One of our members, BJ, posed a great question the other day in our Member’s Forum asking what content would be “appropriate to teach in a half-hour beginner lesson before a social dance?” In his scene, the lesson consists of only 6-count patterns, including the basic plus some variations, and the teaching staff rotates, so the moves aren’t the same every time. His main concern was with students becoming bored, and he wondered if, instead of teaching the same figures, it might be a good idea to include some playtime concepts without the structure of concrete patterns.
I like this question because it is one I’ve definitely pondered over the years, as I’m sure many of you have also done if you’ve ever had to teach a beginner Swing lesson. I don’t have a definitive answer to this question and even as I write one idea, my brain offers an equally valid counterpoint. So what I hope to offer is a framework for how best to create a plan of attack if you find yourself in a situation similar to BJ’s. I’ll look at 3 factors when determining how to plan a Beginner class:
– When is the class scheduled/how is the class positioned?
– Drop in vs. Series
– Creating empowered dancers
How Is The Class Positioned?
BJ mentions that the class in question is a weekly class just before a social dance, so that says to me the class is designed to prepare students for getting onto the dance floor quickly. Therefore, I agree with the approach of keeping things simple and achievable by offering patterns without triple steps and limiting the number of moves taught to fewer than 5. (In fact, I’d probably aim for 3 moves, at most, because I don’t think one needs more than that to succeed on the social floor.) Further, the class is only 30 minutes long, so there really isn’t time to delve too deeply into any one concept.
If the class were part of a nightly lineup of classes, without the pressure of using the moves immediately, then I might feel more inclined to introduce triple steps and take things a bit slower. Even if the class had new students every week, I’d still want introduce rhythms that they’d see at higher levels, and perhaps I would frame triples as a “variation” on their basic single-time patterns.
How Much Time Do I Get With Them?
I’m referring to whether the class is a Drop-in type or a Series, and this is probably the biggest factor I’d use to determine my approach to teaching any level class.
If it’s a series of classes, where I’ll see students multiple times, then I feel less pressure to “sell” them on the idea that they should come back for the next class. I assume that I can create a larger curriculum that takes them on a journey and builds from the previous class. I also get to factor in plenty of review time.
The other common type of class is a drop-in style class, where there may be a mix of new and returning students or even a class full of first-timers. This is always a bit trickier because now I need to treat every class like a stand-alone idea because it’s more difficult to reference ideas from previous classes if the students weren’t there. I tend to create a theme for these classes, like “6-Count Patterns Using Kick Steps” or “Moves You Can Do In Cross-Hand Hold.” This makes the class a stand-alone idea where someone completely new can achieve the goals, but if there happens to be someone who has already learned their basics, then they’re building on what they already know.
BJ’s case is interesting because it sounds like it’s a combination of the two types of class, whether that’s what his scene leaders intended or not. He says that the class has many repeat students, often times taking the class for multiple months, and therefore, they have seen many of the moves or ideas before. When I have a situation like this – a “hybrid” class of sorts – then I’ll have variations built into my material. For example, I might use a simple 6-count sequence of:
- Basic, Tuck Turn, Pass, Return to Closed
… and I’d teach that as a stand alone idea. But for those more experienced students, I’d make the Tuck Turn free (so without the Lead’s left hand to Follow’s right), the Pass would be from a cross-hand position, and then I might make the Return to Closed and Inside free turn from cross-hand. Again, this hopefully gives everybody in the room something to sink their teeth into regardless of their skill level.
Setting Them Up For Success
The last part of BJ’s scenario is the trickiest inasmuch as he offers an approach to dance that is maybe considered more “organic” or artistic. He wonders whether there might be any benefit to, “replacing a move or two with some time to just step step around each other in closed and enjoy moving with another human vs. trying to feel like you need to know/ learn all kinds of moves? Or do people who come to beginner lessons really just want to learn moves?”
I tend to believe that dancers need a basic lexicon before they are given latitude to “freely” express. I would suggest there is a trend among some teachers of advocating or extolling the virtues of freedom inherent in Lindy Hop, and while that is true, I would also suggest that too much freedom early on can be paralyzing to younger dancers. While more experienced dancers can conceptualize and contextualize the built-in freedom in Lindy, I often see that beginner students feel more successful when they can achieve concrete patterns with their partner. I sometimes draw a parallel to writing, where we first must learn words and their meanings, followed by putting them into sentences. And from sentences we build paragraphs and from paragraphs into complete stories.
Of course, there is no strict manner in which these ideas should be implemented, but I suppose I’m a bit wary of letting students just play without structure or guidance. When introducing the idea of play/improvisation to students, I will frame it in a Lead/Follow or Cause/Effect way, such that it’s not just step stepping around each other concurrently.
Evita and I will sometimes let classes “play” like this where there isn’t a focus on footwork patterns or relational shapes (a Swing Out in 8 count, for example), but rather, we give them connection tools to explore the cause and effect of pushing and pulling (for Leads) and being pushed and pulled (for Follows).
With beginner dancers, I hope to give them tools that they can use immediately on the dance floor, and ideally those tools are somewhat universal. What I mean is, if my beginner student went to a social dance across town/state/country/scene to dance, could they dance with a partner? Do they have recognizable patterns and rhythms that allow them to connect with dancers who weren’t in my class previously? I think that is one of the most important things to give students. The opportunity to ‘say’ to another dancer, “you know this move? I do too!” If two people can find those moments, then that familiarity creates a sense of connection between them quickly, which feels successful.
What’s The Overall Goal?
Ultimately, I do think there is a great deal of latitude or variance in how we teach beginners. To me, the glaring overall solution to BJ’s question is that, instead of worrying about boring the regular attendees, his scene could benefit from funneling those returning students into an hour-long Beginner’s class or maybe something more challenging. It’s quite clear that the students have an interest to keep learning, and offering an Beginner/Intermediate level class would allow instructors to start exploring higher level concepts and playtime games. I would also suspect that many students are drawn to the discounted or free aspect of these types of lessons, but if the point of the lesson is to introduce people to Swing dancing, entertaining more advanced students in the class wouldn’t be my main concern.
I think in general, Evita and I tend to approach all Beginner classes with a sense of fun by offering achievable goals in the simplest manner. We try to always keep students moving and keep the technique to a minimum, as too much information can bog students down and make dancing more of a chore than an escape from their daily routine. Swing music and dancing is inherently joyful and energetic, and when teachers can provide that experience for students, they’ll buy in to whatever is being offered. It’s always a balancing act of entertaining and educating.
Of course, this is only my/our opinion and I would love for you to share your thoughts on what has (or hasn’t) worked for your scene in the comments below.
Thanks Michael for this post, very nice! I have to say that I agree very much with you and your approach (not that I’m an expert, of course!) Here in Nijmegen (NL) we have two basic goals for taster classes: (i) get them on the social floor as soon as we can and (ii) introducing them to the social aspect of the dance, meeting new people and interacting as much as possible (as I think both you and BJ are getting at). The interaction can be as simple as meeting a new person after rotating partners and saying “hello, my name is…”. I think back to my early days where dancing with a new partner in the first class was super stressful and that’s all they made us do, just say a few words.
Thank you for the message, and I really appreciate your thoughts. I always enjoy watching teachers who can get their classes moving and laughing quickly, regardless of the quality of their technique. If the students are having fun, then I think they’ll usually stick around long enough for us to sneak some technique in there, too! 😉
Take care, and I’m sending the Netherlands a big hello from London!
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