Thoughts on swing dancing and Lindy Hop, one word at a time…

Teaching Dance In Five Minutes Or Less

Yesterday I was taking a teacher training class ran at Blues Union by Amanda Gruhl and Shawn Hershey in Boston where I faced an interesting challenge. I had do something I have only done once before, which was teach an idea or a concept in five minutes or less. Oh, did I mention it was in the context of Blues dancing which I feel completely unqualified to teach?

Anyways in spite of me having 2+ years of teaching experience in Lindy Hop/Balboa/Collegiate Shag at Penn State and the Central Pennsylvania area this was a definite challenge for myself because;

  1. This class was almost improvised on the spot, we maybe had ten minutes max to brainstorm a lesson plan.
  2. I was teaching Blues, a dance that I am not confident of my abilities in. To add to the difficulty this was in front of a crowd of individuals who knew the dance arguably much better than myself.
  3. The time constraint made the choice of class material a more pertinent issue than usual.

Anyways in the interest of giving you guys some of the insight I received from the class, I want to list a few things I learned from the experience.

Teach-New-Concepts

Teach What You Know

In the past my most successful classes were ones I had taught literally a dozen times before and knew the material, common mistakes people make, and analogizes that would convey concepts to dancers like the back of my hand. One of the important things that comes from teaching what you know you exude confidence.  This is important because students can clearly tell when a teacher is hesitant or unsure about their material.

What you know also does not just entail knowing how to lead or follow a move or concept. It is more along the lines of understanding how the move or concept works and being able to break it down to another person. Understanding why a person will struggle with certain technique aspects of a move or concept and knowing multiple ways to convey the knowledge they need to them mentally and physically are all part of this idea of “knowing” something.

During the teacher training class I saw some people have issues teaching their mini-lessons because they did not predict how people would struggle with the material they chose. One mini-class the teacher had the issue that he was unaware he was doing different variations of the move he was teaching without realizing it until it was pointed out. Unfortunately a lot of learning how individuals struggle with moves or concepts is simply through experience of teaching them and troubleshooting.

Realize and Incorporate Class Constraints

With five minutes as a limit choosing class material which is normally a priority for classes became essential due to the need to convey a concept to a group of students quick and dirty. Candidly I admit that a good portion of teachers (yes even professional international instructors) will ride the struggle-bus when attempting to stay on time for classes. How I usually cheat is by putting an alarm in my phone on silent mode that will go off 5 minutes before class is over.

The time limit is not the only constraint you have to deal with though. Are there mirrors available? Does your class consist of newbies, or advanced dancers, or a mix of mainly newbies with a ringer or two? Have these students had classes with you before? All of these are small details which one can use to slightly tweak their class to better tailor it to students’ needs. One mini-class I saw that had an issue was the fact that the teacher while doing a great job of teaching, she chose class material that simply could not be covered in five minutes.

Less is More

One of the mistakes I made in my mini-lesson was when starting the class off with a monkey-see monkey-do exercise I said several things such as “Focus on your arms”, “Think about what lines you are making”, “Watch yourself in the mirror”, and et cetera. However for some of the students that level of information was a lot to process at once and was perceived as overwhelming.

Treating each word you use as a valuable resource, being conscientious of the analogies you use, and limiting the amount of information you provide to your students during each portion of class are essential to being a good teacher. My least favorite classes are when what is supposed to be a dance class turns into a lecture and it was not advertised as a lecture class. The mini-lessons I liked the most during the teacher training class were the ones that gave ample time and rotations to try out and troubleshoot class material.

Never Stop Improving

Last but not least an important part of being a teacher is not getting complacent in your own dancing or teaching abilities. There’s always an analogy that you haven’t used that can better convey an idea to students. Improving your own dancing provides a better visual example for students to copy. An unfortunate truth is every technical deficiency you have as a dancer your students are visually picking up as well. Another thing I would recommend is talking to other teachers and talking shop, at least for myself I get fun and creative ideas of how to approach teaching that I would never think of.

I would like to hear from all you guys though. Any important ideas/lessons/concepts you’ve learned about teaching either through being a student or on the battlefield teaching a class yourself?

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2 responses

  1. Jaume

    Having taught for about a year and a half (lindy, and very little jazz steps) these are some things I like to do. Not necessarily lessons, but ways of teaching that I like because they resonate with how I feel the dance.

    (*) Try both sides before correcting a couple. Sometimes the one that looks good is doing bad.

    (*) Do the moves as if the best judges from the world were going to evaluate you, in a way they are. Do them clearly, concisely and with the right timing.

    (*) Demand of yourself whatever you demand of your students. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a good way to teach.

    (*) I like to teach building it up from smaller pieces letting them practice these pieces. Let them try dancing instead of having them listening to you.

    (*) I love to teach the move starting from core movement. In a class we had them move certain way, just walking (with some “kicks”) and changing from forward to backward and vice-versa. Later we told them that, when doing “change, kick-step, change, kick-step”, they were already doing a step called side by side charleston. And it was one of the best charlestons I’ve ever seen in a first class.

    (*) If you teach people from a “hot” country, sexual metaphors work great, people remember them easily. I would hesitate to use them as much as I do if I were in Sweden, or specially in USA, but in Spain they work great.

    (*) Let them some time to try, fail, and improve. Do not let one person of a couple lecture constantly the other one without dancing, even if it’s an advanced dancer just filling a spot.

    (*) Have fun, they’ll have some too.

    (*) When things don’t go well do not despair. Sometimes after a day it works better.

    (*) As a student do, and as a teacher explain, that if you go to a different teacher and they explain things differently do them their way. On the best case you’ll find a way that works better with you, usually you’ll discover a new way to do the same move, or a variation. And in the worst you’ll discover a way that doesn’t work at all. If you adapt, you learn.

    That is all for now.

    May 11, 2013 at 1:27 am

    • Jaume,

      Thanks for the reply! This is all solid advice. One thing I find interesting though is your comment about adopting your classes to a “hot” country, it makes me wonder how dance classes are adopted to fit the cultural climate of different countries. I remember an international instructor once telling a story of how when teaching in one country they had to teach students how to “high-five” because it was not a common social gesture around there.

      May 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm

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