Wicked problems, Skill Aquisition & Tai Chi as a way to Understand

by David Liu on 2024/04/09

Below is an outline for a draft article. Feedback appreciated as it gets to a more final form!

About Me

I’ve taught dance for the last 20 years.  I’ve had the privilege of studying with some fantastic teachers of dance, including modern dance with Marni Wood (former dancer / director of the Martha Graham school) and with Ethel Dias (former teacher with the Alvin Ailey Extension).  Michael Walker (studied at American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham & danced with Tony Bennett and Bett Midler).  I have the largest Argentine Tango instructional website on the internet.

This article is from the perspective of a US Modern Dance & Argentine Tango dancer & teacher who has had the pleasure to start a journey in learning Practical Method.

Key Skills for Success in Dance (or Anything)
Key Skills for Success in Dance (or Anything) are often not taught well.

In dance as a body of knowledge, there are a number of kinds of skills which contribute to amazing skill.   In dance, below are a selection of skills which are vital to achieve the highest levels of skill in dance.

  • Technique – being familiar with the vocabulary of your genre (Modern Dance, Ballet, Chinese Classical Dance, Argentine Tango, etc.)  and being able to execute it with good technique.
  • Connected / Integrated Body – the quality of the ability to move from the center, use ankle and Kau to support and drive movement, have the body relate as a logical system.
  • Musicality – How exactly are you on the beat? Does the emphasis of the movement relate to the emphasis and shape of the music? Is there a relationship to the larger phrases, etc.  
  • Choreographic Understanding & Expressiveness – oftentimes in choreography there is an intention to create a certain effect, communicate a certain emotion, etc.   And even when the choreographer hasn’t made or communicated clear decisions, the dancer often still needs to make these decisions.
My observation that many elements that are needed to succeed in any discipline are not taught in that discipline.   In dance, we do a pretty good job teaching technique.   We do a mediocre job teaching any of the others

I suspect the same could be said of many disciplines, for example, being a manager in any large corporate business … managers learn about the discipline they are responsible for (Finance, Risk Management, etc.) but are unlikely to have structured instruction around, for example, influence (Home – (cialdini.com) or negotiation (Chris Voss | The Black Swan Group (blackswanltd.com))

Wicked & Kind problems

Psychologist Dr. Robin M. Hogarth noted that some learning environments are kind, and some are wicked (The Two Settings of Kind and Wicked Learning Environments on JSTOR). In short, it is easier to learn when:
  • Feedback is accurate / correct
  • Feedback is rapid
  • The skill you are practicing is very similar to the skill you would use
As an example:
  • Learning by practicing chess is kind – you can ask a computer what the best move is right after you make a move, and use that to evaluate and teach you.   Feedback is immediate, accurate, and the learning is very similar to the practice of the skill
  • Learning by practicing strategic decision making is wicked – it takes years to see the impact of a decision, and the impact may be good despite your bad thought process.
Applying this paradigm to dance
  • Teachers are usually quite good at giving real-time, unambiguous feedback on technique, as well as educating students so they are better at assessing their performance on their own.
  • However, learning to have a more connected integrated body through the study of dance is much harder.  The grossest of problems are likely to get some feedback, but after a student has moved from “terrible” to “mediocre”, feedback is likely to stop, and even when it is present, it likely won’t be that specific.
The study of Practical Method Tai Chi

There is a wonderful combination of principle & application which has enabled the development of an amazing system 
  • Enough application / testing so that there is an impartial measure of success … did this technique work?    This is one place that dance often fails, as there is no impartial measure of success, which makes the quality of the feedback you get somewhat worse.
  • Principles, so that there is an ability to have infinitely high standards (not just, “did it work”) as well as broader applicability.
In Practical method, there is what I’d describe as a higher level of technology related to the use of the mechanics of the body.   A system of movement and the use of the human body which has had a number of advantages
  • Quality instruction & dedicated study which has been built over a number of generations, allowing an accretion of knowledge
  • A refined technique with an incredibly high standard
Which is widely applicable to a huge # of methods of human movement
  • A large range of possible movements.  For example, people who do Olympic weightlifting also have a great mechanism to learn movement, but the range of movements is much smaller.
  • Because Tai Chi Chuan involves another person, there are a number of principles which even apply to partner dancing.   
  • I’m sure a similar thing can be said more broadly (in any interaction of 2 people or perhaps even 2 bodies or 2 bodies mediated by a 3rd).  The point being that when there is something which is true, I believe it is usually true regardless of the scale and often across topics … the universe appears to be fractal.   This helps Tai Chi Chuan be a paradigm to understand dance (or the world).
Some Examples

To make the vast applicability to dance (and likely other things) clear, below follow a number of examples:

Tai Chi Chuan has an incredibly rigorous understanding of direction … much more so than dance typically does.  This augments dance dramatically both in: Executing moves “solo” but in a way which makes the directions starkly clear, and thus more impactful. Communication between a couple, so that the direction of the leader’s movements are dramatically clearer.

Tai Chi Chuan highlights that movement must be anchored in the unmoving.   One example application is the use of the standing foot & kua: Much of dance is done on 1 foot, and yet dancers are usually not taught to keep the standing foot & kua unmoving, so that the rest of the body has an anchor against which to move.   This dramatically improves not just balance, but also adds much more power & control behind the movement of the body or free leg, which have the power & stability of the earth behind it.

A separation of the practitioner from the object they are manipulating: In partner dance, especially argentine tango (or any closed-hold partner dance), it is incredibly common for people to be almost imprisoned by their connection to their partner.  This means that when 1 person does something even slightly off, this pulls the other person off because they don’t know how to be both connected to their partner and simultaneously separate.   Through the study of Tai Chi Chuan, I believe it is possible to overcome this almost universal tendency which is harmful.

There is an idea that parts of the body may protrude, interfering with the flow of the energy of a movement: This translates very directly into better mechanics for the body … when doing modern dance, for example, this maps directly to a part of the body being too tight or poorly aligned in a way that prevents the flow of the energy and expressiveness in the dance.   

Tossing or Telegraphing: Just as people often do extra movements which are not helpful in fighting, dancers do extra movements that are not helpful in the expression of a movement.   An iconic example is walking forward in the Argentine Tango, where many beginning leaders will habitually have a small unconscious drop prior to taking a step forward, in a way that makes their walk “bouncy”, and causes their musical accent to be bouncy rather than smooth.

In Conclusion

While I am still early in my study of Practical Method, I look forward to continuing my journey, and believe we all can reap great rewards in the use of Tai Chi Chuan to better our understanding of the world.

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