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;
- This class was almost improvised on the spot, we maybe had ten minutes max to brainstorm a lesson plan.
- 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.
- 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 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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
One of the biggest problem I had when I taught my first larger classes (like 50ish people) was at times getting all of their attention so they could hear what my partner and myself had to say and demonstrate.
Over the last few years, I have witnessed some instructors creatively deal with this problem in their classes which I will list below.
Teaching Tricks to get Students to Pay Attention
- Shave and a Haircut: Described on the wikipedia page as a “7-note musical couplet popularly used at the end of a musical performance, usually for comic effect.” The way to use it is teach it at the beginning of the class, then you clap out the rhythm whenever you want the students attention and they respond with either a stomp-off or clapping back the “two bits” (Ba-Ba) part. Repeat as necessary.
- One, Two, Three, All Eyes on Me: Many of you may be familiar with this from grade school, where teachers sometimes employ this. It is a simple rhyme that grabs attention. The way to use it is at the beginning of class go over the rhyme, then during class employ it as necessary. I remember my grade-school teacher would just say the part and have us students reply “All Eyes on Me”.
- Side By Side: I actually witnessed this for the first time when taking a class from Erik Robison in California. He explains at the beginning of class when he says the phrase “Side By Side” he wants follows to get to the right of their leads and for everyone to remain quiet and watch whatever he is demonstrating. Its great because the phrase initiates movement, so people who might be zoning out catches on they should pay attention and it gets people in a position to immediately start dancing afterward.
- Observation Goggles: I got this from watching part of one of Mike Faltesek and Casey Schneider’s classes at Jammin’ on the James last year. At the beginning of their classes they explain the importance of paying attention to the body movement (they or other people you are trying to learn from)and translating it to yourself, they refer to it as putting your observation goggles on and demonstrate what they mean. I can only explain what this looks like with this picture:
Its goofy but it works like a charm, especially among a younger crowd.
What I Do Personally
Well I have liked everything, so I combine a little of it all. At the beginning of classes that it is students I am unfamiliar with, I explain I have this thing called “Side By Side”. When I say that phrase to make it easier on both parts for myself teaching and students learning I ask them to:
- Follows stand to the right of the lead.
- Please remain quiet so other students can hear what I am saying.
- Put on your “Observation Goggles” and not just pay attention to what my footwork is doing, but my full body movement.
I’ve found combining both of them works extremely well, at least for myself.
If you have any tricks you use in your classes or noticed other instructors using that works well, please feel free to comment about them.