Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Every expert was a beginner once

Step back rock; heel, heel, step; step half turn, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

Last night my girls and I finally took my sisters up on the invitation to join them at a line dancing class. I learned a few steps, and re-learned how my students feel in my class.

Some background: I’ve never taken any sort of dance class in my life. I have a bit of rhythm and have always enjoyed dancing at parties. My family makes all sorts of excuses to get together with a DJ and a dance floor. But, I’ve resisted learning any of the line dances my sisters were getting into, mostly because I don’t enjoy much modern country music. I decided to join this class more to spend time with my sisters and to do a fun activity with my girls than any true desire to learn the dance.

Perhaps not the most useful motivation.

The “warm up” dance took only a few minutes to learn: step up 3 times, back 3 times, repeat, then 4 quarter turns. Easy. We were able to add in hip swinging and other fancy moves pretty quick.

But then we tried something a little harder. I watched the teacher’s feet and listened intently to her instruction. She was a good teacher, using verbal cues and hand gestures to help us follow along and she moved herself around the room so she could serve as a model for different groups. She knew right away who would need her more, and who could get by with only her voice.

She previewed the next dance with a word of caution for us beginners that it was a lot more difficult and that we should not feel bad if we didn’t catch on completely tonight. “Fake it ‘til you make it” was her mantra and she encouraged us to just keep at it. I watched her feet and listened to her voice. When I couldn’t quite follow a few steps, I moved closer to my sister and tried to follow along with her, knowing my sister could be relied upon for loving support. When I still couldn’t get it, I focused on one of the expert students and tried to use her as my guide. Trouble was, she was so expert, she had already added some fancy moves like full turns and lots of hip action, so I couldn’t rely on her. I switched my focus back to my sister and the teacher.

At the end of the class, I found myself thinking of Michelle (not her real name) who entered my second grade in March with almost no proficiency with the English language. I remember how she latched on to me quickly and tried to follow along. But soon, she partnered up with some friendly Spanish-speaking girls who offered loving support. Once she felt comfortable, she joined groups of expert children and tried to keep up. She frequently turned back to her support group when the experts moved too fast, but she didn’t give up. You could see her goal was to become an expert student herself.

Everyone in my class is a teacher. New kids look to the established group for cues on what to do. They immediately, as if by instinct, seem to find those students who will help them along without judgment, who have the skills needed – like knowledge of both Spanish and English – to be of use. And with that support in lace, they gain the confidence to step further into the group, and start to see those elites as no different from themselves. Everyone is a beginner at some time; none of us begin as experts.

Michelle and I both have a long way to go before we can comfortably join the experts, but that doesn’t lesson the value of the work we are doing now. We are both enthusiastic beginners, in it for the joy of working toward a goal, and taking in all the fun along the way.

My youngest daughter has decided she does not want to return to class. She felt too overwhelmed by the amount she had to learn and was unable to see the experts around her as support. I’m sad that she felt bad about the class, but the silver lining is the reminder she gave me to spend lots of time at the beginning of the school year building the sort of community with my students that welcomes newcomers easily. While the dance teacher was welcoming and encouraging, the nature of the drop-in class means that a community had not been created so, beyond the teacher, there was no built in support system. My second grade classroom has the benefit of working together for 180 days so we have the time to create a community that supports it’s members wherever and whenever they enter.

My oldest daughter and I will be back at class next week, still feeling like beginners. We plan to practice together this week (and hopefully little sister will join us) to try to master a few of the tricky parts. And by the time the Lamarres plan their next party, we’ll be ready to show our expertise.

This post is part of the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by the Two Writing Teachers blog. See more here


  1. Everyone in my class is a teacher! I love that! It is so true in my ELL classes as well! Good luck with the line dancing (I have never tried)!

  2. I like the acknowledgement that "everyone is a teacher." Love how you looked for "loving support" just as the kids do. Nice analogy. :-)