they're currently working on.  While they're dancing you walk around watching their feet, face, arms, etc.  If you notice good footwork from a student, hand the student a black card (yes, while they're tapping - they are talented and will be able to dance just fine with it in their hand, though the card will get a bit mangled).  If you notice anything else done really well such as sharpness of movement, great expression, or nice body lines, give them a red card.

That's it!  You'll be amazed how hard the kids will work for a simple playing card.  Also there is no punishment or taking cards away.  Most rehearsals we tell them what they're doing wrong and how to fix it.  This trick does the opposite.  It gives them recognition for doing things right.  I did this once last year.  Once.  The kids remembered and have been requesting for quite a while now, so I finally remembered to bring the cards in and it went great.

Now I wouldn't do this every week or else it will very quickly lose its appeal.  There are also variations that can keep it interesting such as:

1.  At the end of the performance, the students with the most red cards and black cards, get to step out of the dance for the next performance and hand out cards themselves.  This is a good thing on many levels.  They suddenly become keenly aware of what a "card-earning" performance is.  They also see things differently than you and will often give cards to people you missed.  Also I don't give everyone a card every time.  If someone fails to get any cards I will try to watch them and try to find something they are in fact doing well so I can give them a card for it.

2.  Kids are naturally competitive and will compare how many cards they got with their fellow dancers.  You can shake things up a bit by making Aces worth 3 cards.  This throws a little randomness in there and gives dancers who might not normally get the most cards a chance to "win".

All in all this little game makes for a more enjoyable rehearsal with highly motivated students to boot.   Give it a try, it's a win win for all.