Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Workshops, Visiting Pros, and YOU!

Using Workshops as an Adjunct to Local Instructors in Your Dance Journey

A recent statement regarding the usefulness (or not) of participating in local workshops with visiting Pros has been brought to my attention by a number of people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I would like to put mine out there. Please do keep in mind that this is MY opinion and that I am in no way saying that this is the right, or only answer. Please read on, and come to your own conclusions.

HVWCS was created with the intention of improving and growing our WCS community through various means, one of which is our monthly workshops with visiting regional and national Pros. This is NOT intended to be a stand-alone way for people to learn, but as an adjunct to the weekly classes and monthly dances run by other organizers and teachers. A large majority of our dancers never or rarely go to dance weekends and are thus not exposed to the wealth of knowledge shared by the regional and national Pros in the many workshops that are held during those events.  By bringing these professionals in, we introduce fresh ideas and concepts, differing points of view, and cutting edge techniques and moves to the area. In addition, these Pros attract dancers from all over to come and learn and dance with us. This in turn builds and grows our dances so that we have more and better dancers to play with. Personally, I think that this is a win-win for us all!

Retaining the Information
I will be the first to admit that I have been told by people that they have taken class after class (or workshop) and have not retained what they learned. This is not just in reference to workshops (stand-alone or at dance weekends) but also regarding weekly classes. This is certainly not something that is exclusive to people who have taken a workshop! I see that there are several reasons and solutions to this issue.

Repetition is the Mother of All Learning
( Or to quote one of our Visiting Pros, Mr Robert Royston, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong!”)
The first and foremost is that I rarely see the people who make these statements ever try the move on the social floor at all…even at the dance right after the lesson. You just plain cannot retain something that you have been exposed to once…especially when it is a new concept for you…without practicing and drilling the new material. The best time to do this is right after the lesson, in your own time and at your own pace with a practice partner. If you have an extended “Dance” after the lesson(s), (which is preferable IMO to facilitate the learning process) be sure to return frequently to the new material throughout the night…especially if you are dancing with someone who took the class who can tell you if it “feels right”. If you are having problems, find the instructor and ask if they can watch you dance and give you pointers to help you clarify what you are struggling with.  Even in a setting where the instructor reviews the move the following week, a student will likely forget most of the material unless they make the effort to work on the material outside of the class.

I heard somewhere that research has shown that you need to repeat a new movement 400 times to put it into muscle memory. While I cannot find the reference, I would venture to guess that this is pretty accurate, especially for the new dancer. As you get more comfortable with the basics and common moves/patterns, this number will likely go down as you can reference what you already know and “find the familiar” (as I like to put it) in the material you are learning. This is why a professional dancer can rehearse choreography for a few hours or days and go out and perform it as though they have been working on it for months…they are simply stringing what they have mastered together in a different order and that mastery has come through countless hours of repetition.
Save it for another day!
Notebooks and Videos as a learning tool.

Now, of course, you won’t likely be able to do the new move, or technique drill, 400 times that night, but you CAN make a video of the move. Many visiting pros/instructors will allow you to video tape the move after the lesson/workshop. If they will not do a review for you, there is nothing to stop you going out in a hall with a friend and taping yourselves going over the move so you at least have some reference for the future.  (Our group has been known to video tape a move in the parking lot where we meet up on the way home if we didn’t get to do it at the dance!) This is one of the best things you can do for your dance, because you WILL forget moves! (even ones that you become comfortable with and are your current favorites!). Frequent visits to your “workshops” folder will keep your dance fresh and will help you expand your repertoire immensely as you bring back moves that you mastered and then forgot!

I also know people who keep notes about what they have learned. While I think this is an excellent tool (as people learn in different ways) I would still encourage you to take a video of the move in case you have to ask for help from your instructor…which leads me to……

Your “Local Instructor” and Workshops….
Or, How to Get the Most Bang for Your Workshop Buck!

The other issue is that you may just “not get it”. You learned a totally new concept or perhaps your abilities are just not up to that move. Certainly, if a workshop is advertised as being “Intermediate or Advanced” you may want to ask the organizer or visiting pro if they think you will be ok with the material before you register.  Then there are the times that, for whatever reason, even though you ARE accomplished enough for the class, you just get stuck and can’t figure out what you are doing wrong. This is where your local instructors are an invaluable resource for you.

Depending on their personal styles and teaching preferences, you may be able to bring the video to your local class and ask your local instructor to help you with the move or technique. This can be very useful if a whole bunch of your fellow dancers took the workshop and would like to solidify their understanding and ability to do the material. I for one encourage people to take my “Beyond the Basics” class for exactly this purpose! Every week we explore something that just isn’t working for someone…and everyone learns from it! Other instructors have set lesson plans for their classes. In this case you may have to take a private or ask for their help outside the class. Your local instructor knows your strengths and weaknesses and (hopefully!)  your learning style and should be able to help you clarify the issues that you are struggling with. THAT IS WHAT WE ARE HERE FOR!

Hearing Something 6 Different Ways
Going from “Huh???” to “I got It!”

I can’t tell you how many times I have someone come up to me after one of our workshops to tell me that they finally “got” a concept that their home-instructors have been teaching, because it was explained in different way.  OR, that they learned something at a workshop 6 months ago and couldn’t “get it” and their home-instructor said something and it clicked. Sometimes we just have to hear/see things in several different ways for our minds and bodies to be able to grasp the concept. 

We all learn differently and we have to explore different teaching/learning methods and find what works for each of us as individuals.  I encourage people to explore different instructors and teaching methods to find which style of teaching works best for them. Some people are visual learners, some are “by rote” learners, and others need to hear the whys and wherefores of what makes up a move. Different instructors bring different teaching styles and ideas and you can pretty much learn SOMETHING from every one that you are exposed to!

Doing What is Right for YOU!
Only You Can Know What Works for You!

It is not for me (or anyone, IMHO) to tell you whether or not you *should* take workshops with visiting professionals – only YOU can determine if this is a useful tool for YOU! The bottom line is to have fun and enjoy the ride.  Whatever your conclusion, I wish you the best on your journey through the learning process of WCS.

See YOU on the dance floor!!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Leaders! Everything You Ever Wanted to Hear From Your Follower (but were afraid to ask!)

Leaders! Everything You Ever Wanted to Hear From Your Follower (but were afraid to ask!)

A recent post on Facebook (Thanks Jasmine!) brought about the topic for this week! Apologies for length but, well, lets just say I have been given alot of things to pass on here!!!!

There are a number of complaints, concerns, and comments about leaders that repeatedly come up when followers get together and talk dance. As someone who "Swings Both Ways" as a leader and a follower, I totally empathize with both sides of the slot. So Leaders, don't think I am picking on you! Next week it will be the Follower's turn!

I would HOPE that any dancer out there would want to continue to improve their dance, whether they are purely social dancers or fierce competitors, because really, the better we understand the mechanics and nuances of the dance, the more people will want to dance with us! AND, they will leave with a genuine smile on their face, rather than the polite "Thanks-for-the-dance-how-fast-can-I-get-to-the-next-dancer" look. I am sure we have all seen - and given - THAT look! One of the best things you can do for your dance is to really, REALLY hear what it is like to be on the other side of the slot. So below, I am listing and commenting on the chief complaints that I hear from Followers.

     1) Overleading: Basically guys - we come equipped with Power Steering, Power Brakes, and Cruise Control.

I once watched a top Pro female following a Novice leader (who I had had a disastrous dance with in competition and who seemed to think he had to goat-rope me through the whole song) in the late night dancing. Afterwards I commented something about his lead, to which she replied "I don't get it - I'm a Ferrari! I don't need to be dragged through every ^%&**% step!" So, think of leading as you would driving - only use as much as you need to achieve the move, and no more. I am going to address each of the 3 topics separately.

          Cruise Control: If you have never followed (or rarely follow) you probably have NO idea how different it feels to have a body lead vs an arm lead. A body lead feels like you have put your foot on gently on the gas as you let out the clutch - an arm lead feels like you are trying to get out the gate first in a drag (literally) race! If you are not sure if you have mastered the body lead, ask the best follower you are comfortable with talking to (as she will definitely be able to know the difference). Mastering this alone will double the number of followers on your dance card overnight.

          Once you have us moving, you really, truly don't need to keep us moving - we are really good at doing this ourselves! Yes, beginner dancers may not move as well (and may need a bit more "help" at first), and there are differences in how we are taught from region to region about what "connection" is, but my understanding of where the dance is going in general is to create dancers who are not dependent on each other but rather who can work cooperatively to create magic on the dance floor. The leader who leads every single step, keeps us followers from developing our own ability to move and makes it much harder for us to add our own styling. So for instance, on a simple side pass, you only need to give us the speed and direction (forward) on "1", the change of direction around "3and", and the indication that we are ending the move (sometimes called the post) on 4 so I know to be prepared to anchor. In between all that is needed is a clear (Read: NOT heavy, strong, or controlling!) connection so I know where you are. Leaders who lead every single step of every single move make us our job 10 times harder.

          Power Steering: Just as we are able to move ourselves very well, we are also able to change our direction on our own! Again, a beginner may need more support and help through a turn, but whenever possible, try even then to let her get herself around...it is the only way she will find her own balance and technique!!! Once we know our "job", we are usually pretty good at getting ourselves through any change of direction that you may give us. Lead the change of direction and let us follow through - trust us to do our part of the dance!

          Power Brakes: You have no idea how many times I have wondered if I'd need a neck brace, or shoulder surgery at the end of a dance. Once a follower has learned technique and control, you may be surprised just how fast we can stop ourselves on our own! The worst offenses come after a spin, when the leader often yanks us out of the end of the spin to hit a break.  Odds are, if we know the music, we will instinctively be ready for that hit anyway...but even if we don't know the music, all it takes is a subtle change of speed as you finish the last spin to let us know to pay attention to what you are doing. Please, please, PLEASE don't yank our arm down....this is one of the biggest things that causes injuries AND scares off many a newbie so she doesn't come back.

That brings me to another subject:

     2) Dancing with Beginners: The experiences that a follower has in her first few weeks and months can make a HUGE difference in her long-term dancing. You have no idea how many beginners have come up to me who I have to talk off the ledge (ie, they are thinking of quitting) because an "Advanced" leader scared her or hurt her feelings. Also, how she physically dances will be greatly affected by her first experiences (ie, if she fears getting hurt by the aforementioned goat-roper leader, she will learn to dance defensively/tight, which is a hard habit to unlearn).

You have all probably heard of the book "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars". This book covers the different ways men and women approach not only sex but life in general. The dance floor is no different. Where you guys generally don't want to look "foolish", women will often blame themselves for every little thing that goes wrong in the dance....especially when she is still learning. If you have ever done a workshop or three, you have likely heard the instructor say "It is always the leaders fault". Well, like it or not, most of the time it is. Why? Because YOU are in the drivers seat. It is YOUR JOB to take each follower and learn how to "drive" her. Just like different makes and models of cars, followers have different ways of reacting to each lead, and differing skill levels. Your job is to figure out what each follower can do (Is she a Jeep, a Toyota, or a Ferrari?), and then give her a dance that accentuates her skills while perhaps challenging her a just a bit to stretch her dance a little. This is ESPECIALLY true for beginners.

I cringe sooo many times when I see a woman who perhaps has just learned the left/right side-passes and a push break getting dragged through dozens of spins and dips by a leader who thinks he has to "teach" her to dance. Even those who have danced several months or even a year or so are often more emotionally fragile than the leaders imagine....they often feel they are not advancing (when in fact they are) because some guy just threw every move he knows at them (often badly!) when their skill sets were nowhere near those level of moves. You may find it a bit tedious at times, but in the long run, you will get many, MANY more followers who want to dance with you if you take care of them when they are baby-dancers. So if you have to lead left and right side-passes for a whole song, use that time to perfect YOUR technique! Odds are there is SOMETHING you need to improve (centering, balance, timing, etc). This is the perfect time to work on it!!!!

In addition:  when you first dance with anyone who you nave never danced with, please please PLEASE don't pull out all your fanciest moves in the first phrase of the music! Even if you have watched them dance with someone else, always ALWAYS start with simpler moves, and work your way to the more difficult ones as you figure out what the follower is capable of. I often do some basic patterns to figure out what her connection and general "follow-ability" is, (ie, does she anticipate? Does she settle on her anchor? Is she watching me? etc). THEN I add a simple free spin (if she can't spin on her own, she likely will not spin well with connection). The rest of my dance will be largely determined within that first phrase as I now know what moves to not try with her at this point. As we get to know each other over time, I may pull out moves that will stretch her, but not on our first dance. I want her to be confident and relaxed at the end of that first dance, and I am sure it is why I often get the remark that our dance was the best one of the night - not because I am a "better" leader, but because I adjusted my dance to my follower!

BTW: how you dance with these beginner/more novice dancers tells ME a lot about how good you are as a leader......they are less likely to be able to fudge for a bad lead, so when I see a real beginner/novice having a great dance with a leader, I want to dance with HIM!!!!!!

     3) Please be Gentle with us! : Many of you don't know your own strength. Fingers in our backs during whips, death grip thumb holds in open, and the like make it hard for us to enjoy the dance. It's a good thing to check in with a follower that you trust once in awhile to get some feedback around this. 99% of the time the leader is totally unaware that this is happening and we will be happy to let you know if you ask us!

     4) PLEASE: No teaching on the dance floor! : With a few exceptions, most teaching on the dance floor comes from leaders. And, like it or not, my premise is that in 85-90% of the cases, the thing that needs to be fixed is the leader. (I know that will be ruffling a few feathers here, but I tend to speak MY truth guys!).

The reason for this is what I already discussed; and that is that it is up to the leader to not over-face the newer or less-competent followers, and this accounts for at least half of these "free advice sessions". The other issue is whether you are actually leading the move in the most correct/efficient fashion. Just because you can lead it with some followers doesn't mean you are leading it correctly! A more advanced follower, or one who just learned the move in the workshop with you, will "fill in the gaps" in the lead...while a less competent/experienced one may or may not muddle her way through it.

When I am leading, I generally try to not give advice to followers (unless it is something I have worked on with someone in class) on the social dance floor....with the RARE exception of a simple fix that I might offer (and if they don't get it, I leave it alone!).

It is my opinion that if you can't follow, you are in no place to "teach" a follower, and visa versa. If you are ASKED for help, then by all means, help if you can, but again, if you don't follow, you may want to at least enlist someone to help you who does know the move (your instructor perhaps??) so they can get the information that they need as a follower to understand their role.

I am sure there are other things that followers will want to chime in on. Please, no mentions of names if you are giving particular examples....but I would love to see a good exchange of information on this. We can only improve what we are aware of.....and remember girls, it's your turn next week, so be nice!!!!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Roomshare Etiquette 101

As an organizer of our local dance community, Hudson Valley WCS, I often promote weekend dance events that I like to my group. With that comes the responsibility of helping people to find ride and room shares. I am very fortunate to have the assistance of another dancer, Jun Ogata with this monumental and sometimes thankless task. Matching personalities and personal needs and preferences takes some serious shuffling and patience!

There are many things to consider when sharing a room with others; it is good to be honest from the get-go about what works for you, what you can compromise on, and what just plain won't work for you. After all, we are going to these events to have a good time, so it really pays to make sure that you and your roommates are on the same page.

Below are some of the issues that you need to think about when sharing a room. You can print out the list at the bottom of this blog and give it to your roomshare organizer or, if you are doing your own coordinating, you can send it out to all your roomies to clarify things with them ahead of time. If you are a room coordinator, feel free to use this form for your group too. This list is *MY* point of view, gained from our experiences here and the stories I have heard from other coordinators - take it and make it your own!

He/She who books the room sets the tone of the room.

Most of the time the host hotel sells out weeks (or even months) ahead of time. So if you happen to be one of those people who does not plan ahead and you leave the booking of the room until it is too late, you should be thankful that someone had the foresight to book that room AND let you stay with them! So if they say no partying, or lights out at midnight, or they like the room cooler than you do, then abide by their rules, or get yourself a room at the overflow hotel. If you are the person who reserved the room, make it clear to everyone what you expect BEFORE the dance weekend, preferably in an email or other written notification so you can refer to it if there are any misunderstandings. 

Rooming Preferences.

If you prefer a uni-sex room, a bed to yourself, or a full room (to save money), be up front about that early on. Some people are ok with sharing a room and/or a bed with someone of the opposite sex, while others prefer same-sex roomies or fewer roommates. Also, if there is a particular person who you expressly do not want to room with (for whatever reason), put that out there early on too. If you are ok with sleeping on the floor, make that clear too - being flexible will certainly help you to get a space much easier.

Arrival/Departure time:

It helps to know who is arriving first so you can make sure they have a key  - if you can put everyone's name on the room (if you booked the room) it can save everyone a lot of frustration when they arrive as you don't have to scramble to find each other. However, some hotels charge if you have more than 2 people in a room, so check that out ahead of time.  If you need to stay over an extra day, check to see if anyone else is doing that ahead of time, so you can make arrangements for those days well ahead of time.

Committing to the room:  

If you have been offered a room space, it is only fair to give a definite yes or no answer. If you are a maybe, make it very clear that you cannot commit yet, and be prepared to lose your place in that room. Expecting someone to hold a space for you while you figure out your situation is just not fair to them. If you are the room holder and you may already have other roomies and you tell someone maybe, remember they are free to keep looking for a space until you give them a definite answer.

Also, if you have a change in your situation, and cannot go at the last minute, it is only fair that you try to help to find someone to take your place in that room. We had a situation here where there was a vague agreement (where the room holder misunderstood that the person was not fully committed) and the other person dropped out at the last minute (to room with someone else), leaving her high and dry and with the full cost of the room. Thankfully we managed to help her to get another roommate but the other person never offered to help find someone or to pay for her space. It left everyone with a very bad taste in their mouth and made for a lot of emails after with everyone getting more upset. If in doubt, clarify with each other exactly where you are at - it makes for a much nicer situation all around.

 Discuss anything that might cause an issue 
with your roommates ahead of time:

Some people have things they just cannot live with in a roomshare. Below are just a few of the issues that can cause problems in a room.

               Odors: There are many people who have a hyper sensitivity to ANY kind of smell or odor. Exposure to things like perfume, hair spray, strong shampoos, etc, can make them physically ill. Check with everyone before you douse yourself in Channel #5. To be honest, you should always err on the side of caution here anyway and go VERY lightly, if at all, with colognes. I passed one guy on in the hall once who REEKED of cologne -  and when we stepped in the elevator, we knew that he had been on that one...even *I* found it to be too much! I can only imagine what it was like to dance with him!

               Light and Noise: Some people cannot deal with light or noise when they sleep, while others can't sleep without the TV being on. Also, there are times that your roomates may just need some peace and quiet. If you must have quiet, try to find like-minded roomies. And for the rest of you, just try to be sensitive to others when they are sleeping. If people are sleeping when I come in (I'm one of those who often shuts the floor down) I put on the light in the bathroom and use a flashlight to find my stuff - which I usually set out before I go down dancing - so I hopefully don't disturb them.

               Temperature: I personally like a cooler room. I can't sleep if the room is over 68 degrees. Period. I was once in a room where someone joined us on a Sunday (after my roomies and I had been happily in our 67 degree room together for 3 nights) and started complaining about how cold it was. It made for some tension for the next 24 hrs. If I join a room and I have not made it clear that I need a cooler room before I join the room, I suck it up and live with the room temperature.

               Neatness: Some people are neatnicks - others like to spread out. If you are a tidy person and you can't stand a mess, make that clear to your prospective roommates. Better yet, everyone should just try to keep their clutter in their corner....when you have 3-5 people in a room, a *little* clutter soon looks like a bomb has gone off in the room!

                 Bathrooms: This is often one of the places where a lot of tension is created. People are often competing or doing specific workshops and need the bathroom to get ready. This is a 2-way street. The best thing is to plan ahead and perhaps shower a little earlier in the day, set out your make-up/clothes/etc to speed up your time in the facilities, and work out a schedule for the bathroom ahead of time with anyone else who is competing at the same time as you. However, remember that just because someone isn't competing doesn't mean that they don't have a right to use the shower when they want! A little pre-planning in this area can save a LOT of grief later! If you are a bathroom hog, and love 2 hr showers, remember that you are rooming with others, and try to plan your bubble bath for a time when everyone else is occupied with other things.

                Snoring/Nightmares: It really is only fair that if you snore, you let your roommates know it beforehand. There are plenty of people who also snore who will understand, and others (like me) who have an excellent set of ear plugs. Also, if you have nightmares on a frequent basis, let your roomies know so you don't scare the be-jesus out of them. We had a roomie one night who started calling out. It scared his bed-mate who was afraid to wake him in case he lashed out. When we got him to wake up, it actually ended up turning hysterically funny, but it could have set an odd mood over the room. Now that we know this about him, we know how to handle the situation if it arises again.

               Party People: Some people love to party on a weekend - others want a quiet space to retreat to when they leave the dance floor. Whenever possible, try to find roomates who are aligned with you in this area. If you are in a room where others in the room are not party people, take the party elsewhere....there are plenty of others who will share your desire to celebrate in their room :)

               Payment: If you are the one who booked the room and you want everyone to pay you cash, make sure you let them know ahead of time. There are many ways to sort this out - I personally like to put my share of the room on my card so I can keep track of my expenses better, and I'd rather that my roomies pay for their own part of the room rather than receiving cash, as it keeps all my expense tracking simpler.  If someone is set on cash payment, that room wouldn't work for me. 

             Once you are in the room: There are more things to sort out - which side of the bed you prefer to sleep on, food/alcohol sharing, etc. Be sure to have a quick meeting with your roomies to air any other issues that might come up as soon as you can once the weekend starts. It can save a lot of grief and hard feelings later!

Finally, if you are working with a Room Coordinator, 
KEEP THEM INFORMED of any arrangements you make on your own!

Roomshare coordinators often also help to book tables and coordinate rides for events. Let them know if you have your pass and/or if you are looking for a ride. The more people who have your info, the quicker everyone gets their needs met.Also, each has his or her own style -  some take on more responsibility for matching and some only put you in touch with possible matches. Find out their style so you can be clear about what your responsibilities are in each situation.

Room coordinating is an exhausting job. These people are doing their best to match not only "orphaned" dancers (those with no place to sleep) with those who had the foresight to book a room. They are usually trying to take everything they know about you (see above), and match you with a suitable rooming partner(s). If you find someone to room with on your own, let them know as soon as that is confirmed so they can take you off their list. And THANK THEM for their time. AND, ask them for a dance or buy them a drink when you see them at the weekend. Really.

Below is a "form" you can copy for your own use when rooming. 
Use it and change it as you will for coordinating rooms to suit your situation.


(Circle one)      I have a room and am looking for roommates

                          I am looking for someone to room with  

Age: (Can be generic)__________________    Sex: _________________________

Arrival Date/Time: _______________Departure Date/Time:________________

Room Preferences

 # of roommates:_____________

Sex of roommates: (Circle one)        Male        Female        Doesn't Matter

Age of roommates: (Circle one)       Around my age       Any age/doesn't matter

Sleeping Situation: (Circle all that apply)  

     I can share a bed     I prefer a bed to myself     I can sleep on the floor

     I am ok with sleeping with someone of the opposite sex

I prefer my room to be: (Circle all that apply)

     Quiet, low key       Some partying but not late at night        The Party Place!

I have the following special needs: (Circle all that apply)

     No perfumes or strong odors           No Lights/TV/noise while sleeping

     I need the TV on to sleep                 I prefer neat/tidy roommates

      I need a cool room to sleep             I need a warm room to sleep           

      I snore                                            I have nightmares                  

      I prefer non-smokers                       I cannot sleep with snorers

      I will be competing and will need cooperation around the bathroom right before comps

      I am not competing and am flexible around bathroom time

I would prefer to not room with the following people: 
(this info will be kept confidential)


I prefer to pay for my part of the room by: (Circle one)

      Cash                 Check                      Credit Card

**Thanks to CJ Henry and Jun Ogata (roomshare coordinators extraordinaire!) for their feedback in this post!!!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Followers! Everything You Ever Wanted to Hear From Your Leader (but were afraid to ask!)

So Ladies! This is your turn to get some feedback from your leaders. The comments below are generalizations of what I have heard from leaders, as well as my own experiences as a leader. This is written in the spirit of increasing awareness and opening a dialogue - both here and hopefully between you and other dancers. After all, we can't fix what we are unaware of!


Guys like to look like they have it all under control - and when they start this dance, they usually feel totally out of their element.

Followers - please, be patient with your leader - especially the newer guys (and by that I mean, anyone with less than a year's experience). Most come in feeling that they have 2 left feet (and some seem to be right!), and many come in worried that they will "look stupid". Many want to look like Jordan Frisbee overnight and they find it frustrating when they realize that it's just not happening this week (or month, or year!). They see other guys who they feel make it look sooo easy to lead and they forget that that guy was likely just as awkward and uncoordinated when he started and he's been dancing for several years or more.

Just as I mentioned to the leaders in my last blog that it is their job to adjust their lead to the followers abilities, so we followers must consider the abilities of the beginner leader while he is in the early stages of learning this dance. I have had a leader say to me that a follower "sabotaged" his dance (when she was likely doing her version of adding styling and perhaps back leading a bit), another that said that he felt that "x" follower didn't like dancing with him because she kept making faces (and I understand, when we are trying to figure things out, it often shows!), and another who basically called the instructor to tell her he was quitting EVERY WEEK for 6 months because he thought he would never get it (and THANKFULLY he is still dancing with us today because the instructor kept encouraging him to stick with it!).

My basic rule of thumb with a real, raw beginner is to tell him that I am really happy to follow the two moves he just learned for a whole dance (and I MEAN IT!) . I explain that I understand it is not easy, and I tell him that we all started where he is, and I am happy to just let him practice with me because I really, truly want him to learn the dance so I have more leaders to play with in the future. I keep my follow simple (as doing ANY styling will often get you a deer-in-the-headlights response at this point) and I make it a point to SMILE a lot! Afterwards, go ask another follower to ask him to dance - the new guys are often scared to ask anyone at that point and it is our job to put them at ease and show them that we really appreciate the effort they are making.

As the leader starts to get better, you can add a *little* styling, but if you see that it really throws them off, tone it down a little. If they ask you for help, unless you actually lead yourself, your best bet is to find the instructor and ask them to help him (and you act as the dance dummy for him). You can say "I don't lead myself, and I don't want to give you bad information, so lets find "X" and see if he/she can help us figure it out". After that, if you are dancing later, you can let him know when he is getting it right that you can feel the difference - let him know that you noticed! Encouragement and positive feedback in these early stages goes a loooong way with our leaders!

2) LEADERS LOVE IT WHEN YOU LOOK AT THEM AND SMILE! : Take it from someone who has had to teach herself to smile - I know it isn't easy sometimes when we are concentrating...but if you look like you are having fun, a leader will forgive you a lot more if you miss a move, or if he has to work harder to help you through a move (because you have your own stuff to work on!). Don't be afraid to flirt a little - this IS a flirty dance! As Angelique Early told our dancers in one workshop, "Fall in Love" with your partner for that 3 1/2 minutes.....ie: make him the center of your attention, let him know that you are having fun, and forgive his mistakes (after all, you are probably making a few yourself!). Fun followers with flaws get more dances than self-centered, pouty ones that make faces when the leader goofs up (and then proceeds to tell him what he is doing wrong).

3) DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK THEM TO DANCE: Many ladies come to this dance from other dance communities where the leaders are the ones who search out a partner. Or we have women come in who just assume that the guys will ask them. Then I hear complaints that "No-one is asking me to dance".  The WCS world is an equal-opportunity community - we encourage followers to ask the leaders to dance too! You will find that once you become more pro-active you will also get more people asking you to dance. Why? Because you will be seen on the floor and like it or not, people in general will normally ask familiar faces first. Yes - there are some who seek out the newbies, but trust me - it's just a human condition to seek out people who you are already comfortable with. It's nothing personal if you find yourself sitting in a corner with no-one asking you to dance - it's more likely that you just are not being noticed because of your location and body language. If you just can't bring yourself to ask the leaders, then at least stand up near the dance floor as a song is ending, and smile and tap your feet, and ACT  like you WANT to dance! Make eye contact with the leader you are hoping to dance with as he comes off the floor. Just as we ladies learn in relationships, guys can't read our minds. Let him KNOW you want to dance with him!!!!

Also, if you see a new guy, go ask him to dance. Yes - you  might do side passes for 3 1/2 minutes, but just keep remembering point # 1 above! It is in our best interests to encourage them!!!!

4) FOLLOW THE LEADER: This is a difficult point to discuss, as following has so many different aspects and nuances that are hard to explain. But I will do my best to give you some points to think about.

First, the number 1 rule of following is WAIT! This is easier said than done, especially for beginners. We are taught the moves first, rather than how to dance. So it is easy to just see the leader start to move in the general direction of a move you know and to then just start a move that seems to fit that visual cue. Often followers don't even begin to really get the concept of what true following entails for months, or even years after they start dancing. Yet this is where the true magic of partnered dancing lies - in the ability of the follower to settle in the anchor (on the 6-and-a) and wait that milli-second longer before taking her "1" - and THEN in being able to stay that fraction of a second behind the lead.

WCS patterns are like legos - we take bits of one pattern and incorporate it with bits of another pattern. So basically every 2 beats you can be going into a different pattern than the one that you started on. This is where beginners get really confused, as they have not been exposed to enough patterns and pattern combinations to really understand that, in the end, there are no set-in-stone patterns once you start to dance! It is this ability to be flexible and creative with your partner that has hooked so many of us in to this dance. So - what can you do to increase your "follow-ability"?

One of my favorite things is to dance with someone I totally trust (and who preferably is a really clear lead), and ask them to lead me in basic moves. Then I shut my eyes (as we can subconsciously follow what we see easier than what we feel), and tune in to what I am feeling. At first, you may get off balance and you may have trouble with trusting the process, but keep trying, even if you have to open your eyes every few seconds at first. Concentrate on allowing yourself to totally settle onto and over your left leg at the end of each pattern in a relaxed manner, and wait to feel the lead. Several things can be fixed with this exercise - if you normally take large steps, you will likely find yourself not striding as far -  self preservation keeps us a little "cautious" here...which in turn actually helps us stay behind the lead! In compression moves, you are likely to actually go into compression as you won't visually stop yourself. You will start to feel more of the nuances of what the leader is doing and how it affects you. Do this for one song every time you dance, and you will likely start to find that your dance begins to change a lot as you learn to relax and trust both yourself and your leader.

Privates are another great way to work on this. Many of you take lots of workshops yet never take a private, but in truth, this is something that you are unlikely to really master without at least some one-on-one time with a professional. Yes - I know - most of you may just want to be social dancers, but at the same time, I hope you want to at least get to a point of proficiency where your follow is somewhat light and yet leadable! And the better you are, the fuller your dance card will be! There are many ways to take privates without it breaking the bank. I often ask someone to split a private with me....we both get something out of the time and we can also provide each other feedback in the days and weeks after while we are working on what we learned. To further reduce costs, you can ask the Pro if they will do "mini-group" privates, where 4-6 people split the hour. Again, you will have some one-on-one time with the Pro AND you get several people to practice with for feedback.

If a leader does a move and you totally miss it, you CAN ask him to lead it again. Sometimes that is all it will take for you to "get" the move. If not, then perhaps you can find your instructor and ask him/her what you are missing. (Note to Leaders: this is NOT an invitation for a 30 minute lesson! It is an invitation for you to lead the move again, and to perhaps to make sure you are being very clear in your lead the second time around.You can give a few suggestions about where you are trying to get them to go, and no more. If they don't get it, then either you need to fix your lead or they are just not ready for that move. Either way, it is your cue to not lead it again with that partner!).

I can assure you, if you can really work on this, your leaders will thank you by asking you for many more dances. Why? Because it takes a lot out of us if we are continually having to change and adjust the patterns that we are intending to lead because you, the follower, have (usually unwittingly) put yourself in a place where we cannot execute the next part of the move. In my last blog I told the leaders we have Cruise Control, Power Steering, and Power Brakes. It is up to US to make sure we do our best to make it easy for them to lead us with minimal effort.

The bottom line is that this dance is a PARTNERED dance - partnerships assume that all parties do their best to assume responsibility for their role in the partnership. Yes, most of us are social dancers, and that is often interpreted as "I only need to learn some basics and nothing more". Well, yes, you are within your rights to assume that, but honestly, if you went to a parking lot and told you could drive any car you wanted, wouldn't you pick the Ferrarri over the Army-version of a Jeep? So the more you can do to keep learning and growing, the more people will want to dance with you...even if it is slow progress, we all recognize and appreciate it when someone has improved their dancing. That, combined with a genuine smile will do wonders to keep your dance card full.

Oh - and to both leaders and followers - if your partner does something that you think is really cool, LET THEM KNOW! I was at a dance last weekend, and the most popular leader was not the biggest pro, it was a guy who smiled and said "Niiiice!" when the follower did something that he thought was cool or sexy. This goes both ways. Show your appreciation when you think your partner does something great and/or if you recognize that they have improved their dance. Not only will that get you more dances, it earns you brownie points in WCS heaven :)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Move vs Technique Based Classes

I just had a great conversation this morning about the content of classes....what constitutes a good class, what will attract people to take the class, what our responsibility is to the class. I thought I would share my thoughts here to open up a dialog with both students and, hopefully, instructors.

It is my firm belief that classes (especially those that follow the 6-move based Beginner tracks) should be technique based FIRST, with a simple move or two to help illustrate and execute that technique. This is the theory in my "Beyond the Basics" classes on Thursdays. Personally, I HATE the use of the word "Intermediate" in regular classes. Anyone who has gone to competitions  knows that in that world, Intermediate is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish....so in that respect, we are doing a disservice to our dancers in having them believe that they are Intermediate level only to find themselves in over their heads when they attend their first workshops at a dance weekend.

In addition, I believe that the word "Intermediate" fosters a feeling of entitlement to go from "Basics" to "Goat-Roping Move-fest" in some. I remember all too well my early days of dancing. If the class was asked "What do you want today - move or technique" - the leads all chimed "Move" while the follows all chimed "Technique"!  Thus I was thrown into the deep end when I entered Intermediate class (as the guys usually won the call), learning all kinds of moves that were well over my level of ability. Actually, learning the PATTERNS is a better way to put it... it was YEARS before I learned to FOLLOW the move correctly, because I had not mastered following. And this is where I see the fault in the current system.

The bug here is that if you tell a new dancer just how much technique is involved in WCS, you will scare the pants off them, and often you will lose them. Yet, to not insist on creating good habits from the start is doing a HUGE dis-service to them (take it from someone who is STILL un-doing bad habits that were not addressed years ago!).

Thankfully, I have seen a nice shift at dance weekends to more technique-based workshops, but the difficulty there is that when the instructor has 75 people in the room, it is not likely that you can really, truly get anywhere near all of those people to get it all. But it's a start, and I applaud the trend in this direction.

I believe that the place that this should be happening is at home - at our local clubs and groups. I would like to suggest that anyone who teaches has a look at how they can teach more technique while letting people feel that they are getting more variety of moves and styling for their dance. My personal approach is to watch the group warm up, and see if I can find a detail that the majority need to work on - and THEN create a move to illustrate it. So if the follows are anticipating I have the leads learn 3 very simple variations on a basic move that all start the same. This teaches the leads to be CLEAR in their lead, and the follows to LISTEN. What a concept, eh? Another sticky spot for dancers is spinning - but I believe that in this instance, you have to first see if the majority of the issue in the room at the time is in the leading or the following. A follow will never learn to spin if the leads are not leading it right....self preservation will win every time. So what/how I will teach, and what move I will use, will depend on which part of the techniques needed to spin are most needing to be worked on by the majority in the room.

Finally, I feel it is VERY important for those of us who are teaching to take regular privates so that we stay on top of the latest techniques for both dancing and teaching. I learn sooo much about how to teach when I take a private. It is very easy for someone who has reached their level of comfort with their dance ability to want to pass on what they know, but in my opinion, we do a disservice to our students if WE don't continue to learn. I believe that EVERY dancer, no matter how good, has more to learn, and as teachers, we can always learn a better way to pass on what we know. I have had several Pros say to me that the problem with the system of teaching as it stands is that there are many, many people out here teaching what/how they were taught even tho the way they dance now is nothing like that style or technique. I couldn't agree more!

Without a firm foundation, a house will fall down. Without a well designed chassis, a car will not drive smoothly nor be safe. Yes - one can dance without  good basic techniques, just as you can initially build that house or car...yet, in the end, the lack of good technique will eventually become evident, and the ride becomes less stable. So why not make sure that our students get it right to start with???

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Music and Lyrics - Dancing with the Fourth Partner

Often in a workshop you will hear the instructors talking about the 3rd partner - the music. It's all about learning to take the nuances of the music and learning how to express what you hear in your dance. Perhaps the music goes up a few notes - so you may show that as a slight rise in your step. Or there is a series of staccato (rapid) beats - so you may take a few quick steps to match that beat. If the general tone of the music is flowy, you make your dance float and keep everything smooth.

Many people "hear" the vocals as just another part of the music. It can be interesting to watch 2 people dance to the same piece - one is hitting all the musical points while the other is following the patterns set out by the vocals. Both are completely legitimate, and can be fun to watch. Yet when you watch the Pros in competition, there is something more (beyond their great technique, shaping, personal style, etc) that draws the crowds to their feet - and that is when they dance to the the lyrics.

When I talk to other dancers about this, I often get the reply "I don't hear the lyrics - I just dance to the music". WOW!!!!!! To me, that is like having Hot Apple Pie without the Ice Cream, a Baked Potato without Butter and Sour Cream, or London Battered Fish without the Tartar Sauce! Yes - you can eat all the above without their companion foods, but together you get a much yummier meal!

I am one of those dancers that hears EVERYTHING - at least as long as it is clear and not overshadowed by the music (which sadly often happens nowadays). Anyone who dances with me knows I lip synch like crazy and I often do things that make my leader look at me as if I have two heads....I know then that I am dancing with someone who doesn't hear the lyrics! I am fortunate - hearing what is being said comes easily to me and I memorize songs pretty quickly after first hearing them.

So - how DOES one start to hear the lyrics if it does not come naturally to you? There are several things you can do to train your ear, or at least to give you more to work with.

  1. Download and listen to 5-10 of the most popular songs that you are currently dancing to and play them at every opportunity that you can. Your car is a perfect place for this. Start to try to sing along with it....you will probably notice the chorus first. That is the part that repeats several times during the song. Get to know that part first....it's a safe place to start to play. Start with music that is slow and has a gentler groove like California Dreamin and Layla (Links to my top 10 favorites for learning are found in this blog). These two are part of the staple diet of most DJ's and are a safe bet for the beginner.
  2. Still can't understand what they are saying??? Download the lyrics from the internet. www.lyricsbox.comwww.metrolyrics.com, and www.lyrics.com are just a few of the many sites where you can find all the words to any reasonably popular song.Then, read the lyrics as you play the song a few times. Even though I hear the lyrics, there are many songs where parts are less clear to me - and I will search the lyrics to fill the gaps in the song for me. And beware - you may be surprised and/or shocked at some of the lyrics! Try singing the lyrics with the words in front of you so you really get a feel for where it all fits in.
  3. This is where it gets fun. Anytime you are listening to the music, start to imagine what you can do to hit different parts of the lyrics. I do this all the time in my car. And yes, I DO get some odd looks sometimes! If you are at home, try "hitting" a certain phrase or pick out some part of the theme of the song and play with that. At first you may feel odd and awkward, but that is the only way to get to become comfortable with anything new. If you are there, then GREAT! You are well on your way to learning something new...'cause you certainly won't learn it by wishful thinking!!!
  4. If you have a practice partner, get them to do all this too, then meet up and just play with what you each hear. Even with both of you knowing the lyrics, you will likely be drawn to express different parts of the song, or you will interpret the song differently. This is another great tool to your creativity - mimicking what your partner....I don't know how many new moves I have got this way!
  5. Go to Youtube and watch the Pros dance to a piece of music. If you really like their interpretation, download that song AND the lyrics, then go back and watch it again with the lyrics in front of you. Practice picking out when they are interpreting the lyrics, and when they are following the music.
Watch this version with Kyle Redd and Patty Vo to Secret. Yes - it's taken to quite the extreme, and you may not feel comfortable with going quite this far, but I think it is a great example of just how many places that this couple brought the LYRICS  in to their dance. (link to lyrics here)

So many places where they took a piece of the lyrics and had FUN with them! "Watch the Sunrise" ..."Jump outta my seat" , "I'm driving fast now" , and "but I want you so bad". This is one of the main reasons that so many of us are drawn to WCS - because we see the better dancers taking the musical interpretations to places we could never do in any other partnered dance. 

When you DO start to hear the lyrics -  invite them in to your dance. Play with them. Take risks with them. Have fun with them! After all, isn't that what dancing is all about????

Edit: A few weeks after I wrote this Robert Royston and Jill Demarco showed exactly how it is done at Swing Diego to the song "Stroken by Clarence Carter. Take a look at this, google the lyrics if you need to so that you really get just how well they are playing to the fourth partner, and enjoy!

Thanks to CJ Henry and everyone else who contributed to the content of this blog! And apologies for the randomness of the placement of the song links - I can't seem to get them to just line up :^(

    Saturday, April 9, 2011

    Life Lessons I've learned from WCS

    West Coast Swing, and partnered dancing in general, brings out many challenges and issues for each individual dancer. This can be in the form of dealing with our self-image and confidence, boundaries and social skills, and much, much more.

    I firmly believe that this wonderful dance of ours, West Coast Swing, has the capacity to teach each and every one of us so much about who we are and how powerful we can be. The lessons we learn on the dance floor can be taken back to our homes, our workplaces, and all other areas of our lives. What do I mean by that??

    We have a safe place to practice taking risks and to learn to be ok with looking goofy.
    • I can’t remember how many Pros I have heard say “You gotta go through goofy and ugly to get to cool and sexy”. Given that we are all trying to get to the latter, we are all in good company while we work through those moves that just don’t come naturally to us. I can’t remember how many people I have heard in a beginner lesson who are convinced that they have “two left feet” who have gone on to be wonderful dancers. Thank goodness they took that risk of looking goofy and making mistakes!!! Learning to be ok with not always looking “good” and being ok with making mistakes is a powerful lesson that we can all take out in to our lives.

    We get to practice letting go of our perceptions – both of ourselves AND our partners!
    • I remember a friend telling me how she ate humble pie once when she went to her first weekend and saw a guy who she thought “didn’t look like a dancer” and decided to “be kind” and ask him to dance…only to be totally swept of her feet and brought back down to earth in one of her best dances of the weekend. How many people do you meet every day who you create an opinion of before you have really gotten to know them?

    We form partnerships with friends and strangers alike for three and a half minutes where we take a piece of music and create something that we could never have imagined before the first note was played.
    • There are not many places where people can get together to play, to flirt, and to generally be vulnerable with a stranger of the opposite sex (or not!) with no worries that their actions will be taken as an invite for something – er – more…. Many dancers are people who got tired of the “bar scene” and all the drama that goes with that territory, yet they still wanted an outlet for their passion to move to music. (I am one of those people!) Aren’t we so lucky to have this place to express this part of who we are?? Where else can you practice bringing playfulness and joy to a situation?

    We learn how to be sensitive to the smallest signals from another.
    • Robert Royston’s mantra of the 3 types of lead (Physical, Visual, and Body Language) can be applied to the dance of life. The best dancers learn to share in the conversation, rather than to dominate it. Great leaders learn to adjust their dance to the abilities and confidence of the follower, choosing moves that compliment her rather than moves that make them (the leader) “look good”. Great followers learn how to relinquish control while adding what they hear to the conversation, sorta like adding the seasoning and embellishments that makes a well prepared meal to gourmet status. Hmmm…where else can we practice these skills in our lives??

    We are so fortunate to have this wonderful dance. For anyone who is considering West Coast Swing (and partnered dance in general), all I can say is, JUST DO IT. Let go of what you feel “should be” and be patient and kind to yourself. For those who have been dancing for some time, consider where you can take the lessons of the dance floor out into to your life.

    See YOU on the dance floor!!!