May 11, 2012

To Be a Dance Teacher ©

The Minimum Requirements Before

Handing Out Your Card
Partner dancing is a complicated art. No matter what form of it you are doing, you are essentially bringing two separate people, with their own physical, mental and emotional strengths, gifts and weaknesses… together. And they must trust one another. One must trust him to lead. One must trust her to follow. And both must trust each other to dance in sync with the music.

And so, as in marriage, partner dancing can bring out the best and the worst in us. As all that we are unfolds in the arms of another on the dance floor, so must the teacher be aware of this delicate situation. And that’s just the start.

When it comes to teaching partner dancing, in this case West Coast Swing – What makes someone eligible to teach? In an ever increasing self-promoting society, where people will hand you "their card” within a month of learning the dance, it’s becoming more and more important to know what the requirements are for prospective instructors. What makes them worth investing your money and your time with? Just because someone says they are a teacher, or starts a class, doesn’t mean they should be teaching or should be gathering students to them.

It is now in the hands of students, clubs and organizational leaderships to evaluate and determine who is truly worthy of the title “Dance Instructor.” The following are the minimum standards that I believe every teacher who is worth an hour of anyone’s time must meet:

1. An instructor should be able to chart and phrase music.

Well trained aerobic instructors are required to understand the music they are playing for their classes. It is a well known and accepted practice. Since partner dancing generally requires a much more diverse library of music, it makes charting the necessity of this skill for any dance teachers’ training even more important.

Dance teachers should be able to chart and phrase both 3/4 music as well at 4/4 music, and must understand the “dancers count” instead of the “measures” that musicians use. They must understand the difference between the 1 and the 5 in 4/4 music and they must understand that the mini-phrase in 3/4 music is not 3 beats long, but 6 beats long, etc. They must know the difference between the mini-phrase and the major phrase, and must understand how to chart bridges, etc. I have seen numerous ways to chart music, and though I love my current method, I have never seen the other methods steer anyone wrong. A teacher should choose their method wisely, and then learn it well.

This ability to "chart" music is essential for every teacher who is in charge of bringing the music to light for students who are in the position of leading or following. Even if they don’t train the students in phrasing themselves, the mere knowledge of it lends to better instruction… from waiting for the intro of a song to pass before starting the call of a pattern, to ensuring they “finish” the complete phrasing of a pattern, instead of leaving the students half-way through a step, as so many do in say, Rumba, and ensuring the students are “off-time” as a result.

And if an instructor ever intends to choreograph, then it is simply impossible to do so correctly without charting out the music. I am consistently stunned at the errors current "choreographers" have made because they did not chart the music, leading their students into utter chaos, confusion and failure.

No matter what, this knowledge is a must.

2. An instructor should know the basic patterns of the dance.

Too often basic patterns are only taught or shared in the context of footwork. For some students and classes this might be enough, such as group lessons for entertainment at weddings, or perhaps a free introduction course. But a trained instructor, who is expecting to teach such things as weekly classes or private lessons, should most certainly know more than just the general footwork.

First let me say that it is essential that any teacher should at least know the basics for both the leader and the follower, no matter what gender the teacher is. They don't have to know their counterparts' patterns and techniques as well as they do their own, but they should definitely know all of the following when it comes to their counterparts' basics.

A trained and worthwhile instructor should not only know the footwork of the leader and follower during all basic patterns, but also their accommodating center movements, frame and hand positions. For example, all teachers should know where the hands go, where the center faces and where the feet go during each beat of every basic pattern. Obviously such positions can be delved into with great detail when it comes to higher levels of training, but for most teachers, a basic understanding of where the hands should meet (in the hold of Waltz vs. the hold of WCS, etc), where the bodies should face, etc should be enough for most classes and students.

Of course, the higher the level of the student, the higher the quality of the instructor should be. Advanced instructors should definitely have a much deeper knowledge of the positions above. For example, I, as well as a few other master instructors in WCS, can break down hand positions literally to the exact bone in the finger of someone's hand. We can explain the 'whys' behind each position and advanced technique.

I should also mention here that when it comes to the specific training for each of the basics, the parts, done correctly, will strengthen and improve a person's body, not wear down, feel uncomfortable or strain anything on one's body. When I give a student a hand position, and they say they've been given another, I always ask them to dance a few basics with each technique, and decide for themselves which technique feels better on their body. I have yet to find a student that didn't chose my technique- and that is a reflection my skill, my background and my in depth training. I encourage all students and instructors, before training with someone they know little about, to first ask who they have trained with as well as who they currently train with.

A good instructor is always a student too.

If they do not have a chance to do so, I encourage them to always ask themselves after a lesson... "Does this feel really good on my body?" And adopt or drop the technique accordingly.

3. An instructor should know the various calls that go with each pattern.

Some teachers only call a pattern in "quicks and slows." Some teachers only call a pattern by its numbers, or "count." Some teachers even swear by calling a pattern by the phrasing in the music. And others, in addition to numbers, only call in rolling count "& a 1 & a 2" or a straight count "& a 1 e & a 2 e."

For this reason, I believe all teachers should at least know about all of these calls, and what they mean. In my experience dancers look like stiff robots when they dance to a straight count call, but that's because I know the difference between a straight count and a rolling count. No matter what student I get, I can tell by their dancing which one they are doing. This is, of course, quite an advanced sort of eye, but still, I believe every teacher should at least be trained in the terminology, even if their eye is not developed.

It has also been my experience that, when teaching classes of about 100 students or so, 40-60% of the class will snatch up their Foxtrot or Rumba pattern when I call out the "count." Then I alternate to calling in "quicks and slows," and the other 60-40% instantaneously gets the pattern as well. After a while, I found myself consistently alternating between the two calls.

Most students do not notice at all, but it is always a purposeful choice on my part. If I call out 8 basics in a row of the Rumba, then I literally call out four of them using the "count" and four of them using quicks and slows. I alternating between the two at a rate that I find works for each particular class.

Sure, every once in a great while, I find a class in which 98% of the students respond only to the "count" call (engineers, anyone?) and sometimes I'll get the exact opposite. I never know, and therefore I never assume, and therefore I am prepared with an arsenal of tools and vocabulary that will work with no matter what kind of class I get.

And finally, when it comes to knowing the various calls, an instructor will be lost if they do not fully understand all of them and how they relate to one another. For example, every teacher should be prepared with the knowledge that a "quick quick" equals two weight changes during two beats of music and a "slow" means one weight change during two beats of music. And they should know how it’s different with a Waltz, etc.

A teacher should know exactly what "count" that single weight change occurs on, etc.  For example, when someone asks what the "count" is for a Country Two Step when the teacher has been calling "quicks and slows," then the teacher should be able to say that it's a 6 count pattern, and can call those counts in numbers as they dance, etc, etc.

Essentially, because there are so many ways of teaching out there, a true instructor should know what they all are, their differences and their relation to one another. I am not saying an instructor must absolutely teach in only one format, nor that they absolutely must teach in more than one, but I do believe that they must be trained in what all of them mean in relation to the basics of the dance they are teaching.

I certainly have my opinions on which produce better dancing, but that is for another article. For now, the vocabulary and the ability to switch between the calls of a dance’s basics is quite enough.

4. An instructor should master the art of weight changes.

It is my honest and heartfelt opinion that any teacher who intends to charge for their lessons, especially private lessons, must have mastered the art of changing weight. In essence, I mean that they have mastered the ability to lead and follow with their centers, and not their arms. 

This is perhaps the most difficult thing a teacher must learn to do, but it is essential. "Arm" leads & follows are almost always at the heart of partner dance injuries, along with hand holds (why I mention them in #2). There is no excuse for an instructor to put their students in harms way.

Yes, I'm saying that a teacher must be trained in "centering." In many ballrooms, instructors and students are trained to move their "core." In WCS, I was trained to narrow my body's center of movement down to the size of a golf ball in my solar plexus, whereas my friends who teach ballroom have narrowed their core down to the span of their ribcage.

Either one works for me when it comes to instructor training. If someone is leading by moving their "body"- i.e., their core, their solar plexus, their ribcage or their center... then they are usually using it to move their body's weight from one foot to another, allowing their frame to follow along.

Also, along with knowing the counts of the patterns I mention in points 2 and 3 above, a teacher must know that the counts and calls relate directly to weight changes. Again, if I call "quick, quick" in a Country Two Step, then I am aware that I am calling for two complete weight changes, occurring on counts "1" and "2" in the pattern, and often times, in order to help the class, the "1" and the "2" of the major phrase in the music.

All of these things... centering, weight changes, counts and calls... they relate to one another on almost every level. This is why it's so important that a trained instructor should understand them in regards to the dance they intend to teach.

5. An instructor should also know two other dances.

I know I'm going out on a limb here, but to be honest, this requirement comes as a result of the dancing and instruction that is inundating all partner dance communities today, especially West Coast Swing. 15 years ago, I never would have said that a teacher who wants to teach WCS would need to learn two other dances in order to be a good instructor.

But it is not 15 years ago. All partner dance communities, whether it be tango, ballroom or swing... they are all being affected by YouTube, TV Shows (DWTS, SYTYCD, etc) and the Millennial Generation. I talk about the cause & effects of these in great detail elsewhere, but for now, let's focus on the ever increasing results of these influences: 1. Dancers are no longer dancing "on beat" in many communities, 2. Dancers are unable to identify what music lends to what dance and 3. Dancers are increasingly dancing split weight.

In WCS, these three erosions are found worldwide. In other dances, such as tango, they are only occurring in certain cities or countries. But there are communities that seem much more "immune" to these three erosions... and all of those communities have one thing in common: the dancers in those communities all dance more than one dance.

Let's take Country Western for example. Country Western dancers are much more immune to Abstract Improvisation, a dance that is more on the Modern Dance side of things than a "lead & follow" partner dance. Why? Because CW dancers go to a dance and listen to every song that is played, and have to decide whether it is a Cha Cha, a Cowboy Cha Cha, a certain Line Dance, a Two-Step or a Waltz, etc. To survive in their communities, they must know what music lends to what dance.

Not only that, but their music tends to be faster, requiring a higher level of lead and follow, and therefore they are more "immune" to the other two erosions- split weight and off time dancing.  For example, if you dance a line dance and ignore the music, you will be completely run over in no time.

And that is why I believe all prospective instructors should learn two other dances. When a dancer knows more than one "lead and follow" dance, it "immunizes" them from the three common erosions. It prevents them from losing the character, the counts and the basic patterns of each dance once they start teaching, and helps them avoid the dangerous road of "do your own thing" no matter what the music or your partner is doing. I suppose if a teacher is being trained in ballroom, it is perhaps not as important to know another two dances, but it doesn't hurt, especially since erosions tend to spread like wildfire, especially with YouTube, etc.

But it is my absolute firm and resolved belief that anyone going into WCS, in the current climate, must absolutely know two other "lead and follow" dances. (I personally suggest one Latin and one Smooth, but that's just the educator in me.)

6. A prospective instructor will be able to identify Soft (Lyrical) Abstract Improvisation, Hard (Club) Abstract Improvisation and West Coast Swing when they see it and when they feel it in their partner.

Many local communities have already separated into their different dances... Abstract dancers go to one club and WCS dancers go to another. And this is good. This is healthy. They are two completely different dances with completely opposite goals, technique, mechanics and music. Abstract does not have basic patterns and it is not lead and follow and it is most certainly not centered.

Unfortunately, though, thousands of new dancers are going to YouTube to learn more about WCS, and Abstract Improvisation is almost all they will see and learn there instead.  As such, if an instructor wants to teach WCS nowadays, especially if they live near a large city or have a demographic that is very much "plugged-in," aka, "online" all the time, then an instructor should know about all three dances and how they are danced, so that they are prepared when students ask questions or want to learn certain "things" they've seen online. 

In California, where I live, most students are traveling to different dances with different instructors. As such, they are learning a variety of dances, Abstract, Zouk and Swing, all at the same time, and with everyone calling is WCS. They have been and are... utterly confused. And so, WCS teachers today, I believe, should be "in the know" when it comes to the dances out there on the floor.

And if you're a ballroom instructor? Well, I think you should know about what's going on in WCS too, because your dance might be next. Our "Abstract" instructors are waltzing their way in (no pun intended) to your studios worldwide. Sometimes your students see it for what it is right away... "Really? You want us to squat??? Really????" But not all students think for themselves or have as much training outside of WCS as you would think.

So in my opinion, anyone who teaches a partner dance should know what Abstract Improvisation is... because it's incredibly easy, incredibly deceptive and incredibly NOT in the bounds of any basic concepts held in any of the partner dances.

And there it all is. My basic requirements for prospective dance instructors. Of course, I certainly welcome students to learn and master all of the above as well. There is not one thing here that will not make you a better dancer, a greater success and a more powerful person. I wish you the best. And partner dancing really can feed your soul better than much in this world... but only when you learn it right, when you learn it well, when you learn what works...

From a truly trained instructor.

'o Be a Teacher is copyrighted material. It can be found the collection of groundbreaking articles found in Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's WCS, available in both Kindle and Print on