Learning Styles and Square Dancing

by Clark Baker, September, 2007

Revised October, 2021

[Note: This article is not yet finished. Perhaps it will be of use to you in its current state.]

Part of the Modern Western Square Dance caller's job is to teach new dancers how to dance. Callerlab recommends teaching the Mainstream vocabulary of 69 calls in 56 hours of lessons.

There are many skills necessary and tools available in order to accomplish this task while, at the same time, making it a fun and pleasurable experience. One tool is to start with a good teaching order. Next, you should teach using good teaching principles. Suggestions on how to teach each of the Basic and Mainstream calls can be found here. However, 10 years of hard work and technology have produced a much better and more complete resource here.

When callers discuss how to teach square dancing, the better teachers mention teaching for different learning styles. And that will be the subject of the rest of this paper. I am no expert in this area so mostly I will tell you what I have heard and point you to lots of resources. The problem is, none of these resources deal specifically with the teaching of square dancing.

Before we get started, a dirty little secret

The theory of learning styles started in the 1960's. People found the idea of teaching with reguard to a student's learning style attractive and it made intuitive sense. The idea caught on in the educational field in a huge way. We have sessions on it at Callerlab.

By 2008, research indicated that students don't learn any better teaching to their learning style or just teaching. Since then, there have been many studies and there is no evidence that teaching to a sutdents learning style works.

I will continue as if learning styles work, but keep in mind that they don't. At the end, I will have more to say.

The Basics: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic

There are three main learning styles: Visual (learn by seeing), Auditory (learn by hearing), and Kinesthetic (learn by doing). Most people have a primary learning style; the one that works the best for them. They also have a secondary learning style; one that also allows them to learn. However, the third learning style is useless; it makes no sense and they struggle when information is presented in that style.

Now, as square dance teachers we each have our individual learning styles—a primary one, a secondary one. When we teach, we tend to teach using our primary learning style! This is great for those for whom it matches their primary (or secondary) learning style. However it is a disaster for the rest. The solution is to become a better teacher, and learn how to present each square dance call in a way that works for each type of learner. From your point of view, you will be doing some teaching using a learning style that makes no sense to you. Trust me, it will help some people, perhaps those who never seem to be getting what you have been teaching. They weren't stupid, you just weren't communicating with them.


If I have a news article I want my wife to know about, I prefer to read it to her out loud. This way I can pause if either of us want to comment on the article so far. She hates being read to—she doesn't understand the information as well and doesn't retain it. She would much prefer to read the article, uninterrupted, by herself.

The same goes for my daughter. We can listen to a Harry Potter book on tape while driving long distances but she knows she is not understanding it anywhere near as well as when she reads the book herself.

Some dancers, especially Challenge dancers, like to learn new calls by reading the definitions. In my experience, most dancers find square dance call definitions confusing and would prefer to be shown or told how to do the call.

When teaching a call, you typically have the dancers do the call, piece by piece, as you tell them what to do. This appeals to both the auditory and kinesthetic learners.

Taminations is a web site that allows dancers to read the definition of a call and watch dancers do the call from a variety of formations. In addition, each movie can be stopped, replayed, and slowed down. For dancers who want to lean on their own, or review what they have learned after lessons, or just visualize the dance action without being in the square, the tool should be a big help.

I oversimplified

As you might expect, the world is more complicated than I just presented. The Wikipedia entry for learning styles will give you a good overview on the subject. When I said there were 3 learning styles, I was presenting a particular learning style model (called VAK after the first letter in each word). For better or worse, there are over 80 different learning style models!

When someone proposes a learning style model, they often create a corresponding test or questionnaire. Many of these are available on the Internet, some for free and some for a small fee. For example, check out What's Your Learning Style? 20 Questions or Introduction to Learning Styles and the PMPS.

One might think that a good way to proceed would be to test yourself and everyone who comes to your first night of class so you know how to teach them. In addition to the time this would take and probably scaring off a number of people who came "just to dance", you probably wouldn't learn a lot that would change what you should be doing. Instead, try to teach in a way that appeals to more than one type of learner, realize that you don't "get" some learning styles, and your job is to bridge any gap between what some dancers "get" and what they need to know.

The VAK learning styles that we have talked about mainly deal with how we take in (sense) information. A second way to categorize how we take in information would be if we take what we get at face value (concrete) or if we look beyond what the information is telling us (abstract). After that comes how we process information. Some people like to process their information in a sequential order while others appear to be happy with a random order. A great book which describes this in more detail is The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. Her website is available here.

We are getting close to personality and personality testing. The test that I am most familiar with is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Mostly I have read Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey. You could check out his website here. A book which relates personality theories to teaching is Effective Teaching, Effective Learning: Making the Personality Connection in Your Classroom by Alice Fairhurst.

Another book which was mentioned on the Wikipedia learning styles web page and which I have in my library is Thinking Styles by Robert J. Sternberg.

Ed Galatta is a C4 dancer and an exceptional high school math teacher. When I tried to finds books that would help me with learning styles, I happened to purchase About Learning by Bernice McCarthy. I was later to learn that this book had been very influential in Ed's teaching career and he also recommends it. While I am sure it is a good book, it is not written in a style that matched my engineer mind! It was interesting to try to read a book on learning that I found hard to learn from.

Many of us have experienced callers who have said and done things at the mike that have made us cringe. I have experienced callers belittle dancers, act like drill instructors, keep giving the same instructions over and over even though they don't seem to be working, and even get out on the floor and physically manhandle dancers around. While our dancers are not children, the following book may assist us in better ways to talk with them: How To Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Discussions on learning styles and square dancing

Mike Jacobs talks and recommendations

Mike Jacobs has given two presentations at Callerlab on learning styles. It was after attending those that I got interested in learning more. In 2000 I e-mailed him and asked
Mike, when you have time, could you provide use with some references you have found useful related to learning styles and teaching MWSD.
His response was:
  1. The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias—Probably the most usable and comprehensive; not just about learning styles but the whole gamut.

  2. Thinking Styles by Robert J Sternberg—Complex.

  3. Effective Teaching, Effective Learning: Making the Personality Connection in Your Classroom

  4. How To Talk So Kids Can Learn—Interesting in that if every example in the book was oriented towards adults in dancing the strategies would still work.

Al Stevens and the airline pilot

In 2000, Norm Wilcox asked, "How do you go about teaching new callers how to teach dancers? What techniques do you use?" Al Stevens (Pforzheim, Germany) had a great response:
In my callers schools, I teach callers to be aware of the different ways that people in general learn. Some learn by reading, others by observing, some by listening....it is vital to the callers to understand that people learn in different ways, and it is our job to be aware of this. I use the example of telling a personal story about a man (76 years young) who had the darnedest time grasping the call Cloverleaf. For some reason, if he was the trailing person, he would always get in front of the leader....and if he was the leader, he would wander aimlessly....lost, because there was nobody to follow. After 5 weeks of biting my tongue, I finally asked him what he did before he retired and he told me he was an airline pilot, for Eastern Airlines. I promptly got behind the mike and had him set up as a lead dancer in a starting double pass thru formation and called DPT, then I said, "Rannie, you are flying on heading 360....turn left to heading 090"....to which he responded, "Roger"....and executed a perfect Cloverleaf. I found a way to finally teach him how to do a call that was bugging him (not to mention the job it did to my nerves).

I feel it is vitally important to have the definitions available for the dancers (so they can read them), then it is vital to verbally paint the picture of how to execute the call (so they can hear it), then it is necessary to demonstrate the call (so they can see it done)...but the learning process is still not complete until they themselves try it (the old walk-thru) and it will not become an "instinctive reflex" until they have danced it....and danced it.....and danced it, over and over (repetition).

Michelle McCarty and Handicapable dancers

Michelle McCarty regularly teaches and calls for Handicapable dancers. She is chairman of Callerlab's Handicapable Committee which has produced a handbook: Handicapable Directory & Helpful Hints For Teaching & Calling For Handicapable Dancers. In watching her work, you can see that she is able to use all available inputs and senses to communicate with and teach her dancers. If you want to see a variety of ways to teach each move, watch her in action. In fact, a DVD of the 2004 sessions she did at Callerlab has been available.

In addition, Michelle has appeared on three panels about calling for the Handicapable. While they don't focus on learning style, there is information to be learned.

You may be able to obtain copies of these talks from Convention CD's, Inc. or from Callerlab.

Gloria Krusemeyer, John Marus on the effect of music on teaching

Gloria Krusemeyer (Northfield, MN) writes:

One thing that is important for learning is that the dancers be relaxed.

Last week I was at a lesson where the caller took several minutes out, with the music off, to talk about this. Every one relaxed. It was wonderful to behold.

He then put the needle back down and most people tensed up again, instantly! This was some pseudo-music that had both a strong beat and distracting extra things besides the continuous boom-chukka. Sorry I didn't find out what the record was.

I FELT my partner jump when the music went on. I saw the others react. This is NOT just my prejudice against some of the music used for MWSD.

There must be other music that does a better job of setting the mood for learning. Please, those of you who have experimented with this, please report on your successes (and failures).

John Marus (San Diego, CA) replies:

Boy, you sure make a great point Gloria! Speaking as a person who had to survive through educational psychology classes, what you are talking about is trying to lower the learner's Affective Filter! This is a part of something called Bloom's Taxonomy of learning tasks. Bloom's taxonomy is divided into three "domains"—Cognitive (mental processing), Psychomotor (transferring mental processing into a physical reaction), and Affective (feelings/emotions about the learning task). The Affective Filter, if it is generated in the learner, is a major hindrance to the learning process—a "brain block", if you will. The level of the Affective Filter is controlled by the learner's emotions at the time. If he or she becomes stressed, or not positively motivated about the task, it limits their ability to learn, and it's something they cannot control, contrary to general belief.

So, what does all this psycho-babble have to do with teaching people how to square dance? Well, one of the things you need to do is to create an environment that keeps everyone's affective filters down as low as possible. Factors that determine this include your tone of voice, method of presentation, ability to get people focused on the learning task, proper perspective on what you are doing, nonverbal clues, how you respond to dancer's mistakes, etc., AND the kind of music you use! For those units (OK—tips) where the dancers are going to do something very complex, I usually pick a piece of music that has a good, constant beat, but not too pronounced. Some examples of this type are: "Crackers" on Global, "Breezin' Easy" on Ranch House, "Sexy Eyes" and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" on ABC Records. There are more, but this is all I can think of right now. Choose something with a light feeling, not too busy, but with a pronounced beat. Don't necessarily use just this kind of music all night. Give the new dancers experience in dancing to a variety of moods of appropriate music, use good judgment. Hope this helps!

It's time to clean out all of those filters! Maybe people will stay longer!

Stewart Kramer (Stanford, CA) on Negative Transfer

As part of a more general discussion, someone asked: What is meant by "Negative Transfer"?

Stewart Kramer replies: It's not MWSD. It's a psychological term for something that affects learning.

An example for MWSD would Right and Left Thru vs. Square Thru. Some dancers who have learned one call will have trouble learning the other call. Both calls start with a Right Pull By, followed by something that uses the left hand (either Courtesy Turn, or Face and Left Pull By). In normal couples, the Lady's part is similar for both calls, but the Man turns in opposite ways (backing up while turning left in the Courtesy Turn, or turning right and walking forward for the Left Pull By).

Whichever call is learned second, the Man tends to transfer the prior knowledge of the call he learned first. It becomes "negative transfer" because it makes it more difficult to learn the second call.

"Positive transfer" is the same process in a situation where knowing one thing helps you to learn another thing. For example, the ability to do Star Thru can be positively transferred to learning Slide Thru ("Star Thru without hands"). Knowing one call makes it easier to learn the other call (or at least improves the success rate at first).

A more general term is "interference"—sometimes it includes things like negative transfer. If Right and Left Thru and Square Thru are taught in the same tip (or on the same night), perhaps neither call will be learned well enough to cause negative transfer, but it's certainly possible for the dancers to feel overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated. Trying to learn two things at the same time can cause interference, especially when they are different. Moods and feelings (such as frustration or confusion) can also interfere with learning or memory.

In general, it's a little easier to deal with negative transfer. You can watch for people turning the wrong way, and warn them not to do the wrong call. You can give them hints to help them tell the two call apart (i.e., Square Thru is the one where you move all the way around the box of 4, and all 4 sides are similar, and each part is a Pull By; Right and Left Thru is only 2 parts, and the parts aren't the same, and both dancers turn toward their left on the second part during the Courtesy Turn). These hints make more sense if the dancers are already familiar with at least one of the calls.

Being aware of "negative transfer" can help you minimize the problem in your own teaching.

Jim Graham recounts his experiences learning MS and Challenge

On a challenge square dancing mailing list, the discussion was about ways of getting new people to challenge quicker. One person said, "That's partly behind why I asked if anyone had ever tried to work out a new way of teaching those who want what we have at challenge quicker than several years at all the lower levels."

Jim Graham replied:

Here's another perspective towards that same idea. When I was learning Basic->Plus I was doing it in a class where we basically got told "go over there and grab that hand and turn around and you're done". We were given the books with all the pictures of polyester outfits and twirling skirts as instructional material. It took a while to get used to how to do things and everything was a little fuzzy in my head. I don't really think I was the best student either. I figured the fuzziness was all part of square dancing and let it go. I guessed I just had two left feet and was bad at learning physical skills.

After a year and a half or so at Plus I decided to join a local Advanced class. The text was "The Big 5" and I bought it a couple of weeks before the class and started reading it. Oh my god! Definitions with diagrams! You mean there is theory and geometry behind this stuff? There are spots on the floor? After a week I had memorized all of the definitions and knew exactly what I had to do. No fuzziness there, I had a framework to put things in now. I even went back and reread some of the definitions of the lower level calls and some lights turned on for me. I happened upon an Advanced square before my class began that needed an extra dancer and after the tip they thought I was an out of towner that had been dancing Advanced for years (it was my first tip with no formal learning experience). No, I just finally learned what square dancing really was and it clicked.

Basically all that time in the BMP classes wasn't the most comfortable learning experience for me and was really inefficient and ineffective. If it wasn't for the fact that I had just come out of the closet and was looking for a social opportunity to do something non-bar-like with other gay men and women, I might not have stuck with it beyond the first couple of weeks. The mechanisms of teaching Advanced and beyond (especially those mechanisms that involved me reading diagrammed definitions) were way more suited to my learning abilities. Give me a good book with definitions and diagrams and I pick things up quickly and accurately (though practice is still a necessary part of the learning experience). If only the learning experience had been geared towards that all along I would have maintained much more enthusiasm. But, I don't think those mechanisms are very well suited to the people who tend to stick with the lower levels (up through Plus and maybe Advanced). Many of my friends who balked at Advanced, or stuck with Advanced and decided to stop there, don't internalize definitions very well. You can tell them the definition but they don't understand what it is until they see it. (In contrast, you can show me a move and I don't understand it until you tell me the definition...)

Another "failing" of current lower level classes from the perspective of the way I would have liked to have learned was the lack of concepts. Even though they aren't officially part of the program and won't be seen at festivals and dances, it would be nice to have some "extra credit" concepts thrown in at lower levels and workshopped to wet the appetite of the budding challenge dancers.

Just some thoughts (from someone who gets so little Challenge floor time any more that I've given up on the C-3a I used to dance and wouldn't inflict myself on a C-2 hall any more without a serious refresher effort)...

Kathy Godfrey on teaching methods and student success

Square dancing is definitely a subject that entails accumulated knowledge. I don't think this is bad per se, it just requires that teachers make sure that every avenue is explored in teaching the basic building blocks before moving on to the next thing.

Before I took up square dancing, I did folk dancing regularly. If a dance I didn't know was being done, I could generally learn it by standing behind someone who knew the dance, watching them, then copying their movements. (You can do this to learn a line dance, too.) That was at least as common a method as being officially taught the dance by someone. Now, this method works for folk dancing or line dancing because there aren't as many individual moves to do, and the dance pattern repeats itself, usually in a pretty short span. But the key here is that many people can learn by watching a demo and then imitating it, without anyone needing to say a word. If you combine a demo with the over-the-mike explanation, you may suddenly enlighten someone who would remain in the dark from simply hearing the description. Square Thru springs to mind; Bend The Line might be another example.

There are also folks who may not learn by hearing, or learn by watching, but will nail it if they get a chance to try it in a situation where success is assured. For example: Courtesy Turn is hard to describe, and even someone watching carefully might not see all that's going on—handholds, pivoting, etc. But if you give that person a partner who knows the call, and they walk through it successfully, they'll get the feel of the call. Star Thru may fall into this category as well, and maybe also Recycle.

If we're going to be successful at bringing people up to approximately Basic level in approximately 12 weeks, then I vote for using any and all reasonable methods for teaching those basic calls:

Avoid taught failure, and maybe we can avoid learned failure. It's much better to take a little extra time to have dancers learn the call correctly and be confident in their knowledge than to have them flounder or drop out because they have the incorrect mental model and end up deciding that they just can't do this stuff. And it's easier (and more fun) to learn the call correctly in the first place than to have to unlearn and relearn it later. Simply repeating something that you just don't understand doesn't lead to greater understanding, and may just confirm mistaken impressions or bad habits.

A lot of things start out as "knowledge of" and end up being internalized into "knowledge how," and most people can handle it pretty well. Imagine what the streets would be like if everyone who drove was still in "knowledge of" mode! (BTW, I live in Massachusetts, so I've probably already thought of all the jokes you can make on that previous sentence :-).) Maybe the best use of our efforts is working harder to get the basics across to begin with, and let the repetition of practice bring about the "knowledge how."

P.S.: I also think that dancers who really gain "knowledge how" of the calls will not be fazed by Extended Applications, as long as the caller gives them practice in non-vanilla positions.

Clark adds:

Additional reading

Learning Styles Debunked

Don't believe me. Instead, read and watch these:

OK, I had been sold on Learning Styles -- now what?

We no longer need to figure out our learning style, the learning styles of our dancers, and ways to explain each call for each type of learner. We no longer need to attend talks on learning styles. Instead, we can spend time on evidence-based teaching techniques, evidence-based learning, and perhaps exchanging ideas that have worked for other callers.