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Dance lessons

Learning to be intentionally kind & generous is the most important lesson; that’s what I’m always working on. This page collects some of the other, less mission-critical lessons I’m learning from taking dance classes, dancing, teaching dance classes, and putting on dances.

• The limits of lesson planning
• Teach the dance, show the love
• Teachers: Mini-privates are a drag
• Teach the people who show up
• Make room for everyone at the dance
• How to find a teacher

The limits of lesson planning

I always have a lesson plan, and I’m determined not to be bound by it. A lesson plan helps me relax; it fends off stage fright by giving me a pre-established place to start. There you have the 2 basic problems with a lesson plan: relaxed is not how I need to be, and that pre-established place is quite likely not going to be the right place to start.

Instead of being relaxed, I need to be forced to let go of my thinking/planning processes so I can respond directly to the students. “Relax,” in this context, means the same as “think I already know what to do.” But I don’t; whatever I think is going to be less resonant than responding directly. If I’m relaxed, I’m in my comfort zone; nothing extraordinary ever happens there. Being forced to respond directly can be acutely uncomfortable; that’s highly desirable discomfort. Responding directly is teaching without forethought, simply launching myself into that moment with the students and giving everything I have. I open myself up and just start. In those moments, I’m able to teach with my whole body and being, and my mind is an appropriately used tool in the teaching rather than a petty tyrant.

There’s no way to know the right place to start until I’m there in the room with the students, breathing the same air, seeing them dance. Or not dance. That’s applicable at all levels, beginners on up. There’s a limitless number of ways a class can go, and I can’t figure out the right way in advance. I don’t mean to imply there’s one right way, but there are plenty of lackluster, uninspired ways, and hewing to some list of curriculum bullets I have in my head is pretty much guaranteed to put me on one of them.

Teach the dance, show the love

Students come to classes to learn how to dance, they come to learn moves. I’ve found that I can spend a little time on technique & styling, but not much; better to keep it focused on moves, give ’em the moves. That’s as it should be; this is advertised as a dance class, and I’m all for truth in advertising. I’m also subversive: I find ways to slip in the love.

For me, the love part of partner dancing has 3 dimensions:

1. surrendering to the music and swimming in it
2. falling in love with your body in motion as you swim
3. being kind & generous with your partner

Except for certain partnering dynamics relating to #3, none of that can be taught directly, but it can all be modeled, hinted at, pointed to. When I teach, my goals are to infuse every bit of instruction with my very best understanding of how this particular bit of dance can be done musically, playfully, kindly & generously, and to let my own love of dancing shine through as I do. If I teach like that, people get it.

Teachers: Mini-privates are a drag

You know the scene: you’re in a dance class, the practice music ends, and… dead air. The teachers are both giving little private lessons to someone. Everyone else waits. If it happens frequently, the class loses momentum, starts to feel aimless and disjointed. The problem isn’t that the mini-private went on too long; the problem is that it started in the first place. Little private sessions, whether initiated by student or teacher, drag the whole class down – even if it doesn’t get so extreme as to involve dead air – because the teacher’s attention is diverted from the whole class, which is where it needs to be and where it needs to stay. It’s fine to address a challenge some particular student is having; that can be a great teaching tool. But everyone in the class should have the benefit of that teaching.

Address it in class rather than disjointing the class and dragging the whole thing down, punishing all the other students. The others may not have that problem, but they can probably refine whatever area the problem is in.

But what if a student needs help with something that everyone else in the class knows? Borderline students need to sink or swim; it’s just plain wrong to hobble the class by lavishing your attention on someone who probably shouldn’t be in that particular class. If students come to expect that kind of special treatment, it can make the class permanently broken. Be loyal to the class, not the borderline student. Give them special help before or after class if you like, but not during.

What about teachers jumping into rotation and dancing with students, just to give a little coaching or even just the experience of doing the move with someone who can really do the other part? It’s well-intentioned, and fine occasionally, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do most of the time. Sure it’s nice for students to feel what it’s supposed to feel like, but it’s unrealistic; a student in your dance class is not likely to be doing that much dancing with partners at your skill level, y’know? So it sets up unrealistic expectations for both classes and dances, and it sucks your attention away from the room, from watching where people are at overall so you can figure out what to do next in the class. I think the class is better served if the teachers mostly watch, and don’t go into rotation.

Teach the people who show up

I hear a lot of grumbling and discussion about varying skill levels in dance classes; pre-requisites, teachers letting in students they shouldn’t, classes not as advertised, all that. All classes are mixed levels. Level of skill is anything but monolithic; there are dozens, maybe hundreds of aspects to dance skill; different kinds of skill, different skills. Dance teachers are always confronted by a considerable range of skills and skill levels, and you have to teach the people who show up; that’s the essence of being a good teacher.

I try to aim my classes at approximately the 60th percentile, pushing the fat part of the bell curve at least a little. I mostly teach relatively simple moves at considerable depth, with a lot of focus on lead-follow dynamics, kindness & generosity, musicality, styling, source of movement, balance, intent, all that. Beginners can (and do) ignore most of that and focus on learning the move. Experienced dancers probably already know the move, or can learn it by seeing it once; they’re free to focus on all the depth elements. And the people in the middle do some of both. It’s really not too hard to teach all the students, as long as you don’t get trapped in catering to one end or the other.

Make room for everyone at the dance

Whenever dancers get together there has to be some mutual agreement, some rules of the road. As partner dancers, we need to coordinate our dancing so everyone can dance and no one gets hurt. But how? Dancers who favor traveling dances want a traveling lane all the way around, all the time; people who like to dance in place sometimes like to set up their slots along the outside edges. The idea that certain dances are always traveling, others always in place doesn’t fly; plenty of dancers ignore that, and lots of dance music is ambiguous: swing or foxtrot? Blues or WCS? Salsa or samba? Almost anything or tango?

I suggest that everyone err on the side of diversity and tolerance: make the dance floor accommodate as many styles of dancing as possible. Use common sense: you can’t really make a traveling lane work anywhere but around the outside, but you can set up a slot pretty much anywhere. Be kind, generous & tolerant with your fellow dancers, and do your best to make room for everyone.

How to find a teacher

When you’re shopping for a dance teacher, pay no attention to their reputation, testimonials, what they say about themselves on their website – much less their “credentials” – certificates and all that. Instead, go to one of their dances and see what it feels like to you (a teacher who doesn’t put on dances you can go to as an outsider is probably not worth considering). When you’re at someone’s dance, you can feel the things that count: how friendly people are, how partners treat each other, what it feel like when this teacher’s students are dancing together. Not how snazzy the dancing is or isn’t, but how it feels, how the partners relate to each other as humans. The whole vibe of the place. Find a dance where you feel at ease, where you like the vibe of the place, then take classes from the teachers who put it on.

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