[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]
Unto the good readers of the Letter of Dance, does Justin du Coeur, former Dancemaster Carolingia, send greetings! I have just recently stepped down as local dancemaster, and thought that I might share some of the ideas and opinions that I have accumulated over the past two years. The following is a bit of a ramble, presenting a few ideas and lessons learned...
(Caveat: Carolingia has a dance practice pretty much every week, and that is the environment I'm used to. The lessons here are, thus, largely aimed at groups with more-or-less regular dance practices. Your mileage may vary...)
This is probably the most central of the concepts presented here, and influences most of the others. It is also quite possibly the hardest.
If you orient too much towards the "interesting" dances, you will may find yourself losing the beginners. I've heard of a number of cases, throughout the Society, where a group has allowed itself to move steadily to harder and harder dances, to keep the members interested. Invariably, it seems as if these groups wind up becoming performance troupes. Which isn't a terrible thing (the Society could use more good performers), but you have to ask yourself if that is what you are trying to accomplish with your dance practice. And such groups frequently aren't self-sustaining; unless you have members entering regularly, it is difficult to deal with attrition.
On the other hand, orienting entirely towards the "easy" dances has its own pitfalls, and is a rather easier trap to fall into. Especially if you are a new dancemaster, it is easy to find yourself teaching mostly the simpler dances; you know them well enough to teach them easily, and you get a fair amount of instant gratification, since people learn the dances quickly. The problem arises after several practices of this sort. The people who have been coming regularly know the dances already, and don't particularly want to sit through being taught them all over again.
One of two cases usually results from doing only easy dances. There will be a great deal of pressure to teach the dances more quickly; if you let this take over, you will find yourself running the same dances every session, with people learning few or no new dances. This is not the worst possible fate, but there is so much in the period repertoire that it is a shame to let yourself stagnate.
If you don't give in to the pressure to run-but-not-teach the dances, you will quickly find yourself with a rather high turnover of dancers. As pointed out above, people don't generally care to be re-taught the same dances repeatedly, and have a tendency to drop out if they get bored.
The lesson is: keep up the mix. I make a point of having some easier dances (so that the novices can feel they're getting somewhere) and some harder dances (so that the experienced members feel that they're still learning) in each practice. Where the balance lies depends on your own group's dynamic, and finding that balance is key to running a good practice.
This might be alternatively phrased as, never believe the worst of your dancers. This is a somewhat commonly-commited sin. It is easy to see yourself, as dancemaster, as being rather more talented at dance than most of the people around you. This has a trap: it's easy to see everyone else as worse at it than they really are. The simple fact is that most people don't have two left feet. Most think that they do, but can be proved wrong if they just try.
Let's put this in more practical terms. Most groups in the Society that I've encountered are terrified of basse dance. When I ask a local dancemaster why his group isn't doing it, the answer is all too often, "well, we're not good enough to do those dances." Rubbish. Carolingia's dance practice is 75% college students, with an average turnover of about two years. At any typical week's dance practice, we have one or two new faces. Of the ones who stick around for one month, better than nine out of ten are following the basse dances reasonably well, and half are doing a decent job of it.
Now, these aren't supremely talented dancers; most of them have been dragged along because their entire boro (Carolingian for "college") is going. But they get quickly convinced to try, and they almost always succeed. Most people can dance anything in the standard SCA repertoire if they just believe in themselves.
This is where you, as dancemaster, come in. The only way that the newer dancers are going to believe in themselves is if you believe in them. You won't always be right -- there really are a few people out there who don't know their sword foot from their shield foot, and who will need rehearsing every time they dance. But these people are very few, and very far between, and if you think you have more than two of them, you are probably not giving your people enough credit.
Related to this: go just a little too fast. If you go slowly enough that everyone knows precisely what they're doing, down to the smallest detail, you're going to bore most of your crowd out of their minds. I find it best to go just a hair faster than that. The new people won't quite get it perfectly the first week, but they'll do pretty well the second, and will generally have any given dance by the third. Again, this requires some understanding of your own group, to tell how fast is too fast...
This ties into the last section rather closely. If you run a practice regularly, mixing the easy dances with the interesting ones, you will soon find yourself with some amount of variance of skill. There will be the people who've been around for a while, who know most of the dances by heart, and who are there for the socializing as much as anything. Then there will be the new people, who are a bit shy, and may know neither the people nor the dances. It is very important that you not let this turn into stratification. If the experienced dancers just dance with each other, and not with the newer dancers, the newer ones will have a much harder time learning the dances than if they had experienced partners. Obviously, this is not entirely under your control (the organism under study will generally dance with whoever it pleases), but you can encourage people to switch partners and dance some with people who they don't know. Which leads us up to...
Trying to teach people entirely on your own can be frustrating; having to do it every week or month, year in and year out can be trebly so. You don't have to do it all yourself, though. Build a core of people who enjoy dancing, and get them into the spirit of helping out. Encourage them to dance with and tutor the newer dancers. Talk to them a bit about the details of the dances, not just "how it's done", but "where it came from", and "how to do it well", also. Most people will enjoy themselves far more if they can help out, and you may also find yourself with a substitute or two, for those days when you just don't want to deal. (Just because I went off to Pennsic doesn't mean that Carolingia went without a dance practice, nosirree...)
This is one that I had some problems with. As I said before, our dance practice is a haven for Carolingia's college branches, which number eight at last count. Dance practice became, to the boros, what fighting practice is in so many SCA branches: the place that everyone comes to, to see friends, talk about next month's event, and generally shmooze.
This had its good points and bad points. On the plus side, it encouraged the new college members (who make up the great majority of Carolingia's novices) to learn how to dance early -- a fine thing in a Barony that prides itself on dancing at nearly every event. On the down side, though, I discovered that it can rather take over a practice, and can detract from the purpose at hand, namely dancing. We wound up with a great number of people coming solely to chat with their friends. While this can work well on a large open fighting field, it is quite difficult to teach dance when half the crowd is engaged in conversations with the people around them.
Thus, encourage the social side of dance practice, but don't let it get out of hand. Chatting between dances and during breaks is one thing, but you must assert yourself during the teaching, and prevent too much interruption...
The dancemaster or dancemistress of a group wields tremendous influence on how the group dances, and this has side-effects that you may not anticipate. To a large number of people, your word is gospel where dance is concerned, and your careless error can quickly become Gospel Truth. The folk process is strong in the SCA, and a vast number of the Society's misconceptions about various dances come from individual dancemasters making small mistakes, which are then told and retold so many times, so quickly, that they gain the weight of Tradition before you can blink.
There are two primary ways in which this affects you. The first is style. Like it or not, a lot of people are going to pick up your bad habits. No matter how many times you say, "Do what I say, not what I do," people are going to do as you do. The second is statements of "fact". The sheer number of incorrect "facts" that float around the Society is extraordinary, and they tend to be self-perpetuating. Think about your art a bit, and listen to everyone, rather than choosing a patron saint of dance. Don't be oversure of your knowledge, unless you have good reason, lest you find yourself in the position of the gentle who, at Pennsic a few years back, got into an argument about the pattern of the Carolingian Pavan -- only to discover, after some debate, that he was arguing with Baron Patri, who wrote it!
Now, this Lesson is a little different from the others, in that it is not self-contained. No matter how hard you try, you aren't going to instantly make yourself a Secret Master of the Dance. No one is perfect, and you aren't ever likely to reach the point where you no longer have anything to learn about the art. But the process of learning is the important part. As dancemaster, you have a responsibility to your group, that you improve your own dance whenever you can, so that they have a good model to work from. Likewise, keep your ears and mind open, and learn as you go -- there's always more to learn about the art, and all of it is important in one way or another.
Well, I've gone on quite long enough here. I hope that these little lessons, picked up through sometimes-painful experience, help out some of the fledgling dancemasters and dancemistresses out there. They are the heart of dance in the Society, and everything that can be done to help them seems a good investment of effort...
In Service to the Teaching of Dance,
Justin du Coeur