Anyone involved with studying a new art knows that the journey to mastery is not a linear one. But rather an unexpected journey filled with excitement, disappointments, turning points and aha moments.
First, it starts with excitement, but soon, as the initial excitement wears off, everything starts feeling more difficult. What seemed to be simple now seems increasingly complicated. This is where many people, who don’t have the patience or determination, give up. However, those that manage to go through this phase will soon discover that their journey to mastery is just getting started. As their understanding of practices deepens they discover a new meaning and start seeing what was always there but hidden. Eventually, they move to a level of mastery where they can take their art to new unexplored places. This process is perfectly captured by the concept of Shu Ha Ri.
The concept of Shu Ha Ri and the journey to mastery
Shu Ha Ri is a concept from Japanese Martial Arts which is used to describe the learning stages to become a master.
In the first stage, called Shu (translated “to obey”), the focus is on learning from one teacher. The student follows closely the instructions of their teacher, learning the fundamental techniques and heuristics without deviating to alternative techniques and approaches. At this stage, the student repeats the moves of the teacher in a disciplined way until they feel comfortable with them.
At the second stage, called Ha (translated “to detach”), the student starts internalising the moves by learning the underlying principles behind the techniques, and is ready to break with tradition. Here, the student learns from multiple teachers, integrating different moves and techniques. This is when the student starts deconstructing existing forms, departing from existing practices.
At the third stage of mastery, called Ri (translated “to transcend”), everything becomes effortless and natural. The student is not learning anymore from others and can completely depart from the known forms, creating their own moves and techniques.
At this stage the student has become the master.
My personal journey to dance mastery
When I started my personal journey to mastery, I was not aware of Shu Ha Ri. I was more interested in learning how to dance rather than what goes into it. However, looking back I can now relate to what I experienced with the three stages of mastery.
Stage 1 – Learning the rules through repetition
When your body moves in ways you never expected, your brain is trying to figure out what your body is doing.
In my first salsa class I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know any of the basic steps and my feet couldn’t dance to the rhythm. I was clumsy and my mind was in overdrive trying to understand what was going on.
At this stage, all I could do was follow the moves our teacher was showing us and repeat them mindlessly. After a few classes I became much more comfortable with the basic steps, although I was still mimicking my dance teacher rather than actually leading myself.
In the following months my teacher continued introducing more moves and patterns. But it took me almost a year before I was able to lead myself and my partner with relative comfort. Yet though it was all from memory as I didn’t have a deeper understanding of how the individual elements were coming together to create the various patterns. Quite often I would forget the sequence of moves and I would pause in the middle of a song. My partners hated it. It was embarassing.
Despite my efforts I reached a point where I felt I was going to give up. I was stuck in trying to remember every sequence from memory. The more moves I would learn the more I would forget older ones with my capacity gradually decreasing. I couldn’t really go past this point.
But the answer was not to give up.
Instead I continued practicing, performing the same moves repeatedly and with slight variations. Although I didn’t know it back then, repetition helps create new neural connections in our brains that makes the execution of learned moves effortless. Behind this lies the concept of Kata.
The concept of Kata
Kata is a Japanese term which means form and is used to describe the repetitive practice of moves and patterns, which help a practitioner internalise them and perfect their execution. Kata was initially developed in ancient China from Kung Fu Masters as a way to capture and transfer their martial art techniques and knowledge to future generations. It consisted of highly-detailed movements and patterns with dozens of micro-sequences. For centuries Kata remained the most popular form of knowledge transfer. Now, Kata is one of the three pillars of Karate but is also used in Japanese theatre.
The concept of Kata in industry was first adopted and popularised by Toyota to describe small routines that helped build good habits in the shop floor and develop people’s skills.
Through consistent and repetitive practice an athlete, a martial artist, a dancer, or a knowledge worker can use Kata to continuously improve, internalise their skills and find their flow. The fundamental shift is that Kata helps direct information (moves) to our long-term memory rather than our short-term memory. The latter has little capacity and as its name indicates is used for short-term storage. This is why a beginner who uses her short-term memory to execute a move struggles to remember it afterwards.
By using Kata, a dancer can gradually develop their ”muscle memory” and store a great number of moves and patterns in their long-term memory.
Stage 2 – Breaking the rules
I started practising daily on my own until I felt really confident I have mastered most of the moves I knew. But then something even more exciting happened. I started understanding the deeper principles involved in the patterns. This gave me the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct sequences in different ways. I could see both the constituent moves and how they all worked together as a whole. It was like cracking the code for the first time.
I felt liberated as I could now create alternative sequences and patterns by focusing only on the underlying principles of the moves. On the dance floor, I stopped feeling obliged to strictly follow a specific combination of moves. Instead I left myself improvise and combine moves as I went. Through this process I came up for the first time with some new interesting sequences.
However, the learning journey was not completed here. It was just getting more exciting.
Stage 3 – Making your own rules
I started taking classes with different teachers, gaining a wider perspective of different styles, interpretations and moves. Furthermore, I realised that the more I interacted with different teachers the more complete my understanding became (learn from others). I also spent many hours every week watching on Instagram and YouTube professional dancers I have never met, observing their moves and then trying them out.
This led me to the next level of mastery, although I cannot claim I am a full master yet. But when dancing, I feel completely free to move as I like, as long as I respect the fundamentals of salsa. I am really excited to see where my journey will take me next.
The journey to mastery can be a lonely one, lasting many years. But it is a deeply liberating journey that continuously expands your mind and state of consciousness. Every peak you reach reveals a new one down the horizon, making you an exciting beginner once again.