As an educator, I spend most of my time trying to make learning enticing: convincing kids to want to learn more. They want to freeplay, but there are so many life skills that they need to learn that are mundane or challenging.
As a dance teacher, most of the time I get to teach people who want to learn. Adults have selected this play hobby, and invest in it voluntarily in the interest of increasing the rewards they get from it, be they physical, psychological, or emotional. But the link between them is my coach’s role. This is where I have to convince dancers that in order to reach their goals they have to embrace learning challenges that are not always easy, but the rewards are worth it. I get to coach them how to “play” better!
Most of the students I coach privately are already ready to hear what they need to do to achieve their goals. Most of them are interested in being true to the dance and learning culturally and mechanically authentic techniques. But some dancers need a bit more persuasion, a bit more guidance. This might appear as having an attitude of “Meh, I doubt I really need that”, or “Thanks but I’m ok figuring it out on my own”, or “I’m not interested in being that serious”, or “ That’s great for some people but not for me”. This article is for you.
As my article from last week explained, I activate my sweeter side when approaching private lessons. Whenever I start working with a new student, I assess their sensitivity level. Sometimes this means asking them outright, “How sensitive are you?” or “On a scale of 1-10, how gentle/direct do you want me to be?” This gives them a chance to show me their learning needs so I can accommodate. More often than not, students are prepared to be vulnerable, and trust me that what I tell them is in their best interest. Some even say, “I’m a 10. Don’t sugar coat anything, give it to me straight so we can get down to business.”. This article is for you. I know you are salivating right now.
If you are sensitive, or if you like to blame others for your failures, this article is not for you. Please stop reading, or at least come back when you’re having a good day. I’m gonna get direct, I’m not going to sugar coat it, and it might be tough to hear. But these are things that are for your own good, for your future benefit, and for the benefit of the people around you that you affect. Don’t get hung up on the critical parts – notice they are immediately followed by constructive or encouraging suggestions. The language is directed at you, for impact, but of course not every point applies to every dancer. So don’t get defensive: if it strikes a nerve, ask yourself why. Take this as a golden opportunity to consider making some positive changes.
1. Stop and think, “Maybe I’M guilty of that thing”.
I put this one first, because it should also be the context for your reading of this article. Don’t just skim each point and think of other people you know it applies to. Stop and consider that that point was written for you. Vet yourself – are you sure you are not guilty of this? How do you know? What if you were? Would you be able to tell? Who would be honest with you and let you know? Would that explain other issues? Would it be easy to fix/change? How would you go about getting advice/feedback/tutelage to make the change? Next time you are in a workshop and you hear a piece of advice, don’t let it float over you. Let it sink in and give it honest consideration.
2. “You know nothing, Jon Snow”
This Game of Thrones quote is delivered to a newcomer in the land who grossly underestimates the terrors that lurk there. He thinks that once he has seen the enemy, he understands their modus operandi and way of life and makes poor decisions based on this limited knowledge.
“The more you learn the more you realize there is to learn.” This is a quote that guided me since high school, and it never ceases to ring true. It is the basis for my hunger for knowledge and pursuit of mastery. Just when you think you see the whole picture, turn around and you are suddenly aware that you only figured out a small corner of it. This progression is illustrated by Maslow’s Four Stages of Competence Model (see image).
There is no such thing as knowing it all. Your teachers know exponentially more than you, but can’t deliver it until you are ready. This does not mean that they don’t have more knowledge to offer. Be humbled by the vastness of knowledge of dance, mechanics, and Swing dance culture that is out there. Anything less magnanimous would not be as worthy of your learning. Coaches are drawn to students who show humility. Your ego could be preventing you from earning respect and coaching from your most coveted Senseis.
3. Be honest: you’re not always trying your best.
It is unfair to get judgemental about someone’s social dancing just because they are in the learning stages. That would be like criticizing a teenager for being awkward. Learning is messy, and full of mistakes, and a necessary phase to pass through on your way to mastery. But, just like the teenager, you can’t expect to get full credit if you’re only half-assing it. If you have been “letting things slide”, not doing your homework, or getting a little lazy with your connection, you don’t get to use the excuse, “gimme a break, I’m doing my best!”. Your social dance partners deserve your best attention, your best effort, and your best practices. If you can’t deliver your best, give yourself a break – literally. Break length depends on your needs: a half hour to refocus and refuel, or a few weeks to get some coaching and perspective.
4. No one’s willing to tell you until you ask
For example, no one’s going to tell you your breath stinks. You need to ask, or even better, just manage it automatically just in case. Same goes for connection. Unless you are hurting them, no one will sacrifice their manners to tell you that your connection is bad/weak/aggressive/non-existent. They will suffer in silence and try their best not to judge you for it. But they might avoid dancing with you later because of it, and they might warn their friends about you. You NEED feedback in order to make sure you are a comfortable partner. Feedback is a delicate social agreement that needs guidance: luckily, here’s an article to guide you through that process.
5. You probably learned it wrong.
You may have been taking lessons regularly for a year, but still have yet to discover and demonstrate the essence of West Coast Swing. Unfortunately, there are many studio classes that focus on patterns with very little instruction on technique, culture, or character of dance. This produces students who are just going through the motions, walking through the patterns they memorized without any connection to the music or their partner. Sometimes I attempt to social dance with leaders and followers who are wiggling around me with admirable confidence, but clearly have no idea what the basic rules are for WCS, so I can’t truly dance WCS with them; I have to fake it.
What if what you are doing isn’t real WCS? Are you sure you haven’t been spending all this time practicing elements that are completely irrelevant to authentic social dancing? Is this “dancing” you enjoy so much actually functional out in the wild? If WCS is still hard for you after a year, you probably are learning it wrong. Are you frustrated and ready to quit? You may be missing out of the whole point of the dance. You need to leave the nest. Reach outside your studio and get coaching elsewhere. If your studio needs professional development, refer them to www.swingliteracy.com to get training in best-practices for WCS skill development guaranteed to drastically improve student progress and retention.
6. You’re a good mover, but what you’re doing isn’t West Coast Swing.
There is a difference between good movers and good WCS dancers. A trained stage Jazz dancer will have excellent form and control, but might not be able to show Swing dancing very well. Just because you are a good mover, don’t underestimate the partnering skills you are missing. Partnering is a totally different beast, and Swing dancing is a very specific style genre that has a unique set of values and techniques that need to be studied independently.
Even if you have experience in another partner dance, you might feel good to you, but feel like crap to your partners because you’re not speaking the same language. You might feel like you are doing Swing, but what you are really doing is mimicking elements of Swing: regurgitating catchphrases, not speaking the language. You need coaching and feedback in order to understand and speak the language. Suck it up and get some.
7. You didn’t learn enough in the first place
It’s pretty common that people take WCS lessons for a little while, then when they start to notice repetition in the material, they assume that they have learned the bulk of what WCS is all about and they quit those classes. Maybe you even got a little further than that and you took years of classes, but it was years ago, the dance has evolved since and left you behind. Either way, you may have become a BAH dancer: Basic and Happy. (credit: The Dancing Irishman). You learned enough to coast along, but then stopped. The problem with this is that your basic skills are likely still not only unsatisfying, but actually dangerous to your partner. You quit before you learned how to do those moves properly, and your partners are stuck compensating for you.
Since this article is about tough love, I’ll share with you the more pessimistic version of BAH: Bad and Happy. I’m not implying that you need to pursue an ambitious competition track: you are certainly free to stick to social dancing. But because you quit “dance school” too soon, your literacy never developed, and now you can only read at a 3rd Grade level. You and your partners would have so much more success and fun if you would only upgrade your skills to at least high school. The best way to upgrade? Private lessons. Here’s an article on what, why, and how.
8. There is no glory in being auto-didactic (self-taught)
You might think there is more prestige in being able to say you are a self-taught Swing dance competitor, like you’re some kind of child prodigy. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s actually the opposite. Because this is a cultural art form, we get our “culture” from the social environment. Legends, techniques, styles, customs, are all passed down through each generation and shared via physical conversations on the dance floor and physical training with the masters.
For this type of art form, auto-didactic learning is definitely inferior. There is only so much you can learn via video. For a full explanation of the pros and cons and strategies for online learning, read this article. If you avoid submitting to “learning from your elders”, it is interpreted as rejecting the culture. If you avoid getting involved in the learning experiences your peers are taking part in, it may come across as you thinking you are too good for them. Instead of gaining more respect for your auto-didactic talents, you will lose respect from the judges and your partners.
9. It’s not about you
This is a shared dance. It is not your dance. Just as a conversation is not your lecture. In any partner dance, there are two sets of physical skills to learn and master: personal movement skills and partnership movement skills. Save your personal movement skill practice for homework sessions. Don’t ignore your partner to work on your posture and foot rolling. In a social dance, focus on practicing your partnership movement skills. Those 3 minutes are not yours alone. You are half of a team, and your partner deserves your complete attention, as well as to be involved in and contribute to your shared dance.
In a competition, your selfishness might be holding you back in when it comes to judges evaluating your teamwork. Leaders, instead of focusing on where your body needs to be for a particular move, start noticing and taking responsibility for where you want your follower’s body to be. She doesn’t care how you look. All she cares about is how you move her.
There is a word for when (leaders or followers) dance only for their own entertainment, without regard for their partner’s experience of the dance: it’s called “dance-turbation”. Think about it. It’s harsh, but poignant. Don’t be a danceturbator.
10. The followers are faking it for you
Not all of them. But it is a common problem that followers, in an intense, primal need to “help”, feel that they need to do the pattern indicated, rather than wait to be lead. This results in self-leading, which defeats the purpose of the leader’s role in the first place. The by-product for you as a leader is that since the follower ends up roughly where you wanted her despite you not actually leading it, you don’t ever learn what actually leading it feels like. Sometimes, the follower is aware that your lead in certain moves is inaccurate, and is simply compensating to survive the dance. Get feedback from a teacher or an advanced dancer in a practice session – ask them to be authentic in their following so they can help catch your incomplete or inaccurate leads.
11. Quit faking it
Followers, be authentic in workshops and practice sessions. Be polite, but don’t fake it for the leader – don’t rob him of this learning experience. At a social dance party, however, give your leader the benefit of the doubt: be patient and wait to be lead, but if he’s not getting it quickly, help the team and adapt for survival. There are many many survival tips, but these are best learned in private lessons, not in a written article.
12. Quit whining
Ok, you’re tired of the status quo and have come to get coaching to work on your issues/complaints. Once you start the coaching process, stop whining. Change takes time, don’t expect instant results. Trust the process, and trust that your coach understands your complaints already and is designing an improvement plan to address them. The more you verbally repeat your complaint, the more you attract it to stick around. If you can’t change something, change the way you look at it. Don’t stress about things you can’t control: you can only control how well you dance, not how well the other competitors dance against you. So focus on things you can control, like your own performance and your new goals.
13. Levels mean nothing
There is no universal qualitative standard for West Coast Swing. The current WSDC points system distinguishes quantitative levels based on points, but those points were earned based on a relative placement system. Relative, meaning dancers are only compared to each other, not against a standard. So an Advanced dancer from a small region might get creamed when competing against Advanced dancers from a larger more competitive region. Which means the levels are inconsistent and only semi-reliable. (Remember that last J&J partner you had that really didn’t belong there?) At the studio level, levels are entirely based on the market demographics and size of the studio, and are not comparable to any other studio.
Bottom line is, levels mean nothing. Quit spending so much energy stressing about what level you’re in and who’s in a different level than you and thinking, “I belong in level X”. Are you learning? Good. Who cares what container you’re learning it in? What do you care more about, learning or status? Want to measure your progress? Ask your teacher for qualitative feedback. Compare videos of yourself. Ask partners you have known for a while. For the full story on levels, what they mean, and why you should care, read this article.
14. Submitting to learning is a sign of strength, not weakness. When you stop improving, you stop being good.
Don’t you remember The Karate Kid? Rocky? The Mighty Ducks? All great athletes get coached. All great artists work on their craft. It takes more than just personal studying, especially with a kinesthetic art like West Coast Swing. There is no glory in being self-taught. Don’t be dumb and take the long route, making mistakes that the right guidance could avoided. Check your ego, submit to your elders, and get coaching. This goes a long way politically and you will learn things you never knew were out there. Remember, especially in this constantly evolving dance: as soon as you stop improving, you stop being good.
15. Nobody’s perfect, but it’s kinda rude to…
- Keep asking someone to dance after they have said no. Just let it be. Give them space and maybe they will come and ask you, but don’t push the issue.
- Hover around the DJ. They have a job to do and you might be cramping their style.
- Be a “cling-on”: monopolizing someone’s time or space at the party. They might be too polite to tell you to go make friends.
- Wear the same shirt for social dancing you’ve had on all day. Ew. Trust me, you smell. Bring a change and freshen up.
- Ask for a discount just because a class is short on leaders. Man up. Pay the instructor what they are worth.
- Ask someone if they have lost/gained weight. Duh. Just tell them they are looking great.
- Move someone’s personal effects unless they are an obstacle.
- Only dance with your friends all night. Don’t be a snob.
- Listen in on someone else’s private lesson
- Mistreat hotel property, putting the event hotel contract at risk.
- Try the same move over and over during a social dance in an effort to “get it right”. Unless you are having a practice session, ask permission before attempting a move again, and if it doesn’t work, be like Elsa and let it go.
- Miss out on reading The Ultimate WCS Etiquette Checklist!
16. …and there’s no excuse for…
- Repeatedly hurting your partner after they draw your attention to it
- Offering unsolicited advice on the floor
- Neglecting your floor craft to the point of collision
- Harassment of any kind, in public or private: bullying, stalking, verbal abuse, unwanted sexual advances.
- Spreading rumours, either verbally or on social media.
- Undermining someone’s dance business
- Just being nasty. WCS is supposed to be a FUN activity we do with our dance FAMILY! Grow up & be nice!
17. Get your a$$ into workshops
Workshops have a ton of value. Like going to a buffet, you have a variety of material to choose from, but with that much selection, you are guaranteed to enjoy several things, rather than taking a risk on one item from the menu. But the key is to not assume you will put the same things on your plate as your neighbour. They might need to fill up on salad, meanwhile you’re there for the sushi. Don’t avoid workshops because you think it’s going to be all salad. You are missing out on exactly what you want and need. Plus, you have the opportunity to try new things in small quantities to see if you want to order more later.
In a community, group learning is massively beneficial in the growth process. Intensive workshops give a community a common language to discuss and exchange feedback on, and common projects to work towards long after the workshop is over. While open workshops are still effective, levelled workshops eliminate any doubts – the material is more targeted, learning more concentrated, and progress is faster. No excuses at any level, from Newbies to AllStars. Make learning a priority. Get your a$$ into workshops, especially ones that are tailored to you specifically. Got reasons? Need more convincing? Check out this article
18. Don’t confuse admiration for love
So you are an advanced dancer (relative to your community). Everyone admires your dancing and acknowledges your skills. But you could still be a jerk. Justin Bieber is a bit of a tool, but he still makes pretty great music. Just because you are admired and respected doesn’t give you license to ignore the little people, act like a diva, talk down to others, or be exclusive. You might be getting celebrated to your face but resented behind your back, and not because of jealousy. You may still have bad habits but nobody feels comfortable confronting you about them. Check yourself – are you letting your ego get away from you? Since you starting dancing, have you noticed any suspicious differences in the way people treat you? Talk to you? Avoid you? Have you tried asking your friends? What might happen if you started behaving the opposite way than you have been?
19. Dance is therapy
Sometimes, we encounter a roadblock or a plateau, that has nothing to do with skill development – it’s mental/emotional. In order to push through this and progress, you need to confront some insecurities and be vulnerable. We all need feedback to develop and grow, so if you think you can’t let your guard down and open yourself up to feedback, it might be time to admit this and ask yourself why. If someone criticizes you inappropriately (such as during a social dance), we all know they are in the wrong, but if you let it get under your skin and debilitate the rest of your night/week/month, maybe there’s a deeper issue you need to work through on your own off the dance floor.
20. How much are you really practicing?
Okay, you go social dancing 3x per week and you spend 50% of your time trying to remember the tips from your past private lesson. How many minutes does that add up to? Also consider that there are different types of practice for different purposes. Personal movement practice requires isolated repetition, both with and without music. How much time do you allot each week for this? Are you sure your collection of drills and exercises are appropriate for your skill development? Do you cross train for fitness or complimentary dance skills such as Yoga, Tap, Jazz, Ballet, Hip Hop? Do you play WCS music during your commute to train your ear to hear accents and phrasing? How do you watch YouTube – passively or intentionally? Check out this great article on How to Use YouTube to Learn WCS. Be honest with yourself about your investment in your own training before you whine about your progress results. Just like getting your finances under control, spend the time to audit your dance learning and make adjustments as necessary to get and stay on track to your goals.
21. “Leader” does not mean “Advisor”
This dance has 2 roles: Leader and Follower. This does not indicate status. In classes, it is not the leader’s role to advise, coach, or assist the followers as they rotate to him. These responsibilities belong to the instructor(s) alone, unless they assign assistants. The follower’s role is not diminutive, submissive, nor junior to the leader. Your role as leader is to drive the movements, not correct or critique your partner. There are methods to appropriate exchange feedback in a class or practice setting, but this is a conversation between partners as equals, and it will be signalled or guided by the instructor. No matter how much you think you are trying to help, you are not. Refrain.
22. Get Consent
This topic deserves more real estate than I am willing to allot in this article, but I think it’s important to give the issue exposure to encourage thought and discussion. While all social dancers are encouraged to dance with everyone and discouraged from rejecting anyone, we also need to respect everyone’s right to decline anything: a dance, a move, a conversation, a hug, a ride, a gift, or an invitation for intimacy. When someone declines something you are offering, it does not mean they are rejecting you as a person. Everyone has their own issues they are dealing with and you can’t assume that their declination has anything to do with you. They are in charge of themselves and their wishes and requests should be respected. Don’t judge them just because you didn’t get what you wanted. Pursuing the matter in any way is not going to bode well for you.
If you hear “Don’t”, “Stop”, or “No”, these should be warning signs to back off. On the other side, remember to show approval and give consent when you feel it. Only Yes means Yes, so be sure to use the word when you mean it. If you are feeling pressured beyond your comfort zone, speak up. Give the person the benefit of the doubt and be polite until they give you reason not to. If your safety is in question, you have a whole community of supporters behind you who all stand to benefit from maintaining a safe environment, so don’t be afraid to initiate survival strategies.
23. Stand up for yourself
I am spared much rudeness from shady characters due to their intimidation of my status, but I hear reports from my friends and students that make my blood boil. I’m talking about critical statements during dances like “You’re not anchoring properly”, or “You’re not supposed to do it like that”. After assuring them that these comments were indeed out of line, I keep reminding them that they can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Call him/her out – tell him that’s not appropriate, or that it’s not nice, or that it makes you uncomfortable. You could memorize a few witty comebacks if you frequently find yourself in the same predicament. But if you let it go, s/he goes on thinking this behaviour is acceptable and will continue it.
24. No one asking you do dance? Be proactive!
I have overheard dancers “complaining” to the event director or to the dance party host that they do not intend to return because no one asked them to dance the whole night. The director/hosts (entirely justified) response was, “And how many people did you ask to dance?” To which they sheepishly admit, “zero”. Invitations for a social dance are wide open and unrestricted – anyone can ask anyone, and no one ‘owes’ you an invitation. If you go to a dinner party and the only person you know is the host, you put yourself out there and strike up conversations with new people. The same social rules apply to dancing. So quit sulking at your table and go ask! Chances are likely that your partners will return the favour later.
25. Support it or lose it
Like having a dance community? Like having partners to dance with? Lessons to take? Events to attend? Commit to them. Invest in keeping and growing them. You are part of a larger machine of supply and demand: the more dancers there are, the more lessons, parties, and events there will be. If you don’t use them, they will disappear. The majority of dance business comes from word of mouth, so do your part to help promote and share on social media the things you want to see succeed. Show up to local classes and dance parties. Display your dance school’s flyers at your work. Pre-register for workshops and rally your friends to join. Encourage newbies to attend their first dance convention. Everybody wins!
Stay tuned next week for PART 2 : Tough Love For Competitors!