First off, I want to start this blog with a tip of the hat and great honor to all the teachers that came before me. From the people that taught me my first swing outs, to my tap teachers, African dance teachers, Tango teachers, and really anyone who has ever shared an insight or a thought with me when it comes to movement or the waterfall of community, self-examination, commitment, love, and frustration that comes along with dancing.  It took a lot of years of being a student before I had my own ideas about dancing, and after 18 years of ups and downs, I still remember some of the first ways that things were explained to me when I was starting out, and they still influence my dancing.
While I don’t use the exact phrases I was taught, those words have helped me to form my own opinions on what’s effective and what’s not in terms of the pictures I like to paint for my students.  I would also like to point out how incredible I think some of the modern day Lindy Hop instructors have become, able to travel week after week and come up with new and exciting things to energize this dance.   Much of this I think is due to being able to communicate better and more to the point.  In this blog, I’d like to touch on word and language usage in teaching and our dance culture.

The main goals of better phrasing

The main goals I have for carefully selecting my language in a class are:

  • Giving the students accurate and easy to follow ideas about what I am sharing.
  • Creating an atmosphere where they believe I know what I’m talking about.  (Not for my own vanity mind you, but because I think it contributes 50% to the environment necessary for someone to take critique and instruction well.
  • I aim to give my students the feeling that I have their best interests at heart.  Not just because I do, but because I think that’s the second half of getting them to be more receptive to my teaching.
  • Subtly creating a space where there is zero tolerance for words of hate, sexism, or discrimination.  Even the subtle kinds of these things. I want for the people who attend events that I am part of or classes that I teach to understand they are in a place of evolved, inclusive thinking.
I also want to take a moment to note that using words in a certain way is not about showing how pure your politics are, or how good you are with a turn of phrase, or even how smart you are.  It’s about confidence, but also humility.  It’s about conveying the ideas that you have accurately and creating positive vibes in your own community.

Lead and follow are dance roles, not other names for man and woman

I’ve never been in 100% alignment with the names of dance roles, “lead” and “follow.”  My favorite metaphor that I once heard from a West Coast Swing teacher was that what we call the “follow” is the “driver” and what we call the lead is the “passenger giving directions.”  What I like about this is that it represents the autonomy given to the follow, and it gives a more accurate description of the “lead.” We give indicators, but they are not inputs into a computer.  The response can be carried out in a myriad of ways.  Still, in some way I think that economy of words and tradition win out in this case, and using follow and lead for now is mostly best practice, or at least the accepted one.
Although you don’t often have to make the distinction to students, you should keep in mind that they are dance roles, not aliases for male and female.  An example of when this may come up is teaching a solo jazz class.  Once when referencing the Spirit Moves Tranky Do, I described one section as “leads Shorty George forward while follows Boogie Back.”  In this instance, the mistake was that I reenforced that women were “followers” and men were “leaders.”  Because we weren’t in the context of partner dance roles, my distinction of lead/follow was inappropriate.  Kind of a complex distinction, but nonetheless important.

It’ll be easy / This is going to be hard

Many language choices in class are about setting expectations, and what happens when those expectations are met versus not met.  For instance, should I say to a class “this will be easy,” I’ve done two things:  I’ve set the current material up to be seen as uninteresting or basic, and second if the move or concept is in fact, NOT easy for someone, then they will feel stupid.  Likewise, if I set the material up to be “hard” then I’ve set the student up to either expect something that may or may not be out of their skill level, and secondly I’ve perhaps affected some student’s confidence before we’ve even started. I avoid using either phrase so that I don’t affect their expectations.

Lame / Retarded

I think the reasons not to use these words in the modern day are pretty obvious. Absurd, ridiculous, odd, tedious, and silly tend to be better choices for the times when I need to describe something this way.  I do have a long, long history with smart-assery, snark, and sarcasm so I sympathize with how hard it can be to find equally colorful or impactful words as these.  But, it will make you a better person not to use them.

Anal / OCD

Aside from the cringe-worthy nature of the word “anal” as an abbreviation of anal-retentive, it’s simply not accurate.  Likewise, using an abbreviation like OCD is taking what is a very real and life-disrupting disorder and using it as hyperbole when you really mean something else.  Try detail-oriented, fussy, picky, perfectionist, purist, or rigid.

The hand goes below the bra strap, etc

When describing frame to people, I’ve heard a lot of teachers use “the bra strap” as a reference point.  On one hand, you might get a few childish giggles out of this one, but it also can be pretty revealing that the teacher in this case sees the follow role and being female as synonymous.

Using memorable phrases

I think a great way to make your words more impactful is to use memorable phrases:

  • Lift up your left arm and point your fingers down (good)
  • Look at your watch (better, easier to remember)

Or another example (a bit of a hyperbole, but illustrative nonetheless):

  • The rhythm is 1,2, 3 a4, not 1 2 3 & 4 (good, accurate, perhaps esoteric)
  • The rhythm is more like “Pop Tarts, scrambled eggs” and less like “Pop Tarts, banana”

In an ideal world, if you read http://www.thehomeofhappyfeet.comintro-teaching-lindy-hop/, you’ll notice that I’m a big fan of saying things several ways.  You should use multiple ways of communicating an idea, in the hopes that one of them is more memorable to your audience for whatever reason.

Real men let go on 5

This was printed on a cheeky shirt back in the heyday of the swing revival.  It was funny at a time when popular culture was less evolved; it was also a catch phrase that put a cheeky one liner at the crux of an outdated debate on swing technique. In this day in age, “real man” has a lot of connotations, and it’s too contextually dependent to use.  Nor do I think it’s accurate.  I mean if we’re going to get right down to it, I think 4 1/2 is a pretty ideal time to let go.  But whatever your flavor of swing out, it’s time to let this phrase go.

Names instead of pronouns

Sweden had got lots of smarts.  They can design great furniture, they make cool cars, and had the first big swing dance camp.  They are also the world leader in gender equality.  In 1996, they invented a gender neutral pronoun, which is “hen
While America don’t quite have that yet, we do have “they” which can be used in a pinch, but I don’t see it as being in wide enough usage to be seen for what it is…instead it feels awkward.
Often, when teaching and I need to reference the other teacher,  I will try to use a name, or they instead of he or she.  For clarity’s sake, I generally prefer that each dancer talk about their own ideas, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.
So, for example:
  • Sometime on the 7&8, the follow can make a choice.  She can do x or y (worst example, impersonal, assumption of female follow)
  • Sometime on the 7&8, I like what Lainey does here.  She shows strong stylistic choices by doing ____. (better, personal, semi-assumption of female follow)
  • Better:  Sometime on the 7&8, I would like to point out Lainey’s strong stylistic choice of doing _____.  (best of the bunch, personal, non-gendered follow)

…um…you know.. like…

These are known as crutch words.  We all use them.  But, if you learn to enjoy the silence between thoughts, and let your audience process your words, you’ll come across as much more organized and eloquent.  Remember that everything you teach is probably old hat to you. At least you should have a pretty solid understanding of what you’re trying to say. Give your students time to process a thought.  Don’t fear silence.

We, Let’s, and “I” statements.

We, and let’s. These are powerful words, but easily taken condescendingly.  For instance “We should try that again” said to a class is almost impossible to say without sounding condescending.  When you say “we” but you really mean “you”, it isn’t the best way to phrase things.  Instead, I will often try to turn such an instance into an “I” statement.
  • We should try that again but with more _______ (a tad condescending.  Not terrible, but could be better)
  • I didn’t mention the importance of _____.  With that in mind, let’s try it again.
This can be really effective in working one-on-one with students as well.  “you didn’t lead that” vs “I didn’t feel the lead strongly enough” are small but crucial differences in keeping the peace between two dance collaborators.

General positivity

You probably know a negative person: someone who can always find the flaw in something, a person that always looks for the worst case scenario. In general, I don’t think that these traits are good in a teacher. The most successful people in the world are genuinely excited about other people’s ideas. Even if it’s neo-swing or The Pretzel. Find a way to educate while not being dismissive of other people’s view points.

At the same time, I think its confusing to students if you say “there are several ways of doing x.” Grey area is not for beginners, it’s for advanced intermediate. Often times I rename things to make them easier to understand. For instance, some people teach walking in on 1/2 of an 8 count basic. I call these “swing-ins,” and when it’s in on 2.5/3 I call it a “swing-out.” That way students can compartmentalize the information and no one looks like they are being smug about the way they’re doing things. In fact, I make it a point to name all of the vocabulary I teach so I can refer to it in an abbreviated way. It also affords me an opportunity to talk a little about how the name was derived and I can give some credit or history as a background.

The power of recognizing a moment

Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do as a teacher is recognize a moment.  Sometimes I start to teach something incorrectly.  One approach is to go with this mistake and try to pull it off like it was on purpose.  Rookie mistake.  The better approach is to say “I’m sorry, I misspoke there, what I meant to say was…”.
Another situation that might arise as a teacher is on a day with bad weather, or near the holidays you could get low turnout for a class.  Simply saying “today I’m going to end class a little early so we can do some social dancing, together”
Never be afraid to go with your gut feeling in class in this way.

Immediate Mastery Anxiety

One context in which I choose my words more carefully is when I encounter a student who has what I call “Immediate Mastery Anxiety.” Some people feel that they are required to be good at things right away.  Often times these are talented, smart people, but they give up quickly because of their self imposed need to be good at things quickly.  To deal with this, I set up longer-term expectations.  This may include things like “Every move takes at least 20 tries to get the hang of, and 150 repetitions to master.”   Another one I often say is that being a base level proficient at swing dance can take 3-4 months of weekly classes. This tells the student that they need to have 12-16 classes before they begin to have any expectations.  By that time they are often on their way.

“Challenging people”

We’ve all had these folks in our class.  They test our patience.  Perhaps they ask disruptive and irrelevant questions.  Maybe they question your years of experience with their weeks of experience.  Sometimes they devalue your time by asking to be taught a semi-private lesson after class.  Maybe they are a class clown or person who takes it upon themselves to teach people personally in the rotation.  We’ve all had them in our classes, and there is no doubt they are hard to deal with.  To that I have a few thoughts:
One of my guiding principles is that the people who are the prickliest on the outside are the softest inside.   For these people, often their fear of being judged or ridiculed is high, and they use smart-sounding (to them) questions, or authoritative roles to mask that.  Sometimes they use their critique of your teaching as a way to gain control that they feel they lack in other arenas of their life.  Other times they may not really know how they are coming off.
Either way, I try to look at what I want from the interaction.  Do I want to gain new dancers, and share something I love?  Do I need to have a hard conversation with them?   The most important factor in dealing with these people is to understand your own personal style under stress. When faced with a difficult student in class do you tend to over-explain?  Do you pander the class to them?  Do you become flustered and unable to speak well?  Once you examine that, you can more easily step outside yourself in hard teaching moments and make better decisions about what the ideal outcome is.

Non-verbal communication

As you come to think more carefully about the words you use, the next step is is to work on reading non-verbal cues of your students.  If they fidget they may be bored or impatient.  If they cover their mouth with their hand, they may have a question.  If they lean in they are interested, and leaning away can indicate that they may be disconnecting from the material.  If they look up or have a stern face, they might be processing a lot of information and need more reps.

Final Note

Teaching is a journey as much as dancing is.  Most teachers have said the wrong thing, misspoke, and probably offended a few people without meaning to or even realizing it (I know that I have!).  But as long as you keep trying to be clearer, more engaging, and more inviting with your words, it will make a difference.

Further Resources

 An excellent and inspiring read.

 If you need to talk to someone about something touchy, this is your book.

 A good read if you are intrigued by the body language aspect.