Sunday, June 16, 2013

The stages of learning

When I was a teen I would try to cook by following recipes and measuring my ingredients with teaspoons and my mom would look over my shoulder and scold me. "You don't have to measure everything! It's not an exact science!" This would just annoy me, and I don't want to overanalyse and say it's why I ended up going through most of my life not cooking, but that's what happened.

I've been reading a book about agile software development because I'm totally not a nerd at all, and the author makes lots of references to ShuHaRi, the stages of learning (from a martial arts perspective, but applicable to software development and aerial acrobatics and everything else).
Shu: Beginner, "obey." Rigid conformity to rules.
Ha: Intermediate, "digress." Coming into your own.
Ri: Master, "transcend." You don't need the rules. You are making the rules.

This reminded me of my own journeys in silks (as a student) and pole (as a teacher). Most of my silks career has been spent in Shu. I like someone to tell me the exact sequence of moves to perform. The steps to a move, the moves in a combo, the combos in a routine. My training partner once tried to make me improvise, and even after so many years of having trained in silks, I was like, "Um, no. Just no."

On the other hand, I've spent most of my pole career in some form of advanced stage--not because I'm that great, but because I've been doing it since before there were so many masters like we have today, and what "advanced" means has truly evolved. (Anyone who's been in the industry for more than a couple years knows exactly what I mean.) I was so used to improvising and inventing my own moves that performing a step-by-step routine choreographed by someone else seemed, well, naive.

And yet I quickly became a teacher, and being a teacher, especially in such a young, growing art form, means teaching beginners. And while I always tried to instill the fundamentals of improvisation and making a move your own, beginners like routines. They like step-by-step instructions. They like do's and don'ts, sequenced information, and, when you come down to it, a way to evaluate whether or not they're "doing it right."

It's easy for the advanced artists who often become teachers to scoff at the beginner's lust for rigidity. But we have to respect the fact that someone who doesn't know the difference between cinnamon and cumin doesn't know how to "eyeball it." Not in cooking and not in dancing. It takes time for the feel to develop of what is the right and wrong pose and pace. And it takes much, much longer to understand when "right" and "wrong" and nothing of the sort.

Hence you have advanced polers who feel condescended to by teachers who try to get them to conform to routines, and beginners who get awkward fits of the giggles when asked to improvise. And both teachers and students who are convinced that one or the other way is "right." When, in reality, it's not the method that's right or wrong, it's the time.

Am I saying that beginners should always follow step-by-step instructions and advanced artists should always pave their own ways? Well, no. Maybe if I had been guided towards creativity when I was a beginner silks student, improvising wouldn't have felt so awkward when I was more advanced. I might not ask less experienced students to improvise a routine, but I do try to guide them in finding and embracing their own touches. And on the other hand, advanced dancers can benefit from experimenting with someone else's choreography. Learning another dancer's vocabulary can break you out of the rut of always falling into the same transitions and sequences.

Whatever your personal preference, it's about respecting what others need at this moment in their journey. Teachers who are driven by individuality should understand that beginners need more granular benchmarks to measure their progress. Teachers who prefer to have all their ducks in a row should understand that advanced artists often have a good idea of what works for their bodies and what is uncomfortable or awkward. And while a student should respect a teacher's progression, a good teacher must respect where the student is today.

Photo from Hope no one takes offense--I know most of us aren't strippers, but I thought you'd get a laugh out of it!

1 comment:

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