A positive prescription for guiding a person

A tray of mini pancake canapes, each topped with a piece of fruit and a toothpick
Each one lovely, in its own way.
Whether we teach a class or a lesson, or dance with a practice partner, and even when we self-talk about our own practice, we can act in a way to give a more useful, happier result. First, nine ideas for producing a positive outcome, followed by an optional essay on how I came to produce this list.

The prescription

  1. Begin immediately using self talk questions to frame how you see situations. “What would improve this?” “How can I create deeper understanding about this?” “What else could I do or ask in order to truly understand what comes after (or before) this?”
  2. Start recognizing the physical sensations in your body leading up to you giving feedback. It could be anywhere, and commonly may arise in the gut, in the chest, or in the head (face, scalp, ears, neck). For some individuals the body reactions can feel so strong that it ties their gut in knots, or makes it hard to breath. The tension transmits to the students who in turn get tense and less able to respond resourcefully. Gifted teachers come across with warmth and relaxation, with great focus on what will help, so that the student feels embraced with the knowledge. Such a teacher’s body reaction can produce in the student a warm, comfortable feeling that says, “I’m okay. I’m with a person who embraces me.” (See the parallels with calm, patient dance partners versus tense ones?) Your body reaction signals you to, “Pay attention!” You stand at the threshold of either doing something in a negative way, or in a caring and creative way.
  3. Deal with the positive first and repeatedly, giving it overwhelming attention.
  4. Give attention not only to the desired outcome, but also to the considerations, the whys and wherefores of the body mechanics that lead to a certain way as the more desirable. (While taking care to avoid over long, over analytical talk.)
  5. Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them in evidence, and more than once in the situation at the moment.
  6. If you ever feel that you must give an example of a disliked way, first be certain to label clearly and multiple times which is the preferred way and which is the disliked way. (It helps to label with both visual cues and words.) DO NOT show the disliked way as the worst example that you imagine you’ve ever seen it. Instead show it as a “not quite as good as the preferred” way. Show the preferred way first and last.
  7. In your teaching practice begin formally cataloging common diagnoses and possible cures. What things have you found helpful in the past, such as: cuing phrases or touches, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (keep it brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
  8. Think and feel yourself as a Michelangelo, not a mechanic. The mechanic fixes broken parts, but You the artist seek to refine that beautiful piece of marble to release the dancing spirit inside, whatever shape it takes.
  9. Students come to a dance class to move! Get them moving early and often. Keep it simple and get them going again.


This article was a long time coming. First, in the sense that its genesis began long ago when I started recognizing unhappy, unproductive patterns in dance classes, leading me to begin exploring good teaching and learning practices. Second, I did a lot of rewriting and pondering. I found myself guilty in my writing of taking the same negative approach I was decrying. Indeed, the article started out with the title, Are we teaching TO the errors?

The essence of this article comes in the nine point prescription above. Do feel free to skip what follows. I include it to satisfy my sense of exposition, to let you know where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, and to share some bits and pieces I’ve found along the way that some of you, too, might find interesting.

The numbered brackets refer to: [#] end Notes with more information, and [P#] Prescription points.


Just as we encourage continual improvement for our dance students, we want to seek it ourselves as teachers. Some teachers may see themselves in these remarks, but my impressions don’t represent any single teacher, and my remarks are intended to teach myself as much as offer suggestions for anyone else. I base these observations on a wide ranging and large sampling of teachers across the United States and in and from other countries. The desirable points represent many teachers much of the time. The disliked remarks reflect some teachers some of the time.


Has it ever bothered you or made you wonder when teachers [1] …

  • Focus on possible problems before seeing any examples of them? [2] [P3] [P5]
  • Spend more time talking about problems—what they don’t want—than what they do want? [P1] [P3]
  • Confuse you with whether they are demonstrating the right way or the wrong way to do something? [P6]
  • Manipulate a student’s body parts, as if they were an object? [3] [P8]
  • Insist that theirs is the one and only right way to do things? [5] [P8]
  • Grossly parody the wrong way so that students doing that either reject the call out or feel humiliated? [P6]

Are we mechanics that fix others, or are we guides that help them make discoveries for themselves? [6]

This article suggests where and how we want to focus our attention when [7] we give others feedback.

Focus on the desired outcome

I pursue a mission, a mission to improve myself, and perhaps to help a few others along the way. A sort of “Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative.” [8]

Just as the study and practice of Argentine tango has taught and continues to teach me so many valuable life lessons, it has made a deep impression with regard to the relative value of pointing out problems versus giving positive directions in creative ways.

Even though I enjoy a happy go lucky, upbeat attitude most of the time, I recognize and regret those instances where I put my attention and emphasis on the problems I saw—in my opinion—and on what I wanted, versus the things that mattered — such as foremost, a good, positive connection with our partners (spouse, partner, child, parent, sibling, neighbor, citizen, teacher, student, fellow creature sharing the journey on this planet).

I believe that the drive to edit and correct others derives from some kind of functional wiring in our DNA that expresses itself to a greater or lesser degree in individuals. It serves us by creating feelings of discontent with the way things are, and imbuing us with the drive to improve. So I respect and value this drive, the feelings that it creates. My thesis holds that we want to allow those feelings to arise and inform us, BUT, before immediately latching on to them, we want to take moments of reflection to see how we might convey deeper meaning and value in whatever feedback we give. [7] [P1-3]

So why throw a spotlight on teaching Argentine tango as an example of this universal [9] tendency. Because I feel that as teachers (of any subject) we miss a great opportunity when we latch onto the obvious, the easiest thing to observe. The “problem” that we see expresses only a *symptom* of some understanding that the student has created in their body-mind, whether consciously or not.

In my estimation, merely replacing the phrase, “Don’t do X” with “Do (the opposite of) X” carries not only the same literal meaning but also the same connotations of a mistake to be corrected, a problem to be fixed. For example, “You dropped your shoulder.” That’s abrupt and rough, and we can easily recall common worse examples. “You keep dropping your shoulder.” “When you take that step you do this… (recreate, or as likely, parody their performance)” [10] [P6]

I deeply, deeply want this article to carry a positive, helpful message. So let me first give as concise [11] a synopsis as I can think of for what we do want, and then I feel compelled to point out the problem teaching behavior just so that it can be recognized.

As with our dancing, we want to take a mindful approach with a clear intention BEFORE we act. More important than accurately, concisely, and kindly recognizing a problem, more important even than offering good suggestions for the correct behavior, our best course lies in reflecting for a moment on a number of questions:

* How often does this arise? Is it even worth mentioning? [12] [P5]
* Under what circumstances does it arise? Maybe that tells me something about a misconception the student has formed. [P1]
* Have we covered this behavior recently? Perhaps I need to use different words, images, concepts, exercises? [P7]
* What was happening BEFORE the problem behavior? How can I help the student routinely recognize the situations that lead up to the behavior? [13]

And the problem . . .

A teacher describing a pattern or movement says the desired behavior. But before or after that they may spend twice the time and energy covering possible problems. Worse, the examples may tend to parody or give a caricature of the supposed fault. Suppose that someone has a physical disability. Can you even conceive of mocking that, something that is part of them? So why would we do it with people who have a temporary disability in their understanding of how to use their body? [P5-6]

But more than that. Why do teachers actually spend more time describing and demonstrating the wrong ways of doing things? Sometimes they do this before the dancers have even demonstrated a defect! What do we want students to fix in their minds, the wrong way or the right way? And by the way, oftentimes in classes, due to poor acoustics, poor labeling by the teacher, moments of student inattention, or whatever, students may be quite unsure whether at the moment the teacher is showing the right or the wrong way to do something! [P6]

Seth Riggs, the developer of Speech Level Singing [14] (a concept that has informed my naturalistic approach to learning dance) has something to say about this. “Don’t give vocal iniquities the time of day.” That is, don’t be giving attention to the things you don’t want. Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas [15] has a big influence on my views and approach to teaching dance. In this matter he has a positive approach. You show both the ideal, perfect technique way of doing a thing, and then you show a somewhat less but not very much less good way of doing the same thing. You ask the students to tell you the difference and the importance in the difference. Both of his demonstrations could be acceptable depending on where the student is in their current level of achievements. [P6]

So instead of giving overwhelming attention to what NOT to do, we give all our attention to acceptable ways of doing a thing.

Last on my list comes the teacher who seems to be upset with us when giving feedback! [P2] For whatever reasons—possibly inexperience, insecurity, frustration, fear of confrontation—they come across as tense, and that makes the student tense, and thus less attentive to possible meaning or value from the feedback. For me, two teachers model ideal performance in this regard. Cristina Ladas [16] comes across as warmly engaged in helping students become better. When she does intercede it is to clearly and succinctly offer one idea that can help the student do something better. I also seek to model my teaching on my singing teacher, Gene Raymond, [17] a man of great patience, warm support, and many tools to help even one with a tin ear and anemic vocal cords. He has a low key but notable way of regularly giving positive feedback to let a student know when they are on the right track. He has a wealth of experience to draw on when one approach to a difficulty isn’t working. He can demonstrate with a minimal but clear distinction between a desirable and a less than desirable production. He conducts short lessons in a brisk and businesslike fashion, with warmth and good humor.


No doubt about it, teachers have a harder time teaching to positive possibilities. When we can identify a fault at least we’re doing something. (Does that perhaps remind you of a dancer in constant motion, sometimes without regard to music, partner, or others? Oops, I think I just gave a negative caricature.) When we go for the root cause of a problem we must become detectives, seeking to find the bad actor behind it all, or maybe a doctor looking for the diagnosis that might lead us to offering a cure instead of merely a palliative to relieve the symptoms. Then even when we think we have a good diagnosis we must search our experience banks or create from whole cloth a possible guide exercise, image, exploration, etc. [P7]

Then multiply that effort by all the possible permutations that a class full of students can present to you. It is easy to see why we fall back on, “Well this I know for sure. Don’t do that.”

To reiterate the prescription for improving interactions with others (and ourselves).

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I need to better understand this situation? How can I improve it?”
  2. Recognize negative feelings in your body, and first act to calm them. Deep belly breaths and relaxed shoulders help.
  3. Your positive intentions come first and foremost.
  4. Sometimes it helps a person to know why you feel that a certain way is the desired way.
  5. Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them, and more than once.
  6. If you ever feel that you must give an example of the disliked way, make it quite clear multiple times and multiple ways, which is the desired way and which is the disliked way. Show the disliked way in a “not as good as the desired” way, not in a gross parody. The desired way comes first and last.
  7. Catalog common diagnoses and possible cures, such as: cuing, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
  8. Think and feel yourself as a Michelangelo, not a mechanic. The mechanic fixes broken parts, but You the artist help refine that beautiful piece of marble to release the dancing spirit inside, whatever shape it takes.
  9. Students come to dance class to move! Keep it simple and get them moving again.

Caminando feliz,


[1] Although this article focuses on teachers, it applies as well to partners offering feedback to one another.

[2] Pilates pioneer Madeline Black has good advice about cueing students, not giving corrections early, but waiting for the good pancakes. MadelineBlack.com/teaching/the-pancake-theory-learning-like-pancakes. See also Dr. Noa Kageyama, The Bulletproof Musician, on a study that says too quick feedback can degrade learning. BulletProofMusician.com/how-being-too-quick-to-offer-feedback-can-degrade-learning He begins his essay by making the important point that we want to learn how to teach ourselves.

[3] At the beginning of a lesson a teacher may describe in lovely and loving detail what they see as the ideal way to stand and move. But then most of the time and attention goes to pointing out and correcting mistakes, even to the point of hand manipulating [4] a student to put them in the right position—severe micro-managing. It largely fails to make a helpful impression because it makes the student a passive target of the comments or manipulations. The student isn’t building their own internal understanding.

[4] On the other hand, physical cuing, such as placing a hand lightly on a body area, can help a person sense how their body is positioned or is moving. Ideally the student uses their own hand, but sometimes it can help, such as in an area they can’t reach, to have a partner’s hand, to help with their body awareness.

[5] I enjoy when Jason Laughlin – Tangophilia.com – says, “That’s another way to do it, but that’s not how we are doing it right now.”

[6] I feel a lovely parallel exists here for dance couples, from the old mechanistic model of the leader as one who makes the follower work, versus a new view to the leader as a (lead, and not the sole) guide who helps the couple make discoveries.

[7] A feedback moment evaluation model: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it necessary that *I* say it? Is it necessary that I say it *now*?

[8] ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. Words by Johnny Mercer, Music by Harold Arlen, Copyright 1944

[9] Political “discourse” offers a huge example.

[10] I recognize the irony of calling out teachers for a correctional approach to teaching, but I do hope that my positive examples and intent prevail.

[11] Yet another irony. I passed “concise” some time ago. Sorry.

[12] In a conservation with Adam and Tilly – AdamAndTilly.com – she offered a nice summary of how they decide when to intervene. “Is it a factual error?” Such as right versus left. And, “Is it a functional problem?” Such as failing to step onto axis.

[13] The concept of “inhibition” from Alexander Technique and other mind-body practices teaches us that in order to change a habit we must first recognize the cues that trigger that habit, for we can create change in ourselves only when we recognize the juncture where we have choices: to do what we usually do, to do something different, or to do nothing at all. By the way, this realization helps wonderfully when we get bored with patterns and movement choices in our dancing. We want to clearly identify the situations (all or many of them) that result in the habitual behavior. Then we can more easily begin making different choices.

[14] SethRiggsVocalStudio.com

[15] DanceNinjas.com

[16] TheOrganicTangoSchool

[17] OctaveHigher.com

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