Having a discussion with a dear physicist friend last night the topic of conversation arrived at a conference she had been to where a Harvard lecturer had stumbled upon a fantastic new means of teaching. Instead of using lectures to regurgitate a text book at students using power point (or other similar available presentation software) he suggested that the students actively engage in their learning, firstly as a whole , then in pairs and finally through a discussion with their lecturer.

My friend was shocked that this was nothing new to dancers.

This in turn shocked me.

To watch each other, discuss with each and to use a million different forms of repetition is the basis of all good dance training. If I was left to read a ballet manual I would in no way ever be a prima!

This led us to discuss the way in which we both learned physics at school. In short, everything you are told you discover is a lie when you reach a more advanced level. For example at Standard Grade Speed equates to Distance divided by Time. In Higher you are told that Speed does not exist as Velocity is a more accurate representation of what we believe to be speed as it takes in to consideration rate and direction of change. It turns out that as you go on to learn even more physics that everything you have ever been taught was a variation of the factual truth.

I suppose this is life all over (and definitely choreographic academia, but that is another discussion). It is only natural that we oversimplify things to ensure novices are not overwhelmed by the knowledge we give them.

Therefore, does it take a very special type of teacher to teach a novice?

I know, as I'm sure we all do, many wonderful dancer who are rubbish teachers for many reasons. I utterly disagree with the phrase 'If you can't, TEACH' and think more 'If you can't teach, don't teach' as for some it is sharing of knowledge that drives them.

The more we discussed the more it appeared to me that the most difficult teaching can be at novice level and not because there is so much to be taught - this widens out the playing field. Hell, everyone can leave learning something new if they knew nothing to begin with! BUT it is more difficult as you have to be selective of your knowledge. You must be so knowledgeable that you know what knowledge is superior to other knowledge, even when all of the knowledge relies upon the other knowledge that you have to miss out. You know?!!

That does not even get in to the fact you must be able to communicate this knowledge well with your students.

So, my question, how do you teach a plie?

It's such a simple yet fundamental move.

Do you being in posture? This is a nightmare to correct once bad practice begins?
Do you bend the knees past demi plie before you discuss weight placement on the feet? This will lead to weak ankles.
Do you use the arms or just forget they're there?
Parallel or turned out? Do you then go into detail about rotation?
I could go on.....

The more we discussed it the more we came to the conclusion that without the ability to simplify things we would never do anything but just discuss doing things and novices would never get to dance! Therefore, as hard as it is, until some students have a grasp of one thing you must relax about other details. It is not turning a blind eye but giving them time to digest before overloading them.

This, I know, seems obvious but for at least three hours last night fascinated us as the more you simplify the world the less there is to worry about.

With that in mind I am off to simplify the new Creative Scotland funding system for myself... wish me luck!