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Robin’s Hierarchy of Dance (Stanford Talk)

On May 1, I had a great time speaking at Stanford for BJ Fogg and David Ngo’s Design for Dance conference, where designers, dancers, developers and innovators came together for one day to share ideas around the question:

“How do we get more people dancing?”

The theme of the day was “The first five minutes” and how to better engineer people’s dance experience to get them feeling “YES, this is for me!”

So how does one go about designing a phenomenal initial five minute experience? That’s what I set out to answer.

Get Them Coming Back – A framework for designing the first five

View the full slide deck here.

My biggest pet peeve while learning to dance is teachers who talk too much and don’t allow students to learn through doing, moving and feeling. So I kicked things off with some audience participation and did three things:

  1. Got everyone dancing to Justin Timberlake
  2. Got people introducing themselves
  3. Asked for some volunteers to dance up front

The goal was to get everyone feeling the sensations I’m about to tell you about.

So, how do we understand all of these feelings we have when we’re learning dance? Well, a psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow already figured it out for us:

Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs to explain basic motivations behind human behaviour. The idea is simple: You start at the bottom with the basic needs of food, water and air to survive. Once one level of needs is satisfied you become more concerned with the next, and you move up.

Physiological – the basic human needs of food water and air
Safety – of yourself, your family, your employment
Love and Belonging – the need for family, friends, intimacy
Esteem – the need to feel recognized and master skills
Self actualization – the desire to reach your full potential

So how does this help us understand how we learn to dance?

All it needs is a new lens:


Physical – Get people moving. It’s the golden rule of dance. People learn best through connecting with music and their bodies, not listening to your voice.

Ex: This was the first thing I did in my demo. It makes people feel better, more excited and increases attention span.

Safety – assuming your physical safety is not at risk (do discourage guns in class), this is about emotional safety. Judgement from yourself and others is the death of dance.

Ex: Why did some people volunteer during my demo and not others? They probably didn’t feel safe.

Social – people want to interact and feel connected to each other and their teacher. The stronger these bonds, the more safe and supported people feel.

Ex: Encouraging everyone to introduce themselves put the group at ease, making everyone feel more relaxed, familiar, secure and ready to act. This is where my demo stopped and everybody was now ready to learn together.

Learning – consuming movement and information about dance to progress and master skills. At this point, what looks good to others and feels good to you are usually quite far off.

Artistry – you are a creator, not just a consumer of dance, working towards unrestrained self-expression. You start performing, teaching or choreographing. What looks good to others and feels good to you starts becoming one and the same.

So, now that we have this framework…

How do we get more people dancing?

1. Know your audience

For experienced dancers, focus on their needs at the top of the pyramid – Learning and Artistry – while ensuring their more basic needs are also met.

For beginners, focus on the bottom of the pyramid and fulfill their physical, safety and social needs as quick as possible.

2. Understand what feelings people need

Anchor people to the top of the pyramid, helping them live in the possibility that they can reach it. Do this by making them feel excited and inspired. I’ll explain how in moment.

Once you’ve given people the shiny object to reach for, push them up from the bottom by making them feel activated, comfortable and connected to one another.

3. Design the first five minutes of the experience

Let’s get tangible.

Learning and Artistry (The top of the pyramid)

Get people feeling excited and inspired by showing them a demonstration of what they’ll eventually be able to do. Share a vulnerable story of when you were in their shoes, empowering them with a sense of possibility that, they too, will be able to do what you just did or achieve whatever their goal may be.



  • Get people moving as quick as possible
  • Physically take people through the movements or feelings you want them to experience, don’t just explain them

Online or in-app

  • Minimize the user’s journey to action (i.e. start of a video) – as few clicks or taps as possible.
  • Have very brief intros


  • Kill the mirrors to stop beginners from judging themselves
  • Give everyone permission to make mistakes, get awkward and feel weird. Let them know that this their sandbox to experiment in and break free, that they’re in it together, and that it’s a safe space

Online or in-app

  • the user controls the environment, choosing a safe space
  • oversee user conduct on your site or app and get rid of anyone who’s harming other users’ experiences


  • Encourage introductions right away
  • Get people working with partners – smaller groups make people feel safer
  • Get people touching each other – yes, I said it. Physical contact pops personal bubbles, making people feel closer to each other immediately. High 5’s are perfect for this.

Online or in-app

  • Comment forms, a way to message other users and forums – users should be able to connect with you and other users easily.
  • Private groups that help users meet and interact (Facebook is an easy start)
  • Location-based – make it simple for people to find and communicate with others who live near them. This allows people to organize meet-ups and strengthen the community, without you doing anything.

And there you have it, a simple approach to designing better dance experiences, no matter who’s dancing or what medium you use to deliver it.

The rest is up to you. Have fun with it!