Dev & Dance: The Art of Learning Something New

Part 1 of an experimental blog series: Dev & Dance

Fact! I’m not good at many things. From experience, I’m pretty useless at most activities though I haven’t tried enough for an accurate figure.

One time I crafted a plush cow in my high school’s Design & Tech class and received an A for creativity (yay!)… and D for sewing skills. Another time I tried to melt chocolate by frying it. The other day I tried to basketball-throw a scrunched-up piece of paper into a bin that was 5cm away from me, and missed.

This creature gets me.

I’m so used to being naturally terrible at stuff it probably explains why I’m not put off by the discomfort of trying to learn something new. Failure is a completely normal state to me.

This would probably sound a little defeatist if it weren’t coupled with the belief that doing something regularly enough (and with the right direction) will probably make you less shit at it. I know, groundbreaking!

What’s the evidence? I happen to be relatively OK at some things:

  • Making web applications
  • Dancing with people
  • Remembering cheese jokes

And even so, there’s no expectation to master these to a point of 100% pure technical wisdom or graceful swan utopia.


Being Your Own BFF (Best Beginner Forever)

For a software engineer, the standards of how to design, build and deploy apps are rapidly changing which means you’re perpetually catching up to get the job done. Despite your industry experience or track record of programming tools, there will always be a queue of “all the other things” and “changes to the things you just learnt” curling around the corner.

In the same light, the journey of a dancer is non-linear, exploratory and never complete.

There’s no such Finish Line labelled: “I’ve done it! I’ve learnt to dance! Congratulations Me!” \o/

Instead we have validating checkpoints like:

“I only dance when inspired by alcohol…”

Or:

“I have a passion for West Coast Swing and practice it 3 times a week; I have no idea how to Body-Pop.”

Or even:

“I have a career in dance as a professional Contemporary artist; I’m trying to diversify my movements by learning a classical Indian dance called Odissi.

Basically, existing in both the tech or dance space requires dealing with imperfection and playing an artful role of professional amateurism till you’re old and grey.

Respect.

So, perhaps the best way to succeed in these vast environments of constant learning curves is to get good at learning itself?

Of course, there are numerous ways to approach the art of study depending on the student. It’s much easier (and fun!) to dissect examples of What Not To Do.

It turns out I’ve come across a couple of repeat-offenders on the dance floor that help us do just this.


The “I Want To Do The Pretty Head Rolls Now” Enthusiast

A couple of nights a week I teach Brazilian Zouk with some talented movers; a growing social dance style derived from the more familiar “Lambada” and recently infused with various influences like Hip-Hop and Contemporary dance.

Zouk is distinguishable by its flowy, water-like movements, dramatic hair flicks and accentuated body shaping. For this reason, it’s quite beautiful to watch, and many a female dancer who’s drawn to it (including myself) usually aspires to move as exquisitely as whatever role model they watched in a video or on stage.

Brazilian Zouk artists Evelyn and Xandy being awesome.

I’m not too surprised at how often I’ll be teaching a Beginner class and a lady who hasn’t quite nailed her basic step keenly asks if she can learn the fancy stuff.

The reality is there are many fundamentals to cover at the start of any dance curriculum in order to ensure correct technique, safety and everyone’s happiness; such as balance and weight awareness, timing, posture, basic footwork and connection with your partner. Things as simple-sounding as “head rolls” require a sound basis of all of the above in order to move onto more complex ideas like the use of momentum to execute multiple turns, all while shifting your axis and not falling on your face.

Practice, repetition and discipline to not just do your basics but comprehend them may seem tedious at the start but will lead to much less confusion and sloppiness once you get to the trickier, riskier stuff.

It’s no surprise that this prioritisation benefits not just body language, but the programming kind as well.

Like in dance, I spend most of my day using a particular set of tools and very little time with others. And like in dance, I enjoy exploring something unfamiliar every now and then, for instance trying hour-long tutorials entitled “Build a Pinterest clone with Python!” or “Make a cool, shiny, moving thing with MeteorJS!”.

I usually feel a tiny sense of accomplishment afterwards, but there’s knowledge deep down that despite widening my perspective a smidgeon, I’ve simply touch-typed some syntax and not fully understood how it all came together.

The difference between the stuff I’ve dabbled with and what I’ve become confident at, is the time I’ve taken to learn something properly from the ground up.


The “Expert”/Teacher Who Believes There’s Nothing Else To Know

Basics aren’t only for newbies. In fact, the revision of them is even more important for advanced levels.

Some dancers understand this, seeking private lessons or re-taking beginner-level classes every now and then to refine their fundamentals. However, a large subset of social dancers prefer to focus on growing their repertoire of moves despite each one being executed weakly, dangerously or off-time.

As an aside, one of my least favourite class experiences was when I had someone join us and declare:

“I actually teach Salsa- I’m just here meeting my friend so doing this to kill time while I wait”.

When asked if she’d tried Zouk before she said no, re-stating she was a dance teacher herself so she really didn’t need to take the class seriously and would pick it up with no effort. Right. She spent the rest of the hour paying little attention, chatting and giggling with her friend and absolutely baffling me as to how she teaches her own classes given her lack of respect for others’. (Needless to say, she was the most un-coordinated out of all of the students).

I sort of thank her for being a constant reminder of the power of humility. Revise your basics. Aim for versatility and understand there’s something to learn from everyone around you. Don’t be that teacher.


The Social “Solo Dancer”

Most things are more enjoyable and productive when you don’t go it alone.

Even in the space of software engineering- usually depicted as a solitary field- it’s much more commonplace to work as part of a dynamic team with other developers, reviewing each other’s code, offering advice and sharing random GIFs over group chat throughout the day (can you tell?).

When I think of what causes the most turmoil in the office, it’s not production servers falling over or my code breaking something on the live site (yes this has happened more than once), but normal “human issues” like personality clashes or a lack of good communication.

Letting pride get in your way or fear of breaking your “know it all” cover is a massive culprit. This includes not asking questions when something’s confusing, not speaking up if you’re stuck on a problem behind your computer for too long, or even lacking the proactivity to share your knowledge with others who may benefit from it.

Likewise, “social dancing” is prefixed for a reason. It distinguishes styles like Zouk, Salsa, Tango or Lindyhop by their nature of involving and connecting multiple individuals, not just yourself, to the music. It essentially means that a good dance is a result of teamwork.

Sometimes I’ll watch extremely talented individuals on the dance floor; belting out impressive body isolations, eye-catching moves presenting great skill with musicality to boot… and then I’ll look at the uncomfortable expression on their dance partner’s face.

Kicking it solo.

Despite that superstar entering this activity with the upper hand of some solo dance background, they’ve stuck within their comfort zone and blocked themselves from learning the nuances of this particular dance. A lot of the time it’s because they’re reluctant to “be a beginner again” and instead choose to dive into the dance floor winging the basics, prioritising performance at the expense of partnership.

It’s almost as if empathy, inclusion and attention to those around you are simple yet key attributes to learning something much better than you could on your own.


How to “Learn Good”

Personally, I haven’t quite nailed what learning methods work best for me yet. Sometimes I feel like a T-Rex where my hunger and room to ingest new objects is much larger than the span my arms or attention will allow.

I’ve recently found I suck at goal-less learning and am much better at learning for and with others (thanks to my new tech families WHFNP & EmpowerHack). Another surprisingly effective method is learning with the aim to explain or teach it it to others.

In a similar respect, my musings are no fun on their own. If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your experiences and Dos/Don’ts of self-teaching via a comment, tweet or 2-minute interpretative dance!

Hint: The latter is highly encouraged.

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