Lindy Hop Class Curriculum: Then and Now

A frequently debated topic among instructors for their local weekly beginner series is the best way to go about it. You’ve probably heard some of these phrases mentioned,

Six count moves? Eight count moves Without triple steps? Four or six week series? Heavy technique or make it fun?

Instead of hashing out that old discussion I thought an interesting comparison would be to take a curriculum from an existing scene and compare it to one that existed in the early 2000’s.  I have chosen Boston as my city to sample and taken the curriculum from GottaSwing in 2001 an organization which taught lessons in the past and put next to New School Swing‘s curriculum which offers lessons these days.

GottaSwing Curriculum (2001)

Description:  An unusually thorough and entertaining Beginners course. You’ll learn over 20 moves, turns, spins and dips in just 6 weeks, plus expert technique tips. Throughout, we’ll strongly emphasize good (momentum-based) leading and following technique, because that’s the key to becoming a superb dance partner. After our Swing I course, you’ll know more Swing moves — AND you’ll have better dance technique — than after any other Swing I course on the East Coast.

  • Prerequisite: Ability to count to 6.
  • No partner or experience needed.
  • We often have several Swing I classes running concurrently. If so, you are welcome to attend any or all of them for no extra charge (e.g., to make up a missed class, or for extra practice time).
  • 6 weeks – 1.5 hours each week – 9 hours total. (Occasionally shorter or longer, depending on calendar constraints.)

Swing I – Summary List. The following is just a compact summary of variations taught in class, with ‘logical’ groupings. It is NOT the order in which we teach things! Instead, we teach in an order that makes for the fastest and easiest learning.

  • Good (momentum-based) Leading & Following Technique
  • Basic step – Single, Double, Triple
    • Closed Position
    • Open Position
  • “Simple” change of places (low hands)
  • Arch Turn
  • Lady’s Inside Turns (aka ‘Loop’ Turns) (left side; right side)
  • Sweetheart (2-hand version of Lady’s Inside Turn) (left side; right side) — also known as Cuddle or Wrap or Basket
  • Lady’s Outside Turns (left side; right side)
  • Parallels (2-hand version of Lady’s Outside Turn) (left side; right side)
  • Man’s Outside Turns (left side; right side)
    • High-hand version
    • Break through the hands — 2 versions
    • Fred Astaire-inspired version
  • Man’s Inside Turns (left side; right side)
  • Man’s Sweetheart (just for fun)
  • Various Alternating-Person and Mix-and-match Turns Series
    • Almost every conceivable combination
  • She-Go/He-Go (5 different versions)
  • Double Arm Slide (aka Dishrag or Drape) (3 different exits)
  • Simple Dip [if we have time]
  • As far as we know, no other 6-week (or even 10-week) Swing I class comes even remotely close to teaching you this much!

New School Swing Curriculum (2014)

New School Swing curriculum offers two different 4-week series that classes go for an hour each in 6-count move and 8-count moves and both are required to move up to the next level of classes. Included with beginner classes is something known as Lindy Dojo where instructors stick around to help beginner dancers. The cost for this is included with the beginner series.

Description 8 – Count:

Whether you are brand-new to swing dancing or would like to refine your Lindy Hop technique, this is the class for you. In these four sessions, we’ll focus on basic 8-count Lindy Hop moves for the brand-new dancers, but we’ll concentrate on good technique and connection so there is always something for more experienced swing dancers, too. This class is one step in our two-step beginner track. You must know all the material in the 6-Count and 8-Count Lindy Hop Basics and Fundamentals Classes before moving to advanced beginner classes. Either beginner class may be taken first. No partner required.

Description 6 – Count:

Whether you are brand-new to swing dancing or would like to refine your Lindy Hop technique, this is the class for you. In these four sessions, we’ll focus on basic 6-count Lindy Hop moves for the brand-new dancers, but we’ll concentrate on good technique and connection so there is always something for more experienced swing dancers, too. This class is one step in our two-step beginner track. You must know all the material in the 6-Count and 8-Count Lindy Hop Basics and Fundamentals Classes before moving to advanced beginner classes. Either beginner class may be taken first. No partner required.

6 – Count Curriculum:

  • Pulse
  • Open and Closed Frame (Position)
  • Weight Shifts and Triple Steps
  • 6 – Count Basic and Rotating Basic
  • Tuck Turn
  • 6 – Count Circle from Closed
  • 6 – Count Circle from Open
  • Send Out
  • Return to Closed
  • Right Side Pass

8 – Count Curriculum:

  • Pulse
  • Open and Closed Frame (Position)
  • Weight Shifts and Triple Steps
  • Side by Side 8 – Count Basic
  • Follow in Front
  • Leader in Front
  • 8 – Count Circle from Closed
  • 8 – Count Circle from Open
  • Swingout from Closed
  • Swingout from Open
  • Side by Side Charleston Basic

Comparison

Funky Move NamesReading the older curriculum a thing that stood out to me at first was the unusual names of some moves. After some thought I realized though it’s just because probably some of these names or even the moves themselves may have faded out of the common vernacular. I am thankful though that some of those moves have become unpopular such as “The Drape” from the curriculum I linked or “The Pretzel” from their Swing II curriculum.

Time CommitmentNew School Swing asks for 4 one hour classes, whereas GottaSwing asks for 6 hour and a half classes. A total of 4 hours expected for New School Swing and 9 hours expected for GottaSwing it is obvious they have slightly more than twice the time to cover material. However, there is an optional 45 extra minutes each week a beginner student can commit to on top of their courses at New School Swing due to Lindy Dojo, bringing the potential time spent by beginner students to 7 hours.

I would say the advantage GottaSwing had was due to the large time commitment teachers could cover a fairly comprehensive body of material. However the disadvantage from a marketing standpoint is that produces a larger barrier of entry. New School Swing’s approach shines in that area because there is an optional component for making more motivated students have a clear avenue to spend extra time to improve.

Emphasis: No partner or experience required is something they both mention from the beginning. The reason why this is important to note is because as an organizer trying to fill classes one of the fastest ways to doing that is removing as many barriers of entry as possible such as apprehensions such as “I don’t have a partner” or “I don’t have any dance experience”.

In terms of Gottaswing’s curriculum, it is kind of ambiguous because at the beginning there is an emphasis put on technique, yet the order in which the material is listed out and the disclaimer at the end they also seem to pride themselves on getting through a large number of moves. These two separate values are stated in different places which is a tad jarring. New School Swing also states it values teaching new moves and teaching good technique, however these are stated neatly in one sentence so a prospective or returning student is aware that these two things will happen in class.

Conclusion: Making a guess, I would assume GottaSwing’s curriculum catered toward dancers coming off the tail end of the 90’s neoswing craze who after watching Malcom X or the Gap Add thought of swing dancing as a series of flashy moves. Take a jam circle from US Open 1999 for example.

An interesting observation is they both share an element of some homogenization. GottaSwing in Boston seems to start individuals off with variations of the 6-count basic and goes into variations. Whereas, New School Swing utilizes the common method of teaching swingouts by starting students doing an 8 count pattern in side by side and continues to work towards the lindy circle, then finally the swingout. In the last two years many people including myself have made complaints about the homogenization of Lindy Hop, but it could be argued it’s an ongoing process that dated back to the late 90s.

Redaction

Previously I erroneously wrote here an assumption that GottaSwing in Washington DC had a relationship with the organization by the same name that previously existed in Boston. That information was a false assumption and has been edited out of the post. My apologizes to Tom Koerner in the comments section of the post and my readers.

A Few Thoughts on Recent Ambidancetrous Discussions

Not too long ago there was a tumblr post on Ambidancetrous advocating the idea of teaching beginner classes where you have students try out both roles. In addition on the blog The Lindy Affair there was an interview with Anne, a member of Yale’s ambidancetrous scene where she describes her community.

Positive Results from this Community Discussion

What I enjoyed about these posts is that they encouraged discussion in person, on tumblr, on facebook, and even most recently on the Yehoodi talk show. I took the time to talk to several of my students, dance instructors I am friends with, fellow dancers I know, and even a few non-dancers as to how they would feel about the advantages and disadvantages of teaching in this manner. We also explored the tangental conversations that sprung up from exploring this line of conversation.

What I enjoyed the most is that it seriously challenged my views and methods of how I teach dance, which as an instructor I am always trying to test and improve.

My Views As A Student and Participant in the Swing Dance Community

In a previous post I wrote that a few months after I started dancing as a lead, I took several classes as a follow after being thrust suddenly into a teaching role. Until recently, I had forgotten an important fact: that when I enrolled in these classes, I asked the instructors’ permission to take the classes as a male follow. Nothing on the website stated that this was forbidden and neither of the instructors indicated in their speech that I had to choose the role of a lead. Regardless I thought it was the polite thing to do to run it by them first.

When I was learning how to follow, my classmates were generally polite. Once in awhile I would get a question like, “So why are you learning how to follow?” One thing I really appreciated was that I had a few instructors actually point me out in classes and mention what I was doing was a great idea for improving as a dancer. However, there were some notable negative experiences: once I had the unpleasant experience of having a guy outright refuse to dance with me in a workshop class because I was in the rotation as a male follow. Another incident that left a particularly bad taste in my mouth was I when was asked to compete as a lead instead of a follow in a competition because “we don’t have enough leads”.

Organizers, if you label your competition result sheets like this you are doing it wrong. They also may be relabeled.
Organizers, might want to consider the chance that a female lead or a male follow might make finals. This will prevent us from having to relabel things.

Based on my personal experiences I do have to agree that there are definitely social pressures to choose the gendered stereotypes for partnered dancing within classes.  There are still a significant amount of instructors, for example, who use gendered language for roles in classes. It is a tad odd for me, a male follow, to be referred to as a lady during class.

As a student or participant in a community, I will fully admit I have a bias. I’m a natural extrovert and it makes me not as empathetic to others as I should be at times. However, I have had to learn as a teacher, that not everyone is as comfortable in an unfamiliar social situation. Most newbies when they are taking their first dance class already have enough apprehensions to deal with; adding onto the heap the idea that people might see them as the odd one in the group could steer them from a role they were curious about in order to fit in with their class and appease anxieties they may have.

I Like My Vegetarian/Vegan Friends

On a tangent I am addressing this post “Why a lead who doesn’t follow is like a vegan making barbecue.” The author writes about the idea that instructors should know both roles in order to be effective at their job. I agree with this point, please no more classes where I have leads telling me “you just follow” as advice on how to understand that role.

However where I disagree with this blog post is that it implies that you need to pick up the other role to be a better dancer. Learning the other role in swing dancing competently is not the only avenue nor a necessity to becoming a better dancer. I have many vegetarian/vegan friends and peers who are amazing dancers, as in they compete and place at the big name competitions like ILHC and such. However in spite of being fairly experienced dancers, when they dance in their non-primary role some of them are absolute rubbish.

I’m not going to disagree that learning the other role does provide some advantages, especially in terms of being considerate to individuals in dancing. However I disagree with the tone this post takes where it implies that one is at a serious disadvantage if they do not learn both roles.

My Views As A Teacher in the Swing Dance Community

To give a short background of my teaching experience I have been teaching swing dance for about 3+ years on the East Coast of the United States. Usually local drop-in classes, monthly series, and the occasional one-day workshop out of my local area. As just a general dancer I travel a lot and tend to go to larger national/international competition events and nearby smaller regional events.

What this background means is that as a teacher, skill acquisition and/or improvement for my students is a high priority. For other instructors, creating an inclusive environment where students feel welcome or ensuring their students have fun may be more of a priority. Now I am not saying that I do not factor those other two things in when I teach; in beginner classes making sure my students have fun and are comfortable is my main priority. Beginner classes are the equivalent of sticking your foot in the pool to see if the water is okay, and I know the majority of people taking their first swing dance class aren’t there to throw down in a competition the next month. However, making sure that I provide the base fundamentals of the dance I am teaching and allowing my students the opportunity to succeed is something I am not willing to compromise on.

I think that teaching a beginner class with students learning both roles in a 45 min to 1 hour time frame (typical for swing dancing) is not an optimal idea. This is based on my experience as someone who has danced and competed in both lead and follow roles in the last few years, taught beginner classes where people learn both roles, and has been teaching for a few years. This has been further reinforced by discussions I have had with other instructors.Interestingly enough though, for Blues it seems to work perfectly fine.

The main reason why I think it works for Blues and not so much for Lindy Hop is while both dances take a considerable amount of skill to do well, as a new dancer Blues has a lower barrier of entry. Certain dances are easier to social dance at the beginning of one’s dance education. In my beginner 6-count swing drop-in dance classes a noticeable portion of my class struggles to do one role barely competently. While there is overlap between the two roles of lead and follow, it is a fact that each role does inherently pose unique challenges. When I have had students trying to tackle all of the challenges of the roles of both lead and follow in a 45 min to 1 hour time span for a typical 6-count swing beginner class, often a notable portion of my class did not get to the level of competency that I am satisfied with as an instructor.

Am I completely against the idea of an ambidancetrous newbie class for Lindy Hop? Nope. I think a beginner 6-count class for Lindy Hop can be taught ambidancetrous if you have more time, such as 1h and 30 minutes and/or if the class has a considerable amount of already experienced dancers in rotation. Another option is teaching a weekly series instead of a drop-in class, because you will have more time to work with students.

Closing Thoughts

Overall while I think exploring the idea of teaching both roles to students in a class is an interesting concept with a potential for positive results such as allowing one to be an effective instructor, gives insight to dancers about the challenges faced by both roles, and addresses issues of gender equality within the swing dance community. However based on my experience an instructor and a dancer who dances both roles I do not believe this should be at the expense of possibly leaving new students not receiving a basic amount of knowledge in their beginner classes.

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?

Dealing In Absolutes

Welcome to Lindy Hop

When I was a newer dancer who frequently was in different dance scenes such as Irvine, California to Oberlin, Ohio, my biggest difficulty was probably dealing with instructors who would tell me different and sometimes outright contradictory things. When I brought up my frustration one day to a workshop teacher his response was, “Welcome to Lindy Hop”.

After dancing for a few years and teaching regionally for about 2+ years I have to take time and remind myself I was once this new lead who wanted clearly defined rules. I remember my mind being blown when 8-count moves and swingouts were introduced. At the time, in my mind the rule was everything is only 6-counts. It took about a month of solid dancing in California to break me out of a 6-count basic as my default movement.

I remember one of the big things that confused me as a newer lead was where to step on the 5 of a swingout. The fact that depending upon where a lead steps on 5 can create a different line/look/feeling was beyond me. I just wanted one place to step so I could do it “right”.

Most experienced dancers know how one dances is completely dependent on the song that is playing, who one is dancing with, and likely other miscellaneous factors. Bridging the gap between that and newer dancers who may be just trying to figure out where to find the beat or intermediate dancers trying to dance on phrase is a difficulty as an instructor.

Difficulty with “Right” Answers as a Teacher

What caused me to explore this topic is a post from Sam at dogpossum titled a bit of dance nerdery and in particular this quote,

I had to find a way to say ‘that idea of an absolute value for connection isn’t useful. We don’t look for a single muscle ‘tone’ or degree of hardness or softness in the arm. We look for varying muscle recruitment and use – we use what we need for the circumstances and no more.’ But that’s not a helpful response to a student who’s trying really hard to figure out how they and their partners should feel.  I can’t remember what I said. I’m fairly sure I said too much, which is my main failing as a teacher. Just. Stop. Talking. It was something I grappled with in tutoring as well.

It amuses me slightly because for myself I think I err on the side of talking too little because I am afraid of going on complete tangents of all the possibilities of what can happen when one tweakes little things with connection or movement. In addition it’s a personal bias that I am largely a visual learner and the instructors I have disliked classes have felt more like a lecture and less of a dance class.

I do like the direction that dogpossum takes in her classes though.  I wish I would see it more because I find many instructors on the regional level often settle for absolutes.


Like Obi-Wan, I believe dealing in absolutes is not an optimal choice. Yes as an instructor by giving students absolutes you satisfy their want for hard and fast rules, however this is at a cost. I’ve bet in a swing dance class you have had a fellow classmate raise their hand and say, “Well I learned it X way from Y instructor.” I’ve had it pulled on me as an instructor as well, frequently by individuals who have taken the local ballroom dance courses featured at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). This is because when you teach something as an absolute a student is likely to put a mental box around whatever the move/concept you taught and think “This is how it is done” and consider alternatives “wrong”.

rules

What this means for myself as an instructor is I try to encourage students once that they are the level that they have some experience under their belt to understand the importance of context for dancing. Often my favorite classes to teach are taking one movement such as a tuck turn and exploring how it can be altered to match different environments such as different types of songs or if you have a follow who can turn exceptionally well/a lead who pays good attention to their partner.

The difficulty again lies that understanding those different contexts for a move such as a tuck turn or even gaining the level of control over ones personal movement to explore all those possibilities takes practice, time, and patience.  I think the following quote sums up a lot of newer dancers including myself when I first started,

“Asked, in the 1980s, about new dancers, he responded: “They’re looking for too much too quick. They want everything like instant coffee. Nothing works like that, not your mind, not your body, nothing.” – Pepsi Bethel, American Jazz Dancer & Lindy Hopper

Typically newer dancers want a lot of moves and to do them “right”. On a slightly related note I was cleaning up my apartment today since I am moving out soon and came across my notes from some of my first Lindy Hop classes in Southern California. I was literally trying to write out every single detail of how to each move and variation on them that was taught to me.

My struggle as an instructor is I think improvisational and experimental nature of Lindy Hop is one of the things I need to teach and emphasize as a swing dance teacher, however I have to balance this out with understanding the mindset of new or even slightly experienced follows and leads. The importance for me is understanding what I am and am not willing to compromise on and teach accordingly.

Musicality Teaching Experiment

About a week and a half ago Rebecca Brightly on her weekly newsletter “The Pulse” wrote about musicality. One idea she touched in particular is listening to a song a couple of times (only listening to the song and doing nothing else) and then utilizing what you recognized from the song for dancing.

After reading this newletter I thought, “This is a great idea, I think it would also make a great class.” So a few days before I had to teach my weekly Lindy Hop class I instructed my students to listen several times to the song Black Coffee by The Careless Lovers featured below.

How The Class Worked

I started off by first playing the song to refresh the song in their minds (also to cover anyone who decided to skip the homework). I followed that by asking the class, “What did you recognize from listening to the song multiple times?” To encourage responses I also mentioned there were no really wrong answers to this question. Some answers I received were:

  • Contrast between different parts of the song.
  • Song had energy to it versus being a relaxed/chill song.

After collecting responses I took a few of those answers and to the song Black Coffee asked them to represent those ideas in their dancing as leads and follows.  Once that was done I gave a few answers I had to the same question and showed examples of how as a lead or follow I would touch on elements I recognized within in the music. I repeated the same exercise as before except with them using my suggestions.

At this point in my class is where I added my own personal twist to this class using one of Bobby White’s blog posts titled “The Old Timer (Part 4: “The Only Count I Know is Basie”)“.  I asked my students using the ideas they learned from dancing to Black Coffee by the Carless Lovers to the version of Black Coffee by Nat Gonnella and his Georgians. Which while sharing a lot of similarities also had some differences as well.  To quote Bobby’s article,

Imagine you’re a dancer in the 1930s. Dancing for you means going out at several nights a week, and every night to a different big band, each one using different arrangements. When the leader announces he’s going to play “Flying Home,” you don’t know anything about how the song is going to sound except that the melody will roughly go “Bad-da-daaa, da-da-dadadum…Bad-da-daaa, da-da-dadadum…etc.

For my class I wanted to bring to the table of the macro-musical concept of knowing a melody of a song and being able to use that to be musical. After a few rotations of the class we brought up similarities of both versions of the songs, then again I had them dance to the second version of the song with those ideas in mind.

After this we wrapped up the class by listing the ideas that we went over during the course of the class and I encouraged my students to keep listening to music and explore other ideas of how to express musicality on their own.

In Retrospect

It was a fun and different class for myself that I think my students enjoyed and learned valuable skills from.  If you try this class format yourself or have any fun musicality class ideas you use in your classes, please feel free to post them below.

Keep it Casual or Bring the Fire? Teaching A Higher Level Class

ILHC describes it as,

You have been dancing long enough with a sufficient level and quality of dancing that you are actually hoping every class will be devoted to taking your swing-out, tearing it apart, and putting it back together again. “Tricks, schmicks, teach me how to dance.”

Jammin’ on the James describes it as,

Dancers taking these workshops should be comfortable picking up new moves and steps fairly quickly, understand how swing music is structured and the concept of creating your dance to the changes in the music. In addition, dancers in the advanced workshop should incorporate good frame and connection in their everyday dancing.

Lindy Focus,

Well to be honest Lindy Focus had so many people acting all uppity about auditions and there is a ton of people at that event. In result they have Levels 3-9 which represent experienced dancers. (Probably the smartest way of handling it to be honest)

It’s the track that everyone tries to get in then complains about anything possible related to it if they don’t make it in, the Higher Level/Advanced class!

We’ve all met and/or have been this guy.

How Fierce Are You To Your Advanced Class?

I was pondering over how in the past I witnessed instructors teach differently or in some cases the same upon changing conditions such as; class size, class level, type of event, and et cetera. One thing that came to mind was the idea of how do instructors change their approach for a class that is advertised to higher level dancers. My search on Yehoodi first rewarded me with this thread from 2004 “How fierce are you to your advanced class?”

The original poster Holiday writes,

I was told by one of my students last week that I’m really scary in my advanced class and she was surprised because I’m so friendly and easy going in my lower level classes. I told her I meant to do that because I really mean business when it comes to who gets into my advanced class. I won’t throw people out, but I won’t make it easy for them to stay either. I don’t teach particularly hard stuff and mostly just mechanics that makes sense. This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a cake walk or a “just wing it” course either.

Another poster Wexie writes,

I agree with you: Beginner and intermediate classes are supposed to be fun. However, once you get to the advanced level, you can begin to expect more from your students and push them a little bit.

There is a difference between a fun hobby, and a craft. As you begin to get to an advanced level, you are starting to approach what you are doing as a craft. It requires a tad more seriousness, hard work, and discipline to start to take things to the next level. People will never improve unless they are open to criticism. Also, I think it is smart that you are encouraging peer criticism. And there is nothing wrong with saying: When you come to my class, you better bring your game. If you don’t, I’m going to call you out on it.

Lastly Beckto comments,

BUT, having taught dance classes and privates, I have to say there is a difference. Most people who take dance classes (especially beginners) are not pre professional or aspiring professional. They just want to have a little fun and learn something new — a new hobby. I think in that case, it’s good not to take the class or yourself too seriously. Fun is the 1 goal, and dancing is the 2 goal when I teach. As the level of dancer increases, I get more serious. With that said though, I always leave the drive to get better up to the student. So, I don’t demand they practice, for instance (although I will notice if they have and compliment them). With advanced dancers, (I haven’t had the privilege of teaching many truly advanced dancers), I’m very much to the point, and fun is not part of the focus. The fun is more innate.

The common theme I noticed in nearly every post in the thread was the idea of for classes targeted toward newer dancers fun and entertainment should be more of a priority. Whereas in a more advanced class the idea of students should be expected and prepared to be pushed hard in terms of seriousness of the class.

How to have a good Advanced Class …?

Another thread from 2004 titled Spinoff Class Thread: How to have a good Advanced Class…? by a local NYC organizer proposed the question what is an effective way to conduct an advanced class, in which the event the Harlem Jazz Dance Festival advanced class was quoted a few times.

Gardenia writes on the second page,

Basically I reiterate what I’ve said earlier: if you want to improve the advanced dancers in a scene, they have to interact with each other, grow together, and create, invent, and share information in a non-hierarchical way. Information would not be disseminated from one all-knowing source, but shared.

Yehoodi user karaboo writes,

How did the HJDF class go last year? I’ve no idea since I was running around like a maniac the whole time. Is there a way we could make a model like that work for us? With a few pairs of “instructors” guiding the process. They would come in with a few ideas for things to work on and let things evolve from there. It wouldn’t be so much a class about moving fast but about refining and helping one another and asking questions. This might end up being more like a guided practice session and might not require such selectivity as long as it was made clear it was supposed to be for advanced dancers.

Gardenia on the third page writes,

I think it’s way too complicated. Advanced classes should simply be for people who aren’t afraid of getting shredded to pieces. If you’re that serious about the dance, you have to be prepared and accepting of some ego-bruising. I think that may be the mark of a truly advanced dancer. One who can take real criticism and still be standing afterwards.

One of the things that happened in Jenn and Justin’s Master class in Ithaca (which happened almost 2 years ago) was they had people dance, one couple at a time, in front of everyone, and then they criticized what they were doing. There was no sugar-coating. It was brutal at times, but the students took it in stride. And I think, at some point, instructors should be able to be free to take the kid gloves off and say what they really think without getting into trouble. I think at some point, a dancer needs this kind of honesty in order to grow. But we have to give them permission to be so honest, and not punish them when we don’t like what they say.

Lastly Marcelo with some noteworthy insights on the fourth page,

What you need to ensure this is a decent selection process. I like having a preliminary “sorting round” to determine placement. Run the class for a few minutes with everyone, and pay attention to see who’s cutting it and who isn’t. Then just make a cut. The people who don’t get cut are free to sit around and keep watching if they really want to, but you’re going to have to ask them not to rotate. And you’re going to have to deal with the consequences of that decision.

This, I think, may be the crux of your dilemma. You want to have a rigorous selection process, but you don’t want people to hate you or call you an elitist because you didn’t pick them. Unfortunately, you can’t control whether people will hate you. If they do, that’s their problem.

People are ultimately responsible for their own feelings and actions, and if they’re going to get in a tizzy because Nicole didn’t validate their dancing skill and put them in the top class, that’s their damn fault. You didn’t do anything to them – you’re just trying to construct an advanced class – hell, if you let them watch but not rotate you’re not denying them ANYTHING – they still have access, but now the responsibility is on THEM to grok it and keep up, not on YOU to make sure that they’re keeping up.

The two things argued in this thread were if the class should be more of a guided practice session versus a traditional teacher/teachers and students setting and if the class should be auditioned/people should be cut. I noticed a trend however of individuals noting that being able to take harsh criticism was a skill people should have if they want to start taking lessons at an advanced level. Contrasting that were posters who were concerned about not coming off as elitist and bruising egos.

Perspective from Teachers

I had the opportunity to ask some individuals who regularly teach in the swing dance community about this topic and posed this exact question to them,

When teaching advanced classes or classes targeted toward higher level dancers do you change your attitude/methods compared to a beginner level class and if so, how?

Daniel Repsch Lindy/Blues Instructor & DJ,

It’s hard to say exactly because each group is different and so teaching changes from class to class. But I think there is a general difference between the levels.

With beginners most of them aren’t addicted to the dance yet and so I emphasize the fun in the dance and not taking things seriously. With advanced dancers I feel free to push them a little harder and give them things that they’ll struggle more with. This is because I expect them to practice it on the dance floor and eventually be rewarded for the effort.

In terms of methods, I like to make all levels try whatever we’re teaching before I talk about it. I like exercising students’ visual learning and a lot of times they figure out more stuff on their own than I thought they would. In result that cuts down on unnecessary explanation

But for advanced dancers I have a hope that they’ll have a grasp on important modular pieces of the dance. For example; a good tuck, or how to kick step through a turn, or a forward rock, or even different kinds of stretching. I think at the beginner level the goal is more about teaching things that mostly exemplify those modular pieces (and are fun to do besides), rather than the advanced level of applying them in unexpected ways. Otherwise methods of explaining in as few words as possible while hitting visual, audio, and kinesthetic learners is the same.

James Bianco Lindy Hop instructor,

My approach, overall, I try to keep it fun, yet focused. I leave room for rabbit trails, but won’t go down them too far, unless the path is a really good one. That allows for a lively and interactive class. But as far as what I actually teach it’s more like this:

  • Beginner – Here is a cake, and this is how might consider eating it.
  • Intermediate – This is chocolate cake, and there is a cherry on top,  So it might be rich.
  • Advanced – This is, in fact, a chocolate cheesecake, with a toffee – chocolate wafer crust. On top is a light mousse, shavings of dark chocolate, and indeed, a cherry. It will be rich, so you’ll definitely want to consider how you will be eating it and the company you choose to eat it with.

My Two Cents

I’ve mentioned before one of the things I like about the Lindy Hop community is for the most part accepting and welcoming to people. I would argue that it is a major strength of our community. However I would argue one of the problems our community has is we fall into the fallacy this article lists as number one, ostracisers are evil.

Many tests I have been involved with as a participant or even one time as one of the teachers/organizers in charge I have run into comments like this:

  • Those people got in because they were friends with X.
  • I didn’t get in because I danced with X and Y, they made me look bad.

There are countless weekly classes and workshops that cater to beginner and intermediate level dancers. In result I think advanced classes should be for individuals who meet criteria determined by the organizer of the class and it should be a far more serious environment when compared to lower level classes. I actually agree with the sentiment Marcelo posted on the second Yehoodi thread listed above,

Your goal is to teach a -real- advanced class where you have some sort of control over who participates. Your goal is not to make everyone happy and comfortable with themselves. While that’s certainly a good thing to want to do, it is literally a tradeoff. You can’t preserve the integrity of an “advanced” class unless you break some hearts.

There is no real “right” answer to this question over all, each choice will definitely have some ramifications good and bad. While the way I suggest might be great for a bigger scene with a decent portion of solid dancers… for a small scene just starting out this could cause some serious problems.

What are your experiences with good or bad advanced level classes? If you could make an ideal advanced level class how would you have it run? What are some apprehensions of the social ramifications of having an auditioned or invitational only advanced level class? Feel free to leave anything related to this in the comment sections below.

Necessity as a Teacher

Floorcraft, a word that teachers often drop in their intro level lessons and dancers all around the world wish many dancers practiced.

“World of Floorcraft, a mandatory remedial course for those who run into other dancers more then twice in one night due to their own carelessness.”

As a teacher you can explain to leads the “look before you leap” analogy, explain to follows how if they see an incoming collision back-lead the lead to stop, and explain to everybody the social ramifications of being the one lead that throws their follow everywhere/the one follow that throws herself everywhere. Once you are past that, you can make slight suggestions but it is usually up to each person to figure out for themselves how to be polite social dancers and not run themselves or their partners into objects/other people.

The interesting thing I have noticed though is in scenes where dance space is a premium such as New Orleans; floorcraft is much higher on average (among dancers, not muggles non dancing people).

In a post titled “Back in New Orleans” written by Peter Loggins in his blog the Jassdancer he writes about the excitement or peril (depending upon your perspective) of dancing in an average venue on Frenchman St. in NOLA.

“however, the Spotted Cat or DBA , now those are places to learn! Cramped, all tempo’s, mixed rhythms, obnoxious people in the way…yeah! Now we talking!” – Peter Loggins

While I recommend you give the entire post a read, this quote really drills home the point of floorcraft being a necessity this particular scene,

“If you want to learn how to be an exhibition dancer, that’s good for you, but don’t be surprised when a big Jarhead beats the shit out you after you accidentaly kick him. It might be fine to kick each other at dances, studio’s and festivals but in the real world all bets are off….” – Peter Loggins

At an average dance if you have bad floorcraft someone the worst that usually ever happens is someone bad mouths you that night and most people forget it quickly, unless if you make it a habit. On Frenchmen Street the potential costs of bad floorcraft can range from; accidentally kicking a drunk tourist, hitting the trombonist’s slide and likely injuring him, to knocking over the tip jar of a band. These can earn one the penalties of getting the shit beat out of them to being thrown out and/or banned from a venue. A tad more dangerous then the average Lindy Hop event.

What To Do?

At least for myself it seems an obvious conclusion that when there are more costs at hand for making a poor decision, it is something people will be more aware of and spend additional time developing the skills to avoid those penalties.  However to cultivate a good swing dance scene, threatening ones’ students with violence for bad floorcraft is probably not the best idea for retention rates.

As an organizer I attempted to deal with the problem of poor floorcraft mainly when it mattered the most; before our dances with live bands and workshop weekends where we would have large attendance. I would do this by in my own lessons choosing moves that required good floorcraft to pull them off or teaching moves that required minimal room and worked great with little room to dance. I’d also put a notice in announcements that good floorcraft was a good way to be polite to our out-of-town guests.

If your local scene has any particular ways they teach or deal with floorcraft, feel free to post it here!

Teaching with a Pianist: Intro to Swing at the Spotted Cat

A few weeks ago I read reading Glenn Crytzer’s blog post about being bombarded with music in which one of the things he mentions is a challenge for instructors to hire a pianist to play for their lessons.

Lo and behold two days ago I walked into The Spotted Cat in New Orleans to find Giselle Anguizola teaching a beginner swing dance lesson with Brett Richardson on Piano and Paul Tenderloin on Washtub Bass playing music for her students to practice to.

One thing I found interesting is half-way through the class they took a break to grab a drink from the bar or practice what they learned to live music. For a newbie lesson this is great because it lets them socialize with other students and apply what they learned in a realistic environment.

Dancing at The Spotted Cat to Meschiya Lake and Her Little Big Horns.

Anyways below is a short summary of what I perceived as advantages and disadvantages of teaching this way:

Advantages:

  • Adds energy to the class and makes students excited.
  • Great marketing tool. Intro swing dance class with live music, sounds a bit more enticing then just intro swing dance class.
  • Prepares students for dancing to live music. (In New Orleans, if you dance downtown this is the norm 7 days a week. So it is especially relevant for their scene.)

Disadvantages:

  • For instructors it can be difficult to give feedback because you are essentially trying to talk over an instrument/instruments several feet away.
  • For most dance instructors hiring musicians consistently for lessons is not an affordable expense.
If you have taken one of these type of lessons at The Spotted Cat or perhaps have taught/taken lessons with live music, please post in the comment section about it.

Teaching Tool: Failure to Provide Insight

The number one request (besides aerials) that most swing dance instructors get from newer to intermediate dancers are flashy moves, flashy moves, and… flashy moves.

I’ll admit for awhile as a swing dance instructor I would teach nothing besides reinforcing technique in aboslute basic moves. While that had the advantage of drilling in solid fundamentals, it had the disadvantage of boring most of my class to death.

For the classes I taught that weren’t the first time dancer crash courses, I changed my methods of how I taught. I would choose moves that while they looked impressive/flashy, would be demanding of a certain technique point I wanted to drill in. Particularly on the point that they would fail spetacularly if people did something such as trying to run around their partner or if a lead tried to muscle a follow around.

This quote from Bug’s Question of the Day by Byron Alley hits the nail right on the head about how I feel about this topic as well,

But even then, it’s important not to imagine that people need to master their basics before attempting more advanced moves. Often it’s the opposite: people need to attempt, and quite possibly fail at, dancing at a higher level in order to appreciate the value of fundamentals. Show them moves that simply FAIL if the technique is not there. Failure is a necessary part of learning, especially a vernacular dance like Lindy Hop. It gives dancers a better understanding of the frontiers of the dance.

(Caveat: there’s a difference between encouraging failure and getting people hurt.)

I will admit though this method of teaching isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. I have recieved criticism in the past that teaching in this way creates an intimidating and discourging envionrment for students. Personally I beg to differ and think that doing this establishes a sense of humility in dancers and fosters a respect for technique because the students gain an context to understand why it is important.

Teaching Tool: Giving Students A Vocabulary

Often when I am teaching  swing dance classes I want to assess how my students are doing or give them tools to assess each other/ themselves. One thing I learned quickly is if I asked the class, “Does anybody have any questions?” I would be met with blank/confused stares and occasionally a brave soul.

Average Student: What is this? I don't even

Vocabulary

Often for students something will feel wrong but they sometimes just lack terms to articulate what exactly is ailing them. When a follow tells a lead that a move is being lead wrong, it is useful. However it is far less effective then an answer such as  “You are tensing your left arm so I can’t feel connection.”

What I try to do when asking students a question in a class setting are questions that target specifics. For example if I am teaching a rock step, “Follows did you feel a stretch from a rock step that propelled you forward?” or “Leads were your follows waiting for you to release tension on the rockstep, or were they backleading?”.

This works as well if you are trying to get students to give each other feedback, which I often do in my intermediate and above classes. An example of this is “Okay after you try the move three times to the music, stop and talk to your partner about what made it work or didn’t work. Some potential things to talk about are connection, tension, not looking at the ground, and if it was smooth or choppy.” When I phrase feedback that way, they have four different categories to flesh out their conversations with and this usually results in actual conversations giving vital feedback, versus the chit chat or blank stares I see during some classes during feedback time.

What I plan to try one of these days, is the classroom I teach in has a blackboard. I want to put the words up in chalk and see if visual stimulus would help my students out. Try this out, tell me how it goes!