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The reason I try to learn a new dance step every year is it literally throws you off balance.   If the step is challenging enough–ah, the Usher Glide of 2014–you have to find an entirely different way to move your body.  Changing the way you transition the weight on your feet changes everything about how you stand, how you breathe, the tension in your finger tips.   It feels insanely awkward and even impossible at first.  It doesn’t even make sense.  But you practice it over and over and over and then suddenly it feels clumsily right, and then suddenly it feels so natural you cannot remember when it didn’t.

In 2011 or maybe it was 2012, I learned the moonwalk.   Now, I can’t remember how not to moonwalk.  And it feels so natural that I can’t believe that it really looks to anyone else like I’m walking kind of magically on air.   The other side of it now being easy, natural, is that I can’t break it down anymore and figure out how I actually do it.   To show someone what I’m doing, I have to I go back and watch the instructional video and hear someone Ange DeLumiere (my virtual teacher):  “You think you do it like this.  That’s wrong.  Don’t do that.  You put . . . ”  Once they are natural, my own patterns are invisible to me.   A great teacher doesn’t just give you the answer–but helps you to see the process by which you can master something so thoroughly that it becomes a habit (mental, physical, emotional: yes, a lot of therapy works that way too).

If you read Now You See It, you know that this method of going to the impossible to the familiar even “natural” is my whole cultural theory of brain biology in a nutshell.   From infancy on, we learn certain deep, mechanical, knee-jerk, “natural” behaviors, knowledge, language, cultural norms, and prejudices by repetition repetition repitition.   We repeat them so often they feel natural, not like we learned them.  They are so natural that it surprises us if someone finds them surprising.  If someone asks us how we came to believe something, or how we came to do something a certain way, we often cannot remember the process.  We forget that, and just have the result.   The good news is habits are efficient (i.e. I’m touch typing this very fast without thinking of which letters I’m hitting as I type).   The bad news is our habits become so invisible to us that it is hard to change them (i.e. if you ask me to stop typing right now and tell you which finger is on which letter, I cannot begin to do that, even though I typed that last phrase very very phase and pretty accurately too).

This isn’t just a metaphor for how we learn.  It’s the reality of culture, of how what we learn becomes part of our actual brain structures, our mental habits, our physical responses, our reactions.   That is as true of touch typing and the moon walk as it is of racism, sexism, cultural norms of all kinds, and such things as programing our VCR (old school) or learning how to function when technology changes just about all the old patterns and ways of doing something.   We don’t just have to learn how to do the new thing, we have to learn a new kind of balance that is also different than the old.  You think you do it like this.  That’s wrong.  Don’t do that.    That’s Alvin Toffler’s idea of learning, unlearning, and relearning.

Now, if you’ll excuse me:  Push.  Pull.   Transition.   If I practice that enough, I’ll glide like Usher.

Well, maybe not exactly like Usher.  But please don’t discourage me before I’ve even begun.  The pros tell me even Usher doesn’t glide like Usher anymore.  He’s 35.  He’s gotten famous, older, a little lazy or bored with the glide he perfected.  They say, he no longer really grinds it on the pivot.   That’s another thing about the habits we master.   Sometimes we do them easily, efficiently, naturally (we think)–but we lose the sharpness, alertness, and passion of the neophyte.   But that’s a metaphor for another time!

Happy New Year!   May 2014 be as smooth and lovely as Usher’s Glide  . . . in its prime!

Cat Moonwalking

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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