The Dance Journey: from Unconscious Incompetence to Mastery & Back

– by Maria


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Maybe you’ve heard this said before: “A beginner dancer doesn’t know, an intermediate dancer thinks they know, an advanced dancer knows they don’t know.” But this isn’t just a truism! It’s loosely supported by a learning model initially formulated by Noel Burch in the 1970s. Now called the 4 States of Competence, or the Conscious Competence learning model, it’s a useful framework for dancers, teachers, and students to understand the mental processes and psychological states involved at different states of learning.

As a student or a teacher, it’s helpful to recognize where you are at, because each stage has downsides and risks that can hinder your learning as well as others’ enjoyment of you as a dance partner.

What follows is my interpretation of the Conscious Competence learning model applied to teaching adult partner dance.

State 1: Unconsciously Incompetent

dreamstime_xs_54754648-croppedYou don’t know what you don’t know

At this stage you’ve just started to learn the dance, and you lack some combination of skills, knowledge, ability, and insight to do it well.

Pros: the world is your oyster! You can go anywhere with this dance!

Cons: you are not able to recognize when you’re doing something wrong, or in what way. You may not be getting enthusiastic responses from dance partners and you can’t understand why.

Often at this stage, a student will ask me, “How long is it going to take for me to get any good at this dance?” While that’s a very personal and situation thing, the following strategies will help you get through this stage and onto a more productive one:

  1. Recognize that you probably don’t know anything and are doing nearly everything wrong – just accept this stage for what it is because if you don’t, you won’t progress. There’s no room for ego in Stage 1!
  2. Get professional feedback. You must have a good teacher/coach who is able to clearly explain what you’re doing wrong, but more importantly, to show you what to do right. Do not rely solely on videos and peer guidance to learn! Receiving poor input and practicing things the wrong way is a surefire way to stay stuck at Stage 1.

State 2: Consciously Incompetent

dreamstime_xs_31240492You know what you don’t know – and it’s frustrating!

Now that you’ve been learning and practicing for a while, you have come to realize how much there is to learn and that you’re fairly low on the competence food chain. You are now able to recognize many of your own mistakes, because you have gained more knowledge. You also know that you don’t have the knowledge to fix those mistakes on your own.

Pros: now, your learning and progress can REALLY begin!

Cons: at this stage, it’s easy to get discouraged as you question your ability to progress, or as your advancement is not as speedy as you would like it to be.

This is the stage where a student will typically either give up or fight through. Your success at progressing past State 2 will be largely dependent on your ability to focus yourself, set goals, work hard at things that are difficult, and receive ongoing feedback to reach those goals. These strategies will help:

  1. Focus on you. The best way to remain stuck in this state is to compare yourself to others and focus on why they seem to be progressing at a faster pace than you are.
  2. Work with a coach to set goals, create a plan to achieve the goals, and receive professional feedback as you work toward the goals.
  3. Be determined while also accepting your weaknesses. Also recognize your strengths and how to play to them.
  4. Give yourself a break – remember that dancing is supposed to be fun and enjoyable for you AND your partners. Allow that joy to drive your determination.

State 3: Consciously Competent

14943260_mlIf you put your mind to it, you can do it quite well

You are now dedicating yourself to repeated practice, and you have the knowledge and experience to make many improvements without the help of others.

Pros: this is probably the most fully engaged stage, because you are aware, proactive, and seeing results. You’re also probably receiving positive external feedback as others notice your improvement and enjoy dancing with you.

Cons: this stage takes a lot of mental application and it’s difficult to relax into the dance and simply enjoy it. Also at this stage, your competence will progress faster than your consciousness of it.

To maximize your success at this stage:

  1. Work with a coach who will help you maintain acute awareness of what you’re doing well. Increasing your consciousness of what’s working (and what still isn’t) will bring you to the ultimate goal: mastery.

State 4: Unconscious Competence/Mastery

dreamstime_xs_28061631Without conscious thought, you can perform with excellence

Once you’re in State 5, you no longer have to think about the dance to do it with excellence.

Pros: It’s pure bliss! You can dance all night, with many different types of partner, and have great dances without much effort. Often, you achieve great things without even thinking about them. Others are likely asking you to coach them.

Cons: It’s easy to get lazy or stuck in a rut at this stage. Being masterful at something also doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher of it, and many at this stage fail to make that distinction (to the detriment of students).

True masters are never satisfied with their mastery. They constantly seek new methods, new inspirations, and want to innovate. To stay engaged at this stage:

  1. Train with other masters. Be challenged by others who have achieved greater mastery, or who have achieved mastery in a completely different way. Open yourself to learn from those at your level or above whom you may have previously dismissed for some reason. The goal is to go back to a state of Unconscious Incompetence in a new way of thinking.
  2. Stay competitive. The competitors nipping at your heels are not yet as comfortable as you are – and that means they may be more motivated. Be inspired by them.
  3. Cross-train. When your brain is too comfortable it becomes TOO efficient and stops making progress. Learning something new – like another style of dance or movement art – is a great way to keep your brain from becoming lazy, and also a great way to create new inspiration within your mastered style. Again, the goal is to go return to a state of Unconscious Incompetence, this time in a new way of moving.
  4. Learn to teach. There’s nothing more humbling than trying to teach what you have mastered to others. Note that I wrote “LEARN to teach” – you must start the learning process again to become a master TEACHER.

Talk to me about coaching you in West Coast Swing or Hustle – it’s my passion!