by Loui Tucker

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This article appeared originally in the November 2005issue of Let's Dance!


You Built it and They Came!
You’ve located and rented the dance hall. You’ve advertised your dance class. Are you ready for the first class? Assuming that you’re starting with a beginner class, here are some things to think about before you open the door to your new students. Some of these tips and tricks are also useful if you’re opening a class for existing, experienced dancers.

Why Take a Class?
Why do people take classes – not just dance classes – any class? Yes, they want to learn a skill, whether it’s a Chinese cooking class or a bridge class or a yoga class. Certainly people will come to your dance class to learn a skill. Beyond the need for a skill, why do people sign up for a class when they can hire a private tutor, research the subject in the library or on the internet, or buy or rent a video?

One important reason for taking a class is social interaction. Sometimes the social interaction is a general need. This could be a couple looking for something to do on a night out away from the kids. It could be someone suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome who needs to fill the hours previously occupied raising children. It could be person new to a community just needing to meet people.

Another reason that people sign up for a class involving a physical activity, anything from aikido or water ballet, is they need the exercise. They may have no exercise program or they may be going to the gym regularly but are bored with their current routine.

There is the search for a mate. Whether young and single, newly divorced, or recently widowed, people often turn to classes when looking for companionship. Dance classes are particularly popular because there is the expectation of some physical contact.

You will have young people who are looking for a way to connect to their folk-dancing parents. You will have people who danced in college who now want to re-connect with the activity of their youth. You will have people who are preparing for an upcoming wedding where there will be dancing.

It’s Not About the Dances
Having acknowledged that your students are looking for more than just the ability to dance, you should shape your class around serving the many other needs of your students. While you can’t meet EVERYONE’S needs ALL the time, you can structure the class so that everyone has SOME of their needs met SOME of the time.

First and foremost, don’t focus on the teaching of the dances or mastering the dances. Remember that old advice to workaholics: Nobody lies on his or her death bed saying, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” You don’t want your students to go home after class and say to themselves or their loved ones: “Well, I can now do a dance from Serbia very well and I’ve got a good start on mastering a couple dance from Denmark.”

It’s not about the dances! You want your students to go home, collapse on a couch with a flushed face and say, “Wow, I sure had fun at that dance class!”

But You Still Have to Dance
Keep in mind that (1) not all slow dances are good for beginners and (2) not all dances taught to beginners should be slow. Specifically: Joc de Leagane is a lovely slow dance but it’s too complex for beginners; Hora Agadati is fast, but not too difficult for beginning dancers.
If anything, err on the side of teaching too many medium to fast dances. It’s the easiest way to meet the needs of those folks who are looking for some exercise. Besides those people, you want to have your first-time dancers get a bit of a buzz from the endorphins that their bodies produce when their heart rate is elevated. Endorphins will give them a feeling of well-being, and that feeling of well-being can mean the difference between maybe returning for a second class and definitely coming back for a second class. Make sure your dancers break a sweat!

In terms of social interaction, it is still not about the dances. Just about any dance will do, but some are better than others. In a class for beginners, at least one dance should be a mixer, perhaps two. [If you have fewer than 10 dancers in your class, mixers can be difficult, though not impossible.] The other dances should have at least a simple hand hold (not a basket hold, not a shoulder hold, not a belt hold). If you’ve ever been lonely, you know the value of the touch of a hand.

In general, pick dances that have:

Acquire Some Angels
Square dancing has long had the tradition of “angels” – experienced dancers joining squares of beginning dancers to help them learn and execute the calls. If it’s possible, convince a few friends who are experienced dancers to be “angels” for your beginner classes. It is so much easier for beginners to learn a dance if they have more than one person to follow. (I have seen beginning dancers so focused on the steps they will almost lead a line right into a wall.) The beginners also need to see good dancers so they’ll have something to aspire to. If beginners have only a room full of beginners plus one teacher, there will be some who look around the room and think “Boy, what a bunch of klutzy losers!” You want them, instead to think, “Wow – look at him! I want to get good enough to dance with him!”

Teach Quickly and Focus on the Fun.
Don’t worry about overwhelming your first students. ANYTHING and EVERYTHING is going to overwhelm them. It’s only a matter of degree. Go ahead and throw a lot of material at them. Some will learn ALL the dances, some will learn NONE of the dances, and most will be somewhere in between. My philosophy, and many will disagree, is it’s better to have fun stumbling through five or six dances than go over and over and over and OVER the same two dances for an hour.

My personal rule for beginners is: If you can’t teach a dance in under seven minutes, the dance is too difficult. Teach it, dance it, smile, chat. Rinse and repeat. In a 90-minute class for beginners, the first few weeks you should be able to cover 5 dances, possibly 6, dances and still have time to repeat a few of the favorites at the end of the class. Just don’t fret about doing every step correctly. Forget styling and formation and perfection; focus on enjoying moving to the music, experiencing a unique group activity, and connecting to each other through dance.

Learn from Your Students as They Learn From You
Prepare at least double the number of dances you actually have time to teach so you have a wide selection. While you are teaching, assess the ability of your students as they dance so that you can adjust the difficulty level and speed of the dances. Just because you have a class for beginners does not mean none of your students have ever danced before. You may have a college student who grew up doing tap dance, a middle-aged mother who’s been taking jazzercise classes, and an elderly gentleman with years of ballroom dancing under his belt.

While they are learning the dances you’ll be learning about their individual ability and hopefully selecting the next dance based on what you’re learning about them. Are they whizzing through the dances? Pick a more complex dance. Are they looking a little winded and running out in the hall for water? Slow it down. Did that couple-mixer you taught have everyone smiling and excited?

Teach another one.
By the way, the most challenging of the dances should NOT be the last one you teach. It’s better to put the most difficult of your choices next to last, and the last dance should be accessible to everyone. By the time you get to the end of the class you’ll have a good closing dance selected that, based on your assessment of their ability, everyone will be able to do and enjoy. Make it one with especially nice music that they will all go away humming.

Looking Forward a Few Weeks
Once your class is into the fourth or fifth week, start cutting back on the number of dances taught and give more time to enjoying the dances the dancers have learned. A simple formula after the first few weeks:

The goal is to teach 1-2 new dances per week and leave the rest of the time for practice, review, and interaction.

Picking Dances
Giving you a list of dances that I would use in a beginners class isn’t going to work here. I don’t know your repertoire and you won’t know mine. The key is to start with dances you love to dance. You can’t convey your enthusiasm if you think your dancers should know a dance, but if the music came on you would not get up to do it yourself. Start with dances with music you love, music that is complex and rich and makes you smile.

Try to start beginners out with dances that are not “step-critical or “timing critical.” This means if they start with the wrong foot, it is not going to prevent them for executing the general movement of the dance, or if they are a bit too fast or a bit too slow, nothing bad will happen.

For example, Zemer Atik should be started with the right foot, but if a beginning dancer starts with the left foot, it’s still possible to do the dance. Similarly, if the beginner takes three steps instead of four, but still manages to lean in the correct direction at approximately the right time, it doesn’t destroy the enjoyment of the dance. Ersko Kolo and Hora Pe Gheata are other good examples.
For couple dances, try Swiss-Finn Mixer (sometimes called Chaos Mixer) which is just walking, clapping, and elbow turns. Ve David works well with beginners if you don’t stress the proper execution of the buzz turn at the end, and just let them walk around.

You can say that a dance is popular or that it is fun or that you enjoy doing it. DO NOT introduce a dance by saying it is “easy” or “simple.” Perhaps the dance is easy – to you. But what happens to the person who cannot seem to learn that dance? What happens to that person’s self-esteem? “The teacher said that was an easy dance and I couldn’t do it?! What a klutz I am! What’s the point in doing this anyway?!” A dancer with a bruised ego won’t be back next week.

You can tell them that a dance is from Serbia. However, DO NOT talk about the Pirin Mountain region of southern Bulgaria or the Pontic Greece dance styling. DO NOT bore them with the rhythm pattern or how many years the dance has been in the repertoire or who taught it to you or the multiple variations that can be found or how it has been modified over the years. You’ll only be rewarded with glassy stares. Remember the two main reasons your students came to your class: exercise and social interaction. The love of ethnic dance and all the layers above and below it will come much later.

Be Flexible
Consider simplifying, abbreviating, and truncating, as in the suggestion above to de-emphasize the buzz turn at the end of Ve David. Another example would be teaching Alenelul without the shoulder hold and teaching it in a semi-circle with a simple handhold until your dancers have the footwork under control. You can add the traditional formation later.

One week you can teach just the first two parts of Ali Pasa and alternate them with the music. Your students will not realize they have not been taught one of the parts or that the footwork doesn’t seem to go with the same melody each time. The next week you can add the third section.
Leave the turn variation out of Rumalaj and let them enjoy it that way until they can handle doing the optional turn.

If you really like Kulsko Sira, but the third and fourth variations are clearly too difficult for beginners, just teach them the first and second variation.

Fallout and Dropouts.
Be prepared for fallout. Not every beginning dance student will return for a second week. Some will walk into the first class and know within three minutes that they will not be coming back, but they will stay through the first class just because their mother raised them not to be rude. If you have 30 students the first week and 20 the second week, the 10 who dropped out will have 10 different reasons for not returning. Perhaps one of those reasons will be something you did or did not do. The other nine will have reasons entirely beyond your control.

If you’re really curious and have some extra money and time, print out some oversized pre-addressed postcards to request feedback. You could include a checklist with items like:

___ I learned a lot                                               ___ too many dances to learn at once
___ very friendly people                                     ___ the dances was too fast for me
___ wonderful form of exercise                         ___ I didn’t like the music
___ you made it fun to learn                              ___ slow and boring
___ lots of people I want to know better           ___ nobody my age to talk to

Add a space for personal comments. Hand the cards out at the end of class. Ask participants to either drop them in a basket on the way out or mail them if they’d prefer. You will probably be surprised at the information you obtain!

No matter what you decide to do, and no matter how many dancers return for a second or third or fourth week – relax and enjoy the dancers who are there, and get out and teach them some dances!

Go to: Turning Your Dance Class Into a Dance Family