Why do dance teachers make their lives harder when making their beginner classes easier?

Without knowing it, as teachers, many of the choices we make in class to make it easier for our students inevitably make things harder for us down the road. Common challenges include students only dancing to the simplest of songs, not wanting to mix patterns, or not feeling comfortable expressing themselves creatively to the music. These same students sometimes demand of us that we give them what they want – rather than what we believe they need to progress as dancers.

I explain this in more detail in this video:

To take this further, consider the first three months of a beginner student who comes to learn a dance for one class per week. Let’s assume they haven’t yet formed strong opinions about what the dance is and is not. During this early period, they’re receptive to forming beliefs about what it is they should and shouldn’t care about. 

The experience they have in those first months sets a pattern of expectations: it’s an unspoken agreement. In this agreement, you’ve established with your students what the continued experience will be like. So when your students decide to continue taking lessons from you or come to a social dance, they come with expectations already established by the experience they had in your previous classes. In other words, they want a continuation of what they already received.

This is why, if you try to deviate from that notion, even if you know it’s the right way to go, they may not follow you. Rather, they might ask you to modify what and how you teach, in order to help them learn what they think they need.

As teachers, this experience can easily leave us frustrated. But we shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation to blame the students for this kind of situation. Sadly, as teachers, we’ve created the problem ourselves. Here are two common examples of how we as teachers might have been making our lives harder when trying to make things easier. 

Your student’s appreciation of a wide range of music: 

Have you ever felt annoyed to find that your students only seem able or interested in dancing to a very limited range of music? The moment it’s a bit faster or more complex, they give up and leave the dance floor. Sometimes at parties, these students go to the DJ to keep requesting only the simplest songs. 

How do we contribute to this? Well, from talking to many teachers we know that, specially for social dance teachers such as Lindy Hop, they have the ambition to prepare their students for social dances as quickly as possible. Therefore, they map out the common social dancing steps and make a plan to teach these. During class, they notice that the students can quickly feel overwhelmed by the challenges of learning those steps, so they do everything possible to make the experience easier and more enjoyable. A common strategy to make it easier is simply to play only “easy” songs with a comfortable tempo, a clear beat and an obvious structure. More often than not, the teachers play the same handful of songs throughout the entire class, perhaps even several classes in a row. 

These teachers don’t take enough opportunity to put music in the spotlight in class. The “steps” take up so much time and attention that none is left for the music. If you want your students to appreciate the music more, you need to go first, and show your appreciation for the different songs and the people behind the songs. For example, instead of creating variation by presenting another move, create variation by playing different types of songs and ask students to explore how they would dance differently to them. Just like when learning steps, help them be okay with not being perfect immediately. Some songs might be harder for them and they might feel stressed by this. Also, if they believe the steps have a higher priority, they’ll feel the need to ask you to play songs that help them with the steps first. Here, words of encouragement and positive reinforcement can help your students stay with the task long enough to learn from it and feel more at ease with it. 

Your student’s appreciation for mixing patterns and being more creative with their steps: 

In Lindy Hop, one common approach to teaching the dance is to separate moves into two categories, “eight-count” patterns and “six-count” patterns, and to teach only one category at a time, alternating every month or two. Then to hope that students who’ve done these courses for some weeks will start to feel ready to mix between the patterns. One reason for this approach is that students who come to Lindy Hop classes are often primarily hobby dancers who are looking for something fun after a long day of work, so teachers try to keep the difficulty level low and give them time to learn a pattern over a full month. Also, the classes might be drop-in lessons; or even for ongoing courses people might not attend reliably each week. Many teachers stay with the “eight-count” then “six-count” patterns simply to ensure that most students learn it at least once.

The challenge, however, is that most of these teachers have a worldview of the dance in which the patterns should be very flexible: the creative expression of rhythms is more important and the most common patterns simply exemplify these expressions. Meanwhile, when a student has gone through a few months of learning in terms of fixed patterns, they’ve formed a worldview of the dance that’s very different from that of their teachers. The moment the teachers want to introduce their values by breaking away from these patterns, the students will struggle a lot and perhaps even resist the teachers because what the teachers are trying to share no longer matches their expectations.

Instead, what we like to do is to keep one element steady for 2-3 weeks; we call this the structure. From here, we present different contrasting movements that break the pattern, introduce creativity and show ways the students can express themselves musically. To show what such a lesson could look like: Here is a recap video of our Lindy Hop Lesson 2:

Although these examples were rather specific to Lindy Hop, please see how it works for you no matter what you are teaching. Also, we can discuss your implementation of these ideas further in our private session together. Just book your conversation session with me using the Calendly app below.

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