Learning to Dance on Youtube

My friend Stu Sweetow, videographer extraordinaire, sent me the picture at the right with the excellent phrase, “Real men take dance lessons, because you can’t learn connection on youtube!”  This inspired me to once again take up my blog, which my many fans have no doubt noticed I have let slip for several months due to more pressing matters in my life.

The Question

The blog-worthy question is, of course, what is connection and why can’t you learn it on youtube and maybe also, if not connection, what can you learn on youtube?


Connection in partner dance is the skill of leading and following.  It is how the leader communicates to the follower what to do, without telling her in advance what the step will be.  It is how two people can move around the floor as if they are one without choreographing and practicing a routine ahead of time.


Connection is a right brain skill and you have to feel it to know what it is and if you are doing it right.  That’s why you can’t learn it on youtube.  Different dances have different kinds of connection, but the basic principles are the same. Once you have learned how to connect to a partner in one kind of dance, it’s a lot easier to learn how to do it in another.


What part of dance don’t you understand?


So is there anything you can learn on video?  Yes there is!  Once you’ve learned how to dance (connection) you can pick up new steps on youtube if you’re a visual learner and you work at it.  But if all you know are the steps, not the connection, you’ll be hard to dance with and dancing won’t be much fun for you or your partner.  You know something’s missing but you don’t know what it is.


Connection Vs. Steps

So here’s my advice if you are the kind of learner who has the discipline and learns well from videos.  Take private lessons FIRST.  Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and learn connection.  Then find cool steps on video that you like and practice them.  If you fall in love with a step and somehow it isn’t working, take a private lesson and ask a teacher what you’re doing wrong.  There’s probably something tricky about the lead in that particular move.  Have fun!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Fusion in Performance Dance

students at NW Fusion Dance Company

Some schools specialize in Fusion. This is from NW Fusion Dance Company

I’ve written before about partner dancers combining styles, but performance dancers do it too.  Some years ago I spent 8 Julys  in Sweden studying the European partner jazz dance Boogie Woogie   My favorite teacher, Christer Isberg, was the best all around dancer I’d ever seen.  It seemed he could do anything.  His background included classical ballet, jazz, tap, modern, and I’m sure other genres.  He encouraged us to study as many different dance styles as possible.


Sometimes when dancers learn more than one style, their creativity leads them to fuse different dances into one choreography.  In this example, this extraordinarily talented young dancer combines contemporary hip hop with his obvious training in classical dance.  The result is a gripping performance that speaks his heart.


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One of the first fusion performance dances was Afro Fusion.  Check out these talented women in this example:

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African dance has influenced the roots of many dances, so it does beg the question: What is fusion and what is the development of a new dance.  Lindy Hop has it’s roots in tap, charleston, African, and Jazz.  Yet we don’t consider it a fusion dance.  For those of you who like to clarify your definitions, I would say that most, if not all, new dances are rooted in previous dances.  It’s fusion if a dancer or choreographer consciously puts more than one dance style together with another.


It’s a new dance if it rises out of new music and is an expression of a movement to the music, like Hip Hop, Lindy Hop, and Salsa.  If you have another idea on this interested topic, I’d love to hear it!


By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing blind

blind-folded dancer

Dancing blind opens up all kinds of new insights

When my dance students are learning the skill of following, I often suggest they close their eyes.  Closing your eyes takes away a lot of the urge to back lead, and it brings forward the senses you use to feel the lead.

Even when social dancing, I often close my eyes because it’s relaxing and feels good.  Leaders, however, are in the driver’s seat, so they need to keep their eyes open. 

That’s why I was blown away by this video of a West Coast Swing performance with a blind-folded leader.  OK, this is a rehearsed routine, but it’s STILL pretty impressive even though I doubt they used the blind fold before they had mastered the choreography.

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Even though the lead is in charge, there is a certain degree of sensing what’s happening with your partner, especially with a jazz dance like West Coast Swing or Lindy.  Practicing with your eyes closed is a good exercise for leaders, too.  Just make sure you have plenty of room, and unless you have a LOT of room, not a good idea for you both to be blind-folded at the same time.

Dancer Rebecca Niziol talks about performing  blind when she lost a contact right before a performance.  Although she never would have done so on purpose, she was surprised to find out how tuned in she was and what came out of her when forced to rely on her other senses.  For the full article, see Dancing Blind Taught me to Be Present.

You may find yourself surprised at what you get in touch with when you can’t use your eyes.  Try it just for fun, and if you discover something interesting, let me know!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Favorite Dance Teachers From My Past


Jonathan Bixby and Sylvia Sykes

My first Lindy Hop Dance Teachers, Jonathan and Sylvia

The wonderful video at the end of this post from 1995 inspired me to write about these dancers because they were both a huge influence in my early dancing years.  Sylvia Sykes was my teacher for the first six years I studied Lindy Hop and she, along with her partner Jonathan Bixby, also introduced me to Balboa and St. Louis Shag.  They used to come to the Bay Area from Santa Barbara twice a year for a weekend workshop.  This was before there was any Lindy community here, so their workshops were filled with West Coast Swing dancers.  Since there was no place to dance Lindy, my practice partner Belinda Ricklefs (see How Dancers Usually Age for a post about Belinda) and I used to buy the workshop video and practice for 6 months in between workshops.  Sylvia is still one of my favorite teachers, although I have much less access to her these days.  She has a sharp take-no-prisoners wit and a clear, patient, teaching style along with her dynamite dancing skills.  Her classes are as fun as they are educational and she can hold her own with the best comics when she tells a story.

Ramiro dancing with a man

Ramiro dancing follow

Ramiro Gonzales also used to come to the Bay Area periodically from Texas.  He taught weekend workshops in West Coast Swing and Salsa and is one of the most gifted dancers I’ve ever known.  Many years ago Ramiro and Jonathan Bixby were doing a series of workshops called “East Meets West” in which they were attempting somewhat unsuccessfully to combine West Coast Swing and Lindy into one dance.  It was obvious to everyone that they were just using it as an excuse to see each other and visit San Francisco, but all the more fun for us.  Balboa at that time was rarely seen in this area so every time I had a chance to take a class I would often find myself the only student who wasn’t a beginner.  This was the case that year when Jonathan was teaching a bal class and Ramiro was in the room waiting for him to finish.  I took the opportunity to take advantage of his presence.

“Ramiro, I need a partner.  Do you know Balboa?”

“No,” he said, “but show me.”

Balboa, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a very complex and difficult dance, but Ramiro followed flawlessly as I practiced the new steps that Jonathan had just given me.  After a while he said “Let me try.”  He took over the lead and danced just as flawlessly, with no practice or previous experience with the dance.  Ramiro is also one of the few dancers I know who follows as easily as he leads.  He’s so good, in fact, that I’ve seen homophobic straight men line up to dance with him.

In this clip, Sylvia and Ramiro are in a contest where they were allowed to choose their own partners (unlike a Jack and Jill where you are partnered by chance) but the music is a surprise.   Like a Jack and Jill, it’s essentially social dance, but with the partner of your choice.  These two don’t live in the same state, and don’t usually even do the same dance, but you can see by the grins on their faces that it’s a real treat when they get a chance to dance together.  Sylvia’s specialty is Lindy, but she has no problem following Ramiro’s impeccable West Coast Swing lead.  He also throws in a lindy step to give Sylvia a chance to show off her signature swivels.

This is also a terrific example of how skilled dancers with great musicality can create a spontaneous dance that looks better than choreography.  Hard to believe none of this was planned or rehearsed in advanced.  This is leading and following at it’s best!  If you’re wondering about the side by side routine, this is a great example of a called step.  If both partners happen to know a particular move that is unleadable if the follower doesn’t know it, the leader can lead it and the follower will recognize it and follow along.  If he doesn’t know if she knows it, and it’s a common step, he can ask.  “Do you know Toe-Heel-Cross?” for instance.  They both knew this one from their past so Ramiro threw it in and Sylvia recognized it and joined in.

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And for an extra treat, for those of you who are curious about Ramiro as a follower, this one not only showcases Ramiro’s following skills, but it’s also another great example of stealing in social dance.  (For more on that, see my post from last October, Stealing in Partner Dance).  The dance they are doing is six count hustle.[embedplusvideo height=”507″ width=”640″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=ESI6ecRlC3g&width=640&height=507&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep8907″ /]322C1DC3BD32

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Deaf Dancers: Can You Dance if You Can’t Hear the Music?

Before I was a dance teacher, I taufht self-defense to people with physical disabilities.   I was inspired to study American Sign Language when I had a deaf student in one of my classes and a deaf friend in my Jujitsu dojo.  I hung out with the deaf community (who thought I had recently lost my hearing because I signed so poorly) so that I could practice.  I was surprised to find that not only were there deaf dance parties, but that they were so loud I couldn’t bear to be in the room even with ear plugs.  My friends explained that they feel the rhythm through the reverberation in the floor when the music is turned up high enough.  Don’t try this at home if you don’t want to lose your hearing, too.

Obviously I knew there were deaf dancers, but I hadn’t thought about deaf professional dancers in a hearing world.  Anyone can have a passion for dance, with or without hearing, and there are many approaches to keeping rhythm in your body when you can’t hear the music.  I’m featuring two dancers in this post.  One is a young hip hop dancer who is striving to make dance his profession.  The other is a classical/modern dancer who dances professionally but supplements her dance career with her day job as a chemist.

The young man feels the bass through the floor like my partying friends, but has studied the nuances of what the bass is doing so that he can interpret the music and dance to it.  The classical dancer learns choreography and takes her cues from the other dancers and the director as well as her interpreter.  Both dancers rely a lot on their internal sense of rhythm to carry them through the dance when the cues are not there.  They seem to agree with my premise (see previous post Is Rhythm Innate?) that rhythm is innate in humans.  Clearly, the ability to dance, even if you use my definition of dance as making a musical instrument of your body and jamming with the band, comes from deep within the soul and is not connected to any one sense.  Not even the ability to hear the music.

In this clip, the aspiring dancer auditions for “So You Think You Can Dance”.  He’s not quite good enough to make the cut, but he wows the judges anyway.  Let him explain in his own words how he does it, any why.

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In this clip, the professional dancer talks about the challenge of competing with the hearing dancers, the prejudice she experiences when trying out, and the ways she has found for solving the problem of dead on timing without the advantage of hearing the music.   Deaf dancers must learn the timing to perfection.  They can do it with or without the music.  Listen to her explain it in her own words.

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By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dance Fusions-Blending Different Styles

Fusion in physics

Fusion in physics reminds of the same concept in dance

The term fusion is used to mean a mix of music as well as dance.  In this post I’m focusing on dance fusion.  By that I mean two different dances or dance styles fused into one dance.  This is a surprisingly controversial thing to do, given that it pretty much mostly happens with street dances which are open to interpretation anyway.  By street dance, I mean a dance that was made up by dancers in response to music that was new at the time.  Street dances evolve with the creativity of the dancers and are constantly changing, but they do retain something in all permutations that enable them to retain the integrity of that particular dance.  This is as opposed to a studio dance like Ballroom, which has very specific rules and never changes.

So why is it controversial?  Because people are afraid of the dance they love getting lost if it fuses with other dances.  Purists get upset if you name something and they don’t see what they consider the integrity of their dance surviving in that particular version.  Fusion shows up every so often in various swing dances.  Hip Hop is the most common culprit and it’s usually the hip hopper, not the swing dancers, who get upset.  This doesn’t really surprise me because what you see is a swing dance with hip hop styling, not the other way around.  If you dance that style of swing, it’s obvious that it’s still very much lindy, or west coast swing, styled for hip hop music.  The hip hop dancers don’t see enough hip hop to consider it legitimate so it’s not unusual to hear scoffing comments (“There’s no real  hip hop here!”  “Where’s the Hip Hop?  The baseball caps and baggy pants?”)  I have to admit, when I saw a hip hop troupe incorporating swing, I had a similar response.  There wasn’t much swing and what there was wasn’t very good.  It must be extremely challenging to do justice to two completely different dance styles in one performance.

In this clip two of the world’s top Lindy Hoppers, Max Pitruzzella and Thomas Blacharz, put some hip hop into their routine.  The result is a highly entertaining, absolutely stellar lindy performance, but hip hop dancers remain unimpressed.

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If you are not being distracted by the fear of your dance not being properly represented, you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy that charming little show.  I featured these guys in an earlier post about stealing in partner dance  with Annie Trudeau in case you want to see more of them.

Here’s an example of West Coast Swing infused with Hip Hop.  Similarly, the West Coast Swing is unmistakable, that hip hop just adds styling to the dance and fits it to the music.  Well, this WAS for a west coast swing competition, not a hip hop contest.

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So I suppose you want to know what I think of fusion dance?  Well, I do have a concern for the integrity of each dance.  I don’t want to see all dance styles melded together  so they all become the same, but I’m not really worried about that.  I remember attending a workshop with Frankie Manning, one of the original creators of the Lindy Hop who would be turning 100 if he were still alive.  Frankie taught the running man step in a Lindy class.  He learned it from his hip hopping granddaughter and thought it was a great move.  Street dancers are constantly stealing ideas from each other and from other dance styles. But when those moves are incorporated into a different dance, they become part of that dance.  And, frankly, when I see dancers this good I just appreciate their creativity and enjoy the show.  Life is too short to do battle with my fellow dancers.  There’s room for everything in the world of dance.

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Inspirational Dancer Awes Us at 61!


Innovative dancer Maya Plisetskaya

The Great Dancer at age 86

Maya Plisetskaya is one of the most gifted dancers of all time, so if you had to pick one to beat the odds on longevity, you’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate.    She has had a huge influence on ballet with her unique style, charisma, and dramatic as well as technical genius.  The clip that inspired this post is of a performance at age 61.  Actually, the great dancer is a lot older than that now (88), but what’s really amazing about this clip is that she was performing ballet.  Ballet is the only dance form that trains the body to do that which is unnatural to it and for this reason classical dancers nearly always retire when they are in their thirties.  Dancing like this at 61 is like playing professional football at that age.  It’s not unusual to see tap dancers still hoofing it in their 80s, but ballet?  Teaching, creating choreography, running a ballet company, definitely, but a professional soloist with a world class company?  Unheard of!  And as you can see, at 61 you can’t tell she isn’t still a young dancer in her prime.  She actually retired as a soloist for the Bolshoi at the age of 65, but I couldn’t find any examples of her dancing at that age.  Anyone have a more recent clip than this one?  My thanks yet again to Rebecca Shannon for turning me on to this wonderful video:

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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If I can’t Dance to it, It’s not My Revolution! Political Dance Vs. Propaganda

chinese dancers for Mao

dancers in cultural revolution ballet

Emma Goldman is credited with the title quote, and it’s one of my favorites.  I think she was simply saying that she’s not going to fight for a joyless society, a point that is so easily forgotten when the focus is on struggle.  But music and dance have also been used throughout history to make political points.  From the blatant propaganda of this little ballet melodrama from China’s Cultural Revolution


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to this wonderful statement about the sex slave trade, beautifully designed to make people stop and think:

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Art goes straight to the heart and that’s why it’s used, not always this eloquently, to make political points.  This video in particular got me to thinking about the difference between a thoughtful political statement and propaganda.  Both are designed to influence emotion.  My Chinese example was easy because it was so obviously designed to raise certain very specific feelings with a strong undercurrent of “You are supposed to feel this way!”  but propaganda can be much subtler.  According to the dictionary, propaganda is information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

Except for the misleading part, the definition applies to the second example as well.  So maybe that’s the only difference.  If it’s designed to mislead, it’s propaganda.  If it’s merely biased, it’s not?

The sex trade clip brings awareness to a serious problem, an ongoing injustice.  But the Cultural Revolution was founded on a fight against a corrupt government that was certainly responsible for its share of heartbreaking injustice.  I remember how much I loved that image of the strong woman fighting oppression with a rifle and Bermuda shorts.  It had a huge impact on me when I was in my 20s.  Really, what was the message here?  Fight oppression in solidarity with your fellow freedom fighters!  Not so different from the red light dancers.  Their message included the element of surprise, but boiled down to “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself now?  So go do something about this now that you know!”

If Mao had succeeded in replacing a repressive government with one that truly supported the best for its people, instead of succumbing to another form of tyranny, would this historic dance piece still strike us as propaganda?

I think Emma was on the right track.  If you take joy out the revolution, you wind up with a joyless post revolution.  Dance can make a powerful point, but ultimately it’s a joyful experience and that’s why we do it.  I believe, in fact, that if most people danced there would be no need for revolution.

When people from different cultures dance and play music together, there is no room for hostility.  That’s my vision for the future!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing at the Blood Bank


blood bags at the bank

Does This Make You Want to Dance?

How fun to see my StepsOnToes dancing vision statement in action again. When you start looking for things, they sometimes start happening.

I have a rare blood type so I’m constantly being called upon to give it up every other month or so, which I’m happy to do. Today the sound system was tuned into classic Motown, music that’s guaranteed to get a lot of people moving in spite of themselves. I found myself squeezing my ball to the beat.

The technician working the next chair was using his foot to raise the chair, pumping it in time to the music, doing a little dance with his foot as he did so.  “I’m tall,” he explained to the donor in the chair, “so I have to pump it up all the way.” He was having so much fun that I half expected him to do a spin in between pumps. I thought of Fred Astaire making use of the blood props for a dance routine. I could see him spinning around the room, hitting the various chair lifts as he went, tossing bags of blood into the air and catching them without so much as tugging on the arms they were attached to.

You just never know where you’ll find people spontaneously expressing themselves to the music in their environments. This is a fine example of the world I’d love to see. Spontaneous dancing in every day life, people giving generously of their time to help strangers in need; does it get any better?

Here’s a clip of  Fred himself finding inspiration in everyday objects, including a hat rack and a metronome. Could anyone else make a musical instrument out of a metronome?  Fred Astaire was fifty two, by the way, when he made this.  The dancing, if you’re impatient, starts 35 seconds into the clip. Enjoy!


By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Aerials in Dance: Exceptions to the Rule

couple doing first dance

A First Dance is the Exception to Many a Rule

After writing a blog about not using air steps before you are proficient in dance, I was reminded of an exception to that rule when I came across a video of a first dance by a couple who had the good fortune to learn their first dance from my ever delightful and talented colleague Meeshi Ravi in San Diego.  After a brief 8 weeks of lessons, they were doing air steps and other tricks in their joyful first dance.

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This is a great illustration of how the first dance breaks the rules in many ways.  For instance, in every other situation I warn my students not to film themselves unless they are practicing for a performance or contest.  People tend to notice only what doesn’t look good, ignore what does, and feel discouraged.  But there is something about the way they feel about each other on their wedding day that is so magical that the dance is magical too.

This couple had only studied Swing for two months and their routine is full of fancy tricks.  But it’s their day and the dance represents their personalities and their relationship.  It’s fun, charming, and impressive.  They wanted the aerials, worked hard to make them work, and enjoyed the hell out of them.  They are loving their dance and reveling in each other.  It’s the way a first dance should be.

I still stand by what I said about air steps in my 7/11/13 post, unless it’s a first dance for your wedding.  I sometimes teach an air step to my wedding students if it fits their personality and natural skill.  A first dance is a performance, but a very unique one, because it’s not really about the dance.  That’s not why the audience is there.  This world’s most supportive audience is there to celebrate love and to support a couple in their commitment to that love.  The dance is a bonus, and if it’s a great metaphor for that love, it’s a success!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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MORE Dancing Keeps You Young

Choreographer Gemze de Lappe at 90

Dancer/Choreographer still working at 90

Whether or not dancing does keep you young is debatable, but inspirational stories of dancers who are still active in their nineties keep ME young! They fill me with a joyful picture of what is possible and help me believe in my own picture of how I’d like to age into the last decades of my life. Thanks to my wonderful fellow dancer, Rebecca Shannon, for sharing this article.

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dance Teacher Controversy: Teaching Styles vs. Learning Styles

One of my former students posted this on her facebook page about her jazz class:
So, today jazz teacher decided that all of us dancers who are insecure with bad dance memory, who hang out in the back of the class and mimic all the dancers who have good dance memory, had to come up to the front of the class and be the leaders.
It was bad. . . .
Then she said, “Well now you guys know what you need to work on. . . . ”
I am still feeling sick from that.”

Not knowing anything about this particular class or the agreements between the students and teacher, I was nevertheless moved to make this comment:

kinesthetic learners often have poor memory and need to use muscle memory instead, using repetition (like following people who know the routine.) You shouldn’t be punished for that. At least you know the other kinesthetic learners are in the same boat!

She made the following reply:  “How insightful. Thankyou Laurie. I do however think she has a point about ‘pickup’ ability because the material has to be presented a certain way and executed with speed. Its important to keep this in mind as well as one’s own learning style. Part of learning, is learning HOW to learn.”

I thought this interesting question would be a great idea for a blog post.  If it is a professional troupe and the materiel is presented in a certain way, it is then the responsibility of the dancers to conform to the teaching style of the choreographer.  It’s not the job of a choreographer to cater to the individual learning styles of the performers.  In my opinion, however, that IS the job of a good dance teacher.  If it’s a routine you are learning for yourself, if you are paying to learn it as opposed to being paid to learn it, there is no point in making everyone learn the same way.  The kinesthetic learners can pick it up just as quickly by dancing behind someone who knows the routine.  It saves no time to make them stand in front to demonstrate the fact that they haven’t learned it yet.  If it’s a time issue, all dancers are responsible for learning it in a timely fashion on their own.  For kinesthetic learners, that might mean making a video to take home and practice to until their muscle memory kicks in.

I remember taking an advanced class in Sweden about ten years ago.  The teacher felt that since it was an advanced class, she should be able to teach 3 separate steps in a row without letting the class dance them until she had demonstrated all three.  Advanced dancers, she felt, should be able to remember all three steps and execute them later.  It would not have taken any longer to teach them one at a time, which would have accommodated the kinesthetic as well as the visual learners.  Our learning styles do not change as we get more experienced.  I pick up new moves more quickly because the basics components that make up a dance move are more familiar, but that does not improve my ability to retain a visual I was exposed to three moves ago.  That part of my memory in fact seems to be getting worse the more “experienced” I become!  My muscle memory, on the other hand, is still just as sharp as ever.  The bottom line to me is still, are you paying me to learn this or am I paying you to teach it to me?

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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