Having taught at least 1,000 beginner lessons over the past dozen years, I’ve encountered most of the challenges that beginner dancers struggle with as they pick up this new skill. The iconic Box Step appears to be the most difficult for people to grasp. Why is that?
Used in the Smooth and International Waltz, the Smooth Foxtrot, and the American Rhythm version of Rumba, the figure (in its left foot variation) consists of a step forward with the left foot, a step to the side with the right foot, and closing the feet. This is then repeated with the right foot moving backwards. All of this done in a simple and easy-to-understand box pattern on the floor. The steps themselves are no different than the way we normally walk.
It seems so simple. Yet almost everyone struggles to get it.
The most common problem is not changing weight when bringing the feet together. The dancer then uses the moving foot again, causing them to either step on their partner or being stepped on because their standing foot is in the way of their partner’s moving foot.
Another common problem is trying to carefully measure out the directions of moving foot, bringing it directly to the other foot (like an L) and resting it there momentarily before moving it to the side. Equally troubling is moving the forward or back step diagonally in an effort to avoid stepping on the partner (or to avoid being stepped on).
There are, of course, many other issues. Looking down to try and figure out where to move the feet based on what your partner is doing. Stepping too big or too small. Moving the feet too quickly. Or too slowly. Putting equal weight on both feet when bringing them together, causing the dancer to forget which foot to move next.
How we learn
These problems seem to be directly related to the way we learn new skills. Dance is a new skill, one involving both mental and physical attributes. And not only do you need to connect the motor skills of moving body parts, but you must also connect those to planned “follow” actions, to the actions of your partner, and to the music. It’s a lot to take in!
Back in 1949, psychologist Donald Hebb proposed that when neurons fire together, the connections between them, referred to as the synapses, grow stronger. Inspired by the Pavlovian studies on dogs responding to a bell for feeding time, he theorized that this is how learning takes place. This idea led to an oft-quoted axiom: “Synapses that fire together wire together.”
The problem is that not everything we remember results from reward or punishment. In fact, most experiences are forgotten. And synapses, even when they fire together, might not wire together.
What we retain depends on our emotional response to an experience, how novel it is, where and when the event occurred and our level of attention and motivation during the event, and we process these thoughts and feelings while asleep. Vast changes throughout the brain are necessary to create a coherent memory. The activity of millions of neurons in many different regions of your brain must link together to produce a coherent memory that interweaves emotions, sights, sounds, and event sequences.
Recent studies have shed more light on this. In studying MRI scans, researchers discovered that various types of knowledge actually increase the size of certain parts of the brain. Musicians, for example, have thicker regions of auditory cortex than non-musicians. At first, researchers assumed that these subtle differences already existed in the brain of some people first, allowing them to become musicians and excel at their given skills. But subsequent research found that learning actually changes the structure of the brain. These changes to the brain don’t already exist, but result from the development of the skill!
Learning is a process
I’ve long believed that one of the most important attributes a teacher can bring to the learning process is to be able to remember their own experience of learning the same things. I recall being so confused by my first Quickstep lesson that I couldn’t even remember which was my right foot and which was my left! When you can’t even relate to which foot is which, it’s hard to know which direction those feet need to go, and what timing to apply.
I spent a few years as a licensed driving instructor. My first lesson to train for the instructor test, my teacher asked me how I would tell someone to start a car. It seemed like an obvious thing: turn the ignition key. Well, I had left out about eight other steps including checking the mirrors, putting my hand on the steering wheel, checking the gear the car was in, and putting my foot on the brake. We often take things for granted, but all these details matter.
Even the simple Box Step involves a number of kinetic actions. It’s important to slow down the teaching process so that each action is clearly understood.
It may help to march the feet, forcing you to stand on only one foot at a time. It helps to clarify the size of the box so people don’t step too big and make things harder. For people who apply the infamous L action of the feet, we might need to ask the student to specifically create an X pattern.
Easy to become overwhelmed
In contrast, I’ve observed highly skilled champions trying to teach beginners in a way that left them feeling overwhelmed. They would show a Bronze-level step pattern, then ask the students to immediately mimic what they had just seen, with no additional info. This can’t possibly work, as the beginners couldn’t even grasp what they had just seen.
Our brains, while being incredibly complex and capable of great things, tend to learn in a simplistic, structured way. When it comes to motor activities, we can’t apply or understand all the nuances of a new concept at the same time.
Imagine getting in a car for the first time, as a brand new driver. It would be unfair for someone to expect you to drive on the freeway on your first lesson! Dancing is no different. We need to allow time for both our brains and our bodies to get comfortable with each aspect of a new action before we move on to more complex things. As the brain changes to adapt to the new information, it is prepared to take the next step in developing the skill further. The brain is a muscle, and like other muscles, it gets stronger with repeated demands.
If you’re a beginner, especially one who is struggling, be patient. The learning process is different for everyone. Stay with it and allow those brain changes to take place. Eventually, you’ll surprise yourself with how well you are doing. And some day, you’ll wonder how you ever found the Box Step so difficult.