Arthritis Gadgets/Approaches that Help During Pregnancy and Pregnancy Gadgets/Approaches that Help for Arthritis

Throughout the last 9 months of my pregnancy, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to note that many of the gadgets and approaches that are recommended for arthritis can also be helpful for pregnant women. Conveniently, many of the strategies and gadgets recommended for pregnant women can also help persons with arthritis! I’d like to share some of my favorite items and approaches so that others with arthritis or pregnancy can discover how to protect their bodies and perhaps be more comfortable.

Arthritis Gadgets and Approaches that also Help During Pregnancy

1)      The Reacher / Grabber

Using the reacher to pick up a cat toy!

At 9 1/2 months pregnant, I enjoy using the reacher to pick up a variety of household items, such as cat toys!

The reacher/grabber is a classic gadget that helps you avoid bending down to pick up items. As a bonus, reachers can also help you reach high up items (which I personally have found helpful when picking blackberries – the good ones are always just out of arm’s reach!).

There are 2 basic kinds of reachers: the lightweight variety, which are very easy to operate if you have hand pain but only work for light items, and heavy duty ones which can pick up items up to 8 pounds.

I have found that reachers are a great creative baby shower present for the expecting mom. Their usefulness will likely persist post-delivery, as it can be difficult to bend down if you are still healing (particularly from a Cesarean birth).

2)      Clothing Aides

Putting on and taking off clothes can be difficult with arthritis as well as pregnancy, especially in the second to third trimesters as the belly grows and bending down becomes harder! The sock aide and shoe horn (links below) are useful for lower body dressing as they minimize the extent to which you have to bend down to put on socks and shoes. The button hook is super helpful if you’re having hand swelling and/or carpal tunnel syndrome, which are common during pregnancy.

3) Supportive Shoes that are Easy to put on

These Dansko boots are very supportive but they do have zippers, which can be a little challenging as your belly grows bigger!

These Dansko boots are very supportive but they do have zippers, which can be a little challenging as your belly grows bigger!

Painful swelling of the feet is a common phenomenon during pregnancy, and those with arthritis know all too well the importance of comfortable and supportive shoes!  Many people with arthritis as well as those who are pregnant find that easy to put on shoes (such as slip ons) are super helpful, as they prevent you from having to bend down and allow you to avoid potential hand pain from finagling with laces/snaps/etc.

My favorite shoes for arthritis and pregnancy have hit the sweet spot of “support + ease of putting on and off.” Most of the shoes I recommended in my previous post on this topic work well for both arthritis and pregnancy. For pregnant women, I would recommend adding a zipper pull to boot zippers to minimize the bending needed to reach them. Alternately, I recommend sitting down and crossing one foot over the other knee in order to more easily put on boots or shoes that might be supportive but difficult to put on and off.

4)      Fatigue Management and Energy Conservation

Since fatigue is also a part of many of the autoimmune-caused arthritic diseases , persons with arthritis often learn coping strategies for fatigue such as getting adequate rest, pacing oneself and asking for help. Fatigue is also a common phenomenon during pregnancy, particularly in the first and third trimesters, so many of the same strategies that work for autoimmune-caused arthritis also apply to pregnant women.

I have learned to manage and prevent fatigue by implementing “energy conservation” strategies.  Energy conservation most simply means looking at ways to organize your environment or tasks so that you need to expend less energy to achieve the same goals. Occupational therapists tend to have great recommendations for energy conservation, and I would also recommend this great list of strategies from Arthritis Self Management.

A few energy conservation techniques I’ve implemented since becoming pregnant include:

  • I now keep the cat food on the counter rather than in a lower down cabinet - it's not as pretty, but it minimizes the amount of bending I have to do.

    I now keep the cat food on the counter rather than in a lower down cabinet to minimize bending.

    Reorganizing my kitchen so that frequently used items (such as cat food) are at arm’s level rather than super high up or low down (see photo). I also put frequently used items at arm’s level within my refrigerator and freezer.

  • Putting frequently used items on my bathroom counter rather than storing them under the sink to prevent excessive bending down (which helps with back as well as knee pain)
  • Purchasing items via Amazon.com rather than going to the store, which minimizes the amount of lifting and carrying required
  • Have your groceries divided into more bags to minimize the weight of any one individual bag
  • Using adaptive equipment (such as the reacher mentioned above)
  • Asking for help (more on that below!)
  • Planning ahead so that I minimize the amount of trips required to perform a task
  • Listening to my body and taking frequent rest breaks when needed!

Pregnancy Gadgets and Approaches that Also Help with Arthritis

1)      Clothing that is Loose, Comfortable and Easy to put on and off

“Demi Panel” pants are easy to put on and off AND comfortable…double whammy! Click here for the pants pictured above.

The maternity industry has absolutely nailed this one!  I have really enjoyed my elastic or panel waisted pants during pregnancy; not only are they more comfortable than standard pants, they are much easier to put on and off due to the lack of zippers, buttons and other tricky closures!

I see no reason why regular folks with arthritis wouldn’t benefit from/enjoy wearing the kinds of elastic waist pants that are designed for early pregnancy (the “full panel” ones designed for later pregnancy only really work for the shape of your body at that point).  The terms to search for would be “low rise maternity pants,” or “demi-panel” pants. I personally have enjoyed my Old Navy demi-panel pants as well as their fold over lounge pants.

I will say that the brands vary in terms of how much force is required to pull the pants up over the hips; I would recommend getting a panel with a little more “give” so that you don’t have to excessively grip the panel in order to pull it up, as this can cause additional strain to the hand joints.

Additionally, I’ve found that many maternity tops  are super soft, loose, comfortable, and easy to put on and off. These are also great criteria to value while shopping for arthritis-friendly tops, as the easier your clothes are to put on and off, the less strain you’ll be putting on your precious joints!

2)      Pillows and “Positioning Aides” for Comfort while Sleeping

My plethora of different sized pillows allows me to sleep comfortably...most of the time!

My plethora of different sized pillows allows me to sleep comfortably…most of the time!

One of the many pregnancy pillows available on the market.

Sleep is so crucial for maintaining overall health during pregnancy as well as while managing arthritis.  I was super excited to learn about all the different pregnancy pillows and other “positioning aides” on the market.  While I personally have been able to sleep relatively comfortably by arranging my existing pillows on my bed, many pregnant women find that the special pillows designed for pregnancy are a great investment that substantially improves their ability to sleep comfortably.

Many folks with arthritis would also benefit from these larger, full body pillows as they provide additional support that minimizes the strain on your joints. For example, the pillow pictured at top right supports the woman’s left shoulder and hip much more so than if she was sleeping on a standard pillow. This article offers additional tips for sleeping positions that help with a variety of physical ailments. If the comfort isn’t motivation enough, just consider that you spend roughly 1/3 of your life sleeping, so anything you to do protect your joints during sleep will potentially have a huge effect on your joints!

3)      Asking for Help

My husband Gabe is my #1 helper!

My husband Gabe is my #1 helper!

This is a biggie.  I have found it so much easier to ask for help during my pregnancy than I previously had on the basis of arthritis. At some point, pregnancy becomes such an obvious, public phenomenon that people will offer help before you even have a chance to ask. It’s also been easier for me to ask for help while pregnant because I see it not only as for myself, but also for the baby.

I’m not proud to admit it, but I definitely have had my impatient moments in the past where I knew I should ask for help (for example, with heavy groceries) but didn’t because I wanted to just get the task done quickly.  The added incentive to protect the child in addition to my own joints has made it much easier for me to ask for help during pregnancy, and I really hope that I can remain in the habit of asking for help post-partum.  As an occupational therapist, I know how important it is to protect my joints, but as anyone who’s worked in health promotion knows, there is often a gap between knowing what’s right/what to do and remembering to consistently enact that in the moment!

The gadgets and approaches listed above were the most salient to me during my pregnancy, but I’m sure I’ve only skimmed the surface of the overlap between helpful strategies for arthritis and pregnancy. I’d love to hear additional ideas from others in the comments section!

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Everything I Need to Know About Grit, Perseverance and Frustration, I learned from Soccer

Expecting our first child has led us to reflect on what has shaped our character over the years.

Expecting our first child has led us to reflect on what has shaped our character over the years.

Soccer is one of the most frustrating sports, which is why my husband and I hope our kids choose to play someday. You might wonder: why on earth would a prospective parent actively desire that their child experience frustration?  My reasoning is simple: frustration is an unavoidable part of life. By being chronically exposed to frustrating situations and learning to persevere through them, you develop grit and perseverance, which will be more beneficial long term than being sheltered from negative experiences.

Additionally, recent research suggests that grit and perseverance are more correlated to lifelong success than traditional measures such as IQ or grade point average.

Of course, all sports help children develop important life skills and require some level of perseverance and frustration tolerance.  So, why soccer over other sports or athletic endeavors? Soccer has some unique characteristics which I think make it the perfect sport for developing grit, frustration tolerance and perseverance.

1. Many times, the outcome of the game does not reflect the reality of which team is better. Lesson: Life is not fair. Result: Increased frustration tolerance.

Soccer is a 90 minute game in which the outcome is decided in mere seconds. One team could have possession of the ball for 80 minutes of the game and shoot 20 times without scoring, while the opponent could have one shot on goal which makes it in, leaving them the winners. This is in stark contrast to sports with a high frequency of scoring opportunities such as basketball, where the outcome far more often reflects which team is objectively better.

Ready to surmount some frustrating experiences on the field!

Now that my shorts can’t possibly get any higher, I’m ready to surmount some frustrating experiences on the field!

Looked at in this light, it seems one would have to be insane to put one’s heart or hopes into the outcome of a soccer match, knowing that the result can easily be random or unrelated to which team is objectively better.  However, it is precisely this relationship to randomness that makes soccer such a fine preparation for life. By providing chronic exposure to results that feel frustratingly unfair, soccer teaches the player that life outcomes are not always decided by what or who is best overall, but by specific high-impact moments.

Young children (particularly middle children such as myself) often hear the phrase “life’s not fair,” but we all know that experience is the best teacher.  There is a particular type of frustration that comes when what should happen (the better team should win) contrasts with what does happen (sometimes, the worse team wins).  In our daily lives, most of us tend to be fooled by randomness; we want to believe that outcomes are dictated by what or who is most logically deserving of success, because accepting the role of randomness in our lives is scary and makes us feel out of control.

However, our lives will inevitably present situations where what should and does happen simply don’t match, and we need to learn to persevere through these events rather than crumbling under the unfairness of it all.  Learning to accept and move past these unfair situations leads one to develop frustration tolerance, or the ability to proceed with our endeavor despite an unwelcome (and thus frustrating) outcome.

Now, let me be clear: the point isn’t that everything is random in soccer and life. The point is that soccer seems to hit that same sweet spot that life does, where the outcome usually but not always reflects who is most deserving of a win.

My husband and I both grew up playing soccer, which I think has affected our outlook on life.

My husband and I both grew up playing soccer, which I think has affected our shared sense of grit and determination.

This may be depressing to some, who prefer sports such as swimming and track and field where outcomes are clearly more objective and the “best person wins.” However, I believe that this lack of predictability is where the magic of soccer (and life) truly lies. When two teams line up at the beginning of that 90 minute match, they both know that no matter what their past record, no matter how many star players each team has, anything can happen. The team with the losing record knows that if they play their cards just right and have luck (randomness?) on their side, they can eek out a win, and the team with the winning record knows that their past performance provides no certain assurance of a win today.  Learning to dig your heels in and conceive of the possibility of a win, no matter how remote, is another crucial life skill (along with frustration tolerance) that I hope my children develop!

2) There will be forces completely out of your control (such as the referee’s decisions), and it is useless to expend energy fighting them. Lesson: control the controllable and accept the rest.

I’ve prepared a handy list of things you can and can’t control on the soccer field, and their correlates in “real life.”

  Soccer: “Real Life:”
What you can control:          Your response to the referee and their decisions Your response to your boss, DMV employees, and anyone who has concrete power over you
Your response to the other team Your response to your “enemies,” competitors, etc
Your preparation prior to the game Your own efforts to best position yourself to obtain your desired outcome
Your conduct on the field How you conduct yourself in life.
What you can’t control: Referee and their decisions Boss, DMV employee, and other people in power’s decisions*
Behavior of the other team Behavior of your “enemies” or competitors
The preparation of your teammates* The efforts of those around you to position your team/group to obtain the best outcome
Your teammates’ conduct on the field* Behavior of those you must work with in life (spouse, coworkers, etc)

*These are partial gray areas, but you get the point.

I will admit that this lesson is also learned in other team sports. However, taken in the context of section 1, I hope the reader can see that actions by those in power such as the referee have an enormous impact on the game, as every scoring opportunity has the crucial potential to directly affect the outcome (again, unlike basketball, where one foul likely will not determine the end result).

Knowing what you can and can’t control has been crucial for my mental health. Just as I learned through soccer that I will never convince a referee to rescind a call that I feel is wrong, I have learned to differentiate between when I can and cannot have an impact on my circumstances. By knowing when I cannot change an outcome, I avoid expending my precious energy on futile endeavors. Furthermore, I learned that the best response to a “bad call” was to immediately refocus my attention and energy to the reality of the moment and determine what I could do to make the situation better.

I LOVE reading now, but one of my first memories of frustration is from learning how to read. It was hard!

I LOVE reading now, but one of my first memories of frustration is from learning how to read. It was hard! Luckily, I had patient teachers such as grandma, pictured here.

An old coach once told me that that when he evaluates players during try-outs, he doesn’t look just at how many mistakes they make, he looks at their first reaction after a misstep.  When you fall, is your first reaction to wallow or hit the ground in frustration, or is it to jump back up and do whatever you can do remedy the situation?  Training yourself to dig your heels in and refocus your attention the task at hand despite an unfair or frustrating situation is a crucial element of grit and has benefits far beyond the soccer field.

To make things complicated, there are gray areas which I’ve marked with an asterisk above. For example, I may not like an institutional decision or a particular government program.  Is this controllable or not? Of course, there are times when you can exert some power to influence or change decisions that in the past have caused frustration. In soccer, one can talk with the coach and perhaps help change his or her mind as to the starting line-up, or in life one can advocate for a change in a government policy. The trick is to learn when you have some wiggle room to exert influence and when you simply don’t, and I think sports like soccer are a great vehicle for learning this distinction.

3) Soccer can help one develop intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Lesson: my happiness can lie not in the outcome of the game but in my evaluation of my own effort and performance. 

Basically, since the outcome of the game (in terms of who “won”) doesn’t always reflect who actually played better, the soccer player over time learns to evaluate their performance based not just on whether they won but by also on how well they played (individually and as a team).  Thus through time, the soccer player learns to be motivated not just by “wins” but also by evaluating their effort and performance.

We didn't have the best record my freshman year at Vassar but we ended up pushing through and winning our conference championship!

We didn’t have the best record my freshman year at Vassar but we ended up pushing through and winning our conference championship!

Through soccer, I learned to be satisfied at the end of a 90 minute match by reflecting on great plays that I made, regardless of whether or not my team won the match. I’ve found myself approaching other tasks in my life in a similar way. For example, I may not receive the grade I was aiming for in an exam, but I can be proud of answering a tough problem or conquering a difficult concept along the way.

On a somewhat related note, recent research in the area of self-perceived intelligence and praise has provided support for focusing on effort versus intrinsic ability. Just as kids who are praised for effort tend to exhibit more task persistence than those who are praised for innate intelligence, I believe that kids who learn to focus on evaluating their own effort during a soccer game rather than the outcome will similarly experience increased task persistence.

Interesting anecdote: I recently asked one of my students to write out their strengths and areas for improvement and to provide examples or reasons for each.  I asked the child why they listed a particular subject as a strength, and they answered “because I get the highest grades in it.” I attempted many follow-up questions to prompt them to consider why they receive better grades in this subject (is it because they work hard? Does it come easily to them? Do they persist when things get difficult?) but they were unable to correlate their performance with any action they had taken. They were only able to evaluate their strength based on external ratings (grades).

We may have lost the game, but I trapped that ball with style! :P

We may have lost the game, but I trapped that ball with style! :P

I know that children go through a cognitive evolution from thinking very concretely to being able to think more abstractly/flexibly, which might explain this child’s lack of insight at the moment. However, my hunch is that sports such as soccer help kids develop a more nuanced ability to evaluate their performance by forcing them to separate effort from outcomes. The soccer player knows in their heart when they had a win that they didn’t deserve, versus one they truly earned. They learn that the win-loss record doesn’t tell the whole story, which I think is a very useful skill for mental health and insight later on.

Conclusion

Many factors influence whether one will develop grit, perseverance and frustration tolerance over the course of one’s life, and soccer of course is just one of many possible vehicles for developing these vital life skills.

Getting ready for baby!

Getting ready for baby!

As I’ve prepared for our baby to come over the last 7 1/2 months, I’ve read countless parenting books and memoirs.  Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing up Bebe” emerged quickly as one of my favorites.  In exploring the difference between French and American parenting styles, Druckerman explains: “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them. To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration. They also treat coping with frustration as a core life skill. Their kids simply have to learn it. The parents would be remiss if they didn’t teach it.”

I know it will be unintuitive for me to allow our child to be frustrated when I might have a solution, but I hope I can remember my experiences with soccer and hold back so that our child learns to persevere despite inevitable frustrating setbacks.

I’d love to hear from readers about what life experiences have helped shape their ability to persevere through frustration and develop grit – let me know in the comments section!

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10 Years with Rheumatoid Arthritis: What’s the Impact?

Belize 2005

Volunteering in Belize 2 years post-diagnosis (2005).

China 2013

Great Wall of China, 2013 (10 years post-diagnosis).

I recently realized that I have lived with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for ten years, or roughly a third of my life!  In that time I’ve graduated college, travelled to 12 different countries, lived in 3 states and travelled to/through over 15,  started swing dancing, got 2 kittens, earned a Masters degree in occupational therapy, got married, bought a house, and more.

In honor of my diagnosis anniversary, I’d like to share how RA has (and hasn’t) affected my life over the last 10 years.

Understandably, most people assume that joint inflammation and/or pain has the biggest impact on the life of someone with RA. However, if I really look at how my life has changed due to my diagnosis, the impact extends far beyond the physical. Using the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework as a general guide, I’ve created a handy pie chart which shows the 7 areas of my life that have been most affected by RA. I will explore each in detail below, starting with the top right.

chart3

1)      Physical Effects of RA:

For those who don’t know, RA is an autoimmune disease. In RA, your immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of your joints, which has a cascade of effects beyond joint inflammation (“arthritis”), pain and degradation. Although arthritis is in the name because joint inflammation is a main effect, RA is in fact more similar to lupus than osteoarthritis, which is caused by joint cartilage breakdown over time. RA has “systemic” effects on other organs, such as the heart, lungs, and vascular system (explored in detail at the link above and here).

2 Good Day

On good days, I feel like THIS!

So, what has that meant in my life? Well, my levels pain, inflammation and fatigue have varied vastly over the last 10 years. I’ve had years at a time with absolutely no symptoms (“medicated remission”), but I’ve also had a couple of “flare-ups,” where pain and inflammation have increased to the point that I have to change my medication regimen and how I approach tasks.

On a bad day, my foot feels like this.

On a bad day, my foot feels like this.

On the average day, I feel a dull ache in my “distal” joints (farthest away from the core – think fingers and toes, not shoulders and hips) which is slightly worse in the morningand at night. I intermittently have cricoarytenoid arthritis, or inflammation of a small joint in the throat, which results in dyspnea. Dyspnea means difficulty breathing or an “unpleasant awareness of the work of breathing.” Overall, I have been very fortunate to respond well to my medication regimen, which has kept my inflammation at bay.

glasses

I wear glasses to minimize eye inflammation.

Despite my mild level of daily joint inflammation, I do experience some  systemic effects of RA, including chronic eye inflammation, gum inflammation (leading to hefty dental bills), non-iron responsive anemia, occasional fatigue, and some gastrointestinal symptoms that may or may not be related to RA depending on whom you ask. The gastrointestinal issues have led me to adopt a nightshade and gluten free diet.

I also experience medication side effects, including increased risk of infection (which means I must be very careful to wash my hands and practice other “infection control” measures), digestive issues, and fatigue.

In summary: while I’m very lucky to respond well to medication, my life has been affected by the direct and systemic effects of this disease and medication side effects. The hardest aspect for me is not managing my physical symptoms but rather the unknown. If I’m currently in mild pain, next week will I have a huge flare-up, or will I be in medicated remission for the next 10 years? No one can answer that, which makes life planning difficult. Then again, we all ultimately don’t possess answers regarding our physical future…but more on that later.

2)      Daily Routine: The Why, and the How.

My physicians prefer my RA be controlled 100% through medication, which would allow me to live a completely “normal” life without making any modifications. However, as an occupational therapist I prefer to tweak my daily activities so as to minimize stress on my joints.

The way I see it, my joint inflammation at any given moment is partly a result of my immune system attacking my joints, and partly a result of the additional stress I put on them as I engage in daily activities.  Medication addresses the former cause of inflammation, but not the latter.  I can control the way I approach daily activities, so I owe it to myself and my long term joint health to do so! Joint protection has become a part of my daily routine at almost a subconscious level. Here are just a few of the ways I approach activities differently to prevent further joint damage:

CherylGabe

I love boots for comfort and ease of putting them on/off. Photo credit: http://www.rishisanyalphotography.com/

Dressing: I take my RA into account when selecting clothing. Typically I avoid shirts with lots of tiny buttons, as they involve lots of repetitive motions of the small hand joints.  I also am extremely selective with my footwear, with the dual goals of minimizing stress on my foot joints and making the shoes easy to put on and take off (see my previous post on RA-friendly shoes, where you will discover my obsession with Danskos!).

iphone pics june2013 002

Stovetop cookies…these are actually less efficient than baking cookies in the oven, but this is the best “kitchen action shot” I could find :-)

Cooking:  A few simple kitchen modifications I’ve employed include: using an electric can opener rather than manual, using a smaller Brita water pitcher rather than a larger/heavier one, purchasing very good/sharp knives to miminize the amount of force I must use to cut things, using an electronic food processor and kitchen aid rather than manually stirring food,  using “mass movements” (shoulder/elbow/trunk) to open items rather than relying on the small hand/wrist joints whenever possible, and asking for help with lifting large/heavy items. When I am lifting any object in the kitchen, I follow the basic rules of joint protection.

       Computer/phone useI take frequent stretch breaks at the computer, and I always use a mouse rather than a trackpad because mousing puts less stress on my MCP joints (knuckles) than using the trackpad (and the MCP joints tend to be most affected long term by RA). I’ve also started using talk-to-text programs when I’m not in public, such as Siri. I find it’s much easier to dictate a short message this way, plus it’s way faster than trying to finagle with the small keyboard on the iPhone!   

3)      Financial and Health Management Adventures with RA

Health management and financial costs affect everyone with chronic illness, regardless of whether one is experiencing symptoms at the moment.  I’m sharing these costs (financial and time burdens) not to complain, but just to paint a realistic picture of what managing this disease entails.  RA appears to cost me 26.8 to 74 hours of time per year, and $2800-$8000 per year depending on my insurance (note: the financial costs are just what I directly pay; my insurance company is paying over $20,000 a year for Enbrel or Remicaide alone).

time money costs chart2

4)      Social & Emotional Effects of RA:

6 wedding

My wedding!

As marriage became more of a real prospect in my mid to late 20s, I found that anyone entering into a romantic relationship with me would consider the potential lifelong effects of the disease.  My impression is that the disease itself was seen as a negative, but the way I managed it was seen as a positive.  I also think I self-selected partners who shared my view, which is that you never know what physical or mental condition someone might develop when you make that lifelong commitment. We all know that we could be hit by a car tomorrow and our whole lives could change, so putting extra stock in the physical when making romantic relationship decisions is unwise.  That being said, I think that when you enter into marriage after having experienced health issues, the phrase, “In sickness and in health” certainly carries more weight. In fact, the only time I became tearful during my wedding ceremony was when saying those words!

Regarding family and friend relationships, I’ve had wonderful support from both groups. The only small point of friction has been when I have felt peer pressured to stay up late, over-exert myself and not give my body the rest it needs. My peer group largely has subscribed to the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” approach, which simply doesn’t work for me (or most people with an autoimmune disease). My body starts shutting down when I get less than 8 hours consistently a night. I’ve learned to be assertive with this, and deal with “FOMO,” or “Fear Of Missing Out.”

CIMG2702

KAT-FISH camp for kids with arthritis, 2010 (I selected a photo w/o kids’ faces to protect their privacy).

On the positive side, RA has paved the way for me to make some additional friendships and relationships.  I’ve met other patients through the Arthritis Foundation, at the summer camp in the northwest as well as other volunteer and advocacy adventures. I’ve also met some amazing folks through social media and blogs, such as RA Chicks, RA Warrior, Creaky Joints, and RA Guy.  Lastly, I’ve recently made connections through Tumblr with some inspirational people through Arthritis Humor.

Emotionally, the hardest times for me have been when I’ve had unexplained symptoms. This happened the full 2 years before I got diagnosed and has reoccurred a few times since then. As someone who prides herself at the ability to get to the heart of the matter, I’ve found it frustrating when I can’t figure out what is causing a particular symptom and how/when it will go away. I also have felt anxiety about the future, due to not knowing how RA will affect important life roles that I hope to have such as being a mother someday. Will I, like some women with RA, go into complete remission during pregnancy but then have a huge flare-up after giving birth and barely be able to hold my own baby? Or will I go into lifelong remission after having a child, like my great aunt did?

The unknown for me is probably the very hardest aspect of this disease. If I knew that I’d have X effect for life, I could habituate my mind and approach to it, but unlike a situation such as a complete spinal cord injury where the prognosis is pretty clear cut, autoimmune diseases have varying courses for each individual. The upside is that I have the potential to feel great in the future, but the downside is that I will always have to handle the unknown and lack of clarity on what is happening in my body.

5)      School & Career w/RA: 

I always enjoyed working with kids!

I always enjoyed working with kids! Pictured here is my sweet nephew Sammy.

During the first 6 years of my diagnosis I explored some truly amazing careers, including: working in a private school for children with severe developmental disabilities, program development at an international photography and youth storytelling nonprofit, and organizational development and training at a top 10 academic medical center in Seattle.

During that time, I did a ton of soul searching about what career would be the best fit for me long term, and RA did play a role in my decision making. I decided I wanted a career where my primary purpose was directly helping people (individually or in small groups). The career had to be flexible enough that I could work in a variety of settings, regardless of my potential joint inflammation.

OT

OT annual conference – meeting up with another OT with RA!

Occupational therapy emerged as the perfect fit due to the large scope of practice and variety of practice settings. It also has a lot of part time work availability, which appealed to me as I’m hoping to work part time when I have kids. Additionally, OT is an intrinsically optimistic profession. We will rehabilitate or compensate for any physical or mental condition so that our clients can “life life to it’s fullest.”  OTs want to maximize the amount of function one can achieve despite any illness or injury, and that philosophy appealed to me as it’s very inclusive of a diagnosis such as RA.

As an OT student, I did experience some occasional pain from handwriting. However, my vast experience with the health system and my own journey as a patient generally have a positive effect on my school and career.

One positive effect of my diagnosis on my career is that I can empathize with my clients’ interest in knowing “the answers,” and their frustration when they eventually discover that no one knows them.  People can tell you what is most likely to happen, but no one in the health or education system is a fortune-teller. I really identify with my clients’ (or family’s) frustrations over how difficult it is to make decisions off of what sometimes feels like incomplete information. Once you understand how complex the human body is, it seems self-evident that no one can give you the answers, but I vividly remember my experience of the healthcare system before I became a provider, and the profound disappointment I felt when I was confronted with this reality. I try to really acknowledge this aspect of my clients’ experiences and validate their concerns.

6)      Hobbies & Travel with RA:

My choice of hobbies has certainly been affected by my diagnosis.  I used to run almost every day, starting in high school through to a couple years after my diagnosis, but eventually decided to try forms of exercise that would be less strenuous on my joints: swing dancing!

10

Swing dancing with my first partner, Brian Gish!

In my video “Why I Dance,” I shared how dancing grew into a huge part of my social life.  I have to be careful about certain moves which cause strain on my small hand joints, but overall I’m fortunate to be able to take part in this wonderful community despite RA.

Swing dancing is a great example of how RA took something away from me, but I discovered something equally meaningful in its place. Do I miss running and soccer? Absolutely, especially on clear, beautiful Seattle days. On a purely physical basis, I prefer the endorphin release of soccer or running to swing. However, when I look at the whole package of the activity (with the social and musical elements), the trade-off is without a doubt worth it.

Now, onto travel. Yes, I have been to 14 countries since my diagnosis: Belize, Fiji, New Zealand, Japan, China, India, Turkey, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, England, and Canada. Phew!

5

Mom delivering my Enbrel in San Ignacio, Belize!

The biggest effects of RA on my travelling are the prescription and health management aspects. My first international trip post-diagnosis was to Belize, where I volunteered for a great organization called Cornerstone Foundation. I was only planning on staying for 3 weeks but I ended up staying 3 months, which meant that I needed additional medicine. I was on Enbrel at the time, a twice-weekly self-injection medicine which MUST stay refrigerated. My mom graciously helped me research how to ship it, but found out that it is illegal to ship things on dry ice to Belize due to drug concerns. So, guess what our solution was? My mom took advantage of low ticket prices and decided to bring the medication to me – now, that’s what I call customer service!

The drama wasn’t over at that point, however – during my last 2 weeks in Belize, there was a strike by the electrical supplier to the entire region, so we had no electricity to run the refrigerator! Luckily I was able to keep my medication cold, but it just goes to show some of the difficulty of travelling with RA.

new zealand

New Zealand for our honeymoon, 2012.

During my other travels, I sometimes had to simply skip a week or two of medication. I was lucky not to experience any adverse affects with this approach. I also had to get “vacation authorization” to pre-fill extra amounts of my medications for longer trips.

Since I switched to Remicaide, the infusion-based medication which is administered every 6-8 weeks, the biggest travel concern has been coordinating my travel dates so that they do not conflict with  my medication schedule. For example, I had to get an infusion the week before my wedding so that I would be covered through the honeymoon.  This has also affected my current travels to China, as my husband is there on an extended business trip.  Luckily, my infusion schedule overlapped with a few weddings I wanted to return home for anyway!  I think that spending extended time abroad would be anxiety-provoking to me, from a medical standpoint, because I have found that errors or confusion are more likely each time you introduce a new provider to the mix. However, short trips for me have been manageable with some work upfront.

7) Philosophical Effects of RA: The Biggie.

cher_soccer_mihs_1997

1997, Mercer Island High School. I’m trying to save the ball from going out of bounds.

For years, I believed that if I treated my body as a temple, I would reap the rewards of my efforts. I ate well, avoided recreational drugs, exercised vigorously daily, and as a result had a body that operated smoothly and efficiently. I ran a 5:30 mile, weight lifted 5x/week, and never subbed out of my high school or college soccer games (clocking in 90 mins/game).

Experiencing my body break down in the absence of anything I was willfully doing felt like a double betrayal: it was a betrayal of myself BY myself (there wasn’t even an outside virus to blame!), and it was a betrayal of a philosophical system I didn’t know I had, which is that I can protect my body from harm by doing “the right things.”

I know now that my years of good health were partly a result of my actions, but also a result of good luck.  My baseline state of good health enabled me to maximize my fitness and do great things, but I wasn’t in control of that original baseline state. In my gut, I suppose I knew that I was lucky to be in good health; I had seen other athletes fall victim to injuries and seen friends/family fall ill to various diseases through no fault of their own.  There is a transition period, however, between knowing your body is not invincible and accepting it.

IMG_1033

The world is big and awesome and the only thing I know is that I’m going to die, so I might as well do as much good as I can while I’m here! Whee!

So, what or who is to blame when the body betrays the body? In my own belief system, there was is no god or greater power or force to blame or help make sense of it. There isn’t a “reason” or meaning to my diagnosis; it just is. All humans are mortal, and all human bodies are subject to disease and illness. There are certainly preventative measures we can take to minimize risk, but there are no surefire ways to prevent yourself from all possible illnesses and injuries.

My diagnosis led me to confront the infallibility of my own body, which in turn made me confront my own mortality. The realization that “my physical body is not completely under my control” naturally led to “my physical body will eventually not work anymore.”  Accepting my mortality has been crucial for giving me a strengthened sense of purpose and urgent desire to make a meaningful life. The graph below outlines the interplay of these factors.

philosophy chart 2

How various factors (including RA) lead to recognition of my mortality, which lends a sense of urgency to my life.

The fact that I am going to die someday gives immediate perspective to any situation. My “bible” of sorts is a combination of “Man’s Search for Meaning” and “Tuesdays with Morrie.”  Both of these books deal with the concept of death straight on, and while Morrie is religious, the basic truths he utters are equally applicable to agnostics and atheists.

“Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s the positive that you understand you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it.” -Morrie Schwartz, in Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

Working with Tibetan refugee children in northern India.

Working with Tibetan refugee children in northern India at “TCV: Tibetan Children’s Village,” 2007.

Confronting my mortality and the mortality of all humans has been the compass around which I live my life and make decisions. It’s the only thing I know for sure. I am alive now, I will die someday, and I desperately want to leave something positive for the world behind, to make my life worthwhile. There is no inherent meaning to my life, the only meaning comes from the good (or bad) actions I choose to take during my limited time on earth.

Sure, I knew I was going to die on some abstract level before I got diagnosed with RA. But there is something about a stark, black and white diagnosis that  makes the abstract concept of mortality more real.  This is perhaps the greatest gift that has arisen out of my diagnosis.

Conclusion

In conclusion: the effects of RA have extended far, far beyond the physical in my life. My diagnosis affects everything from micro-elements of my life (such as how I approach simple daily living tasks in the kitchen) to macro-elements (such as my sense of purpose and acceptance of my mortality).  I hope that this exploration has helped the reader see RA as much more than simply autoimmune-caused “joint inflammation!” I’d love to see charts of other peoples’ top life effects of RA – feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

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Arthritis Humor and the Therapeutic Powers of Laughter and Social Media

Last week I started a GIF and photo-based Tumblr blog called “Arthritis Humor.  My goal for this blog is to help patients with autoimmune arthritis (and other chronic illnesses) transcend their experiences via humor, and feel less alone by connecting to others through shared laughter.

What’s so funny about arthritis, you ask?  Well, as a healthcare professional and patient, I will concede that there is nothing intrinsically funny about either category of arthritis: osteoarthritis (“wear and tear” arthritis, the kind associated with aging) or  autoimmune arthritis forms such as rheumatoid arthritis (whereby one’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of one’s joints and other body systems as well).

However, as a patient with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I believe that finding humor in some of my RA-related experiences brings a sense of power over the disease. Furthermore, sharing humorous elements allows me to feel less alone in my journey, as I connect with other patients and see that they have had similar experiences.

I received the following reaction from a friend with rheumatoid arthritis, which highlights these two benefits: “I started laughing, which I find is important to do, but hard at times when you live with a disease that isn’t so funny. It put a smile on my face for sure. There is a lot to be said for knowing someone who just gets it.”

Finding humor isn’t easy when battling a systemic illness. Most peoples’ reactions to pain and the idea of their immune systems attacking them run along the lines of fear, sadness, grief, and even disgust.  I’ve been there myself, make no mistake of it.  For some patients with autoimmune arthritis, the physical pain is so searing and debilitating that it is hard to focus on anything else.

How powerful, then, is a smile or a laugh in the face of those low moments? What great strength there is in moments of transcendence,  moments where we say, “You may have my joints, but you don’t have my attitude, you don’t have my outlook on the situation, not today?”  In that sense, a smile or a laugh becomes more than something light, free and easy; it gains weight, it becomes something substantial, a force to be reckoned with.

Finding humor makes you the victor.

Victor Frankl’s stance on humor during difficult times is particularly relevant here, as he describes the role of humor during his experiences in Nazi concentration camps: “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”  Man’s Search for Meaning

It turns out that many researchers have taken a formal look at the healing nature of laughter and humor.  While attending the American Occupational Therapy Association’s annual conference, I discovered The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (see poster below).  Additionally, many  research articles explore and detail the clinical or scientific effects of humor in a healthcare interactions.

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Therapeutic humor poster at 2013 AOTA conference.

While most research focus on the effects of humor on the individual (to release endorphins, for example), or between two individuals in “real time” (such as during a therapy session), I’m interested in how digital and social media enable people to connect through shared humor (and beyond) over vast geographic distances.

Social participation can be so easily limited when one has a chronic illness, yet social media enables people to form substantial connections with very limited energy expenditure.  Through my Tumblr blog, I’ve discovered countless other patients who bond with others through sharing their daily struggles and triumphs over chronic illness. I’m interested in more formally considering the many advantages and drawbacks of patients connecting through social media (from humor and beyond), and I hope to put a poster session together for next year’s national conference.

Do you know of any other ways in which people use humor to transcend illness, or use social media to connect about health issues? Let me know in the comments section!

Posted in Humor, Occupational Therapy, Rheumatoid Arthritis | Leave a comment

How hard is it to learn swing dancing, and how can instructors best meet the unique needs of beginning dancers? Part 2 (of 2).

First of all, thank you all for your responses to Part 1, in which I explored the challenges of learning partner dance from the new student’s perspective.  I was heartened to learn that so many others are passionate about beginning dancers!

In this post, I will share my humble recommendations for the introductory/beginning dance teacher, outlined in the table below. Please note that I am focusing mainly on month-long introductory classes, not necessarily ½-hour “drop-in” classes.

Teaching Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Apply motor learning principles.

Motor learning is the process by which your ability to move in specific ways improves semi-permanently through repetition and practice (colloquially known as “muscle memory”).  The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science has an outstanding overview of motor learning as it applies to teaching dance.

The main point for beginner dance teachers: repetition is essential for movements to be encoded into long term memory.  It can make you itch to give students opportunities to practice skills that seem so simple, but please remember that ample repetition will truly help them solidify what they are learning.

Mark rotates at Century Ballroom

Mark Kihara rotates through the circle while teaching a class at Seattle’s Century Ballroom.

However, mere practice isn’t enough; unless you incorporate feedback, the student risks repeating the same mistakes, which can lead to incorrect motor patterns being encoded into long term memory. Rotating through the circle is the most efficient, effective way a teacher can provide accurate individual and group feedback.  As you rotate, observe common mistakes and provide feedback to the class as a whole so that they can practice their movements more competently.

Additionally, consider alternatives to “forward chaining.”  Forward chaining generally speaking is the technique of getting from point 1 to 2, then to point 3, then point 4, and onwards until you get to the “end” of the movement (typically the 6 or the 8 in a beginning class setting). This is often the default strategy for dance teachers, and indeed it can be very useful. However, it is not the only way to teach movement patterns, and your students may be more successful if you break down a move to its essence.

Hand to hand charleston - still "2 kicks per leg."

Hand to hand Charleston.

Let’s take Charleston as an example. I want to first give credit to the incredible Chris Chapman at Seattle’s HepCat productions for introducing me to this method.  Instead of starting at the 1 and progressing onward, you could begin by explaining that Charleston essentially is “two kicks per leg.” With music on, have students practice kicking forwards and backwards on the beat, then twice with each leg in front and twice behind. After that, practice one kick backwards then forwards with each leg, then one kick forwards and back.  After students get used to the basic rhythm and cadence of the Charleston, explain that the pattern for side by side Charleston is for the “two kicks per leg” to start with the left leg for leads, right for follows, and to proceed as “back and forward, forward and back” for each leg.  Then, explain that the first “back” can be replaced with a rock step, as a variation of a kick.  Demonstrate this by having one teacher do a rock step on the 1-2, and the other do a kick on the 1-2 to help the students visualize that they are interchangeable.

Photo Credit: Kristen Guldner.

Photo Credit: Kristen Guldner Photography.

When you spend time upfront having students experience and practice the essence of a movement, rather than the “right” placement of their feet and legs at the 1 versus the 2 and 3, they learn the general pattern rather than a specific set of rules.  After this pattern is solidified, when they learn a variation (such as hand to hand Charleston), they can layer this specific learning over the general principle rather than having a serial data bank in their brains of “how to do the side by side Charleston,” and “how to do hand to hand Charleston.” This technique actually reduces the students’ cognitive load while also providing repetition of the overall motor pattern.

Additionally, I’m a big advocate of having students practice motor patterns during the warm-up section of class before partnering up.  For example, on the day that you teach  kick through or hand to hand Charleston, have students practice kicking and pivoting in the same manner during your initial class warm-up. This provides repetition while eliminating the lead and follow demands.

Recommendation 2: Address students’ cognitive needs.

Nirav Sanghani & myself teaching a drop in lesson in SF.

Nirav Sanghani & myself teaching a drop in lesson in SF.

Your feedback should be paced for optimal memory retention and to prevent cognitive overload. Teachers are often so bursting with feedback that we unleash a cascade of “pointers” on students after they’ve only had 1 or 2 opportunities to practice.  We think we’re helping, however we get diminishing returns as students become overwhelmed and unable to process our feedback. Here are some concrete recommendations with these principles in mind:

  • Make only one “point” for each role between opportunities to practice.
  • Before each opportunity to practice, remind students what it is they should focus on/do.
  • Before you demonstrate the movements, tell students specifically what to look for to facilitate memory retention.
  • Brian Zimmer and myself teaching in Cali.

    Brian Zimmer and myself teaching in Cali.

    Grade your demands up through time. Start with a basic movement, then increase the complexity of the task. For example, have students practice the movement without footwork first and add footwork later. This allows them cognitive freedom to focus on the shape and lead/follow before adding another demand.

  • Provide alternative memory strategies to “1, 2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7&8.” Some students do super well with numbers. Others will fare better with a word-based memory strategy such as “Step, step, triple-step, step, step, triple-step,” others will prefer “right, left, right-left-right,” and others will do best if you simply scat it out, such as “Bah, bah, dee-bee-dah.” I like to alternate between these (with an understanding that some will be annoyed that I’m not repeating it the same way each time). It’s important to provide the alternatives so the students can select which ones to internalize.

Recommendation 3: Frame struggle as normal / expected.

Smile and encourage!

Smile and encourage!

It’s inevitable: every single student will struggle at some point in the class.  Without guidance from the teacher or other experienced dancers, students don’t know what their struggle means and whether it is normal. Here are some ways you can encourage students:

  • Provide a supportive, safe environment for making mistakes.  Give students a “home base” move to come back to when they have lost the beat, their focus or sense of timing (my personal favorite is just a simple bounce).
  • Explicitly acknowledge that learning dance is hard for everyone. I like to have everyone close their eyes and ask people to raise their hands if they have had a hard time learning at least one move or concept in class so far, then have them open their eyes to see how many others are raising them.  Of course, if very few people raise their hands, it’s a signal to you to amp up the class!
  • Use inspirational quotes or sayings (as deemed appropriate by your own internal cheesiness meter). My favorites include: “Those who don’t make mistakes don’t make much of anything,” and “You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people were thinking about you if you only knew how seldomly they were!” You can also include inspiration on your class websites or handouts. I particularly enjoy this excerpt from Ira Glass: It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

    True story: cell phones didn't have cameras on them back then.

    True story: cell phones didn’t have cameras on them back then.

  • Share your own experience of learning; I’ve found that students really respond to concrete details, such as, “I couldn’t find the 1 for my first 2 months of classes!”  I don’t  endorse over-sharing in a class environment, but in this case the personal sharing is in the student’s best interest, as it is meant to motivate and encourage them.
  • Avoid over-use of: “Just have fun.” We all want our students to have fun. However, the phrase “just have fun” can trivialize where students are in the learning process. Would you expect a French or Spanish teacher to tell you after your first class to “just have fun” speaking a totally new language? I think that the “just” in the phrase “just have fun” can backfire and frustrate students even further. It implies that having fun shouldn’t be hard at this point in the process, which for many students is inaccurate.  Don’t get me wrong: I think there are many ways to encourage fun during the learning process – I just don’t believe that saying “just have fun” is one of them.
  • My now husband Gabe (at right) was once my student. I encouraged him a LOT!

    Thanks Losh Lieberman for the pic of myself encouraging my student (and future husband) Gabe!

    Make it personal. Encouragement is often most memorable when it’s specific and personal. Don’t be shy to encourage individuals! It is often very encouraging to students if you can just remember their names. I will never forget the handful of people who encouraged me as a beginner, even if I only danced with them once.

  • Promote an optimistic explanatory style My former post details how you can encourage your students to see their mistakes as temporary and “local” rather than lasting and permanent, which is a more optimistic and rational way to interpret their state.

Recommendation 4: Demand connection and address social needs.

Calico has a beautiful stretchy connection here!

Calico has a beautiful stretchy connection here!

Most beginner dancers undervalue connection, as it does not give as tangible a sense of accomplishment as “doing the move right.”  I prefer to demand connection and a true lead and follow through activities such as “leader’s choice.”  In this exercise, leaders are free to select from a set of formerly taught moves, all of which start the same way. This exercise addresses both roles, as it prevents the followers from knowing the target move.  Beginner followers often pick up on what they are “supposed to do” and enact the “right” movements with complete disregard for what the leader is leading.  When you take away the teacher’s command, the followers truly have to respond to the leader’s signals and leaders get immediate feedback on whether they have actually lead the movement they were attempting.  International dancer/instructor Nathan Bugh has an interesting blog post about this concept in detail.

Theme night at Wednesday Night Hop.

Theme night at Wednesday Night Hop.

The “leader’s choice” exercise also prepares the leader and follower for social dancing. It gives leaders a safe and guided opportunity to practice the difficult skill of selecting which movement to initiate, and t allows followers to practice responding to the leader’s initiation and stopping themselves from anticipating or back-leading.

Additionally, I like to position the introductory class immediately before a social dance and encourage students to stay for a certain number of songs as their “homework.” This proves to students that they can social dance, and also gives them the opportunity to meet other dancers who might provide social motivation to continue participating in the scene.

Faux hawk night at Wednesday Night Hop.

Faux hawk night at Wednesday Night Hop.

Better yet, photo booths, theme nights, non-dance competitions (like a hula hoop contest on a Hawaiian theme night) and class photos are great ways to promote class retention and facilitate social connections between students, especially when photos of the events are shared on Facebook.

Recommendation 5:  Plan ahead and encourage “flow”.

To prepare yourself for the task of teaching beginner dancers, I recommend that you take time to explore some basic principles of teaching and learning, such as the this outline.  I particularly like points #4 and 5 on the teaching principles site.

Flow graph.

I also recommend that you use the concept of “flow” as a guiding principle for your classes.  Flow refers to the psychological state where one’s skills and the challenge of the task are optimally matched. Put simply, you should challenge your students just beyond their current skill level; challenging them too far beyond will produce anxiety, and providing inadequate challenge will lead to boredom.

Regardless of what teaching principles speak to you, I encourage you to spend time upfront planning the following aspects of your classes:

  • Pacing: how much time should you spend on each move/concept?  I generally chunk my classes into 5-10 minute increments.  Even though I end up changing the timing as I respond to the class performance, the practice of chunking the class out helps me plan a sane/appropriate amount of material.
  • That being said: prepare alternatives:  You can never have too many alternative activities and exercises prepared for your students. Particularly in smaller classes where the mean might be skewed one direction or another (such as fast or slow learners), you should be prepared to grade your task up or down (make it harder or easier) depending on how your students perform.

Recommendation 6: Communication. 

Lucy Falkner and Calle J - harmonious as always!

Lucy Falkner and Calle J – harmonious as always!

It goes without saying that one should communicate with one’s teaching partner harmoniously before and during class.  It is pretty obvious to students when teachers are not on the same page, and it can be detrimental if they receive mixed messages from their instructors.

Having said that, direct communication to students is of primary importance.  In the teaching role, you will be communicating the mechanics of the lead and follow and of how certain moves/movements work.  As you plan your class think about not just what you want to say but how you want to say it; how can you most effectively put these movement concepts into words? Often times, metaphors and analogies are most memorable. I’ll never forget when Nina Gilkenson used the phrase “agile momentum robots” to explain the concept of momentum for followers. It was humorous, succinct, memorable, and got the message across effectively!

Specific praise FTW!

Specific praise FTW! Photo credit: Rishi Sanyal

Additionally, I encourage you to address how you frame your communication, particularly praise.  Research has shown that specific rather than general praise has vast implications for task persistence (read: whether students will stick with dancing, even to the end of your 4 week series).  Rather than saying “You’re doing great,” consider specific praise such as, “I like how you rock-stepped on the beat.”

Recommendation 7: Focusing on your students’ actual needs, and the class as the destination.   

Your class is the roller coaster.

Your beginner class is the roller coaster of awesomeness.

As an advanced dancer, you might see a beginning dance class as akin to going to the airport: it’s a necessary step towards getting somewhere awesome, but it is not the awesome place itself.  Here’s the thing, though: for the vast majority of your students, the class is the awesome destination. Their destination is not “long term obsession with a dance form,” at least not yet; their destination is a 4-5 week novel, exciting concept called a partner dance class that will constitute just one part of their busy lives.

There is a tendency among intro dance teachers to tell students everything they (teachers) wish they had been told as beginners.  I implore you to resist this urge. The things you wish you had been told? You only value those things from your lens as an advanced dancer now. Even if someone had told you every useful nugget of information and addressed every mistake you eventually made as a dancer, guess what? You still would have made many mistakes. It’s an inevitable part of the learning process. I think it’s much more effective to focus on where your students actually are right now and address their actual specific needs, not what you anticipate they might wish you had told them a number of months later.

Jazz hands!

Jazz hands!

Make this beginner class an awesome destination in itself.  Imagine that this introductory series is your students’ only opportunity to experience the wonder that is your form of partner dancing, and accept that they may only experience it as a beginner.  Do everything you can to maximize every ounce of fun, enjoyment, and growth you can from those 4-5 hours of lessons!  By truly accepting and embracing the experience of learning at this level, you may actually hook them into a long term love of dance.

Recommendation 8: Know thyself. 

Self-awareness and reflection will help you identify areas where you can improve as an instructor, and can also help you better complement your teaching partner. Here are some specific areas on which to reflect:

  • I tend towards the "entertainer/humorous" style :-)

    I tend towards the “entertainer/humorous” style, hence the spontaneous heel click.

    What is your preferred or default teaching style?  Lindy instructors often fall into the “professor/analytical” role or the “entertainer/comedian” role.  Recognize your style and consider when it is most appropriate and when it might be best tempered.

  • Why are you here? I don’t exactly mean why are you on this earth, but why are you selecting to spend some of your time on earth teaching partner dance? Do you teach because you are passionate about helping new dancers learn and have fun? Do you view teaching as a status symbol or a way to gain social currency in your scene?  Are you teaching as a default or to please someone else who asked you to? Are you teaching for the money? Do you teach to give back to your community? None of these reasons is right or wrong, but confronting the reasons will help you determine your overall goals for your class, and whether teaching is ultimately right for you.  Although many assume that after you achieve a certain level of proficiency you “should” teach, you by no means have to.  My gut instinct is that if your heart really isn’t into teaching, your students will sense it as well. If your heart really is in teaching, explicitly addressing your motivations can provide comfort or encouragement when the going gets rough.

Conclusion

Just like learning to dance is hard, learning to teach is hard!  Being a great dancer yourself will not necessarily translate into good or effective teaching skills.  You must translate your passion and knowledge into an understandable form for your students and constantly adjust/adapt to their performance while simultaneously responding/adapting to your teaching partner.

My first ever lindy exchange with my first lindy BFF, Brian Gish (Portland, 2006).

My first ever lindy exchange with my first lindy BFF, Brian Gish (Portland, 2006).

Beginning dance instructors wear so many hats: cultural interpreter, tour guide, salesperson, self-help guru, cheerleader, professor, and even object of affection (lindy crush!).  They are constantly pushed and pulled between all the factors discussed above. What’s more important in a given moment, providing more material (“more moves!”) or more repetition of the basics? How much should you teach good form at the expense of “fun,” if some of your students are primarily there to have fun and secondarily to learn dance?  Will opening an analytical can of worms spark an “a-ha” moment, or will it overwhelm or bore the class? You may desperately want your students to share your zeal for your dance, and be confronted with the limits of your own influence when they display apathy or indifference to your efforts.

Just some of the many motivations your students have to learn partner dance.

Just some of the many motivations to learn partner dance, as part of my “Why we dance” video project.

Here’s the thing, though: despite all the challenges of teaching beginners, it is extremely rewarding.  You will witness an amazing transformation as your students go from knowing nothing to being competent in a set of movements by the end of a class series.  When a student comes up to me on the social dance floor with a big grin and says, “Look, I did it!”, or I see a formerly awkward student blossom with confidence throughout the course of a class, I feel a sense of pride and joy that words can’t describe. For me, an extreme extrovert, it puts even more social into social dancing. Teaching beginners is a way to ensure I will never become complacent or bored with the scene.  It’s one of the many reasons why I dance at all.

Regardless of your interest in teaching new dancers, I hope that my posts have inspired you to see the challenges of learning to dance and teaching new dancers in a new light. Despite the length of these posts I feel I’ve barely even skimmed the surface. Let me know your additional thoughts and feedback in the comments!

Additional References: 

Dancing from the Ground Up: Motor Learning Chart

Fleischman’s Taxonomy of motor abilities

* I am leaving out the motor/praxis component for teachers because it’s fairly obvious that a teacher must have the ability to demonstrate the movements clearly and effectively. 

Posted in Occupational Therapy, Swing Dance | 5 Comments

Shopping with Arthritis: My favorite pain-reducing shoes

Myself, Kate and Rudy enjoy some secondhand shopping at Crossroads Trading Company in Berkeley.

Myself, Kate and Rudy enjoy some secondhand shopping at Crossroads Trading Company.

When people find out that I have rheumatoid arthritis (also known as autoimmune arthritis),I’m often asked how I’m able to swing dance and what shoes I find are most comfortable.  As part of the blog carnival “Non-medical ways to ease rheumatoid arthritis pain,” I’d like to share some of my favorite shoes that reduce or prevent foot pain. While I’m at it, I’ll also share my favorite professional and casual shoes, as well as some simple gadgets that can help those with arthritis put on and take off shoes easier. I hope you find it useful, and hey, now that the holidays are here, you just might find a gift idea for a loved one with arthritis!

Shopping for Arthritis-friendly dance shoes

2_flat shoes

The wonderful Brian Gish and myself sporting our white flats in 2008 :-)

Recommendation #1: Flats are where it’s at. While many popular social dances such as salsa and tango favor high heels for the ladies, mercifully swing dancers (specifically lindy hoppers) favor flat, athletic, Keds-like shoes.  I only wear heels for special performances or occasions when I can easily change out the heels for something different (such as my wedding, at which I had 4 pairs of shoes…but that’s a story for another day!).

Heels = ouch.

Heels = ouch.

Heels are difficult to tolerate for many people with arthritis because their design results in excess force on the metatarsal joints, which tend to be inflamed with rheumatoid arthritis. These joints are on what we colloquially call the “ball” of the foot. This article from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has a great overview of the foot issues prevalent for those with rheumatoid arthritis, for those interested in learning more.    This article actually measures the force changes when people wear high versus lower heels (and the positive effects of orthotics). If you’d like to take a geeky walk down memory lane, check out this article from 1884 that addresses the negative effects of various styles of shoes including heels!

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Silver glitter Toms (dance favorite #2, described further below).

Recommendation #2: Find your “sole-mate,” a sole that finds the sweet spot between sticky and slippery.  Dancing will involve a lot of pivoting and turning, which means you want a shoe that will allow you to pivot and turn without getting “stuck” (which causes excess strain on your joints and ligaments, particularly your knees and ankles), but you don’t want a shoe that is so slippery that you will be at risk of losing your balance or slipping and falling.  Many swing dancers prefer leather or suede-bottomed shoes, or rubber that is relatively flat and smooth rather than sticky.  Also, consider that every dance floor will have a certain amount of inherent “stickiness” or slipperyness, so most dancers end up having a variety of shoes they bring with them so they can adapt to the floor and dance most comfortably.

Recommendation #3: Whatever shoe you choose, make sure to have adequate cushioning. To me, this usually means having an orthotic insole such as the Walking Company’s Casual Metatarsal Orthotic, the many offerings of Superfeet, or simply an extra cushion on the ball of my foot.  Put simply, the thinner your shoe, the more force the tender bones and joints of your foot will have to absorb. When you add padding to the shoe (either in the construction of the shoe or in additional inserts), you are requiring that the shoe absorb that force rather than your foot (citation).

So, after all that, here are my favorite dance shoes!

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Aris Allens canvas are my #1 favorite ( photo credit Hilary Mercer).

1.  Aris Allen Classic Canvas Dance Sneaker (see photo to left).

These are the shoes I end up wearing 80% of the time; I have multiple pairs in white and black. They have suede leather soles, can be dressed up or down, and provide just enough support to prevent pain but not so much support that they limit my flexibility.

2.  Toms Silver Glitters  (see photo above)

These tend to be on the slippery side, but I like that they don’t require laces and are thus easy to put on and take off. They also have some arch support, and come in lots of great colors and styles, including glitter!

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I’m wearing the mesh Aris Allen’s on the left, Katie is looking swell on the right!

3. Aris Allen  1940s Peep Toe Mesh Oxford (pictured at right).

These are my exception to the “flats only” rule. The thick, angled heel, the insole and the sueded bottoms make these the easiest heels to dance in. Bonus: they definitely are worthy of a dress and capture the authentic 1940s vibe!

One last note on footwear: the majority of swing dancers I know swear by Keds, however Keds simply don’t fit my feet comfortably. I would recommend checking Keds out since they are very popular across a wide variety of dancers.  Also, check out this interesting discussion thread where various swing dancers weigh in on their favorite shoes and provide tips for purchasing shoes with just the right fit to make dancing pain-free.

Arthritis friendly non-dance shoes for all occasions 

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Contrary to what this picture might suggest, I am not shorter than all my friends, I just prefer flats, even in dressy situations!

The main difference between shopping for dance shoes versus professional, casual or non-dance dress up shoes is that I don’t have to consider the surface of the sole in as great of detail since I don’t plan on pivoting or turning with them. Thus, I have a bigger selection to choose from. Having said that, I maintain recommendations 1 and 3 from above (stick with flats, and ensure you have adequate cushioning).

Arthritis Friendly Professional Shoes

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Kumfs / Ziera shoes are, indeed, very comfortable!

1. Ziera (formerly known as Kumfs)

I have a super cute pair of black leather Kumfs flats with bows, which are not currently on their website but are very similar to the ones pictured at right. You can see their great arch support on the inside of the foot, and their leather construction means no painful rubbing (which can cause bunions).

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Dansko Brinkley, the most comfortable heel ever.

2. Dansko Brinkley

The Dansko heels are the only ones in the world that I can wear for more than a couple hours without feeling pain! They can be dressed up or down super easily, and are unbelievably comfortable (unbelievable in that, “I’m wearing heels and I’m actually comfortable!”). The Dansko designers are geniuses.

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Gentle Souls by Kenneth Cole – Isa Bop

3. Gentle Souls by Kenneth Cole Iso Bop

I bought a used pair of the Iso Bop from Crossroads Trading Company, my favorite place to buy “gently used” clothes and shoes. They tend to have great brands for great prices since everything is secondhand. Like many of my recommendations, these are a bit pricey, but if you can find them at Crossroads or Ebay, you probably won’t regret it!  They offer great arch support, are easy to put on and take off, and are very lightweight.

Other brands I would suggest include Born , Clarks, Munro, and Mephisto.

Arthritis-friendly shoes for casual occasions

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Dansko Veda – casual yet supportive.

1) Dansko canvas: Veda (with laces) and Volley (no laces).

Dansko recently came out with a cheaper, more casual line of shoes with the same awesome support on the sole but with more “give” in the material because they are constructed with canvas. These are my go-to shoes to wear on casual occasions.

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Dansko Crepe.

2. Dansko Crepe boots

You can see me wearing these on the first picture of this post.  Again, they have the super supportive base of all other Danskos, yet these are made from a different material that actually does feel lighter.  They have a zipper on the side that’s easy to zip up or down, and are aesthetically pleasing enough to wear with a dress or jeans. Love these!

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Miz Mooz Bloom.

3. Miz Mooz Bloom boots.

These are a splurge but I get tons of compliments on them and adore them. They are great for people with wider feet or a bunion (I have a bunion on my right foot only).  They don’t offer a ton of of arch support, but the toebox is big enough to easily fit an orthotic or insert.

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You can even officiate a wedding in Danskos! Pictured here are Eliza and Trevor Masters with myself :-)

4.  Dansko Sandi sandals

I have ones similar to the Sandi and wear them almost every day in the summer. They are super comfortable and are easier to purchase online than other Danskos because you don’t have as much material to potentially rub on the sides if you have wide feet. I even officiated a wedding in the patent leather version of them!

Bonus tips regarding Danskos:  

As you can see above, I am a huge fan of the Dansko brand because I feel that their rigid, thick soles really absorb the force of my foot hitting the ground in a way that decreases inflammation in my metatarsal joints.  However, some people find that due to the rigidity of the soles, they feel more prone to tripping or rolling their ankles when wearing Danskos (particularly their classic clogs). I would recommend trying them on at the store and walking around a bit to see if they suit you. You will generally want to try on Danskos before purchasing them anyway, because they are all handmade and thus each shoe fits slightly differently.

Bonus recommendation: Simple “dressing aides”

As an occupational therapist, I’m prone to getting geekily excited about the plethora of dressing gadgets (or “adaptive equipment”) on the market. During my schooling and clinical internships I’ve come across some very simple and commonly used dressing aides that can help people who experience difficulty while putting on shoes or socks.

sock aid

Sock Aid.

Sock Aid: I recommend the flexible style of sock aid. They don’t look like much, but in my internships I’ve seen then be extremely useful to those who have decreased strength or range of motion.

shoe horn

Shoe Horn

Shoe horn: One of my favorites, this allows you to push your heel into your shoe using the force of your foot rather than the small joints of your hands.

Concluding thoughts

                Given the length of the above post, you might think that I am intrinsically a “shoe person.” However, up until my diagnosis, I was never “into” shoes (other than soccer shoes, where I was an Adidas girl all the way).  I became more interested in clothes and shoes after starting swing dancing in the mid-2000s, and then truly became a “shoe person” in the late 2000s when I started having increasing foot pain (to the point where I wore a boot on my right foot for a little over a month).

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Walking around Orcas Island in my Dansko sandals.

When I was first diagnosed with RA, I never expected it might lead me to become a shoe person, but I can honestly say that I actually do enjoy shoe shopping in that it’s an exercise in having my cake and eating it too; I’d like to wear something that’s aesthetically pleasing as well as pain reducing. The main downside is the price, because I’ve found you simply can’t compromise price for comfort. As warped as this may sound, I actually do consider shoes part of my medical expenses, because I feel they prevent additional pain and address my underlying inflammation.

I hope that these suggestions are useful to you and those you love, I’d love to hear any additional feedback you have and look forward to reading the RA Warrior’s post after the blog carnival is over!

*For those waiting for Part 2 of the “How Hard is it to Learn and Teach Dance” series – it is coming in January 2013!

Posted in Occupational Therapy, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Swing Dance | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

How hard is it to learn swing dancing, and how can instructors best meet the unique needs of beginning dancers? Part 1 of a 2-part series.

As Rebecca Brightly recently wrote, it takes a while for most people to discover where they fit into the larger lindy hop scene. Like many others, I initially daydreamed about becoming a “rockstar” swing dancer/instructor. Through time, it became clear that my unique gift to the lindy hop world lay in the arena of teaching/encouraging beginning swing dancers at the local level, and inspiring all sorts of fun shenanigans (and a few videos) in the process.

Pajammy Jam at Wednesday Night Hop – one of my favorite monthly theme nights!

I’ve greatly enjoyed teaching classes at Seattle-based HepCat Productions and Mountain View, California based Wednesday Night Hop.  After teaching different levels, I’ve come to respect the difference between teaching “true beginners” (which I will define as anyone generally in their first 3-4 months of dancing) and intermediate/advanced dancers (anyone who has “graduated” from their initial “intro swing/charleston/lindy hop” classes, up through advanced)*.

Like many others, I originally assumed that teaching introductory swing would be easier than intermediate since the movements taught in intermediate dance lessons are, indeed, objectively more complex than the movements taught in beginning swing lessons. However, a purely moves based conclusion (“the movements in intermediate are more complicated therefore teaching it is harder”) leaves out the monumental mental component that is involved in teaching/learning a brand new skill, particularly a movement-based social and musical skill.

Intro Class at Hepcat Productions in Seattle, WA

Over time, I have come to deeply respect the unique challenges of teaching novice dancers.  Just as our school system respects the differences between teaching basic skills (such as reading/writing/arithmetic) and teaching advanced concepts by requiring teachers to obtain either an elementary or secondary education certification, I would like the swing dance community to respect the difference between teaching “elementary” versus “secondary” dancers.

In the following post, I will use an activity analysis framework to explore in detail what the beginning dance student goes through as they learn this dance in a typical beginning class environment.  In a follow-up post, I will then suggest what teachers of “true beginners” should pay particular attention to in order to meet these dancers’ needs.  I hope that by the end of these posts the reader will share my respect for the complexity of this role!

What skills must a student learn and enact in a typical beginning swing dance environment?  

The “OTPF: occupational therapy practice framework” provides a useful tool to explore this question. Among other things, the OTPF outlines all aspects (internal and external) involved when a person performs an activity.  It is what I use in my practice to help me determine which component of a patient/client’s condition is causing their problems/successes.

Stuart Collins and I have mastered the art of the high-5!

In occupational therapy, “performance skills” are the individual component skills required to perform the larger activity.  Let’s take the high-5 as an example: in order to give a high-5, you must have the motor ability to move your shoulder and elbow through space to approximately get your hands in the right position to initiate the clap; then you must use precision to target your hand towards the other person’s hand (there are different cognitive areas involved in “gross motor” and “fine motor” movements, thus these 2 stages are distinct); as you bring your hand towards the other person, you must use your judgment to adjust your aim and velocity, and you must display appropriate social/emotional skills while doing so (for example, you must somehow initiate the High-5 through communicating with your partner).  Believe it or not, the description I just wrote is actually far more simplified than if I did a true “activity analysis,” but I think it gets the general point across!

It is useful to consider the individual performance skills required for beginning swing dancers in order to fully explore the unique challenges of teaching them. I have selected factors below that I feel are most relevant to beginning dancers.

Performance skills I’ve selected from the OT Practice Framework

Let’s take each of the 5 main categories and explore them further, focusing on how each might be uniquely challenging to a beginner versus intermediate/advanced dancer.

Motor & Praxis Skills:

            While coordination is a continual challenge for dancers of all levels, it is of primary difficulty to beginner dancers, particularly those who lack a background in sports, dance, or other activities that involve coordinating the hands, feet & trunk simultaneously.  It’s particularly challenging for beginners because they are not only learning swing “moves” for the first time, they are also learning how to learn and do moves at the most basic level.   Intermediate/advanced dancers benefit from having learned how to coordinate their bodies through the 3-4+ months of practice they’ve had in a swing dance class environment. This improves their fundamental motor coordination and contributing factors such as balance and the ability to adjust their posture and body position despite motor disturbances (as indicated in the graph above; this is particularly relevant for a partner dance as we have to learn to adjust to the “disturbance” our partner provides).

Brian Zimmer and I teaching students in California how to step & move!

Additionally, beginner dancers must learn how to coordinate their bodies in the unique style/manner of swing dance (versus, say, salsa or tango).  Even if someone is extremely coordinated from a lifetime of sports or other dance forms, they must learn the movement style and patterns for swing. For example, the student must learn how to enact the “bounce” from their core/knees, while simultaneously moving their arms in whatever pattern is required for the specific “move.”  After a few months of beginning swing lessons, the student tends to become “unconsciously competent” in this area, however in the beginning they must learn to layer the basic movement style (primarily the “bounce”) and connection style on top of whatever movement pattern is being taught at the moment.

Sensory-Perceptual Skills:

            Particularly relevant sensory-perceptual skills include proprioception and timing.  Proprioception (your brain’s awareness of your body position in space) is fundamental to performing any movement.  Many beginning swing teachers (myself included) have at one point or another uttered the cue, “Don’t look at your feet!”  However, we must explore why our students look at their feet; it could be that they are shy and don’t want to look at their partner, or it could be that they literally are looking to see where their feet are in space because they haven’t developed a good enough sense of proprioception to trust where they are without using vision to compensate.

There are some great resources out there on how proprioception works and how to  improve it. In the case of the typical beginning swing dance environment, I believe it is mainly improved simply through practice. As mentioned in the post I linked to above, your brain creates “maps” of your different body parts, and the parts used most often become larger. As you practice a given movement with a variety of partners, you gain a better

An awareness of where our body is in space helps us determine how far to go away from our partner and how to position our limbs relative to our trunk. Pictured here: Brian Gish & myself

understanding of where your limbs are in space. Thus, beginning swing teachers must pay special attention to how much work it takes for the beginning swing dance student simply to understand where their body parts are in space as they enact a movement.

A second relevant component of sensory-perceptual skills is the sense of timing.  “Timing” can refer to spacing out your movements so that, for example, you get to the end of the 6 count basic on the 6 rather than the 4 or 8.  It can also refer to a basic understanding of the music’s timing outside of any body movement.  One of my biggest challenges has been teaching students who cannot verbalize or perceive “the beat.” My personal experience has been that with repeated exposure to the music and graded practice (for example, start with just verbalizing the beat for the student, then have them practice verbalizing it with you, then have them snap or clap the beat), it can be improved.  Regardless of how it can be improved, an appreciation of the role of timing is crucial for a beginning dance teacher as a given class will likely contain some students who cannot perceive or move to “the beat.”

Emotional-Regulation Skills:

            In the chart above, I have highlighted “persisting in a task despite frustrations” as  a primary emotion-regulation skills crucial for beginning swing dancers.  It should go without saying that frustration is an emotion that all beginning dancers will experience at some point, no matter how well regulated their emotions are or how well they are doing in the class. Frustration is often caused by wishing one could improve faster, or feeling unhappy with one’s partner, or feeling incompetent in one’s own ability to enact the movements that the teachers make look so easy.  In order to stick with the task long enough to become competent, the beginning dancer must live in “consciously incompetent” and “unconsciously incompetent” land for uncomfortable amounts of time.

Sticking with it can lead to insane amounts of fun. But it’s usually frustrating for a little while first!

Like many dancers who’ve been around for 5+ years, I sometimes wish I could be a beginner again, but I think we tend to have rosy retrospection. Being a beginner is hard work, and sticking with it long enough to become competent takes a lot of persistence.  While frustration is occurs whenever a dancer strives to improve (whether the dancer is a master or beginner), the frustration of beginning dancers is unique because the beginning dancer has no prior experience to provide them with hope that they can improve. For example, the intermediate dancer can say to him/herself, “Well, I learned the basic Charleston, so I know I can learn tandem charleston even though it’s hard right now.” The beginning dancer has no prior experience of mastery with this dance to motivate him/herself to continue.  They must get the hope from somewhere else; a general sense of optimism, encouragement from a partner or teacher, or a generalized sense that “I’ve learned other difficult things before, therefore I can learn this.”

I will also quickly mention that there is a social-emotional regulation component here as well; one must be able to regulate one’s own emotions while responding to a partner’s experiences. We all know that feeling when a move goes wrong of wondering, “Was it me, or you, or both?” The beginning dancer must learn to act appropriately in this context, which again becomes more comfortable through time as one progressed to intermediate/advanced levels.

Cognitive Skills:

            The cognitive load of learning this dance cannot be understated.  In addition to mentally organizing the 4 factors listed above, the beginning swing dancer must also attend to the instructors’ movements/explanations and form a mental strategy for how they will then enact the movements. We’ve all had the experience of watching someone do a move and thinking, “How did they DO that?”

This photo is from a book called “The Human Body and Health Revised by Alvin Davidson,” published in 1908; I obtained it through the Creative Commons on Flickr.

A beginning dancer must learn how to separate the basic movement components from each other when observing the instructors as well as when performing the move him/herself. It involves a cognitive skill called “sequencing,” which refers to your ability to determine what comes first, second or third; for example, to do a basic 6 count inside turn, does the leader bring the follower in on the 1, 2, or 3 of the beat, or before or after the rock step?

In addition, multitasking is a huge area of difficulty for beginning swing dancers, mainly because they have to pay attention to every aspect of what they are doing because each aspect is “new” to them (as opposed to intermediate/advanced dancers, who don’t have to pay attention to “the bounce,” or other basic movements or even social aspects of the dancing experience, which have become normalized to them).

Finally, a beginning dance student also experiences a cognitive load on his or her short and long term memory.  Our memories don’t only serve to help us recall events in the future, they also help us select and prioritize what is important in the present.  I would argue that this prioritization aspect is what puts an extra strain on beginner dancers versus intermediate and advanced dancers.  Through time, the dancer becomes better and quicker at selecting which aspect of a teacher’s actions and words are the most important to attend to and remember in the moment, but in the beginning stages the memory system can easily become overwhelmed and overloaded.

Communication and Social Skills:

            I am putting basic connection concepts under “communication,” as I believe that the lead/follow is fundamentally a form of nonverbal communication.  The components of the lead-follow connection are not entirely new to all beginning swing students (particularly those with a partner dance background), but in my experience they are new to most. They must learn how the hand to hand, hand to back, and other forms of physical connection  allow them to communicate where to position their bodies in space.  This is where the “performance skills” start to differ between leaders and followers, as leaders are primarily responsible for initiating the communication, and the follower is primarily responsible for responding appropriately (without anticipating or back-leading, which I personally struggled with and see many other followers struggle with as a beginner student!).

Stretch is a fundamental part of connection for the swingout. Pictured here are Mark Kihara and myself at Seattle’s Century Ballroom.

The leader must attend to how he/she can facilitate the movement for themself and their partner, and the follower must attend to and enact the basic tenets of following (keeping the momentum, responding to the connection, etc).  Connection skills are continually built upon throughout the dancer’s lifespan, no doubt.  I would say that they pose a unique challenge to beginners only in that beginner dancers tend to emphasize moves and movement patterns as a whole rather than the underlying connection that facilitates them.  If connection is not internalized, the beginning dancer can easily sail through months of classes without realizing that they are not actually learning the partnered aspect of this dance.

As indicated in the graph above, other social skills such as following the unspoken social norms during class (such as rotating appropriately if applicable, introducing oneself to a partner, apologizing if you step on another’s toes, not talking while teacher is talking) are also relevant. Additionally, there may be a strong social motivation to one’s participation in the class (one might be there to socialize primarily rather than to learn the dance), which can either augment or hinder the learning process depending on how it’s channeled.

Conclusion

Learning to dance: so hard…but so fun once you learn! But also hard. But also FUN!

I hope that the above considerations have renewed the reader’s respect for just how hard it is for a beginning swing dancer to learn the basics of this wonderful dance!  A common thread in all these considerations is that the beginning student simply has an overwhelming amount of factors to attend to, remember, learn from, and enact.  Having said that, I do fundamentally believe that beginning swing teachers can adjust their teaching style to these unique demands to make the experience more positive and fun for beginner dancers! I look forward to providing specific recommendations based on the considerations above in Part 2 of this two-part series.

*for the purposes of brevity I’m including everything from intermediate and advanced in one category; I respect that there is a big difference between them, however I wanted to focus my analysis mainly on the question of “how hard is it to learn this skill?” verus “how hard is it to apply what I’ve learned and become more proficient at it?”  For the sake of this post I am not considering the differences between intermediate/advanced and Masters

            **I am including all that may be necessary; understand that someone without every single one of these factors may be able to dance (for example, having hearing or seeing functions is not a prerequisite for learning to dance or dancing, although the vast majority of current swing dancers have those systems in tact).

Posted in Occupational Therapy, Swing Dance | Tagged , , , , | 23 Comments