by Loui Tucker
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This article appeared originally in the December 2012 issue of Let's Dance!
I fear we are becoming a closed society with few if any doorways into our world. We look too much like a company with complacent buyers, marketers, sales staff, middle managers, accountants and executives – and not enough entry-level positions. If we don't have entry-level positions, how are we going to fill our staff positions when they become vacant?
Are you mumbling,"What the heck is she talking about?"
Let me put it this way: If we don't have doorways into our dance world, how can we expect to cultivate a new crop of dancers?
I'm talking about dance classes designed specifically and exclusively for new dancers. We have dance clubs and classes that do a terrific job of maintaining our repertoire, adding new material from dance camps and workshops, occasionally reviewing the classics, and keeping the existing dancers happy (see "complacent" above). Where are the classes for people who want to start dancing? The Berkeley Folk Dancers still has a dedicated class one night a week, and Marcel Vinokur had a session for beginners before his intermediate class in Menlo Park for many years. There are a few more scattered throughout the Bay Area, but the pickings are pretty slim.
My own class in Saratoga on Thursdays has a 45-minute session before the regular dance class begins, but when no new dancers show up, it becomes a warm-up session with easy dances for those who arrive early. Other clubs have variations on that idea, but an hour one night a month before your regular dance class isn't enough either.
I want to encourage the creation of some dedicated beginners classes, 60-90 minutes of instruction and practice of our basic dance repertoire, separate and distinct from existing classes. I believe there are small dance halls available at community and recreations centers, churches, and even some large companies with on-site gyms.
And who's going to teach these classes? YOU ARE!
"But I'm not a teacher!" you protest. Well, neither were most of the teachers in today's classes and clubs when we opened our first class. We became teachers when we taught the first dance, and we all improved as we taught. Besides, there are no teacher credentialing programs and the Federation doesn't have the power, staff, or time to set up a teacher training program. Existing dancers have to get up the gumption and just do it!
"But I don't have all the music!" Relax! You don't need ALL the music. You need the music for perhaps 40 basic dances to start, and if you don't have any music at all, I'll bet if you ask nicely, a teacher near you will provide you with the music to get you set up.
"What about a sound system? And I certainly can't afford one of those fancy microphones!" Many halls have sound systems, so ask before you spend money on a system or disconnect your home system to schlep to the hall. You also may be able to borrow a small sound system.
As for microphones, nobody used microphones to teach until the mid-1980s! Teachers shouted and learned to project their voice. Besides, you aren't going to have a class of 100 or even 30. You'll probably start with fewer than 20, and you won't need a microphone for 20 students.
"Wait just a minute!" I can hear a voice from the back of the hall. "You're advocating sending a bunch of amateurs to teach new dancers! How can we be sure they will teach the dances accurately? What about the history and background of the dances? They might not teach the dances in an appropriate sequence! You didn't say anything about dance notations! And what about proper styling?"
Okay, everybody take a deep breath! Think about YOUR first dance teacher, your first exposure to international folk dance. While you're doing that, I'll tell you about mine. If the history and background – beyond the ethnicity or country of origin - of the dance were mentioned, I don't remember it. I didn't start writing down the names of the dances I liked for several months, so I didn't realize my favorite dances were Romanian and Israeli because the ethnicity didn't matter a lot to me in the beginning. I didn't start collecting dance notations until my first dance workshop - and I had been dancing for several years by then. The order in which the dances were taught wasn't significant because the dances were independent entities to me; I doubt it would have been important in the long run if I had learned a yemenite step before or after a pas de basque.
As for styling, I was far more concerned about not bumping into the dancers next to me than I was about whether my foot was pointed or flexed, or I was executing a čukče properly. I also know now that one dance in particular was taught rather badly (so my first teacher was not perfect), but I survived that experience, and eventually learned the dance correctly.
What did come through very clearly from my first dance teacher was a love of folk dance, boundless energy and enthusiasm, and the type of leadership that created a welcoming environment for a 20-year-old in need of a community. I went home from each class high on the sweet joy of moving to music that was new to me, and the conclusion that I had to learn these wonderful dances as quickly as I possible. And THAT (!) is far more important than which dances you teach when, the styling, the history, or the dance notations!
Don't worry that I'm asking you to teach for the next decade! This does not have to be a lifetime commitment. Find out if your local community center will let you teach an "Introduction to International Folk Dance" (or whatever fancy title you like) for 90 minutes a week for 8 weeks. Just 8 evenings out of your life could bring enthusiastic new dancers to our dance halls. See how it goes. If your class is a success and you enjoy doing it, then you can think about the long term.
I can give you examples of success stories too:
✓ a woman who started a small class for her co-workers during lunch in a small room that her Silicon Valley employer allowed her to use;
✓ a woman who started a class at her community college that grew from 12 to over 30 in two years (and her 8-week commitment has turned into an income stream);
✓ a man who wanted his children to learn folk dancing and started teaching them and their friends through their home-school network, which eventually led to a weekly class for their parents;
✓ a class at a Taiwanese community school that was started in order to give the parents something to do while their children were taking evening Chinese language classes.
These four examples are of dancers with years of dancing, but no teaching experience, and a strong desire to pass on their love of folk dancing.
So - can you be a teacher for a new crop of beginning dancers? Can you set aside your passion for 5-part Bulgarian kopanicas for eight evenings, and instead channel your passion into teaching basic dances like Zemer Atik and Alunelul and Makedonka and Cumberland Square to some novices?
Some of the teacher teaching today were encouraged by their fellow dancers. "You're a good dancer and you'd be a great teacher! Why don't you start a class? If you do, we will come dance with you." So if this article sounds like a good idea, but you can't take on the responsibility yourself, look around you and see if there is someone in your dance class who'd be a good candidate - and encourage THEM.
P.S. Back in 2005 Let's Dance! printed a series of articles about how to build a dance class. If you don't have a box in your garage full of back issues, the articles are also available on the web.