the four stages of competence in dancing; also known as “that time when you realized you actually still sucked”

In training for my current job, we looked at a learning paradigm called the four stages of competence as it describes the process of learning a skill:

Unconscious Incompetence
Conscious Incompetence
Conscious Competence
Unconscious Incompetence 

While this is more or less self-explanatory, let me summarize: first, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, and you don’t really care. Second, you realize you lack a skill, and you have a desire to improve that knowledge. Third, you have learned the necessary information, but must make a conscious effort to use the skill. Finally, you have mastered the skill or knowledge so that it is second nature, and may even be able to teach the skill to others.

four stages of competence, uncoscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence

A line graph, because it spoke to my nerd-ness.

What I find interesting about this model of the learning process is its relation to swing dancing. The interesting part, I believe, is that this paradigm is described as a linear scale of learning; in dancing, however I believe is more like a revolving door.

Think about it – hark back to your first beginner’s lesson, when you weren’t even sure if you wanted to learn this new thing called a “swing out.” After all, you were dragged there by your friends. Or maybe you were perfectly content with your ballroom-style east coast swing. It doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, you weren’t particularly interested in learning lindy hop (step one).

Then, you found some reason to want to learn: you saw a cute boy or girl; you envisioned yourself as Baby in Dirty Dancing; you loved the music; you saw a killer jam circle; you met a new friend. Whatever the reason, it gave you the desire to learn to swing out (step two).

We all know about the third step – taking classes, private lessons, and tips from friends in the slow and laborious process of learning to dance. A swingout might take weeks or months to learn, depending on the amount of instruction and your individual athletic ability. And you have to think of every single step: step, step, trip-ple step, step, step, trip-ple step, trip-ple – wait, shit! Step, step again! Next time, I’ll get it!

Or something along those lines.

But finally, it’s something you don’t have to think about – you’re just swinging out, and it is maybe the most glorious feeling on the planet (step four). Definitely the best basic known to mankind. And according to the four stages of learning, you’re done. You’ve learned what you needed, and now you can do it…right?

Not so fast. Sticking to the swingout theme – remember when you first learned you were too heavy (or light?) in your swingouts? You didn’t even know you needed to be aware of that. What does heavy (or light) mean, anyway? Or maybe it was when you learned you were stepping too far out of the way, making the momentum awkward. Or maybe you learned that your triple steps were actually off rhythm, and you needed to be swinging that beat – whatever that meant.

The thing that I love about dancing is that there is always something more to learn. Something to improve upon within a skill set that we already have. It is a revolving door of learning – once you’ve gained some degree of Unconscious Competence and you’re (finally) happy with your dancing, you’re suddenly slapped in the face with the realization that you’ve been in the stage of Unconscious Incompetence all this time.

At first it’s frustrating and annoying, and “Maybe I don’t really need that skill after all?” But then you take a class or a private or ask a friend, and you consciously work on improvement, and suddenly you don’t even have to think when you’re matching your partner’s connection.

It’s a constant repeating struggle – but it is easily the most rewarding learning cycle in which I’ve ever participated. And honestly, I actively seek out every new round of Conscious Incompetence with a sort of giddy excitement: while it is frustrating at first, it is miles more rewarding in the end.

Remember when you were here? Don't worry. I do. And any time you think you're too good for us, I'll just remind you when you did this routine.


One thought on “the four stages of competence in dancing; also known as “that time when you realized you actually still sucked”

  1. Pingback: dance posts: reference / archive | The Lindy Affair

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