Most dancers that acquire a decent level of skill will be called upon at some point to teach a class and show this dance we all love to a new generation. Teaching Lindy Hop is fun, rewarding, and straightforward, but I’d like to share a few things that I’ve picked up on the way.
First off, there is no magic to it. You’ll get better with practice, and as a wise person once said, you will be teaching long before you’re ready. You need only a few things:
1. To know more about the thing you are teaching than the person you’re teaching.
2. The willingness to take the time necessary.
3. The ability to observe and correct mistakes
4. An encouraging attitude
5. Patience to articulate only the amount of information that the individual(s) can digest at a given time.
Beyond that, each teacher will develop their own style over time, but here are a few things that I’ve had success with.
The opening line
When I teach a class, I almost always open with a joke, humorous observation, or anecdote. It sets a tone for the class and lightens the mood. It can be topical, address something funny about the day or the weather. I think this is actually one of the most important things, to start class off on the right foot, literally and figuratively. If my joke fails I say “tough room…” which always works. Once I have them laughing, I’m set up to teach them a frustration-free hour of dance. There’s a reason it’s called an ice-breaker. The newer the students are to dance, the more important this is. More than anything, when people are in a good mood, studies show that their abilities to learn and absorb information are heightened. It will help then quell frustration, and it will associate your venue, the activity, and the music with good feelings. Remember that most people aren’t “in the know” about internet memes, inside jokes, or meta-humor of any kind. If your mom wouldn’t get it, neither will 70% of your class.
Set up expectations
One things I like to do is to set up expectations of the class. Sometimes I will say that every move takes somewhere between 7 and 20 tries to get the feel of, 20-30 tries to memorize, and that it will take 200 tries of each move to be perfect. I like to say that first try never counts. I think it’s easy for students to give up… but if you give them a goal, they’re going to push forward. Sometimes I mention that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Then use your humor, your passion for the dance and good pacing to keep them engaged through frustration. “We’re going to fake it until we make it” is a nice way to say it. Another way might be to phrase the class as a journey you are all taking together. The feeling of unity or common purpose is a strong motivator.
Say it again, but differently
Probably one of the most important points: I try to say everything in 3 ways. That might be counting, scatting, describing, using a metaphor etc. For instance, in a class I might say of a swing-out:
- 1 2 3 a 4 – 5 6 7 a 8
- Double step triple step, double step triple step
- Left right leftrightleft, right left rightleftright
- Bow or twist, walk around, send your follow home, triple step
- Stretch out, come together, send away, reset
- It’s like she is on roller skates, and I’m redirecting her
- The first four counts brings the follow in, the second 4 counts sends the follow away
One of those mantras is going to catch on for someone, another for someone else. Besides that, people hear things differently than you may say them. It’s a game of telephone. Cover your bases and offer lots of ways to look at it.
Visual is always better
One thing to remember is that not every student speaks English as a first language. Talking about dance doesn’t help much anyway. One school of thought is that everyone has a learning language. Some people learn by seeing, some by hearing, some by teaching others. On the other hand, most everyone has an area of giftedness, be it artistic, mathematic, emotional or kinesthetic. Some art forms benefit from trying to pander to each individuals strength. Dance however is one where the visual language dominates as the student becomes more advanced. So, for me, I try to “speak” to all the kinds of learners and all the talents as much as possible for beginners, but move to be more and more “visual” and “conceptual” as the students advance.
The reason why is that if you do a good job as a teacher, and your students do a good job of being a student, then someday they will learn from other teachers. Some of the best dancers in the world are good teachers, some are not. If you habituate your students to learning visually, then they will be set up for a better career as a dancer later on. They will be able to become their own teacher just by looking out onto the dance floor. And that is your goal… students that can teach themselves.
Adding and reviewing information
Some studies about learning say that an individual must make between 20 and 28 “cognitive attempts” before learning a movement. There is a more specific science-y definition than the following, but think of a cognitive attempt as a non-distracted, focused and diligent attempt to do something. I liken this to walking across a snowy field. The first walk across will make some footprints… by 20 times across, the path will become clear. Each additional bit of information or distraction adds footprints around the field that obscure the path. You need to let the individual(s) you are teaching forge this path. This snow analogy maps pretty closely to what’s going on in the transfer of information from short term to long term memory and the development of cerebro-muscular pathway that will be associated to improvised, free dancing later on.
If you are addressing your class and you give more information than they can process, or you add before a few cognitive attempts have been made then the path is never forged.. and the student’s mind starts to feel overwhelmed. It’s going to feel like crawling at times, but you have to deliver the information at the pace they can absorb. A good template is: One idea, Three attempts, One (small) tip, three attempts. Adjust as needed, but remember that if a student can’t repeat back, verbatim, what you’ve just asked of them then they are going to be going through motions and not cognitive attempts.
Conversely, there is an ideal time to review material… it is _just_ before the student forgets it. This is a relative term, but that’s exactly when it works best. As your class approaches the 10-minutes-to-the-end mark, start reviewing everything.
The natural frustration of intermediates
If you’re finding yourself frustrated teaching intermediates, you aren’t alone. Intermediates are difficult. They have gaps in their knowledge, they need to revisit fundamentals, and they think they know everything. Beginners are the easiest. They are coming with open minds, the same level of knowledge, and trust in you as a teacher. Advanced dancers are a treat. They know that breaking the plateaus takes time, and their happy to spend half of class on one concept. Their questions will push you as a teacher, and they understand the connectedness of our community, and are therefore more appreciative, take more responsibility for their learning, and will feed your idea generation by improvising on your material. For some solutions on intermediate dancers, see my section on layering below.
When designing class material I like to look for things that I call layered topics.. These are topics that are simple enough for beginners and yet have some syncopation, variation, or connection concept that higher level dancers can appreciate and work towards. For instance I might teach a send-out with a rhythmic variation. Then the lower level students can learn the send out, the intermediates can learn the variation. I almost always change everything if I can so that all the material is both a) rooted in classic, common movements, and b) new to everyone in the room.
When things go wrong. Oh so very wrong
A couple of things happen to teachers at all levels. One is a class gone a bit disorganized. Some people are getting things, some are lost and some are on the way. Easy solution: play music. All people will find something to keep them engaged as you play music, and those students who are more easily defeated or having a hard time can be helped one-on-one.
Other times you may find you have in fact thought your thoughts or danced a step so many times that your brain has put the step inside-out. Or maybe you said right when you meant left. The easiest thing to is say “I’m sorry, I misspoke.” And then correct your teaching. I’ve seen teachers try to talk their way out, it doesn’t work. Everyone knows, and you’re losing credibility fast if you don’t own up. If it’s the first time you’ve taught something, say so. “I’ve never taught this before, so I’m still working out my key talking points… but the move is so cool and I really wanted to share it with you guys.”… Simple, honest and it conveys that you have a passion for what you do… which frankly is a lot more attractive than a perfect teacher who is bored with their stuff.
I got your back
A very important thing in teaching is to consciously create non-verbal cues that re-enforce the value of what your teaching partner is saying. Nodding your head, or following with a quick affirmation can really enhance your students experience. Most teachers, in duration of their career, will have to teach with an ex or a with partner they have artistic differences. You don’t want your students to be affected by negative feelings between you any more than they have to.
When I’m teaching with someone, no matter how much I may disagree with what they are saying, I don’t want my students to know. At worst, I will refer to something as “one of many strategies” or “an approach, however not a hard and fast rule”. No one likes to watch mom and dad fight in front of class.
Teaching the material of others
While it’s best to try to teach from the generic canon of moves, then add your own flavor and custom moves, sometimes you are going to need or want to teach something that someone else invented. There’s no formal etiquette but I think that for me, I give credit a couple of times, and encourage my students to research that dancer on YouTube. If the move is especially unique, I often give a one year period before attempting to teach it. Gigs outside of your local area should be made of material that is completely unique to you if you can manage it. When I’m stuck I always look to the old footage. There is unlimited inspiration there.
This is always a tough one for new teachers. There are always students that will do their best to catch you in a paradox, or point out minor variances in your demonstration. Some people are sent to test your patience, it would seem. Some classes are filled with Chatty Cathies. Sometimes an insecure person will try to make themselves look better by derailing the class, or asking high level questions to show their knowledge.
So when you need to take control, demanding authority doesn’t work, because it makes you look like a whiny baby that doesn’t deserve authority. Being passive doesn’t work, because then you look too weak to deserve authority.
Sometimes you get lucky and there is a cultural standard already. In Korea you can yell “CHEEP CHOONG EH BOX OO ROO” and the class will clap three times (syncopated even) and fall to immediate silence. Oh how I miss this lovely way to get the class on track. Unfortunately the rest of the world is not so easy. Alas, you must trick them into listening. Humor, or an authoritative request disguised as a kind request works best.
Sometimes you can ask nicely, but typically only if you have a mic. You’ll need to find your own style, but I’ve had luck with
- If you can hear me, say “shhhhh” and I get the rest of the class to help me.
- Let’s go in to watch mode
- Take a step into the circle and listen up
- Clap “shave and a haircut”, let them do “two bits”
- Just wait a few seconds… Dancing is for fun after all.. sometimes a few seconds will pass and you’ll get the attention you want.
The important thing to remember is that you are (usually) teaching adults. Treat them as such. I really try to avoid shushing, etc. If they want to talk, let them talk a little. Every once in a while I’ll get a downright confrontational student. I try to keep the peace with the class for the most part, but don’t be afraid to say something along the lines of “let’s let the teacher teach the class.” And then move on from there. Everyone will be happier.
To mic or not to mic
Generally, I like to avoid microphones. It feels egotistical, unnecessary, and overkill. If there are less than 60 people in the room, it’s probably not necessary. Get the room under your control through compelling material and good class management. If you are soft-spoken or very new to teaching, it may be a necessity.
Tain’t whatcha say, it’s how you say it
Words don’t have central nervous systems, they aren’t capable of independent thought or action. They are not good or bad by themselves. But, how we use them can be interpreted through a number of filters. So there really isn’t a “good” or “bad” way to say things. Keep in mind that people may take things in different ways.
For instance, as a teacher I may want to get my students excited that the next move is going to be a quick addition to their vocabulary, and I might say “here’s an easy move.” Which is great if they catch on right away, but if they don’t then they may feel stupid. Conversely I never say that a move is difficult because their confidence will be shattered before we even get started.
I might say a move is tricky, or that a move is very classic. I think that it’s important to think about how a student might take a given phrase or label. “Here is a move that is crucial to social dance because x, y and z…”.
One example that comes to mind is once I spoke to my class about the Old Timers of the dance. For me, this term is held in the highest of respect. I mean nothing but nice things when I say that. One student, who happened to be older, was offended. Words can have lots of different effects, so use them with care.
Shifting gears or giving up
I think it’s very important that once you’ve committed to teaching something, that you see it through, which is why material selection is important. If you teach something too hard and you move on before the students have it, then they will feel as if their teacher gave up on them. Once in a while I will say “let’s put that in the homework bin and shift gears for a while”, but that’s rare. Students will feel better if they actually get the material. Break into component parts, and smaller parts until it starts to come together.
Sometimes the students don’t get things. Maybe you taught it poorly, maybe it was too hard for them, maybe they’re just not there yet but, if you give up on them, they’ll feel that the dance is too hard, like it’s not their thing. I recommend sticking with it until you get something functional. They will trust you more, they’ll learn that they can, in fact, get this thing called “dancing” and they will leave class with a good feeling, which is really what it’s all about. Sometimes in a rare case, I will say, “let’s shift gears” or “let’s leave that for homework”, but in general I try to see it through.
I like doing a follow along physical warm up for any class beyond the beginning level. For one I think it clears the palette from the work day and gets people ready to work. Second I think it gets people in the mindset to visually learn. Third it will allow you as a teacher to asses level, and lastly it will give some time for students to show up if the class seems lighter than usual. Intermediates and Advanced Beginners don’t often see the value in jazz movement…. so it’s good to start them early. By the time they see the value it’s nice for them to have some vocabulary.
Jokes aren’t just a way to get people to like you (though it helps), they are a way to lighten mood and therefore increase engagement. As one Buddhist book I read told me: “negative emotions make the world seem smaller”. When you bring lightness to a mood or if you help students feel like others also have difficulty with something, then you get them to try again and not give up on themselves. As you get more comfortable improvising jokes, try to relate them to the material at hand. An accurate joke will help the students to remember what you said.
This may seem like an overly simplistic thing to say, but I encourage teachers to queue up music selections ahead of time. Get a slow, medium, and upper medium tempo ready. Use music that has an easy beat. Make it consistent with what they will hear at a dance. I’ve found that in general people are comfortable dancing to whatever tempo they learned to, and you can match your students to your scenes music right away, pretty effectively. You can’t create good dancers by giving them especially slow music forever. When they make the jump to the open dances, they’ll have difficulty making the leap. Why lie to your students about anything? That being said, make sure you can count the “1” easily in your class tunes.
Your odd habits and everything else transfers so… always just show it right.
Your students will mimic everything you do. I once knew a teacher who would scratch his belly habitually. His students all did too. Take care what you’re transferring that may be personal style or strange habit.
This is why I am not a fan of “don’t do this”, never show the wrong way. 1/3 of the class won’t register the part where you said “this is wrong”, and you’ll be giving more possibilities for the opposite of what you’re trying to teach. Of course a very high level class might be different, but as a general rule, try to always show it right, and minimize your own nervous ticks. It’s kind of like the “pink elephant” trick… ask someone to NOT visualize a pink elephant… and suddenly that’s all that they can do.
Fly baby birds, fly
Little by little, you need to have your students learn to dance on their own. After a few classes, I will often use phrases like “5678 – you’re on your own!!”.. Then come back to counting. Or I’ll say “I’m going to watch this time” and asses whether the information has truly transferred or if they are just watching and imitating. Here’s a great test: If a student can’t teach back to you what he just learned from you, then guess what – you didn’t really teach it to them. The goal of a dance class is that the movements you showed will come freely to the student in a social setting. Keep that in mind in everything, from how much music you play, to the difficulty of vocabulary that you choose, to the number of reps that you ask of them.
Each class I teach, I try to have a theme or common element that a student can take away, even if they don’t remember the material exactly. I note it at the end of class, so they at least feel that their understanding of the dance has increased, even if the techniques aren’t in their body. Good themes include
1. Using jazz in your dancing
3. Getting in and out of tandem/hand to hand/side by side, etc
4. Creating and removing rotation
5. Compression and leverage
6. Pulse and bounce
The idea being that you pick several moves around a theme, or several moves that utilize a similar concept. Concepts bubble in student’s brains and become tools for their improvisation. Moves are just… moves, and you can get them off of YouTube. So try to make dancers that you would enjoy dancing with, not just ones that can imitate your shapes.
Bring it in
If you have a nice momentum in class, you can ask if there is anyone that wants to demonstrate the day’s material. This will bring out your confident students and natural performers.
Even if I don’t do that — as I wrap up a class, I typically ask people to take a step in to the circle. I look them in the eye and I thank them for coming. I impart the next steps in their path, such as other classes, events or social dancing. I try to leave things focused on the students and open up a few moments for them to recognize their hard work for a moment. By bringing them in I have a few seconds to really impart a nice closure and the upcoming events.
In general I will start wrapping up classes about 10 minutes before the end. I will review everything with music, answer last minute questions, and make announcements. I don’t like to make the end of class feel rushed.
Pushing your students
One mistake I often see is teachers that end up filling their students with lots of sunshiney feelings no matter what they do. In the beginning, that’s fine. They don’t know what they don’t know. But after some time, you must love your students enough to tell them you want more from them. For me it’s such an honor when a teacher is hard on me; it means that they think I’m capable of more and they are invested in my success, too… and I will work to prove myself to them. That work is the difference between just attending the class and getting something from it. Of course, be kind to you students but don’t be afraid to ask more from them. Think about it… would you want a teacher who never asked you to work harder? Who always said you were great even when you weren’t? I wouldn’t.
Never stop being a student
Take lots of classes. Having the experience of a student is an invaluable tool that will make you a better teacher. You’ll become aware of class pacing, the power of words, and what kind of material a student actually finds interesting. You will better learn the difference between doing it and having it down.
Never stop being a good human
Always make notes about floorcraft. “Your number one job is to keep your partner from running into people” I often say to my beginning leads. Always encourage socializing, thanking your partner, and discourage transfer of blame from one student to the other. Try to be excited about your student’s ideas, even when it’s hard to be excited about the idea (*cough electro swing). If you don’t talk to your students about how to ask for a dance correctly, then they will do the bad things like simply sticking their hand out or doing the “no-ask-just-pull-onto-floor” method.
You don’t need to talk about these things every time, but address them from time to time.
A good class can be followed up with a nice email, wrapping up the steps, suggesting a couple of song links from iTunes to practice to, and helping the students to find the next step. Be a good internet citizen and use bcc. I always let my students film the material at the end of class. None of us has a copyright on swing dance. Share and share more, it’s good for all of us.
Track and refine
Evernote is a wonderful tool that will keep your notes sync’ed across all your computers. I write all my class notes so I can use ideas later on. Students enjoy retaking a good class. I know that I enjoy a class or routine even more the second time around. Encourage your students to take notes too. Have a note-taking circle at the end of class.
Invest in their success
If you aren’t personally interested in your students getting the material, they will feel that. Rotate in with them sometimes. Never run out after class. Never be the teacher that won’t show a couple of steps to the guys that showed up 10 minutes after the class ended. Never transfer your teacher authority on the social floor.. after class there’s no hierarchy. Always remember that our little Lindy Hop world is brand new for every single person that comes to a dance.
The last thing I say to my students is “The dancer having the most fun is the best dancer on the floor”, and the teacher that gives the most love to the task is the best teacher. For more info on community building, check out Why some scenes succeed and some fail.
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