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What I Learned at Practica

For a period of time during the early 2010s, Chicago had regular practicas, lead by Ruby Red. The practicas ran for about two hours, and met every week. You could pay for the month for a slight discount (I think there was a discount? Maybe it was just convenient to pay ahead), or pay by the week. There wasn't an expectation that you would make every single week, but there was a very important expectation that I recently realized not many dancers "grew up with."

If you came to practica, you came knowing that you were going to be giving feedback to everyone.

This included Ruby herself. From the first time I attended, I was expected to inspect her movement critically, and to give thoughtful feedback. I recently recognized how much this has shaped my practice and my ability to work meaningful with people of different levels. I was trusted even as a very new blues dancer to think about questions of blues aesthetic and provide opportunities for growth for someone who had been my teacher in other settings. This leads to two underlying tenants to my beliefs about dance practice.

1. No dancer is beyond critique, no matter how much star power they have.

Each of us has space to grow, whether we've been dancing for 3 months or 3 years or 3 decades. It doesn't matter how long we've been working on improving our art, we can push beyond our comfort zones. We benefit from this critique, no matter who it comes from.

I've had discussions about peer judging sessions where after the sheets were turned in, folks expressed their disappointment about what they thought of being the Bad Asses on the panel, and then admit to still placing them second, even though there was other, more musical dancing that they preferred. This mystified me -- since the judging criteria at this event was left to us, I had treated my own value of musicality as tantamount and I had placed them much lower because I felt that their choices seem disconnected from the music.

Just because those dancers were the most experienced competitors and experienced instructors did not mean that their performance lived up to their potential. The Bad Asses' dancing didn't benefit from being judged in a way that put their choices above critique either.

2. Every dancer's critique is worth considering.

Even naive dancers bring interesting critique to the practice floor. Whether from their other experiences, or by asking questions that seem answered to more experienced dancers and giving consideration to fundamental assumptions. Experienced dancers are hungry for feedback that doesn't sound like what they've already heard -- it's easier to find that from new sources than from familiar sources. And while peer training is certainly part of the advanced dancers' playbook for improvement, cross-level training is incredibly valuable.

One of the ways I see the absence of this lesson play out is the way that some dancers demure from working with experienced dancers, feeling like they are wasting the experienced dancer's time. Y'all, no. Your thoughts and questions and ideas matter and are valuable too.

In short, Ruby created a flat practice hierarchy, where feedback traveled in all directions.

Practice is key to the advancement of our community. We can all work towards practice communities that bring critique to each of us.

I had the opportunity to express my gratitude in person at BluesSHOUT!, but this post also serves as a love letter to that practica, and everyone who participated who instrumentally shaped my dancing and let me shape their dancing in return.

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