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The Mystery of Private Lessons

mysteryofprivatelessonsAfter all the positive feedback on this summer’s article, How Does ProAm work, I received several requests to give private lessons the same treatment. Private lessons are a mysterious phenomenon to many dancers, not just the newbies. Veteran dancers tend to forget this valuable resource that can help guide them through the tough phases in their dance development and achieve their goals.

The Big Picture

In the article, Create Your Dance Progress Plan, I outline how to follow a balanced diet of dance  instruction, which includes group classes, private lessons, workshops, videos, and social dancing. While each activity is important and has its own pros and cons, I’m going to focus specifically on private lessons and go into a little more detail.

If you were starting a fitness regime for any purpose (weight loss, aging bones, body building, competitive sport training, etc), you have loads of options available to you. Even with no experience, you technically could buy a gym membership and go play with the weights on your own. I wouldn’t recommend this for safety reasons, but it is possible. You could take fitness classes like yoga, Crossfit, Zumba or spinning, which are lead by and instructor, are organized, and use group dynamics for motivation. You could hire a personal trainer to custom design a fitness program for you according to your needs and goals, teach you how to correctly use the equipment, and guide and motivate you during each workout.

Private lessons are exactly like personal training.

Access to the Soul of WCS

This dance can’t be accurately visually copied. There is a “feel” to it that makes it functional, but also magnetic and addictive. If you think you like WCS after trying to copy it off of YouTube, that’s great, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There is no much more soul to this dance that is invisible, yet critical. There is no way to get it except having an expert physically coach you and give you feedback.

How do you know you NEED a private lesson?

Private lessons are not just a luxury – they are essential at all phases of learning, but can be particularly critical when:

  • You have more questions than the instructor has time to answer during class
  • You have personal questions that won’t really apply to the rest of the class
  • You need to feel what the instructor is trying to get you to do
  • You want thorough feedback on your live or recorded dancing
  • You’ve been doing alot of self-training on YouTube but need to know the critical FEEL of WCS.
  • You want to know why a judge consistently doesn’t score you well
  • You tend to learn at a much faster or much slower pace than the rest of the class
  • You are under time pressure for any reason
  • If you have competitive aspirations and want the faster route
  • You need to catch up on material you missed in classes you were absent for


What a single Private Lesson looks like

Privates can be bought individually or in packages. An individual private lesson might be with a regular teacher who knows you well, or a teacher you have never worked with before. Whether it’s at your local studio or a side ballroom at a dance event, you should expect the space to be shared with other dancers/instructors who are also taking lessons. The first lesson will start off with a brief interview about your immediate goals for the lesson and background in dance, so that the teacher can assess how best to approach your lesson and you as a student. While it is not a requirement, it is a good idea to arrive to your lesson prepared with a few requests you would like to work on, such as connection, spinning, or musicality. This will help ensure you walk away from your lesson satisfied. The teacher will not only focus on these requests, however.

After your chat, they will likely dance with you to assess your mobility and connection skills. They will also watch you dance with your dance dummy if you brought one. A dance dummy is a temporary partner you invite to accompany you to your lesson to assist you by dancing with you according to the teacher’s instructions. Some teachers either require you to bring a dummy, or quote you a lower price if you bring one. After assessing your dancing, the teacher will prioritize which topics to tackle based on both your skills and your requests. Each teacher will teach with a different style and flow. No two private lessons will ever be the same. So just because you didn’t enjoy some aspect of one teacher’s methods or style, doesn’t mean you should dismiss private lessons altogether!

The rest of the lesson will vary. Some teachers talk and explain a lot, some teach by discussing while dancing, and some have a bank of drills to address different dance “ailments”.  The best teachers will not just show you something to copy, but they will explain how to do it and give you a skill progression to get you there. They will not just critique your dance and point out what you’re doing wrong, but will identify and tackle the problem at its source, telling you HOW to fix it.  They will not teach you the same as every other student, but will adjust their teaching techniques to suit your learning needs.

The advantage of continuing lessons

Your home studio teacher or local Pro usually will offer special rates if you purchase several lessons in a package such as 5 or 10. In this case, your lessons can be scheduled as you like: semi-weekly, weekly, semi-monthly, or randomly. Most packages have an expiry date, such as 6months-1 year after purchase. Teachers will approach a regular private lesson student differently than a one-time private lesson.

  • They will be able to take their time to get to know your learning style and preferences,
  • they can spread out the information over time which allows them to go into more detail,
  • and they can follow up with you to make sure your application of their advice in practice is accurate and effective.
  • They can consistently build on your existing vocabulary
  • They can design and guide ongoing improvement plan to achieve your goals
  • They are more connected to you and interested in your progress
  • You can work on ongoing projects such as deeply entrenched bad habits, or ProAm routines


Benefits for Beginners

Beginner dancers don’t necessarily know what they want or need, they just seek guidance in getting started in the right direction.

It is unfortunately extremely common for us to hear the phrase, “I thought privates were only for competitive people?”, or, “I would love to learn from you guys! I definitely will come to you when I’m good enough!”. This is baffling to us. There is a widely held and undeserved misconception that there is a correlation between the level of the student and the level of the teacher, and that higher level teachers don’t work with beginners. Just as you wouldn’t let a 10-year old babysit your newborn, if I was a dance studio or event owner, I would never entrust my newest, greenest teacher to teach the Beginners class. With proper training, experienced teachers can offer newer dancers a more efficient, less frustrating learning curve, and can steer you clear of typical mistakes dancers make early on. The earlier you can get personal feedback from the highest level teacher you can afford, the better! So never think your private lesson sources are limited due to your ability level.

As a beginner, you typically start WCS with group classes and get some momentum first before venturing out into the other activities in your balanced diet. It is not necessary to start with private lessons, but there’s nothing wrong with it. You might be a shy person who wants to ease into the group setting, or maybe you want to test out how your body likes the dance first before you invest in a 2-month series. If you start privates after a handful of group classes, you will have been exposed to the vocabulary already so the teacher will not have to spend time teaching it to you in your private. You will have a pretty good idea of how things are supposed to be done, but you really need the feedback from an expert partner to verify that what you’re doing FEELS good. By adding private lessons to a balanced diet of learning, Beginners get the personalized “prescription” and feedback they need to progress faster, which makes you more competent, confident, and you enjoy the dance more.

Benefits for Experienced Dancers

Experienced dancers have shopped around :

  • You have learned from a variety of sources and discovered that every teacher has different methods, teaches a slightly different style, and has different strengths.
  • You know what you like and don’t like.
  • You know which dancers’ you admire and why.
  • You’ve done your research: you know which teachers produce growth, which ones phone it in, which ones really care.

Experienced dancers have a pretty good idea what they want and need. Private lessons can provide what you’re missing:.

  • You know what you want out of your dance, but you don’t know how to get there.
  • You feel what’s not working, but you don’t know how to fix it.
  • You think you’ve “got it” but you want to make sure you FEEL good to your partner
  • You are ready for a challenge and seek recommendations tailored to you.
  • You know what you need to work on but you want to be efficient in improving it and don’t want to waste time or money.
  • You need the perspective of a teacher of the opposite role than you are used to.
  • You admire a friend’s results from privates and want the same for yourself.

Private lessons in this stage are about transitions, or guidance in getting from point A to point B:

  • from passive learning to proactive learning
  • from non-competitive to competitive
  • from one WSDC division to the next
  • from dancer to teacher
  • from beginner class to intermediate class
  • from leader to follower, or vice versa
  • from discomfort to comfort
  • from shy to confident
  • from Jack&Jill dancing to choreography dancing

Transitions can be scary and confusing to navigate alone. a trained teacher can make a big difference in making them achievable, smoother, more efficient, and more enjoyable.

Benefits for Competitive Dancers

2015-09-30 00.20.44Many dancers transition to competition without guidance, just peer support. This might be ok in the beginning, but the more competitive you get, the more valuable a coach becomes. No one – not even Champions, is exempt from needing coaching of some kind. What tends to happen when social dancers improve and advance through their class levels: they start competing, then they start valuing the competition weekends and the late night social dancing more than the workshops. Their priorities are ironically self-sabotaging: They have competitive ambitions so they spend their time and money on traveling to competition events. These events have access to higher level teachers’ workshops that are included in their event pass, but they don’t manage their time to take advantage of these workshops. So now they don’t take group classes at home, they don’t take workshops at event, how can they expect to improve their competition success? Private coaching is the missing link.

It is way too easy to neglect your fundamental skills as you focus on aesthetics. What’s ironic is that these fundamentals (not basics), directly affect your aesthetic: qualify of movement, balance, lines. But there’s a whole other side to this story – it’s called your partner! You might be so busy “looking good” that you forget that the original point of this social dance was to FEEL good. Private coaching can rescue you from a dark path of self-centred partnership skills that are holding you back.

Competitive dancers should be getting regular private coaching on a regular basis, in order to stay on track and be challenged. “Regular” is negotiable, depending on your budget. Some can afford weekly, some can only save up enough to take 3-4 lessons per year. What’s important is the regular guidance, physical, emotional, and political. Too many advanced dancers neglect their dance learning, and ignore or abandon potentially valuable mentorship opportunities, and as a result steer horribly off-course. A promising up-and-comer can quickly lose peer support and judges regard by getting cocky and letting their skills slide. Pros have invaluable experience and recommendations. They’ve walked in your shoes and can help protect you from making the same mistakes – it’s a shame and a waste not to take advantage of them.

Finding and Booking a Private Lesson provider

Not all dance teachers teach private lessons, for various reasons. You might find that your regular group class teacher will mention that they offer them, and you can book through them personally or through their website. At a workshop weekend, the guest instructors are usually available for a limited number of spots, which you can request through the workshop promoter. At a dance event/convention, the Pros book their own private lessons, so you need to contact them directly to request a time. This usually happens via Facebook or email in advance of the weekend, to ensure you reserve a spot before they are all booked. The Pro might have spots left open at the event, which you can inquire about when you see them at their workshop. There are also some dance teachers who only teach private lessons, so they are less visible. You might discover them through word of mouth or their flyer on the flyer table.

Choosing a Private Lesson provider

In most cases, as in life, you get what you pay for. The more experienced and trained the teacher is, the higher the rate they charge. Just as in home renovations, don’t be fooled by what seems like a “great deal”. You should expect to pay between $110- $160 per lesson for top Champions, $80-$100 for All-Star level teachers with training and experience, and $60-$80 for new teachers who are AllStar or experienced teachers in Advanced and lower.

Not all teachers are equal, so private lessons are not the same from coach to coach. Training and experience makes SUCH a difference. For more detailed advice on all the factors to consider in choosing a coach to work with, check out the “Choosing Your Trainer” section of Create Your Dance Progress Plan.

Teachers’ expectations of you

Because the dance world is so social, casual and fun, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the fact that dance teachers are working. Their time is very valuable, and when they reserve time for you, they are declining other paying customers in order to work with you. Studio teachers often will have a cancellation policy to protect their time, but at events, the Pros are taking you at your word to make their lesson a priority and keep your appointment. You might need to skip your happy hour plans if the only time the Pro can squeeze you in is 5pm. Of course, event schedules are like the weather – notoriously unpredictable beyond our control, so we all need to be adaptable and understanding. A little communication goes a long way. At an event, the Pro’s schedule is much more demanding than yours, so it takes priority.  If you “stand up” a teacher without warning, not only is it possible they might still charge you for the lesson, it will be a lot harder to book them next time.

Teachers usually invite and encourage questions. But keep these questions inquisitive and not interrogative. If you don’t understand something, be sure to keep asking for clarification so you get the information you paid for and don’t leave annoyed if you didn’t bother to ask. Be careful not to offend the teacher by rejecting their suggestions before trying them, or arguing that their advice conflicts with what another teacher said. Questioning is good, but arguing is bad. The instructor is there to help you, but will not be motivated to do so if you are antagonistic or dismissive.  If after clarification you doubt or disagree with something they said, keep it to yourself – you don’t have to buy everything in the store, but you can’t throw things off the shelves. If you still disagree with something the teacher suggested by the end of the lesson, get a second opinion at a private lesson with a different instructor.

The student-teacher relationship is a two-way street. The teacher needs feedback from you in order to check that their advice is being received. They expect you to respond verbally or with facial and body language, and to paraphrase or ask questions to confirm that you understand. They expect you to participate by trying their recommendations with full effort, as many times as they request, which may be  more than you are in the mood for, but remember you are paying for them to train you.

Just as you expect a professional to provide your service sober, the teacher expects you to not show up to your lesson hungover or drunk. They expect you to arrive prepared  – dressed for dancing, personal hygiene managed, notebook ready, payment in hand. It’s really not cool to say “I need to go to a bank machine”, or “I left my wallet in my hotel room”.  Be respectful of other students. Avoid eavesdropping, snooping, interrupting, or distracting other students during their lessons. Try not to use your instructor as a therapist. Ask in advance if it is ok to film your lesson or a recap – every instructor has their own personal policy.

Results you can expect from Private Lessons

Immediate: Breakthroughs! Clarity! Eureka moments! But you can expect that these can be mixed with sometimes feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, vulnerable. Sometimes the progress is slow and subtle – everyone learns at different rates. Remember, just like your fitness regime, dance learning is a process. The results are worth the effort, trust me.

Long term: Cigarette dances! Popularity! Trophies! IF you practice what you learn and apply it consistently, the effects will be permanent. That’s a big IF! You will get feedback from your social dance partners first. They will “notice something different”, but can’t explain it. You will get instant smiles, and partners will be more willing to dance with you where they would be “less than enthusiastic” before, because you FEEL better now. Then word will spread and you will become more in demand. If you compete, this will translate into awards. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And if you don’t use it correctly, you’ll ruin it. This means, no practice = no results = waste of time and money, and incorrect practice = adverse results = injury or frustration.

Go get yourself a private lesson! 

I often hear students exclaim something like, “well that made my whole weekend worth it!”. Private lessons can be therapeutic and cathartic, but at the very least give you the personal attention you deserve, and like a fitness regime, give you immediate projects to work towards your goals. Make a plan to add them to your balanced diet today!

4 Responses to “The Mystery of Private Lessons”

  1. Paul Diffendaffer November 16, 2015 at 9:56 am

    My private lesson with Tessa was worth every penny. So nice to have many of my most crucial dance questions answered definitively by someone who really knows this dance. The lessons I learned saved me from many hours of practicing things the wrong way and definitely improved my dancing.

  2. I was a VERY beginner when I took my first (past very basic steps) lessons, which was an “intensive” weekend, from Myles and Tessa; the world of WCS was blown wide open for me that weekend! Since then I have taken private lessons from them both and my dance skills are now, only five months later, are being complimented on a regular basis from leads I regularly dance with, ones I have only danced with once, as well as from WCS teachers just watching me for the first time. Like the post said, they will notice the difference, and so will you. Private lessons are definitely going to be a part of my balanced dance regime… Don’t be scared to take them, your dance life will be so much richer if you do (and then act on the skills they have presented to you)… See you on the dance floor!

  3. Ariella Francesca December 2, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Tessa’s teaching ability is beyond most I have coached with in our community. Not only does she engage you to learn more efficiently but she shows you how to find the answers on your own. She is an amazing teacher and an amazing dancer. Learning from her has not only helped my own personal dance progress but will also help my future students. I love that she focusses on fundamentals, this makes me feel like she truly wants me to succeed. Some teachers have made me feel strung along lesson after lesson, not seeing any progress. I now know this was because the things they were focussing on were not necessarily being given over in the best order of importance.

    Thank you Tessa!!!

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