7 Tips for Taking Class Like A Professional

I read an interesting article the other day in Backstage, a print and online publication dedicated to giving performers advice, tips and insight about the professional industries of acting, singing and dancing, entitled, 7 Things Not to Do in A Professional NYC Dance Class, authored by Kathryn Mowat Murphy. This is a topic that Evita and I have talked about at length for years now as we’ve compared our experiences as dancers in class against how others behave in our classes or classes we’ve observed.

Here is Murphy’s list of 7 no no’s:

  1. Don’t be oblivious to the teacher’s background
  2. Be aware of your skill level
  3. Have spacial awareness in class
  4. Don’t be on your phone
  5. Don’t be late and leave early
  6. Don’t ignore a correction
  7. Don’t yawn

Now, let’s look at each of these points as they relate to taking a swing dance class.

Know who you’re taking class from: Upon first inspection, this idea could sound pompous and egotistical to ask such a thing of dancers, but here’s why I think it’s important. Knowing a bit of background on the teachers before you come to class can give you insight into their style or approach. Do they sight their teachers or influences? Do they have unique or special knowledge or experience working with previous generations? What will they emphasize or value in their classes: will they likely be connection- or figures-focused? Will their style be influenced by where they come from or reside (i.e. L.A., Sweden, St. Louis, New Orleans, Seoul, etc.)?  All of this information is useful to you before you walk through the door, and it can help you better prepare to learn.

Be aware of your skill level: Oh boy, we could talk about this for a lifetime and still not arrive at a definitive conclusion as to the best way to go about this, therefore… I’m going to try tackling it in a paragraph (or two).

There are some basic sign posts that you should adhere to with respect to your general level i.e. if you’ve only been dancing for a year or less, advanced classes most likely aren’t for you. As Murphy says, “Yes, you may have been an advanced student in your hometown or at school, but know that you’re most likely a few levels lower than what you are used to when in New York City,” which I will say applies for when you travel to an event outside your home scene. She goes on to state that technique isn’t the only thing by which to measure the level of a class, suggesting elements like style, speed of class and other students all contribute to the class level. You should also know that the context for Murphy’s point here is very NYC dance class specific, so in the Swing dancing world this idea would apply to regional, national and international workshops.

Ultimately, context plays a big part in how challenging or easy a class may be, and looking at the title alone won’t give you the best indication.

Have spatial awareness in class: This was written with small NYC studios in mind, but I certainly think it’s applicable for any swing dance class, too. If teachers don’t explicitly address floorcraft in their class, then take it upon yourself (and for your partner’s sake) to work on it even as you’re focusing on class material. Afterall, it doesn’t matter how good the band is that night or how well you and your partner are dancing together, getting kicked or kicking someone else while dancing can ruin a dance and possibly the rest of the evening. So start strengthening your peripheral awareness in the classroom, and you’ll be a better, safer dancer on the social floor.

Turn your phone off (or on silent) before class: This one is pretty common sense, but I can’t tell you how many times Evita and I have been in the middle of class when a phone goes off in someone’s bag or purse. Not only is it embarrassing for you when everyone figures out it’s your phone causing the disruption, but it also distracts us and the rest of the students from the task at hand. If you’re expecting an important phone call that you absolutely must take, then maybe skip class for that hour. Learning to dance can be hard enough without trivial distractions like a ringing phone, so please take a quick, courteous moment at the beginning of class to make sure you’re not the one with the ringing phone.

Arrive to class on time and don’t leave early: My biggest pet peeve is students who leave class early, followed quickly by those who arrive late. It’s a simple courtesy, yet it’s not abnormal for students to show up late. I’ll say that in a professional NYC dance class, this rule is enforced by teachers much more often and more firmly, but that’s often not the case in the swing dance world. I understand that things happen from time to time that prevent you from being punctual, but at least extend the instructor the courtesy of acknowledging and apologizing for your tardiness. Similarly, if you know that you’ll have to leave class early, PLEASE say something to the instructor before class begins.

(My third biggest pet peeve is those who sit down, yet stay in the rotation, during class…because hey, we’re tired too! More on that in a minute)

Take a correction, at least for that class: Hopefully you’re in a class to learn something new, so when a teacher takes the time to offer feedback, making an effort to incorporate the changes is, at the very least, a sign of respect and shows that you care. It may not be something you adopt going forward, but before you outright reject a concept or method, try it first (and more than once) before deciding that it’s not for you.

(And no, we don’t need to know that some other instructor does a swing out this way or that – speaking up in that moment only holds up the class and makes you that person.)

Don’t yawn (or our world – sit down): In whichever way you’d like to express your fatigue, the classroom is not the place to do so. And I wish I didn’t even have to address this point because it seems like common sense, but to me there are few things that show more disrespect than sitting down while taking class. If you’re too tired to take the class, then don’t take the class! I remember taking a Tap workshop from Professor Robert Reed, and he would call out individuals for things like chewing gum, standing with crossed arms or with hands on hips. If he caught you with crossed arms while he was talking, he’d walk up to you and say, “what are you, some sort of superstar dancer,” as he unfolded your arms. I think the bigger point here is that body posture and language are important not only to how we take in information, but also it could subconsciously convey your attitude towards the teachers or class material.

Final Thoughts

One of the striking characteristics of ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, musical theater and tap dancers is their discipline and adherence to structure in the classroom. While you might not have professional aspirations with your swing dancing, I think there are many things to learn about how to take class. Ultimately, developing good habits in the classroom will make you a better dancer more quickly. The way I see it, if you’re going to invest the time and money to take class, don’t you want to get the most out of the experience?



11 thoughts on “7 Tips for Taking Class Like A Professional”

  1. Thanks for the great tips on taking classes, Michael. I’ll definitely apply them at Camp Hollywood this weekend… I’m SUPER excited about all new things I’m gonna learn in the classes. Are there any particular instructors you know who will be teaching there that are not to be missed???

    • Hi Ann,

      I think ’twere I to be in attendance this year, I’d be taking classes from Eric & Sylvia, Kim & David and Minn Vo. I honestly can’t speak to their abilities as teachers, per se, but each of these dancers was hugely influential in my early years as a swing dancer. I would “stalk” them on the various VHS tapes of swing events that would circulate amongst us all, which, if you can imagine, took far more work than nowadays with YouTube 😉

      They each have a strong connection to the LA Lindy scene, as well as the bigger world-wide scene at a time when Swing dancing was becoming more mainstream in the 90s. Anyway, have a great time, and I’d love to get a full report from your experiences. In fact, I’m sure all the Members would love to hear about CH, as many probably have never been.

  2. Is there a way to subscribe to the blog so that we can get new blog posts delivered to our inbox? I can’t seem to find a subscription option… or an option to be notified if someone replies to the comments on here.

    Thanks for looking into this.

  3. I take offense to the sitting down thing: I have leg injury issues from a car accident, but because I love dancing I will rest in between rotations while the instructors are talking so I can do my best in class (and not leave early, actually disrupting rotations). I would find talking over the instructors -and other signs that I don’t care what the instructors are saying- more annoying personally.

    • Hi Alana,

      I’d like to first say that I’m sorry to hear you were in a car accident that caused such injuries. I want to be clear that I don’t think that people who sit down in the middle of class are bad people, but I’m not sure if students realize how this behavior comes across to others. I think the important thing here is to have clear communication with the instructor prior to class about your situation. Of course, most teachers (including us) wouldn’t take offense if they knew the extenuating circumstances of someone’s situation, but often it’s the case where a student will just sit down (sometimes prompting others to also sit), without any other reason than being tired.

      I also agree that there are plenty of other annoying or disruptive things that students can do, but sitting down in a dance class is something that many people are unaware of as an offense, and teachers often don’t say anything. It could also be that this doesn’t bother other teachers. As I said in my post, the original article was written by a teacher speaking to students who would potentially be taking classes in a “professional” style dance class in NYC. I, myself, am conflicted about where to draw the line with social Lindy Hoppers as it relates to creating and maintaining expectations in the classroom. I acknowledge that we play in a world parallel but different to other dance forms, so I don’t want to be overly authoritarian or a jerk to students, but I also think it’s important to create reasonable standards and boundaries for a positive learning environment.

      Thank you for taking the time to write, and I hope in context, you can see beyond that one point to understand the greater message that our actions in class convey attitudes to the instructors, and maybe in unintended ways.

      • No conflict here, draw the line at buff professional dancers who have to maintain appearances in a highly competitive environment. Amateurs taking 4 classes a day and dancing all night need all the rest we can get so we can save our energy for the dance. No disrespect intended.

  4. “but I also think it’s important to create reasonable standards and boundaries for a positive learning environment”

    First, these are not boundaries, instead these are rules. Boundaries we set for ourselves, e.g. when it comes to access to our bodies, while rules we place on someone else. The difference might seem like one of semantics, but it is profound.

    Second, I think quite a lot of people would disagree with you about reasonableness of this rules on sitting and showing signs of fatigue. Therefore, if you have such expectations of your students, please state them clearly before students sign up for your classes so that they would be able to decide themselves if they are willing to take classes on such terms.

    Third, I don’t know what was the point of providing the behavior of Robert Reed as an example. Controlling how other people hold their arms and unfolding them without asking for consent is an example of abusive behavior which violates other people’s boundaries. If it ever happened to me in a class, I would immediately report such a teacher to organizers, unless it is stated in the event’s code of conduct that students are not allowed to do that.

    • Hello Roman,

      As someone who also appreciates words and their usage, I hear your point about the difference between “boundaries” and “rules” semantically speaking, but I don’t yet understand how this differentiation strengthens or weakens my point about not sitting in class. Would you be willing to further elaborate why in this context it’s important?

      And to your second point, do you personally disagree with the expectation that students not sit down in the middle of class? Tell me under what circumstance(s) is it unreasonable to ask that students remain standing while engaging in an activity that requires us to be upright? I agree with you that maybe I should clearly state my expectations at the beginning of class, but I’m just a bit surprised that I would need to do so. If I were in a lecture at school, and I randomly stood up while the professor was teaching, would that professor be wrong in asking me to sit down or leave the classroom? I understand that many Lindy Hoppers wouldn’t inherently know that it is rude to do many of the things I’ve listed in my blog post, and my guess is that it’s probably because many Lindy Hoppers who would disagree with my points have never taken a dance class outside of the swing world. My impetus for writing this post in the first place was to highlight some behaviors and points of etiquette that haven’t been addressed by anyone else, as far as I can tell.

      And lastly, sharing a story about Robert Reeds was merely anecdotal and meant to illustrate how teachers from other disciplines have addressed posture with their students. I think there is something to the idea that how you hold yourself influences how you take in information, which is what Mr. Reed was highlighting. I hope it’s clear that I am not advocating for teachers to abuse students nor violate their boundaries.

      As important as semantics are, I’d argue that context is equally important, and to take the words I’ve written at face value without contextualizing how they were written or why they were written belies their meaning. Ultimately, I come from a set of experiences where dance classes are run a certain way, and I feel that there are expectations, customs and behaviors from the professional dance world that could benefit our community. I don’t expect everyone to understand why those rules exist or their value, but I hope that even if someone doesn’t understand or agree with my points, it gives them a moment of pause to reflect on their own behaviors and tendencies when taking class. I also encourage everybody to take a dance class outside of swing because it will strengthen you in ways beyond just movement. Can I ask: are there behaviors you see in class that are more distracting or detrimental to the learning process that I’ve not addressed?

      Thank you for taking the time to write, and I’m interested to hear more about your thoughts and experiences as it relates to class etiquette.


  5. I don’t teach Lindy Hop, but I taught martial arts at a high level for 20 years and I guess there is a lot of commonality in how to behave as a student in order to maximise learning in a class.

    My observation is that martial arts classes are far more oriented towards effective learning behaviour than dance classes are. The 7 no-nos above is of course only a beginning to the things students shouldn’t do if they are actually trying to learn. We would add many things to the list in a martial arts learning context – don’t chew gum, don’t talk in class, don’t try and be a funny man with witty remarks, pay careful attention to what is being shown, the list could go on.

    I’m regularly appalled at things I see students do in dance class, I find myself thinking “don’t these students actually want to learn?”

    Follows have often said to me “you’re the only lead doing what the teacher is showing”. My Lindy teacher tells me “you’re the only student who always pays 100% attention to what I’m teaching”.

    I don’t have any special dance skills, but perhaps I have better learning skills after spending so long studying a visually taught movement form.

    Some thoughts about comments above.

    In my martial arts class there are strict rules, but as teacher I can waive the rules. So if a student said to me “I have an injury and can’t sit in seiza” I would reply “No problem, sit comfortably or get a chair if you need to”. I think this is what Michael was getting at. He wants the class set up for learning, but would accommodate exceptions if he understands why.

    In the story about Robert Reed and the student with folded arms, Mr Reed clearly knew some things that this student did not.

    Firstly, posture affects the mind. A student standing with folded arms or hands on hips is setting their mind into a certain frame which is not conducive to learning. I too would kindly correct one of my students who stood in this way.

    And if they kept behaving that way after some reminders and after I had tried a few different teaching approaches I would eventually flip a switch in my mind about that student : “this student is not ready, or perhaps not willing, to learn effectively”. Such students help pay the bills, but are limited in how far they can progress.

    Secondly, the teacher affects the students, but students also affect the teacher. A student standing in a culturally arrogant or dismissive stance may be being rude, or perhaps ignorant of the cultural affect they are having on the teacher. The effect is disrespectful, and if a student doesn’t respect my efforts to teach them I’m happy for them not to be in the class.

    I see many dance students bring their own ‘egos’ to the learning environment, where they should be left at the door.

    Learning is the hardest thing. We have to take special care to behave in a way that maximises our efforts to learn, or the precious time in class is wasted.

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