Here’s a slice of truth pie: You’re probably not doing enough drills.
To clarify, when I say ‘you,’ I’m talking to both the literal you, my reader, and the figurative you that I use when I’m trying to self-coach. Like, “Joel, get your sh-… stuff together and do what you need to do!”
Drills = Foundations
Why do I think drills are important? Because they build the foundational movement needed to have better dances. They create the potential space in your joints, muscles, and, most importantly, your mind. Drills teach your body how to move through the space around you. They expand the toolkit that you have at your disposal and polish the tools you already have.
Perhaps an analogy will help: Drills are like laying the foundation for a really great, cool house 1I would like to note that I’m actually not a fan of McMansions or any other form of grandiose living arrangements. I’m generally quite … Continue reading. You know, the kind of house that has a hot-tub on the back patio, a home theater setup downstairs, and an open-format kitchen/living space that lets everyone hang out and have fun together. It’s got a 4-car garage, an indoor pool, and even a secret room. Kinky.
Home builders know that in order to create such an incredible house you have to lay a foundation capable of handling the weight and complexity of whatever is put on top of it. If you start by building the house first and neglect the foundation, you’ll end up spending a lot of time, effort, and money to go back and shore up your make-shift base. If you get the foundation right from the outset, building and adding on become a breeze.
In case it is unclear, the fancy rooms in my analogy are dance patterns. Just because you learn a ‘jacuzzi’ pattern doesn’t mean it’s going to work well if you plop it down on that empty dirt patch in your dance backyard, without support, water, or electricity. And if you do that, it’s going to be even more difficult to go back later and removed the caked-on, chlorine-stained mud from that jacuzzi and put in an appropriate foundation underneath it. You’re probably just going to leave it there to rust for a few years before scrapping it entirely and buying something else to put in its place.
Maybe a crappy little cartoon will help?
Drills and the fundamental techniques they impart will give you the kind of a broad base that anything can be built upon. Developing that foundation is incredibly important for all dancers, be they social, competitive, or both/neither.
As a corollary, this is why dancers who switch styles (e.g. jazz and modern to ballroom) tend to pick things up quickly. They already have a foundation from which to build off of. Undoubtedly some things will be different and they’ll need to go back and understand how they can fit their training into the particulars of the dance, but their massive foundation of movement experience allows them to build much more quickly than someone who must lay out a new foundation from scratch.
Drills are one of the best ways of building this foundation.
So why don’t we do our drills?
One of the challenges of drills is overcoming their stigma: they’re like brussels sprouts.
Brussel sprouts? Let me explain.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of Arthur on TV. In several episodes, brussels sprouts were referenced as a food that characters generally avoided. TV never lies (right…?) so clearly brussels sprouts must be some sort of abomination thought up by adults to torture children, or so I believed. I avoided them like the plague.
Flash forward 10 years: I saw some brussels sprouts at the grocery store and, on a whim, threw some in a bag. I found a simple recipe: cut in half, bake with olive oil and salt. Straight out of the oven, I pried one off with a fork. I eyed it up and down, sizing up it’s cruelly blackened edges and malevolently spongey center. Pure evil incarnate, no doubt about it.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes… I took a bite.
Delicious. I proceeded to promptly finish off the entire pan.
I’d been dead wrong.
To my chagrin, I’d developed an aversion to something I had never really tried, mostly based on cultural cues that indicated I wouldn’t like them as a matter of course. I let that gentle programming shape my perceptions until it became my reality. Nearly the same thing can be said about many of my favorite kinds of vegetables. I know they’re good for me, and I even genuinely like the taste! So why do I avoid them? Habit and stigma.
So it is with doing drills. At some point in our lives, we are taught to associate drills with pointless repetition and boredom. Drills are the stuff of drill sergeants and basic training. Drills are the ‘useless’ passing exercises that your high school soccer coach made you do for hours (actually <10 minutes) while all you wanted to do was hang out with your friends and scrimmage. Drills are for people who are really serious, you know, the ones who never have any fun, right? Squares.
It is my personal belief that drills, done properly, are none of the above. Far from pointless, they’re useful for all levels of skill and ambition, and they don’t even have to be boring.
How you approach your drills will determine whether they are drudgery or delight.
Practice Mindfully, Dance Mindlessly
While at a competition up in Seattle a few weekends ago (Sea to Sky), I took a workshop with Brandi Guild. From this fantastic workshop one phrase in particular resonated with me: “Practice mindfully, dance mindlessly.”
Wrapped up in this pithy little quote lies the key to taking drills from boring to useful.
When you do something mindfully, you allow yourself to be completely focused on that moment. You’re filling your attention with the current activity, without letting errant to-do lists and fragments of thought to derail your focus.
Flow. Deep work. In the zone. This kind of focus goes by many names that, in my opinion, are all variants and derivatives of this self-same idea of doing something mindfully.
Drills are fantastic because they allow us to do all of this focused mental work at the outset so that when we’re out on the floor social dancing or performing we can allow our focus to rest on other parts of the dance. We don’t have to think about rolling through our foot because it has become baked into our subconscious. Instead, we can focus on the music and our partner, melding them together into an incredible experience for both parties.
“I can’t focus on my ankles for 5 minutes though, I’ll go crazy!” you say.
Rightfully so. I’m not asking you to just think “ankles” over and over again, like some monotonous chant intended to torture your soul. What I want instead is for you to engage with the challenge of figuring out your ankles. How do they work? What can you do with them? What questions haven’t I asked about my ankles yet? How do they move? How slowly or quickly can I use them?
Frame your drills as an exploration of a particular movement or body part and allow yourself to become fascinated by it. Make your practice a relaxed meditation on what your ankles can do, not simply a repetition of what they are.
Perhaps another analogy is called for: I encourage you to think about drills as an opportunity to challenge yourself to a multi-dimensional human-shaped jigsaw puzzle. Ideally, you’re trying to achieve a particular movement or form that you are not yet fully capable of yet. As you try to replicate the movement you saw your coach/friend/favorite pro do, you inevitably fail. Fantastic! You’ve just discovered a path that doesn’t work, a piece that doesn’t fit. That’s incredibly valuable information if you pay attention to it. Put that piece over in the pile you’ve already tried. Time to play with some variables to see what produces a different result.
To me, that last sentence is key: play with some variables. Pick up the next puzzle piece and give it a go. Try doing it slower. Try breaking the movement down into component movements. Try initiating the movement from a different part of your body (core or floor?). Change something about what you are doing and then evaluate. Was that closer to the goal? Further? Unsure? Try something else. Experiment! Take chances, try pieces.
Whatever you do, be conscious of why you are putting your body into the position or movement that you are subjecting it to. Have an intention for what you’re doing. If you’re working on arm styling, intend for the motion to develop from the elbow. Allow yourself to be fully engaged in that activity, if only for a few minutes.
And then here’s the last, most important part of doing drills:
When you hit your limit, it’s okay to stop.
When you’re no longer engaged with the puzzle, put down the pieces and go for a walk.
There comes a point in every training session where the diminishing returns of repeating the drill no longer justify the mental focus needed to continue drilling. Sometimes that’s after a minute, and sometimes it’s after sixty. In any case, you’ve gone from mindfully trying to create something new with your body to bouncing around in the ruts of what you’ve already created. Time for something new.
To return to the jigsaw analogy, if you’ve tried every piece and nothing fits, it’s almost certainly better to go take a break than to continue blindly shoving pieces into the spot until something (probably the cardboard) gives.
This also prevents drills from becoming boring. When you notice you’re bored, try to re-engage with the movement. If that doesn’t work, switch to something else.
Another way to think about this is to stop drilling while you are still having fun and feeling engaged. Give yourself somewhere to pick up from the next time you do a drill. Hemingway would famously stop writing in the middle of a scene or thought, often mid-sentence, so that he would not be intimidated to pick up the pen the next time. He already knew where the next few lines would take him, so it was easy to get back into the flow of writing. It’s a subtle but important point. If you push yourself to the point of focus or body exhaustion in a particular drill, you will subtly associate that drill with exhaustion the next time you think about it. Leave yourself something to look forward to.
Ultimately, drills are only as useful as you make them. Used properly I think they’re also one of the most powerful forces in making a person’s dancing more fun, athletic, and creative. Lay those foundations, eat those vegetables, and do your drills mindfully! I think you’ll see a great improvement in both your dancing and your enjoyment of dance. It has helped me in the past and is an integral part of how I try to bring myself forward in my own dancing.
Do your drills, and I’ll see you out on the floor!
P.s. It would mean a lot to me if you’d leave a note in the comments below. I read every single one, and your feedback is immensely appreciated!
|↑1||I would like to note that I’m actually not a fan of McMansions or any other form of grandiose living arrangements. I’m generally quite happy in small spaces, and I love the idea of having a Tiny Home one day. But, for the purposes of making this point, I’ll use the analogy.|
14 thoughts on “Drills: You Need More of Them”
Drills also help build muscle memory.
Love Brandi’s “practice mindfully, dance mindlessly.”
In a recent RoRo intensive, he gave a story about football in high school. They would practice grapevines without reason, and one game he found himself doing grapevines without intentionally thinking of doing them. The drill made an unnatural movement natural; even though he practiced them without context, his body knew where to put it when the time came.
With or without immediate application, drill.
Does anyone have any great drill videos to share?
Before reading further I saw “Practice Mindfully, Dance Mindlessly” and thought to myself, “Sounds like Brandi!”
Thank you for a great piece. I will be eating plenty of vegetables between now and the next time I bump into you on the dance floor!
The way you described drills made me think of Anders Ericsson’s “deliberate practice.” Mastering technique with drills takes you out of your comfort zone, and flow in my opinion, and stretches your abilities. One drill that has recently improved my dancing significantly is Chaînés turns.
Joel, I really like your writing style. The content is marvelous of course but I”m very impressed with how you made this topic interesting and caused your readers to be inspired to do some drills.
Laurie, thank you for the kind words! 🙂
Joel, very well done! Well written and very useful.
Wonderful article Joel 🙂
I definitely have had practice sessions where I feel like I’m just “going through the motions”. Although I’m sure in some ways that has benefited my dancing, I know I grow a lot more when I am more mindful and engaged. I usually end up picking up more from the drills in the workshops, and for the few weeks after that I practice them. After that, I tend to lose the creative spirit and engagement, and it becomes yet another repetitive motion.
Any advice for how to keep old drills fresh?
Thanks for the comment Mikey! I try to keep drills fresh by combining them. So if I have a drill about footwork and a drill about body isolations, I’ll try to do my body isolations while doing footwork! Instantly more fun and challenging. It doesn’t always work to combine drills, but it’s a useful way to brighten some up. You can also think of this as layering!
Thank you so much for your insight and advice! Your writing is so good. It flows so nicely and you articulate well. Your experience really comes through while expressing a clear impression that you view yourself as always a student of your own craft. My instructor is also of that outlook. Keep writing and sharing, please!! I’m in a “bronze” level. What drills do you favor for my level? What do you view as some of the most effective drills? Can you suggest some, please? The drills can be sent to my email, as well.
Hey Jan, thank you for the kind words! I really appreciate it.
As for bronze level drills, it of course depends on what style/dance you’re working on, but slow walks of any kind are a favorite of mine. Walks so slow that you have to think about each and every past of each step, from the initial push of the standing let all the way through the pull of the receiving leg, etc. I also really love body isolation exercises for the head, shoulders, chest, and hips. If you have good mobility for those areas you’ll be able to create better shapes, find positions more easily, and build the foundations of great dancing.
That’s a start 🙂
Very insightful article! I have been using drills recently. I really like your idea of stopping while I am still having fun. Great tip. Great article.
Yes, stopping while still having fun was a great change in how I thought about things! Thank you.