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How to Dig for Gold: The Untapped Value of Workshops

IMG_0006Does this sound familiar?

“Workshops are all the same”
“I don’t learn well in workshops”
“Workshops are only for beginners”
“Workshops are only for serious dancers”
“I’ll never retain it all anyway”

These are all reasons dancers give for why they can’t/don’t need to attend workshops. They sound valid on the surface, but are actually evidence of a global epidemic. What if I told you you could get meaningful and lasting value out of every single workshop you ever attended, even “bad” ones? Consider that workshops require different learning strategies than regular group classes or private lessons: their effectiveness or ineffectiveness you perceive is more under your control than you think.

Not all workshops are created equal! The experience of a workshop is completely different for advanced dancers than it is for beginners, and there are different experiences to be had out of different types of workshop products. Regardless of your level, your ambition, or your motivation, you can get WAY more value out of workshop weekends than you ever could have imagined.

The Purpose of Workshops

Outside of the dance scene, in the wider arena of adult education, the word “workshop” usually refers to a one-time special event for educational purposes. (Occasionally, you might attend a conference where multiple workshops are offered) The topics offered are those you don’t get to learn about on a regular basis, or trending topics in the field, or presentations of the latest research. Chances are, the speakers are highly accredited and decorated in their field, and offer eye-opening perspectives that entice you to delve deeper into the topic later. You don’t attend this master class with the same habitual, routine, going-through-the-motions approach as you do your weekly university lecture. This is a special occasion – this speaker is fresh, highly respected, anticipated, and often highly recommended. You would come prepared with an open mind, ready to try on a new perspective, ready to sponge up as much rare and quality content as you can get, ready for a transforming experience that etches a milestone in your career. Why not approach dance workshops the same way?

“Can’t I get the same info from my group classes?”

Regular group classes have their place in a balanced diet of dance learning. They offer many benefits, including repetitive applied practice and a sense of social belonging in the studio context. Even though the setting is familiar (couples forming slots, forming lines, rotating, etc) the context of a workshop cannot be treated the same.

  1. In your regular classes, your teachers know you, you know their routines, their expectations, and their exercises sometimes a little too well. You tend to get too comfortable (lazy) with some of the movements and when they go unchecked, they become permanent bad habits. In a workshop, you brain is on high alert: you pay a bit more attention to your own mechanics and spend time comparing your movement to the movement advised by this new, strange teacher with new, strange tips and advice.
  2. In group classes, you often dance with the same stable of partners every week, and you get used to each other. At a workshop, there is a wider variety of dancers, all “speaking different accents”. You automatically intensify your learning and adaptability by rotating to fresh faces.
  3. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard students say after our workshop, “Oh! Now I get it! Why didn’t anybody ever explain that before?!”  But then later in private, their regular teacher reveals to us that they have been telling that student the exact same advice on the topic for months. Everyone needs repetition. It’s part of learning. But the most effective repetition is varied – you need to hear the advice repeated in different ways, explained using a variety of teaching techniques. Regardless of the teaching ability of your local teacher, students need exposure to the material from outside sources in order to get perspective and context for their learning.
  4. Guest teachers also have the advantage of traveling all over the world and experiencing a wide variety of dancers’ issues and testing a wide variety of troubleshooting techniques. Tap into that wisdom!
  5. Guest teachers bring with them their own regional stylings they have mastered. You are guaranteed to learn something outside of what you are used to: something new and fresh to inspire your dance.

The State of the Art

tessateachWorkshops are the link between the forerunners and the public; between the researchers and the consumers; between those in leadership, and those being lead. Workshops offer a public forum for all dancers on even ground to hear the most recent developments in the dance, current trends, updates, and evolutions. Group classes can’t provide this scope or authority. Private lessons are far too personal to focus on the big picture. Workshops serve to reflect and explain the art and technology being produced at the highest levels, and to educate dancers en masse on the history of WCS, the current culture, and how the dance is progressing. They force you out of the nest to open your eyes to a broader scope of West Coast swing. They also serve to spread the styles of a particular pro or region which contributes to the global growth of the dance and cultural diversity.

“Can’t I get the same info from private lessons?”

I can’t speak for all teachers here, because each teacher’s teaching skill set is different and some may excel at one-on-one work while others just phone it in. I often find myself saying to students, “Oh, damn I wish you hadn’t missed that workshop – we just finished explaining that exact thing you need!”. Our workshops are designed progressively, to bring everyone to a definitive conclusion. We don’t just dictate choreography, we tell a story of the why and the how of each skill, in order to provide context. Like trying to explain a plot line of Star Wars – the abridged version doesn’t always do it justice. Honestly, sometimes it is more efficient to hear this in a group setting than spending the time in a private lesson. It would be ideal to attend the workshop then follow up on the content in private lessons in the weeks following. The workshop gives you the context, the reference point, the vocabulary to make your private lessons more efficient.

Smart dancers know it’s a good idea to study under a variety of masters, collecting as many different perspectives as possible. However, I know several dancers who have decided after a few series of group classes to fill their diet with nothing but private lessons and competitions. They plateau’d, because their construct of WCS was an incomplete picture. They had collected minute details applicable to their own personal movement, but they suffered from a deficiency: they never gained the perspective of the character, culture, and history of the dance that workshops would have provided.

Understanding Different Types of Workshops

Let’s clarify the differences in workshop products. The colours indicate  the increasing value of these workshops experiences. The workshops offered at events are lighter fare: lower risk investment. whereas the Intensive and levelled workshop weekend is a more immersive experience: higher commitment = higher return on investment. Make sure you adjust your expectations according to the workshop type.

Duration Instructor /Couples Content Target
Audience
Purpose                                   
Dance Event Workshops One hour           5+ Popular/
current topics
Open or loosely levelled. Aimed at level of the attendees Inspiration, promotion of  brands, attracting event registration, entertainment
Weekend Workshops 3-4 hours, 1-2 days 1-4 Comprehen-
sive but not progressive combination of technical, musical, and pattern skills
Open, sometimes featuring an invitation-only advanced class.  Boost WCS in the community, collect homework assignments to work on in lessons for months after, expose dancers to fresh ideas 
 Intensives 3-4 hours, 1-2 days 1-2 Progressive, comprehen-
sive skill development
in a variety of select topics
Open, sometimes featuring an invitation-only advanced class. Community bonding, more natural flow of customized topics and activities, progressive skill development produces more permanent change. 
Levelled Workshop Camps 6-12 hours over 3 days 3-6  Concurrent, focused topics, tailored to each skill level.  Open to all, but dancers are assessed and grouped into to 3-5 skill levels.  Tailored learning experiences produce more intense progress 

The Case for Levelled Workshop Camps

There’s a reason we group school children by age. Dancers develop at varying rates, so when we take a snapshot of any community, we can identify 3-5 distinct level groups. These sweetbannergroups have learning needs that are different from the others, and are at a different stage in their development. It only makes sense to group them in order to address these needs. As opposed to open workshops, where the level in the title refers to the content, levelled workshops define the skills levels of the dancers, and restrict access to those who have qualified for that level. There is an assessment process required in order to qualify, where the instructors will determine where the divisions between the levels should be and where each dancer belongs. They often call this an audition, but it’s really just a confirmation that your self-estimate is accurate. Levelled workshops are hands down a more effective learning environment than an open workshop. The content can be more tailored, the pace more appropriate and inclusive, and everyone walks away feeling like they got challenged juuuuust enough. Two prominent levelled workshop camps that started at the same time are Sweet Side of Swing (Atlanta, Vancouver) and Endless Summer Swing (Phoenix, Boston).

The Workshop Formula

You probably have noticed that several workshops you have attended feel the same. That’s because there is a functional formula that instructors have discovered works pretty universally for teaching individual workshops. Allowing for some degree of variation, it usually involves approximately one third of the class spent on explaining a technique or a concept, one third of the class spent on applying that concept to particular patterns, and one third of the class practicing applying those patterns in context of dancing to music. Of course, instructors vary their lesson plans to suit the pace of the learners, the mood of the room, and their own experimenting. But just because many instructors follow this formula does not mean that workshops are all the same. Just as each school classroom I walk into will have typical elements like attendance, spelling tests, and silent reading, you can’t judge the effectiveness of the teacher until you see them in action. You have to look past the structure of the class and into the content and delivery. That being said, the flow and structure of workshops within Intensives and Levelled Workshop Camps will tend to be more creative, less formulaic. These weekends can afford to take the time to be more organic with learning activities. They have a higher efficacy, which therefore means higher value, and are worth the higher price.

Concepts vs. Patterns

Many teachers define their material into two main categories: Concepts and mylesrubberPatterns. Sometimes even a third: Styling. (I could go on for days on this topic: in order to get a thorough and responsible understanding, I recommend taking the Swing Literacy Development Method Theory Module.) But what you need to know is: you need a balance of learning in order to progress. You cannot survive on Patterns alone. You also cannot survive on Concepts alone. Sometimes workshop teachers will focus on one concept that they see is lacking by the attendees’ as a group. But they will apply this concept to practical patterns in order to drive the point home. Concept classes are gold – don’t underestimate their value. This is where teachers deliver the tips and tricks that are too subtle to see on YouTube. This is also where you get to understand the how and the why of those patterns you want.

Basics vs. Styling

Let’s be specific: Basics don’t necessarily refer to basic patterns. Often, when people refer to “basics”, they really mean the fundamental movement skills for WCS. The vast majority of dance classes do not teach these explicitly, but instead incorporate them implicitly into the instruction of basic patterns. So the word “basics” gets misinterpreted as “basics patterns”. Basics classes are like core training for athletes. You never grow out of them. The should always be a part of your training regime: a no-brainer for every level. Smart advanced dancers can feel that ceiling where they realize that in order to progress, they need to go back to basics. Imagine how much more fun and success you would have if your basics never got “out of shape”? So go to a basics workshop, and listen with fresh ears to as many different perspectives as you can get. See below for observation strategies.

Changing Perspectives

“I Don’t Need Technique to Enjoy Myself”

workshopsHow do you know?
How do you know you’re not robbing yourself of exponentially higher planes of enjoyment in this dance?
Listen to those who have gone before you. They are laughing at your naivety. Technique makes all the difference.
It’s not just for refinement: it’s for safety, comfort, injury management, floor craft, efficiency, stamina, and self expression. The human being on the other end of your arm deserves to be handled with safe and comfortable technique.
You don’t need to be competitive to deserve and desperately need technique. –  you use it in daily life. You developed your driving techniques, cooking techniques, hair styling techniques, video gaming techniques, shoe tying techniques. Can you imagine how ineffective your life would be if each of these were stunted at the beginner level with rudimentary technique?
Don’t let the word technique intimidate you. Get hungry for it. Crave it. Love it. Seek it. It is your access to the rest of the iceberg that is possible in your dance.

It’s Transformation, not Trick-or-Treating

At events, workshops are a smorgasbord of interesting topics taught by your You Tube role models. It’s fun to hop from room to room, sharing with your friends what kind of treats they got next door. But it can be quite exhausting to code-switch between each of them all weekend, all teaching different and sometimes conflicting views, that take work to wade through and assimilate into your dancing. You’re right – there’s no way you’ll be able to retain it all, especially if you aren’t able to produce it and apply it immediately. But Intensives and Camps are different: few instructors, more tailored learning experiences. You don’t go to these for the retention. You go to be transformed.
In 2012, I went to a 3-week intensive French camp for teachers in Quebec City. It was 100% French Immersion: no English. I happened to be flying directly from there to WCSworkshopsSea Sun Swing. As soon as I left, I forgot most of the conversations, most of the exercises, but as soon as I landed in France, it was like someone updated my OS and I was speaking French on a much more fluent level than I had before the camp. The immersion experience had launched my skill set several notches and permanently transformed my fluency.  Intensives and Camps work this way. You emerge after the weekend transformed – the learning experience permanently reshapes your whole WCS movement paradigm. “How much you remember” is irrelevant.

A Whole New World

This may seem like a no-brainer to most, but newer dancers need this tip: Come outside and play. No matter how good your studio is, there is a whole world of authentic West Coast Swing out here just waiting for you to discover. Workshops are a great way to not only expand your learning, but also meet a ton of different dancers you don’t get to see weekly. It’s a fascinating learning experience just to dance with people with different dance “accents” and explore new movements: this alone adds a huge value to your weekend.

It’s About More than Just You

unicornsWorkshops are part of a healthy dance community. Beside the obvious superficial benefits of raising money and attracting more dancers to the studio or region, workshops serve to bring a community together. Weekend workshops bring everyone together on the same page, uniting dancers of all levels in a common vocabulary and common goals. When everyone is involved in the same learning environment, we are all part of the same team. Different goals, same mission. When every dancer “gets it”, everyone succeeds. By considerately exchanging feedback and working through the learning process together, we are supporting each other and bonding, developing compassion, adaptability, empathy, and cheerleading. This nurtures and strengthens a community like no other experience. “Weekend workshops are an opportunity to spend an entire weekend socializing and learning. Leaders tend to learn the names of the followers we dance with socially, but don’t often get a chance to get to know our fellow leaders. The relaxed atmosphere of a weekend workshop is the perfect opportunity to discuss moves, techniques, concerns, and ideas without having to yell over the music.” -Social Dancer, Saskatoon, Canada
When you attend a weekend workshop, it’s not just a solo activity – you are plugging into a powerful network that affects your dancing from the outside in.

The Actual Value of Workshops – The Breakdown

How much do your regular weekly classes cost? Maybe $120 for an 8-week series? Humour me here – there will be lots of variety around the world. So that hourly rate for instruction is approx. $15/hour.
How much do you pay for entry to a dance party? Maybe $10-15?
Ok, next let’s say there is a Champion teacher coming to town for a one-hour evening workshop. You could probably expect to pay $25 for this special one-time class, right? So the hourly rate for instruction with this calibre of teacher is $25/hour.
Let’s say there’s an Intensive workshop weekend taught by this Champion pro that costs $150. For your $150, you get:
-6 hours of rare, top quality instruction ($25/hour)
-access to 2 social dance parties that are richer in attendance than usual ($10-15 each)
-perks like dancing with the Pro(s), video notebook, and performance demos (approx. $40 value)
-unquantifiable perks such as community bonding, networking, and practicing with out-of-town dancers
Total value: $210+
berlinworkshop
My point is that workshop weekends seem like a large investment, but that’s because you get a big return on your investment! They are actually priced lower than their true value, in order to be marketable. By pooling resources and sharing the cost of the instruction, communities can afford to all share in hearing valuable information, rather than splurging only on private lessons. Intensives can range in price, depending on the status of the Pro teaching and the duration of the instruction. Levelled Workshop Camps also cost more, but offer more speciality workshops and feature more Pro teachers. So when considering your next learning weekend, do the math!
WCS is actually one of the more affordable dance styles: I have heard of Salsa and Ballroom workshops/events that cost double or even triple what standard prices are in WCS. In the non-dance world, this is a steal. The average participant price for corporate or educational conferences is $150 per day.

How to Reap the Benefits of Any Workshop

tessateach2You are in control of your own learning. The quantity and quality of content and experience that you get out of a workshop is more up to you than you think. Here’s how to heighten your awareness of all the little details that happen during a workshop that could help your dance progress.

Being Present

  • Be coachable. Come with an open mind. Remember no one is forcing you to adopt any of the advice. But you won’t be able to evaluate it until you try it.
  • Embrace every partner you rotate to. Even the ones who are undesirable (for whatever reason) you can learn something from.
  • Enjoy the entertainment. The instructors are not just fooling around: being a public speaker involves audience engagement, and in a social activity like dancing, it works to use humour and anecdotes. So enjoy it as a part of the complete experience.
  • Avoid talking while the teacher is talking. Not only is it rude, but the person you are talking to probably really needs to hear what is being said.
  • Sit or squat if you need to, but be ready to pop back up when it’s time to dance.
  • Take notes! You will not remember all those brilliant mantras, and they will not necessarily make it onto the video recap.
  • Do not give advice to your partner. If you need something from your partner, ask for it considerately. For more guidance on the delicate art of exchanging feedback, see this article.
  • Be responsive: let yourself laugh out loud, nod your head in agreement, ask questions to get clarification.
  • If you think your question might be too personal for either you or your partner, call the instructor over to you to ask them privately.

How to Listen

  • Listen for the mantras, the lexicon, the analogies: Think, have I heard this message with different words before? What’s different about it? How have I changed since the first time I heard it? Does it make more sense now? Does it make more sense hearing it this way? Can I relate this to something in my non-dance life? Can I draw upon my own background to create a comparable mantra?
  • What is the why behind the concept?  How do the teachers want all the dancers to use it?  Should I be using it differently?
  • Can I remember this concept well enough to explain it to my partner later without butchering the intended message?
  • What did I hear but not understand? That small chunk of ice might be just the tip of an iceberg of information I’m missing and should get a private lesson on to fill myself in.
  • Do the instructors offer any modification I need? Augmentations for making the movement more challenging? Can I ask?
  • Listen to the concerns of your partner – what are they worried about?
  • Listen to the next couple’s conversation – what are they struggling with? Discovering and enjoying? Can you try it too?
  • Listen to the questions being asked by the participants. Even if you yourself know the answer, listen to how it is being asked and note the point that is needing clarification. This might be a common issue amongst dancers that it would be wise to be aware of.
  • Listen to how the teacher responds to each question: this can tell you if the instructor missed a key point the first time which you likely will need, or if that student was just not listening/not ready to hear it the first time.

How to Observe

  • Don’t stand next to friends: position yourself in the rotation where you can watch a fellow dancer you admire. Study their movement in between your own trials.
  • Watch the participants: Reactions, facial expressions, energy level, effort, interpretation of the assignments. Who’s not getting it? Why? Is it because they weren’t paying attention, or is the recommended tip not working for them for some reason? Which tips are working the best? Can I borrow any of them for my dance?
  • Watch from the top down: head, shoulders, ribs, hips, feet. Each time the instructor demos the movement, see what you can pick out.
  • Look for what’s not being mentioned: They keep drawing attention to the handhold, but what are the hips doing?mylesteach
  • Watch the best dancers in the room. What do they have in common? What are they doing to achieve the assignment better than everyone else? Which part of their movement do I admire? Can I use them for inspiration as I try?
  • Move around to get a better view of a demo
  • No parter for this rotation? Watch the instructors, or experiment on your own with variations of the assignment.
  • Observe dancers whom you know have background in other styles. Try to pick out what makes their movement look “less Swing” compared to the instructors.

Developing Empathy

Good teachers explain to their classes the importance of mixing during social dance parties – dancing with higher level dancers that intimidate you but also dancing with lower level dancers coming behind you. But the reasoning goes beyond charity. Dancing with lower level dancers teaches you adaptability skills critical for improvisation. Dancing with someone of limited abilities forces you brain and your body to think on the fly and adjust to make your ideas work.
The concept of elevating refers to “raising your partner up” during a social dance. Making them dance better than they thought they could, or making them feel better about their dancing after having danced with you. Great dancers of all levels elevate their partners and are loved and revered by the whole community. In a workshop setting, taking on this approach can benefit your own learning process:
If you understand the instructions but you observe your partner doesn’t, analyze what they are missing.  Note that this concept is not as easy for some people as it is for you.  Knowing this,  how can you adapt your dance to this type of partner?  How can you encourage them despite them lacking this skill?
If you are less quick to learn it than your partner,  observe what they are doing differently than the others you passed already.  Make note to offer this tip to the next leader who struggles to adapt to you.
Ask the instructor, without pointing at specific people, what you can do to work with a partner who is struggling with the technique being described.

For Teachers and Aspiring Teachers

Swing-Literacy-Development-MethodObserving and participating in workshops is an excellent way to maintain your professional development. Within the Swing Literacy Development Method Teacher Development Program, one of the required assignments is to complete observation reports on a variety of different workshops. We guide trainees on what and how to observe, because there is a big difference between what you notice and experience as a student and what a trained teacher can notice and take advantage of.

Conclusion: Get your a$$ into workshops!

Workshops have a ton of value. Like going to a buffet, you have a variety of material to choose from, but with that much selection, you are guaranteed to enjoy several things, rather than taking a risk on one item from the menu. But the key is to not assume you will put the same things on your plate as your neighbour. They might need to fill up on salad, meanwhile you’re there for the sushi. Don’t avoid workshops because you think it’s going to be all salad. You are missing out on exactly what you want and need. Plus, you have the opportunity to try new things in small quantities to see if you want to order more later. In a community, group learning is massively beneficial in the growth process. Intensive workshops give a community a common language to discuss and exchange feedback on, and common projects to work towards long after the workshop is over. While open workshops are still effective, levelled workshop eliminate any doubts – the material is more targeted, learning more concentrated, and progress is faster. No excuses at any level, from Newbies to AllStars. Make learning a priority!

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