Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Repetition: The Mother of All Learning

An old Russian proverb says, "Repetition is the mother of all learning."

That's a huge concept for growing dancers. Some moves start out difficult, but after repeating them hundreds of times, they become second nature. Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Of course, this applies to dance moves, music, sports, new languages, computer programming or virtually any other subject you decide to learn. No matter how you slice it, repetition is the mother of all learning.

Too few repetitions and it doesn't stick. Repeat it many times and it does. It's deceptively simple and very powerful if applied correctly.

How many guys have you heard complaining, "I don't remember those patterns" or "I can't remember the moves from class" or "I can do that slow, but once the music starts I can't remember that sequence." I suspect you can guess why.

My early drum teacher told me over thirty years ago; "If you can't do it effortlessly in a performance, you haven't practiced enough."

He was constantly reminding me that quality practice (repetition) was a requirement for excellence. One of the few excuses he allowed me to use when I couldn't do an exercise was, "I didn't practice that enough." I didn't like hearing it as a teenager, but over time his words stuck in my head and I realized he was absolutely right.

How many times do you repeat a new move before you own it? In some case, it may be a few times and others it will be hundreds or thousands of repetitions or more. The "few times" is an exception, and often the result of something you previous learned. In most cases it's hundreds or thousands of repetitions before things become mindless.

Newer dancers often under estimate how many times advanced dancers practice a move. That practice may have been on the dance floor, but owning a move is often the result of countless repetitions, over many months or more.

You forever see guys trying new moves with minimal practice because they see the more advanced dancers doing something similar. The advanced dancers make it look so easy, it's not obvious they repeated a sequence hundreds of times to make it look so comfortable.

If you want to learn a move, remember a pattern, step or feeling, do it over and over again, with attention to detail. Do it at different speeds, from painfully slow to burning fast. It's not magic, but it is a process.

Repetition is the mother of all learning, but be sure you are repeating things you actually want to learn. Mindless repetition, without refinement makes it easy to learn bad habits if you're not careful, so work toward repeating the habits, moves and patterns you want to master.

This isn't news to you, but this concept applies directly to your mastering the music.
Over a year ago I wrote an article titled "Listening to Music 100 Times or more" and it documents some of my experience with repeating music hundreds of times.

Repetition is not the only factor is learning, but it's a key factor and often under appreciated.

Let me know your experiences with repetition via the comments link below. And don't forget; repetition is the mother of all learning.

Suggested Videos:
Music4Dancers: Free YouTube Series
We know too much for one man to know much.
-- Robert Oppenheimer

Originally published in Jan 2009. It's been tweaked before this re-publish.


  1. It's old advice, but bears repeating ;) Something to definitely keep in mind as I try to improve my dancing skills this year.

  2. Takeshi,

    You are right. I have very few original thoughts... That said, I can't tell you how many times I heard guys asking how to remember moves and how many don't practice enough to get things to stick.

    Knowing the concept is easy. Putting it into practice is the big deal for most (including me).

    Your comments and feedback are appreciated!

  3. Hi Don,
    Repetition does take up a lot of time - especially in a modern busy and stressed life style. Somethings seem to really speed up the quality of the learning - nothing but a good thing to my mind. Firstly, somehow you need the discipline to do the practice - a lot of things affect this, natural self discipline, working at the same thing with others, having a good environment to do it in and having a good teacher or mentor to make sure you are doing it right. Being in the right state of mind is important too - if you enjoy doing something it seems much less effort and learning is much more effective. What I want to understand more are the kind of techniques professional coaches use to enhance the quality of this kind of learning. Then there is the whole big subject of what the hell is actually going on inside the brain of someone when they learn - if we could understand that more maybe we could find a much more efficient way to get things into our bodies than just laborious repetitions. That reminds me, I should practice a few spins...

  4. What works for me is 'shadow-dancing' new moves for several days before I try them out at clubs.

    First, I'll walk through the move 5 times slowly, visualizing where my partner will be. This only takes a minute, so I can do it many times during an evening, say, while waiting for something to heat up in the microwave.

    After the above has started to give me a bit of confidence, I'll practice by playing a whole song, and repeat just that move through its entirety.

    Finally, after 5-7 days, I'll try it at the club, but only a few times. In rare cases, it will work great; but more likely, I'll find that it has some problems that I still need to work on.

    I have also tried out new moves with practice partners. But I can't expect a woman to go through the same move 20 times in a row, which is why I think it's essential to learn to practice by oneself.

  5. SnowDancer,

    You have that right. Behind the scenes I have an article almost ready to go specifically on that topic. I never called it 'shadow-dancing' but more 'practicing in your head'. I like your term and may edit my article to include it.

    I just reread the article because it was in draft form from about a month ago. I hope to have it live in the next day or two.

    I like your techniques and system, and I hope others will share their ideas. Yours is great, and I look forward to hearing ideas from others.

  6. Hi Don, SnowDancer,
    One of my teachers was describing exactly this idea of practicing with an imaginary partner recently - and he was encouraging us all to do the same. He went further too, he says he has two imaginary dancers, one being smart and casual, the other a really sexy babe, he says that he imagines exactly what they are wearing and even has names for them. You can imagine how we all laughed, but he was making some important points - about making your imaginary partners as real as possible.
    I can sometimes create an imaginary partner, I think it is something which gets stronger with experience, but I often don't succeed in holding on for too long - I soon loose track of which hand is holding which etc. But it gets better with practice and is a very useful skill.

    Trying to nail a move by repeated practice with a real partner brings the problem that very soon your partner is not following - they are doing it themselves.

  7. Just started reading your article, and was thinking about Outliers: The Story of Success: Malcolm Gladwell - the concept of ~10,00 to get really good at something. Interestingly, the concept of innate talent versus lots of practise crops up.

  8. Tom,

    Right on... I just finished that book yesterday. An excellent read and lots to think about.

    I will reference that chapter in an upcoming article because I believe too many people think "talent" is the key to above average dancing. In the 95% case, you have more practice/repetitions if you're a better dancer than me.

    Repetition and practice are hug factors for people wanting to be better than average. Easy to understand, but tougher to do for many of us.

  9. Just as an addition, to balance the Gladwell view a bit:
    Seth Godin's take on it

    10,000 hours is what it moves up to in areas that have been around a while. Seth sees "the Dip" much closer in niche areas, new areas, unexplored areas."

    Yes, it matters where and when you were born. It matters that you get lucky. And it matters most of all that you saw the Dip, realized how far away it was and chose to push through it.

    It depends in salsa on your version of having a good time, motivation to dance salsa etc. If you want to be good. Good can be measured objectively, subjectively, relatively, or absolutely.
    If you're measuring good as being in the top half of the dancers or the top 5% this will likely vary on where you are. (A subject I thin you've covered before - but I don't have the link to hand).
    In a salsa perspective, you don't need 10,000 hours to have a good dance. Seth rails against the simplistic idea more practise makes you better linearly.

    Malcolm himself kind of goes against himself, when he talks about KIPP (showing a better way of teaching, not only just more teaching for the kids).

    Better teaching, better learning, using your words, from above - "quality practise (reptitition)" and more of it works, from what I gleaned on the first read through.

    The concept of grasping things faster, as you can relate to them, in a way could come back to the time spent learning those other things.

    The other thing to relate to starting dancers - innate skill, born naturals - a lot of that is just practise.

  10. When I started dancing salsa about 2 years ago, I thought that people who look good on the dance floor have some sort of talent for dancing. Later i got to know those good dancers and I found out they practice every day.


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero