The Power of the "Beginners Mind"
by Mark Van Schuyver
Last month I was asked to substitute-teach a beginners lesson in West Coast Swing. I found myself re-evaluating and self correcting all my basic moves. The same basics I have been doing for almost eleven years. It was a great experience and an excellent exercise for me. Last week I went to San Francisco on a business trip. While there I attended basic and intermediate classes with three different instructors. At each lesson I participated as if I were a beginner. In each case I gained insight or made corrections on my form. Last night I attended beginner lessons in Rumba and Ball-Room Waltz. These dances are totally new to me. I learned volumes about framing, body position, balance, and leading; all things that will translate back to West Coast.
These three experiences exemplify what is known in the marital arts community as "beginners mind." The concept is simply this, nothing much can be learned by someone who already knows everything.
Several years ago I had the privilege of interviewing martial arts teacher Danny Inosanto for a magazine article. Danny was Bruce Lees student and training partner. After Bruces death, Danny (who honors yet never exploited Lees legacy) went on to become one of the most respected and talented self defense trainers in the world. Now in his fifties, Danny Inosanto travels the Globe teaching one martial arts seminar after another. He has hundreds and hundreds of students. He is considered a supreme authority by everyone in his field. During the interview I asked him what he did when he was not teaching. Matter of factly he said, "I go to martial arts classes."
I was floored. "You go to classes?" I asked.
He replied that he not only went to classes with other teachers, but that he went to classes all the time! I found it hard to believe. Here was Danny Inosanto, one of the greatest martial arts teachers in the world and he was telling me that he spent virtually all of his free time going to classes with other teachers. "Who do you study with?" I asked. Not one, not two, but many professional martial arts teachers was the answer.
When Danny said, "Mark, I am always a student." he brought it all home to me. He is a life-time practitioner of "beginners mind." Danny Inosanto gets better and better year after year, not just because he practices what he knows. He continues to develop because he challenges what he knows. His mind is always open to new things and new ways of doing old things.
Danny set an example for me that day. Ive tried to live up to it since. Ill share three personal instances which I believe demonstrate "beginners mind," in application. First, my experience substitute teaching a basics class in West Coast Swing.
TEACHING THE BASICS
Nothing makes me focus more on my own technique that trying to explain and demonstrate it to others. In West Coast Swing there are at least ten patterns that I count as basics. The push, underarm turn, underarm turn with mans turn, side-pass, side-pass turn, reverse whip, straight whip, straight whip with underarm-turn, straight whip with clockwise turn, and a basic opening. Trying to keep a "beginners mind," I reviewed how I perform each step. I tried to remember lectures from each of my teachers. I re-constructed how and why I came to do the basics the way I do.
Then I taught the class. It was great fun and the process was very constructive. From this one class I self-corrected in at least nine areas! I tried to be very gentle, patient, and understanding with the students, but unknown to them I had quite a spirited little conversation with myself. Here is part of it.
1. PUSH. Mark (self), dont let your elbows break out to the sides on your push step. Keep your forearms straight and elbows in! Keep your forearms parallel to the floor.
2. UNDER-ARM TURN. Dont step forward into/at the lady on "and-one" Mark! There are at least two good ways to clear the ladys slot, one is to step back, then forward and to the side (thus clearing the ladys slot without gaining ground) then step back into the ladys slot with a triple or by using a tap, step. The other is to step to the side into third position, then step back into the ladys slot using a triple or a tap, step. Either one works fine as long as you remember not to step forward on one. Dont forget the concept of the mans cross-slot!
3. UNDER-ARM TURN WITH MANS TURN. Mark, please remember not to lift your arm high above your partners head during her turn. About three inches over her head is fine!
4. SIDE-PASS. Lead with your body Mark. Turn your waist to give the lead, dont lead with your arm.
5. SIDE-PASS TURN. Mark, when you step out of the slot, dont step WAY OUT of the slot, just give the lady room to squeeze by. It is like a door that opens and closes, remember?
6. REVERSE WHIP. This whip, also known as a basket, is simple Mark. Just remember that on the "five" count, when the lady goes back, keep your arm straight. If you keep whipping your arm out in a wide circle to the left, she is going to get mad!
7. STRAIGHT WHIP. Mark remember to start this pattern and all patterns on the "and-one." Dont start on the "one" count!
8. STRAIGHT WHIP WITH UNDER-ARM TURN. Mark, if you want her to stop spinning, you must indicate that by bringing your left hand down. Please dont forget that any more.
9. STRAIGHT WHIP WITH CLOCK-WISE TURN. Please, please dont push on the ladys back to make her turn! Mark if you will just indicate that you want her to turn by lifting your left arm, all will be well.
And so it went. Was I harsh with myself? Maybe, but after many years of doing this I should be hard on me! The important question is this, did I have "beginners mind" here? I think so because the results were very positive for me. I learned a lot from myself.
My job is to design and develop training programs for high-level sales people at M&M/Mars, Inc.. From this work, I learned that there are four main parts to the teaching process, 1) information (tell them what), 2) demonstration (show them how), 3) practice (let them work on it), and 4) critique (tell them what they did right and what they could do better). I used this model to teach the beginners class described above. I also used it to self-teach.
Here is how it went, first I "informed" myself by remembering lectures from my teachers. Then I looked at video tapes of excellent dancers "demonstrating" their basics. Next I practiced and reviewed each basic step. Finally I self-critiqued as you saw in the nine bullets above. I had all the teaching/learning steps in place and they worked very well. Only one problem here, self-critique is not very reliable. Teaching others is an excellent way to learn, and a good way to review. Self correcting is very, very important too, but to get higher, we also need critique from the outside. This is what Danny Inosanto does; he goes to other teachers for critique. This is what I did in San Francisco, I went to three teachers.
By attending each class as if I had never had a lesson, I got feedback and correction not only from the teachers, but also from other students. They did not know me, and they were not shy about saying, "Mark, it feels better when you dont swing your arm out wide and to your left on "five" during the whip." Or, "thats nice Mark, but your lead is too light/hard/soft/etc." And, "Mark it would be better if you did not step on my foot during the triple-step throw-out."
"Thanks," I said every time, to everyone who critiqued me (beginners mind remember). It was great! I really learned a lot and Im going to do this again and again.
So far, everything I have learned in Country Dancing and Ballroom Dancing has helped me with my West Coast Swing. For example, Ballroomers are more "frame-aware" than we West Coasters typically are. Instructors of ballroom focus on body lines and posture, something most West Coasters just dont do enough of in my opinion. These skills, and other Ballroom and Country skills translate perfectly to West Coast Swing.
Danny Inosanto does not limit himself to the study of the styles that he is already master of. He takes lessons from teachers from other martial art styles. In each case he studies hard and attempts mastery. He holds black belts in many systems, but does not always teach these other styles or even mention that he knows them. His skill level in his primary styles just gets better and better as he develops in related systems. This "cross-style training" phenomenon works for martial arts and Im betting it will work for dance as well.
FROM THE BEGINNING
I am a beginner at Ballroom dancing so it should be easy for me to have "beginners mind." It is not easy. A big part of my mind wants to race ahead and second guess the teacher. Some part of me screams, "This is simple Mark! You already know this." But, then I listen, and realize that I know virtually nothing about it.
When instructing others, it might be easy for some people to maintain a "beginners mind," but for me it is really hard. My brain says, "Mark you know this like the back of your hand, you got this stuff nailed, youve done this forever! Dont question it!" But, when I am honest with myself, I constantly discover things that need self-improving.
Maybe it is easy for some folks with more than a decade of doing the same dance to go to a class for beginners and take the advice and critique of students with less than ten weeks of experience. But it is not easy for me. It is a struggle for me to keep my trap shut and listen to the teachers and the other students. It is also very humbling when I realize that their feedback is often right-on. Ouch! (Hurts so good).
Maintaining "beginners mind," is not easy for me and may not be easy for you. I am convinced, however, that "beginners mind," is one of our most powerful tools for self-development. Im going to keep my "beginners mind." After all, nothing much can be learned by someone who already knows everything.
Mark Van Schuyver lives in Atlanta. He is a writer and a West Coast Swing enthusiast with over thirteen years experience dancing. More than 100 of his articles have been published in national magazines including many on the subject of dance. You can reach Mark at by e-mail at Zarrdd@bigfoot.com.