This is your brain on dance

The music starts. Your System1, the quick, associate, intuitive, effortless part of your brain, immediately starts up your dance counter. “Slow-Quick-Quick, Slow-Quick-Quick”.

Meanwhile, your System2, the reasoning, thinking, effortful part of your brain, is recalling the first figure. It hands the figure name to System1, which recognizes it instantly and instructs the Muscle Memory part of System1 to start executing the figure in time to the dance counter it’s already running. You’re off!

With the timing and the steps being handled by System1, System2 now has time for other things. As our sequences are built with this model in mind, most “steps” of the sequence are actually 2- or 4-measures long, giving your System2 plenty of time – not just to remember the next step, but to do other things, too. Like smile at your partner, or add one of the styling “flourishes” we taught you in the Styling Clinic, or acknowledge your adoring fans, or just enjoy the wonderful sensation of dancing.

But it doesn’t start out this way. Although System1 can do some amazingly complex tasks, like driving a car, it has to be taught. And until System1 has been taught these skills, it’s all effortful – it’s all being done by System2. And that means that System2 needs to have the “bandwidth” to handle all of this. Load System2 down with extraneous stuff, like remembering that pesky sequence, and it can’t focus on the job in hand. The result is poor recall (a failure to really get System1 properly trained) and feeling of mental exhaustion that leaves you feeling spent, rather than joyful, at the end of the lesson.

Enter cuing. Cuing removes the need for System2 to keep track of the sequence, which is a surprisingly heavy cognitive load (see here), and replaces it with simply recognizing the name of the figure – something at which System1 excels! Associating labels with things is what System1 does best – and this will be an effortless recall by the time you’ve heard the name of the figure half a dozen times.

Our sequences are also carefully crafted to make maximum use of “similarity”. This aids learning by allowing System1 to re-use previously built muscle memory with slight variations instead of learning entirely new figures from scratch.

As System1 masters past figures, we add new ones – but slowly enough to allow System1 to be fully trained before moving on. And “slowly” also refers to the music tempo. When working on a figure for the first time, System2 needs more processing time. So, we slow the music tempo to provide this time, then slowly raise it to standard dance speed as your facility with the new figure grows.

All of this means that we keep System2 pretty busy throughout the four weeks. By the end, hopefully, it’s all in System1 storage and you can throw away the “crutches” and try doing the sequence yourself.

Note that cuing is not just a crutch – it’s our favorite way to enjoy dancing (see here). But the basic idea is the same – by eliminating the cognitive load of recalling sequences, we free up System2 resources for other things – like enjoying the music, appreciating professional choreography, and… smiling!

Note: For more on the Dual Process (System1/System2) model: see this and this