Cognitive load and lindy hop

Leah Jo linked up this interesting article, ‘Cognitive Load Theory
How the cognitive load of a learning task affects a person’s ability to memorize it’
on facebork.

It’s very interesting.

Fran then asked about the point that because processing more than one type of data increases cognitive load, we should avoid it.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the article’s point, as I haven’t read the original research. But that won’t stop me blabbering on.

I’ve just read that bit, and I reckon it means:

  • Different types of data are processed in different ways (eg auditory info – sound – and visual info – stuff we see).
  • Processing more than one type of info at a time increases cognitive load (ie it’s more work.)
  • Therefore (this article suggests) we should only present data in one form at a time.
    In our case, that’d be just scatting a rhythm, or just dancing a rhythm, not dancing and scatting.

I think I can dig this, especially for total beginners who are just learning to dance for the first time. They can be learning to process visual info (bodies in motion), auditory info (clapping), etc etc etc.
So what we’ve found (coincidentally – I’d never heard this theory before), is that we demonstrate one thing at a time. eg we dance the whole move. Then we clap a rhythm. Then we may tap the rhythm with our toes. Then we may step it out with no sound, but shapes. This way the info (ie the rhythm) comes to them as lots of different data types, but one at a time.

Having said all that, as we know, dancers are super good at processing a few different types of data at once: we can be led through a routine and see the shapes, we can listen to the music and hear the melody, we can feel the physical cues and respond with the shapes.

But these are skills we come to after practicing and learning for a while.
I think retention (memory) is under-emphasised in our skill sets. I mean, we learn complex rhythms (which are essentially like learning complex mathematical formula or series of words), retain them, and then repeat them back with or without variation. We also learn whole sequences of steps during our dancing years, and then recreate or revise them in real time.
So one thing we learn when we do a dance class is to see/hear/feel data in one way, then retain that ‘way’ and information while we’re watching and retaining a section, third, fourth set of data. Then we synthesise it all and do it with another human being surrounded by heaps of other human beings also dancing or playing music!

That’s some seriously heavy cognitive load. So one thing we need to do in classes is teach students how to cope with a) the pressure of increased cognitive load, b) how to actually carry increased cognitive load. And lindy hop is awesome because it’s so fun: it rewards increased cognitive load management with good endorphines and happy times. :D

We can also just start with simpler tasks, then increase the complexity. For example, begin with one type of data at a time, then gradually increase the combinations. I think we do this with our beginners. So we may just give them one rhythm in the baby version of i-go, you-go, but as they get more experienced, we increase the number of things they have to do during that task (eg the next step in this game is to have the pair take turns dancing a rhythm at each other, in real time, so they have to invent a rhythm while they’re watching and retaining their partner’s rhythm. The simple solution to this is to take something from your partner’s rhythm and build on it in your rhythm, so you don’t have to make something entirely different. This is what tappers do in jams. It also provides rhythmic coherency or consistency).

I’ve been interested to compare teaching in a quiet environment after teaching in a noisy environment with lots of distractions. The former is very much the marker of middle class, anglo-european teaching philosophy. The idea that we need a quiet ‘room of one’s own’ to do good solid thinking and learning. But if there’s one thing we know about lindy hop, it’s that it was born and thrived in loud environments full of information and noise and other people. One of the very first things you learn in a tap class, for example, is how to handle the cognitive load of a very loud learning environment. A lot of people simply can’t get past that first bit (I personally really struggle with this).

I also noticed that when we started welcome small babies and children (and doggos) in our teaching space, at first I found it impossible to stay focussed. Then I just learnt to ignore it (as I suppose mothers learn to ignore random kid noise, but respond to particular noises or lack of noise :D). So you learn to filter out extraneous data to decrease your cognitive load.

…following that thought on. We know that people learn best in environments where they feel happy and safe. This is probably because when we feel unsafe, we are ‘hyper vigilant’, taking in lots of information about our environment, _and_ keeping our bodies ready to fight or fly. Which is why anxiety or social phobias or trauma are so exhausting.

So while I dig this article, I think that it’d be really useful to compare it with learning in other cultural spaces. I haven’t checked the samples in this piece, but I wonder if they used predominantly white, middle class people between 18 and 25 (ie university students) in laboratory environments as their samples?

Perhaps one of the most important things about thinking of lindy hop as a black dance, is that we remember where and how people learnt to dance: in vernacular spaces. Everyday spaces. Spaces full of noise and stimuli and other people. Which is not only why we see the influence of everyday stuff in lindy hop (eg rhythmic movements borrowed from stuff like sweeping or hammering or ball games or playing hop scotch; familiar personalities like pimps and kids skipping; familiar animals like chickens and cows), but the ability to bear massive cognitive load while completing complex tasks…

Teaching: handling distraction and disruption

Someone in the fb ‘teaching swing dance’ group asked this the other day:

Question – How do you handle distractions and/or disruptions

When your students are simply distracted or causing disruptions
When you as a teacher are distracted and/or having trouble staying focused

*Waving to you all from my own little ADHD corner of the world. I’ll respond more personally in comments below.

I read this as a continuation of an earlier discussion about managing excessive talking/cohort distraction.

I missed the point, that she was asking: how do I keep myself from getting distracted. Which is so interesting.

Anyhoo, the discussion continued.


If they’re getting bored and distracted, you’re being boring. :D
They’re here to dance, not listen to someone talk about dancing.
Instead of hauling their attention back to you and your voice stop talking and dance. I struggle with this because I’m a total show pony. I LOVE an audience. No, Sam, it’s not all about you.
-> move from teacher-centred classes to student-centred classes.

We used to teach in a crowded public bar venue, with lots of ambient noise and crowding. Things we did:
– we do the ‘come in close’ in a circle thing, then say, “Ok, this venue is quit noisy, so when we say ‘come close’, everyone come in close, we’ll talk, then we’ll all scatter again to dance.” Very effective. I like them to come _really_ close. From here it’s quite fun to demonstrate dancing stuff, so they can see how little room you should use on the social floor anyway. And they can see better as well.
-> I still use this technique now in our bigger space.

– Talk less, dance more. So they don’t get distracted, because you only have a minute or so to talk/listen. So instead of explaining how a move works, the ‘we’ll do it three times’ method keeps them focussed.

– “We’ll do it three times only, then you will dance it _perfectly_.” Gee they pay close attention. But this also trains them to learn-by-watching, which means they really _focus_ when you demo.

– Give them the task, _then_ say ‘rotate partners’ and put the music on. That way they can take as long as they want rotating, and you don’t have to fuss with managing noise, distraction, etc. They figure out: if they dick around, they miss out on dancing time.

– If you give them a ‘tip’ or a thing, they have to dance on it immediately. Don’t load them up with three or more things you saw that need ‘fixing’. If it’s lead or follow specific, you also give one to the other role, then they all dance on it immediately. One thing only for each (or both). Then dancing. Less talk, more dance. Less distracting.

– Rather than stepping in to ‘fix’ something you see while they’re all practicing, let them dance and experiment and fix it themselves. If you step in, they rely on you to help, and they lose focus and get distracted. If they get used to figuring it out, they learn focus and patience and can work on a challenge for longer. Your challenge: knowing when to step in before they get dejected.

– Learn the natural patterns of conversation and noise in the room. Give them a task, then let them do it on their own with music (and a partner). If you’ve already shown them how to talk to a partner (eg your demo about how to touch someone), they have the skills to work with a partner.
Let them go. For a _whole_ song with one partner. It’s only 3 minutes, but a lot of teachers _never_ do this!
You’ll see there’s immediately a rush of noise as they try it. Then a lull as they get ‘bored’ and act all ‘there, done it.’ Then the noise rises again as they a) start yapping randomly, or b) start trying again. The random yappers actually stop yapping and eventually try again themselves. Then the noise crests again.
It’s really hard to learn to not step in; learn to hear those crests and troughs, and observe them, and figure out when you’re really needed. I find they rarely ask for help unless they’re really confused. They prefer to work with a partner, or with their partner and a neighbouring couple!
– During this pattern, they learn to stop and restart themselves. When you do all come back together, make sure you point out that you saw people doing this and you loved it: “I saw people get all confuzzled, then stop, say ‘can we try again?’ and then restart. That’s genius.” I often point out a specific dancer or couple who do this really well – I say, “I saw X and X stop, chill, groove a bit, then start in again.” If you do this, rather than saying “When you get stressed, do X, not Y.” They only hear the negative thing. But if you do it the positive way, they realise a) you’re paying attention, b) you trust them to figure out stuff, c) they can trust themselves to figure stuff out.

c is the most useful, because then they learn to focus and stay on track.

-> Anyhoo, I think this is the most important skill ever. For teachers. Let the class get really noisy and rowdy. They want to socialise and talk.

– Don’t rush them to start dancing after they rotate partners. Give them time to do a proper social introduction, to slowly get so they touch each other. Good social skills, good boundary negotiation, but also good vibes.
-> They come to class for each other’s company. So let them have that time. It’s solid gold. It’ll be noisy, but it’s a _good_ noise. And learn to recognise the difference between good noise and antisocial noise.

I really love this approach. I don’t have to stress about being the centre of attention. I let them actually let their partner be the centre of their attention. You know – lindy hop. <3 <3 <3


The original poster then reminded me: hey Sam, we’re talking about getting distracted as a teacher rather than distracted students. Particularly when you’re managing anxiety and ADHD while also managing a class.


Rather than finding it difficult to stay focussed, my problem is that I tend to find it difficult to stop focussing, and to switch topics or tasks. Obsessive thinking r us. Great for practicing or working on my own dancing, not good for teaching.

I think Byron’s point about using your partner is really good. I often rely on my partner to give me the ‘that’s enough talking’ sign so I stop. Especially if my brain is racing ahead and I forget to let them practice something 2 or 3 or 4 times instead of just once.

I’ve seen other teaching couples use the 2-teacher vibe in a few good ways: – they tag in and out for managing little chunks of a class – eg Pete runs the big apple warm up, I do the i-go-you-go rhythm warm up, Pete does the next bit, etc etc. That way the one who’s ‘tagged out’ can gauge the overall flow and step in with the next step at the right time.

– one teacher may ask the other a question about what’s happening, to help refocus the class: “So, Sam, are you saying that we should _practice_ more instead of just thinking about this idea?” or even “Can you show me how you’d lead that, Sam?”

– switching between teachers leading bits also helps students refocus or retune, because different people use their voice in different ways, or explain/demo in different ways. -> peeps with ADHD can also get really _tiiiiired_ because they’re on adrenaline overload rushing from one thing to another. So swapping in and out with a teacher can give the tagged out teacher a little rest and break.


I’ve just been thinking about how we may talk about neurdiversity and students, and the needs of students who are managing adhd, anxiety, depression etc, but we don’t talk about teachers managing these things.
I feel as though I’ve been working with that very limited idea of teachers as somehow homogenous monolithic neuro-same. FAIL. Odysseus’ recent blog post about how to attract and appeal to culturally and ethnically diverse students makes me realise: start with MYSELF, and stop making my own identity markers disappear.