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How to Run a Peer Practica

PeerPracticaDo you live in a community where there’s not a lot of dance resources? (dancers/dance parties/instructors)
Do you want to supplement your existing lessons with extracurricular practice?
Do you want to make sure that you are not reinforcing bad habits?
Do you crave feedback to know that you are on the right track?

Feedback: The Missing Link

You can take all the lessons you want, but they don’t produce results until you can practice them with a partner in the wild. You can watch all the You Tube clips you want, but they won’t teach you connection and technique. In both cases, the missing link is feedback: the simple knowledge of the results of your efforts, no matter how small. Feedback is seeing where on the target the arrow landed, watching someone’s facial reaction as you tell them news, or pain when you twist your arm too far behind your back. Feedback can be verbal, visual, or physical. Without feedback, you’re sailing in the dark. You can get feedback from instructors, of course, but group lessons can get busy and private lessons, while ideal, might be too expensive to take on a regular basis. You can definitely get feedback from your social dance partners, but the quality of that feedback will depend on how skilled they are at analyzing your movement, or how good you are at asking the right questions.  In a Peer Practicum, there is no teacher, but the small group of students assembles to work on “homework” they received from their teachers. It’s an extremely effective tool to focus your practice and get the feedback you need, provided that feedback is accurate and appropriate. This is an unusual environment that can get confusing if ground rules and expectations are not set from the beginning.

We have taken advantage of Peer Practica at several stages in our dance development. As we were coming up through the ranks, we had a group that would gather at conventions, usually during the midnight breakfast buffet. We learned a ton by exchanging ideas from dancers at our own level but from different backgrounds and regions. We took this idea home and started hosting “Peer Jams” in Vancouver. The local dancers loved it, as there was no outlet for this kind of discussion and exchange. The only obstruction to its continuation was the planning and organization end of things. One memorable activity we did was brainstorm a wish list for followers by leaders and vice versa. It was a very enlightening experience for both sides, building both empathy and self-awareness.

Taking Organizational Leadership

Usually leadership defaults to the most advanced dancer in the group, but it also could be the most enthusiastic dancer. Depending on how much time you have, you might consider delegating some tasks to another responsible peer.

List of Tasks:

  • Decide on your target audience – Competitors? A specific level? Geographic proximity? Ambition level? Learning style/temperment?
  • Select the timing carefully – as soon as possible following a workshop weekend would be ideal.
  • Poll for interest in your social dance group – use social media
  • Declare your intentions in order to avoid ruffling the feathers of local teachers
  • Hunt for and book a location
  • Create the event and invite participants using social media
  • Make RSVP mandatory to ensure commitment and role balance. Consider capping the number of participants.
  • Promote the practica: generate enthusiasm, poll for topics/themes
  • Book the guided group private instructor
  • Ask participants to bring their own tips/challenges/questions/resources on the theme to share with the group
  • Wrangle the troops
  • Collect payment for venue and instructor.
  • Decide how to record the session: personal video review? assign a secretary to take notes?
  • Decide if the group needs/wants more time on this theme, and/or which theme to address next time

Choices of Activities

  • Start and end with a Jam circle
  • Layout the shape of the session at the start: this can be written on a whiteboard or just verbal.
  • Watch videos: invite participants to bring video examples for inspiration or critique
  • Partner feedback exchange: Get feedback from each partner, one topic at a time
  • Group critique: spotlight dance in front of group, then discuss
  • Small pod brainstorms: Pose a challenge, then split into pods to discuss and present to the group.
  • Drill brainstorm: Pick a topic and everyone contributes their known drills to practice it
  • Pattern Breakdown – bring a video of a pattern you covet and figure out together how to break it down
  • Pattern Show & Tell- bring a newly learned pattern and teach it to others
  • Musical interpretation brainstorm – Play a song, discuss the musical features, create a strategy for dancing to it.
  • Film-yourself-and-review: Discuss with your partner what went wrong/felt good/was confusing, etc.
  • Make a group game plan for the upcoming dance party
  • Group field trip to dance bomb a nightclub
  • Consider having an occasional un-structured practice time
Once we ended up having a Peer Jam in Cheesecake Factory – why not be productive while you’re waiting for your table? We ended up coming up with a crazy awesome pattern combo that was just challenging enough that we placed a wager on who could execute it the best that night in the comps. The winner got the cheesecake dessert we bought before we left. (Guess who won? 😉 )

The Feedback Rules

Participating in a Peer Practica requires an understanding of equality and mutual respect. In the interest of learning, we need to take advantage of this closed environment to be vulnerable and open to feedback. While is is socially unacceptable to offer feedback on the social dance floor, the Peer Practica is designed to be a safe place to exchange feedback, so long as we follow some guidelines. Here is a very practical article on exactly this: How to Request, Give, and Receive Feedback

Expectations & Agreements

  • No sticking to one partner
  • Avoid talking the whole session – the goal is to get moving
  • Avoid a bitch-session: if a complaint is offered, focus asap on finding a solution instead of harping on it
  • Suggest ideas – don’t just passively listen
  • Ask questions for clarification – don’t jump to conclusions or leave the practice frustrated.
  • Follow the Feedback Rules: See “How to give/request/receive Feedback” article
  • Avoid interrupting, practice good listening skills.
  • No judging/criticizing others’  comments or questions
  • Be patient – not everyone will “get it” at the same pace.
  • Don’t just mooch free advice from advanced dancers
  • Respect the “Practica Leader”. Consider rotating this role.
  • Practica leader acts only as facilitator, not teacher
  • Bring homework from your own lessons
  • Bring your contribution requested for the theme (video example, song example, etc)
  • Consider bringing goodies to share
  • Prompt others to comment or ask questions
  • Make sure everyone feels valued and included
  • Consider having each participant sign an agreement outlining your expectations in order to join the group
One time, the Peer Jam was an epic fail. We were tired, hungry, and cranky and neglected to designate a moderator. As you could probably predict – too many cooks in the kitchen made for confusion and drama. We learned our lesson after wasting most of the time on tangential arguments, people got their backs up about silly misinterpretations and there was no one there to take leadership to keep us on course. Always designate a Practica Leader! And consider procuring snacks…

Guided Practice

It is risky to depend on uneducated feedback exclusively. Your partner might have the best intentions, but more often than not, their advice is either incorrect, or correct but inappropriate in the moment. So how do you improve the quality of the feedback you and your partners are sharing with each other?

In school, one of the most effective ways of developing literacy in the intermediate grades is an activity called “guided reading”. This involves splitting the class into groups based on reading skill level. Then each group gets a turn with the teacher, to work on a variety of drills, activities, and discussions appropriate for their skill level, with the teacher guiding the process to keep them on track. This is an ideal format for learning that also applies to adult dance training. Unfortunately, this is not a common product offered by teachers and studios, but good teachers are open to it. If you wrangle a group of interested dancers and request a small group private lesson (2-5 couples) with your preferred teacher, they usually will be happy to accommodate you. In this setting, the group would present their common goals to the teacher in advance (maybe based on notes collected in prior practica), the teacher would prepare drills and activities to address these goals, then while each partnership is working independently on the exercises, the teacher circulates, giving feedback to each couple at a time and moving to the next topic when the group is ready.  The feedback from the teacher can be immediately practiced and verified by partners who heard the same message. This allows for dancers to get more one on one attention than they would in a group class, interspersed with feedback from each of their partners who are working on the same skills at the same time, and time to practice immediately without the pressure of a group class agenda. The pace and flow is dictated by the group, not by the teacher, which allows for more flexibility and natural skill progressions, which is both effective and relaxing. While Peer Practica are great on their own, the occasional guided group private would help keep everyone from infecting each other with confusion and bad habits. This would also be a great way to initiate the Peer Practica: have an instructor come in to give structure to the sessions, as a model to follow when they are not there.

 

The Peer Practica is an excellent way to augment your learning, inside of a balanced diet of instruction that includes:
Group Classes
Workshop Weekends
Private Lessons
Instructional Videos (NOT You Tube!)
Convention Workshops
Social Dancing
All of these resources work together to train every aspect of improving your social dancing, regardless of your skill level or competition level. So what are you waiting for? Wrangle the troops and start a Peer Practica in your community!

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