This weekend at Shimmyathon I got to introduce a bunch of new students to my “Whack-a-Mole” theory of teaching and learning dance. For those of you not familiar with Whack-a-Mole, it’s an old arcade-style game that is probably better viewed than read about:
The idea is, the mechanical moles keep popping up, one or two or more at a time, and you keep whacking them back down. The better you get at the game, the more moles you can handle at once.
I was not a dancer as a teenager, but I was a pretty serious huntseat equestrian. Starting out, there are so many things to remember at once – keep your heels down, keep your knees turned in, grip the horse with your legs, keep your hands low, give with your elbows to keep a constant connection from your hands to the horse’s mouth. You’d concentrate on one or two and the others would go out the window. My instructor’s approach was to call out, reminding me of the ones I’d forgotten, keeping my attention shifting constantly to cover all the points until some of them became automatic.
Confession: I’ve never actually played Whack-a-Mole. But I imagine it feels much the same – your attention keeps shifting from mole to mole because you can’t monitor every hole at once. Over time, you get a broader view. That one mole in the lower right corner becomes automatic – when it pops up, you whack it down immediately before it even registers that you saw it out of the corner of your eye. That makes it easier to focus on the moles on the upper left that you still have to think consciously about.
Dance can be like that. First, all the components of a single move – keep your knees soft, pelvis in neutral. Slide your hip over to the left, then release that knee as you push the hip down. Pay attention to your obliques, your core muscles, whether your weight is forward, back, or center. OK, you’ve learned the maya. Now add a shimmy, graceful arms, and finger cymbals. That’s a lot of moles to whack.
In class, it’s the teacher’s job to stay one mole ahead of the student. OK, you can layer a shimmy on a maya easily? Next mole: add graceful arms. If you pile too many moles on a student at once, you run the risk of them getting frustrated and giving up, or sort of half-learning all of them and never really getting solid technique in their rush to whack 8 moles at once. If you just drill them and drill them with the number of moles they are comfortable with, they get bored and never really advance.
Workshops are different – you are teaching folks at different levels, and often offering a lot of material at once, more than can be immediately absorbed. Or, as I said this past weekend, “Here are a bunch of moles. Whack the ones that are working for you today. Write down the rest of them for later.” A suggested order for mole tackling is always helpful, but the rule of thumb is start with the footwork and build upwards from there.
In my classes and private lessons this makes for a great shorthand – “too many moles!” an overwhelmed student can say, and we dial it back. “Are you ready for another mole?” I ask when they seem to be getting comfortable. And my favorite: “You never run out of moles.” There’s always another nuance, another aspect to tackle. I expect I’ll be 90 and still finding new metaphorical moles to whack with my dancing. The potential is endless.