Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How To Learn To Dance

[This post brought to you by Structured Procrastination.]

I used to teach swing dance. To many of my students watching me dance, it looked like what made me an excellent dancer was my extensive vocabulary. I seemed to know all the moves. It didn't matter what the lead threw at me. I always knew how to respond. "How many years did it take you to learn all those moves?" they'd sometimes ask.

It used to be that when I was watching much stronger rationalists than myself, I'd get a similar feeling. Whatever their goals and whatever obstacles they encountered, they seemed to know exactly the right technique to deal with it. Like they somehow knew every possible move.

Thinking about my dance students, I recognize that it's a totally reasonable mistake to make. They were learning swing dance themselves, and what was I teaching in their class? Basic step, inside turn, outside turn, transition from open to closed position, etc. Explicitly, I was teaching them more and more moves.

Implicitly, I was trying to teach them how to dance, which to any experienced dancer does not mean knowing a lot of moves. I had to teach them a few standard movement patterns so they'd have something to work with. But when I design a lesson series, my focus is always, unwavering, on conveying a few central principles of swing dance and partner dance generally.

I think I've recently reached a level of cognitive development where I'm starting to see deeper patterns in other peoples' arts as rationalists. What makes them great is not how many moves they know. That might be correlated, but the central principles that allow them to employ those techniques reliably, and to create entirely new techniques as circumstances require, lie elsewhere. Finding them is surely more valuable than any specific technique.

When I taught all those moves in dance classes, my deeper purpose was to teach pulse, partner connection, playfulness, and musicality. In that order. I taught the basic pattern of six-count swing--step, step, rock-step--so the students could practice pulsing in time with the beat of the music while moving their feet. I taught the transition from open to closed position so the lead could practice requesting something of the follow using only his body (asking her to come toward him, in this case), and the follow could practice listening for, understanding, and responding to such requests.

I occasionally gave them unusual restrictions, like, "When you dance this song, the only part of your partner's body you can touch is their elbow, and you can only touch it with your elbow." This was not to teach them elbow-based moves. It was to cut them off from all their cached moves, so they had to experiment, to play together with their partner.

I taught brief segments of choreography and had the students dance that same string of moves to a lot of different songs, not so they would have a cool string of moves to pull out at any time, but so they could practice dancing the same moves differently, according to what they felt in the music. Does the song call for sharp, precise movements, or languid, flowing movements? Does the outside turn fall in a measure with a strong emphasis, or should it be small and understated? What if the lead dances to the clarinet while the follow dances to the fiddle? Does this string of moves simply feel wrong when danced to this song? That's musicality.

What makes me a great dancer, and a great follow in particular, cannot possibly be my vocabulary. Sometimes I go to dances with completely unfamiliar vocabularies--salsa, tango, waltz--and even then I stand out as a highly skilled follow. I don't know beforehand the standard "signal" a lead would give in Salsa to indicate that I should step backward. I wasn't in the class where they taught that. I don't need to know those sorts of things, though, if I can establish a strong enough partner connection.

I imagine that a master rationalist who happens to have never heard of "goal factoring" probably doesn't really need anybody to explain it to her. There will surely remain gaps in her art that can be filled simply by pointing them out, so maybe she will benefit from hearing the term. But I doubt she stands to gain much from taking a class on goal factoring.

In the first twenty seconds of a dance, I will learn how to dance with my lead. I'll learn the way he moves, what aspects of the music he prefers to express, the patterns of tension and relaxation in his muscles, how his rhythm shifts slightly when he's about to break a pattern he'd established earlier. And by reading his reactions to my responses, I'll learn how those things correspond to his intentions.

It's not a conscious process; it feels very much like I'm simply reading his mind. One of the highest complements I ever get on my dancing is when a lead tells me that it feels to him as though I'm reading his mind. Once your partner connection becomes that strong, classes on how to execute various moves are superfluous.

What is the equivalent of partner connection in rationality? I'm not sure. I have some vague guesses, but at this point I think I'm only dimly aware that there is one.

I expect that the primary value of this analogy, though, is in the path to mastery it suggests, the methods of training that will eventually lead me to mastery of the central principles, whatever they are.


I think in the beginning, shortly after encountering the Sequences and CFAR, I implicitly believed that becoming a strong rationalist meant gaining all the important insights. I thought it meant having a toolbox and filling it with more and better tools. Like feeling the lead's right hand go up, and knowing to execute the steps of the "outside turn" I learned last week.

And how does one gain a new tool? Why, one browses the aisles of the rationalist hardware store and picks up whatever looks shiny and affordable. The point of reading another Sequence article or attending another CFAR class is to pick up a new cognitive procedure, so you can retrieve it from your toolbox when the situation calls for that particular tool. Right?

Maybe, but not if the analogy to mastering dance is accurate.

I didn't become the kind of dancer I am by taking a lot of classes or reading a lot of books on dance. I did it by dancing.

It certainly is important that I took a lot of classes, especially in the beginning. But not so much because of the classes themselves. When I was traveling to dance workshops and conferences every weekend, I was dancing constantly with new partners of all styles and skill levels, and thinking always about the next weakness I needed to overcome as a dancer. All of that dancing gave me lots of data on myself as a dancer, and I would use it to set specific intentions designed to address my main weakness before each dance.

For example, I once thought, "My bottleneck right now seems to be that I dance heavily, which makes fast tempos almost impossible. Maybe simply imagining that I am as light as a feather will fix it. Today, I'll experiment with dancing like objects of various weights. A feather, an elephant, a bouncy ball, a bowling ball."

So almost all of my training occurred on the social dance floor by constant focused experimentation. I eventually caught on to this and started saving money by traveling to workshops just to attend the social dances, rather than paying for the lesson series on top of it.

I also hung out with other dancers at dinner and during breaks, and was especially friendly with dancers with more skill and experience than I had. Since dancers never shut up about dance when they're around other dancers, I did my best to absorb all of their wisdom. Improving in this way was almost never a matter of gaining a totally new insight or hearing a fact I didn't already know about dance. I was not shopping for tools to add to my toolbox. Rather, hearing about the experiences and interests of others influenced my own improvisation. It suggested experiments I'd otherwise not have thought of, or inspired questions about myself as a dancer that it hadn't before occurred to me to ask.

This is how I've been approaching rationality of late. I choose one particular weakness to focus on. I look for opportunities to observe myself making the associated mistakes. I set a specific intention to respond in a particular way the next few times. I watch what happens, and then I let that experience influence my next experiment.

There are other things influencing the experimentation process, of course. My friends, my mentors, blog posts, books. The same sources I've always relied on in my training as a rationalist. What has changed is that I'm not really looking for answers from them anymore. I don't expect them to hand me exactly the right tool to solve my problem. It's great when they can, but it's rare, and it's not their job anyway. I'm the one inside my head. Instead, I consider them inputs to which I can respond as I improvise.

I've been trying to focus for the past couple weeks on things other than my weaknesses in case I can learn to teach them, or use my observations about them to boost my learning process in the future. I've come to the end of a particular series of experiments though, and it seems that my brain has automatically reverted to studying a salient weakness. Like it or not, I'm now improvising on the theme of noticing confusion. I observe mistakes carefully, I ask new questions, I keep my ears open for related bits of advice from others, and I try out new ways of responding, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes on a whim. Just like I did with dance.


In dance, I can respond instantly to instructions never encountered before, or to nuances in songs of unfamiliar styles. I've molded my own patterns of thought and feeling to partner connection, playfulness, and musicality. It's not that I've somehow fit every possible tool into my toolbox. It's that I myself have become a fully versatile instrument of dance. (A far from perfect one, but the point is that I've moved a long way in that direction.)

Taking classes to learn new moves can definitely be useful, especially when you're first starting out. But it is not a recipe for indefinite progress at an increasing rate, and that is the sort of thing I will need to become a fully versatile instrument of rationality.


Intellectual Lusts said...

What would be the rationalist equivalent of "let's see your swingout?" What procedures could you have someone carry out to identify where they're weak?

beoShaffer said...

I remember someone, I thing Anna, making a comparison between the way CfAR teaches "being a rationalist," and the way intro programing classes teach "being a programer" by teaching how to use loops, conditionals ect. in a specific programing language. It seems like this is loosely the same concept.

Anonymous said...

I question the utility of identifying oneself as "great".

Jamie Duerden said...

Summary of what I took from this: Learning any new skill is best begun by acquiring a set of basic components allowing you to 'read the language'. This approach can only take you so far; at a certain point determined more by frequency of use than number of components, you should to develop an awareness of what is being done to create those components from the underlying skill. This allows you to use the skill in unfamiliar circumstances, or to alter the components to fit situational requirements. Once embedded, this skill can be employed unconsciously (reads like you were indicating an approach to flow state?).

Assuming this is close to what you were trying to convey, I'd give this a 4 (Specificity of example. I can't dance; the activity is sufficiently alien that I had to read this twice to pull out what was meant from what was said.)

Nick Brown said...

"I choose one particular weakness to focus on. I look for opportunities to observe myself making the associated mistakes. I set a specific intention to respond in a particular way the next few times. I watch what happens, and then I let that experience influence my next experiment."

This sounds particularly virtuous and vague. I was wondering how it breaks down into taps & ctaps.