Back Seat Drivers

by Mara Tudora Kolarova

[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]

[This isn't exactly a letter. It was originally published as an editorial in the first issue of Saltatio, a previous SCA dance newsletter. It is reprinted by permission of the author.]

It's infuriating to watch someone make a mess of something that ought to be easy. How often have we all been through it? We're at a practice (or an event) and someone else is teaching. The way that person is describing a hey-for-three is causing confusion that will take a good ten minutes to get straight. She's left out the stylistic point that prevents a bassedanse double from degenerating into mush. He's forgotten to mention this, that, or the other essential point of information. The impulse to step in with a helpful comment is well-nigh irresistable.

Resist! Occasionally the comment may actually be helpful. More often, it causes more trouble than it fixes.

The most immediate problem is disruption. If the group is already confused, one more voice adding to the muddle is usually not going to help. Even if you have one of the rare instant-fix remarks, it is likely to be followed by a babble of "What? What? Say that again? Do you mean...".

If what you've got to say is extra information, or something funny to keep the group from falling asleep, you may be contributing to a more subtle problem. The more people break in with comments, the more people are going to break in with comments, and if the "dance people" do it, then everyone else thinks it's okay. It is okay up to a point. I do not think that dance practices ought to be conducted with everyone except the instructor reverently silent. But if a group contains a few clever, witty people who go in for puns and a bit of one-upmanship (and every group or four or more SCA people contains at least two who think they are), the repartee can get out of hand, and the amount of dancing being done heads slowly towards zero. There is a delicate balance to be maintained between keeping the group upbeat and lively, and letting it get rowdy. We ought to be helping each other maintain that balance, rather than upsetting it.

It's very irritating to have someone breaking in on the flow of your teaching. If fact, until someone has done it to you, it's hard to understand just how aggravating it can be. It was first done to me about twelve years ago, in a folk dance club, long before I joined the Society, by a good friend -- and it annoyed me so much that I've tried very hard not to do it to anyone else. I hope I've succeeded.

The worst problem, though, is "turf". We all have at least a little ego invested in being someone who teaches dancing. Even when I know the interrupter doesn't mean it that way, I can't always get rid of the feeling that he or she thinks I'm not capable of doing the job, and wants to take over. Note also that a string of "helpful" remarks can sound unpleasantly patronizing, especially if the instructor is concious of knowing less than the person making the remarks.

So how do you politely offer the help you refrained from barging in with? First wait for a break in the action, as there is no need to delay the dancing by trying to talk shop while the person in charge is trying to cue the next dance. Then say something like, "I noticed there were some problems with X, I've had good results doing Y." Note the careful avoidance of direct criticism! Hopefully you now get into an exchange of professional information, the other person regards you as a colleague instead of a meddling busybody, and the level of dancing in the Society goes up a little as a result.

It's very rare for this sort of thing to get so out of hand that the entire dance practice realizes there is a problem. Mostly it is a minor irritation that causes the interruptee to grumble privately about the interrupter. But minor irritations do escalate into active dislikes, and it's a pity to antagonize someone when you were only trying to help. If you're going to make enemies, avoid doing so by accident.

Mara Tudora Kolarova