By Ann Aiko Bergeron MFA, Level 3 TAGteacher
It all began with a Border Terrier named Ninja. Then a clicker in my hand. Now it’s simply a way of life. As a university professor who trains dancers, TAGteaching came as a natural progression of my obsessive interest in clicker training. At first I was hesitant to bring the techniques into a professional adult training program. Would my students think I was crazy? Would my university colleagues think I had gone off the deep end? Encouraged by Theresa McKeon, who sent me a box full of clickers after we had discussed the possibilities at a Clicker Expo, I told my classes that they were going to be my guinea pigs – that I had no idea where TAGteaching was going with them, but please humor me. Fortunately, I’m not known as the most conservative dance teacher, so they moved forward with goodwill and playful curiosity.
Laying the Foundation
Before beginning TAGteaching in the dance class, I first had to set the foundation for the work, attempting to extinguish the foundation of fear-based training, which, unfortunately, traditional dance training has been steeped in for centuries. Dance classes were (and often still are) a place where you needed to be “good” or you would generally feel humiliated (either externally or self-imposed). Many performing artists are severe type A’s. They can’t tolerate the idea of not being “good enough” or “right” and spend incredible amounts of wasted energy in self-denigration and negativity. From day one I make it very clear that “wrong” and “right” don’t exist in my class – there are only focus points.
The fear of “failing” needed to be completely erased from the students’ mind. The first thing the student needed to learn was “letting it go” when they didn’t achieve something they intended to. They learned to stay in the moment and move forward to the next moment rather than to dwell in their “failure”. I’ve discovered it takes a good year of “practice” to make this habit rather than a purposeful effort, but the result is a happier dancer who learns exponentially faster. Usually a smile and a deep exhalation from me will get them back on track until they learn to do the same signal for themselves.
Tagging is Great Fun!
Then of course, comes the tagging. Tagging with the clicker is great fun, and the students always ask “can we tag today?” or confirm, “we need to tag the passé in the pirouette!” and on and on. But success tagging physical skills is already well documented. Those of us in the TAGteach and Clicker training community are pretty well convinced it works and depend on it on a daily basis. As a teacher of adult pre-professionals, the new questions for me became, how can I adapt the work so the student doesn’t depend on me to tag them all the time (yes, this can be time consuming!) and how can these concepts be re-shaped to help them in the future when they move on into the professional world? How can TAGteaching shape detail beyond basic skills that transform dance technicians into dance ARTISTS?
And so I introduced the concept of TAG thinking to my students. I think the best part about it is that it has taught the dancers to be very active, thinking learners (do I hear my dog saying “duh?), rather than passive, “teach me, teacher” machines.
After learning the concepts of TAGteaching in a practical, audibly-tagged manner, the students learn to establish their own tag points and approximations. At first I might offer them a list of choices, but eventually they become extremely observant of their own actions and are able to self-impose tag points that I could not have ever perceived! I will often repeat an exercise “across the floor” and ask each dancer to identify their personal tag point, and ask them to change it each time they are successful. And I encourage them to celebrate their successes – forget humility. I have been known to “spontaneously combust” (Jumping high in the air with my arms up shouting “yes” at the moment a student makes a very specific breakthrough – jackpotting). And I encourage them to do the same for themselves and others. This keeps everyone positively invested in each individual’s progress, which is great distance away from the competitive negativity that is often prevalent in the dance classroom.
Another major TAG Thinking skill is the ability to judge one’s success ratio and know when to personally decrease or increase the criteria for success. Of course they learn this first by training each other so they fully understand how the dynamic works. I will often offer students a range of criteria for a certain step and let them shape their execution dependent on their self-knowledge of their current skills. There is absolutely NO stigma about doing the “easier” choice, and often a student progresses through increased criteria by the time we are finished with that particular exercise.
And here is where my heart really starts beating. I came upon a neurologically based explanation that moves far beyond my empirical observations in the classroom. Daniel Coyle’s THE TALENT CODE explores how talent grows in the brain. In a nutshell, Coyle suggests that many neurologists now consider the neural insulator MYELIN to be the “holy grail” of acquiring skill. Coyle affirms, “Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits in the right way our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed.”
Practicing “deeply” is at the core of developing myelin, but what TAGteachers can identify with most closely is that to practice deeply, you train in small increments.
“The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities, to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.” Sound familiar?
Robert Bjork, the chair of psychology at UCLA says: “It’s all about finding the sweet spot. There’s an optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do. When you find that sweet spot, learning takes off.” I am barely scratching the surface of this study here, but one can infer its significance on the scientific validity of TAGteaching and TAG Thinking.
In my classes, I call it “riding the myelin wave”. It is training deeply on that edge where the student is highly conscious of small increments of progress. In order to stay on the optimum edge of this wave, the student must train without fear of “failure.” Any fear puts the student on the safe side of the wave and progress does not occur. In fact – it is a rule in my classes that when someone falls, we applaud them. We applaud them for riding the wave, going for that extra off-balance dynamic, going for that extra pirouette…this is what the classroom is for. It is a place to grow, a place where students are fully confident to take risks with only positive consequences.
Since integrating TAGteaching and TAG Thinking, every day in the classroom is exhilarating for me. I have seen so many young people find their confidence and personal voices, not only as artists, but also, more importantly, as human beings.
Ninja was the inspiration that changed my teaching life and philosophy. We now “team teach” a special lecture for Introduction to Psychology students on learning theory called “FROM PUPS TO PIROUETTTES.” He’s a terrific teacher.
TAG Thinking affects dancers in the following ways:
- A Dancer learns to stop dwelling on “Getting it right” and takes risks, riding the “myelin wave” which accelerates the neurological path to skill improvement.
- At advanced levels, a Dancer learns to train him/herself in all situations and becomes less dependent on direct teacher feedback. They can stay focused on personal approximations and decrease or increase of criteria in an effective manner.
- A Dancer learns the joy of communal energy that happens in a TAG Thinking classroom. They often rediscover that dancing is FUN even when working extremely hard.
Quotes from Students
“One of the biggest changes I have seen in myself is my way of thinking. I have learned to let go any imperfections, lower the stakes, and shake it off. Most of this came about when we learned about TAG teaching. Being a perfectionist in most things, I want to always “get it right” and with dance there are so many elements to focus on. With the tagging aspect, I allow myself to focus on one improvement at a time (Slow and steady wins the race). I also learned to celebrate the accomplishments and simply ignore anything else. I started seeing this change in me near the second half of the semester. I try to smile as I cross the floor, knowing that I have nothing to lose and so much to gain. There isn’t a chance to fail, just a chance to learn and improve. That aspect of just clicking good behavior and ignoring all others is a great way to keep self-confidence and really focus on learning rather than success or failure.”
“My mind set has changed during this course from fearing I would do something incorrect to knowing I could make a mistake but know exactly what to do to make it better. TAG thinking in this course I would give lots of credit for my improvement. TAG thinking has enabled me to grow as a dancer because you are able to make mistakes and move past them. It allows you to use our intuition and trust yourself when performing a move. Trust your body; trust that you’re able to succeed by tweaking that one detail each time you perform it.”
“TAG thinking has been a huge aspect of my new way of thinking. It is so great to find a particular area to focus on while doing a routine, and it is even more gratifying when I “click” myself for being able to do it. This way of thinking is revolutionary by eliminating frustrations with dance, and turning them into tag points, or goals.”
“I think TAG thinking is a genius idea. Focusing on one specific element of a piece of dance, such as a turn, really helped us this semester. It made me identify something I needed to improve on, learn how to do it correctly, have the focus to try it, learn when I was doing it correctly and what it felt like when I was, and eventually perfect that specific element. I truly think we should start to incorporate tagging in all of our dance classes because I think it could help us learn more efficiently and faster. “
Life Lessons from TAGteach
Ann Aiko Bergeron is a Morse-Alumni Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She and her husband Dale live on the shore of Lake Superior and are owned by their two Border Terriers, Ninja and Banzai.