How To Learn Any Skill (Piano Playing Included)

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In the Summer of 2021, something happened to me for the first time. At the recommendation of a close friend, I tried Latin dancing over the Fourth of July weekend. My friend brought me to an evening dance social in the heart of DC. It was the first time I had experienced anything like it. There was a class and social dance which followed. And that was when it happened. I fell in love with Latin dancing. And I fell in love with Latin music. It wasn’t long before I had a new hobby. A new endeavor. A new adventure!

This is the first time I’ve had something for myself in a long while. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything as much since I was a kid. I typically don’t share many details of my personal life with my students. But I decided to share this new adventure with them. The reason is within it lies a valuable learning moment. (Yes, I am a super nerd). Those who know me well know that I find those very difficult to pass up.

I have had a definite advantage learning how to dance. I am a professional musician. I didn’t have to spend months learning how to count and step on the beat. I know all about rhythm and syncopation. I understand musical form. Those parts came naturally. As far as everything else – the dancing part – that did not come naturally. Not at all. Latin dancing requires specific lead and follow skills. It also requires dancing: to express physically what we hear musically. The technique involves weight shift, body isolations, strength, balance and much more.

By the Fall of last year I determined Latin dancing wasn’t a phase or something temporary for me. It was going to be a long term thing. I decided to do everything in my power to learn and improve. I watched YouTube videos. I attended classes and socials. I decided to take private lessons. I also discovered that serious dancers have practice partners. We have the equivalent in music when serious musicians rehearse or jam together. By the start of 2022, I attended regular private lessons, practice partner sessions and weekend socials.

Around that time, I started attending a dance social known for its high level dancers. I was still a beginner and knew very little. I understood I was deeply out of my league. I didn’t belong…not really. I was certainly “allowed” to be there because anyone who pays admission can attend. But being a part of the dance scene is different than watching from the sidelines. I wanted to be a part of it. More than anything I wanted to be so much better. I didn’t get asked to dance very much that evening. But I kept practicing. And I kept attending socials so that I could motivate myself to improve. Plus, I wanted to have FUN. I wanted to get to a point where I could rely on my training and enjoy myself. (Arguably one can always enjoy themselves, but I wanted to dance at a higher level.)


It was during one of those early socials I realized I could reach my dance goals. To succeed, I needed two big things. First, I needed to surround myself with people who wanted the same thing I wanted. This was fun and not too challenging. This involved a good dance community, friends and mentors. It takes a village, right? Second, I knew I had to practice. This was also fun but not always easy. I had to do the best practice (guided by a good teacher) I knew how to do. I had to practice intentionally and I had to practice regularly. I knew if I logged more good, regular practice than the average dancer, then I could improve faster. I could reach and even surpass the level of dancers who had been dancing much longer than me.


And you know what? It happened. My practice experiment worked. I am now a completely different dancer than I was five months ago. I am almost embarrassed to admit how much time I’ve spent practicing dance – salsa dancing if you’re curious. Let’s just say that within the span of about five months, I’ve gone from “green” to a competent social dancer. I get asked to dance by some of the highest level leads in all of DC. I am quite proud of my progress, but that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. Sure, I have an excellent teacher. I also have an advanced practice partner. I live near one of the best social dance scenes in the United States. I know a lot about practicing. I’m pretty good. But I don’t attribute my success to any one thing. (My practice partner might disagree. He deserves credit. That’s true.)

We need support and expert coaching from the outside. AND we need motivation and practice from the inside. I believe we need both to optimize our potential when learning a complex skill. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to every skill on the planet. But so far I think it works for dancing. What’s more? It works for learning to play the piano.