Teaching Techniques for Dancemasters

April 1999

This discussion is mostly about dance practices, although I occasionally mention dance classes and recreational or social dancing at SCA events.

The most general piece of advice for improving your teaching effectiveness is "think about what you're doing". This is not limited to the mechanics of teaching movements, it includes managing the social context and the learning environment.

First of all, think about your audience - the people attending your dance practice, or your dance class at an event that offers specific classes, or participating in social dancing at an event. What does your audience want? It is very important to understand that except for the dance *class*, it is usually NOT "learn how to dance"! What they really want is to have a good time. Your job is to deliver that good time, by teaching them dancing. Ideally you educate them and (and yourself!) at the same time, but if you don't make it fun, you'll lose them.

A dance practice is ostensibly a place to learn dancing - but what other functions is the dance practice serving? Is it a major venue for newcomer orientation, such that you always need to be conscious of new people - make sure there are dances they can join in, and try to foster a welcoming atmosphere so they get to know the old-timers? Is it as much (or more) a social gathering as an opportunity to practice dancing, and attendees primarily want maintenance teaching of the dances (possibly out-of-period dances) they've been doing since forever? Does it ever become rehearsals (ie does the group as a whole sometimes do performances)? Do you want to reinforce or change these other functions?

What's the learning atmosphere like? By that I mean, does the group as a whole want familiar material, and balk if you try to give them something new? Do they like learning new dances - and if so, are they enthusiastic about new genres, or only receptive to new stuff in styles they already know? Do they care whether the dances are of period origin or not? If out-of-period dances are entrenched and popular, are people defensive about liking them? Do you like the atmosphere you've got, or do you want to change it?

Maintaining the status quo, if you like it, should be pretty easy. If you're going to try to change things, you need to go carefully, and beware of trying to change too much too fast. It should be obvious that the hardest change of all is to start with a group that's attached to and defensive about out-of-period dances, and get them to prefer reconstructions of period dances - I count myself fortunate that I've never had to do this.

If you want to make changes, I advise starting by taking some time out of a dance practice for a group discussion. What do you want to do with dance practice, what do the attendees want and expect to get out of it? If they like your ideas, your desired changes are half accomplished right there. If they're dubious, or more interested in some areas than others, that will show you where you need to go slowly. If there's no common ground, save yourself a lot of grief and get out of there.

Have these talks with the group occasionally even if you don't want to make changes - maybe someone else wants to make a change.

On to the teaching of movement ...

Consider the things that make a dance *seem* easy or hard to people.

1) What's familiar is easy, what's unfamiliar is hard. Duple meter (walking) is familiar, triple meter (bassadanza) is not familiar, uneven patterns such as the galliard rhythm are not familiar. Walking is familiar, dance steps are not - this is a big part of why English Country dances are so accessible. For most of the Society, English is familiar, French and Italian are not - give serious consideration to using English terminology if you're introducing French or Italian dances to your group for the first time.

2) If it confuses the instructor, it must be hard. Your confidence and clarity in describing and cueing a dance have a substantial effect on how the dancers perceive the dance. Carry cheat-sheets while you teach if necessary.

3) It must be hard if the instructor says it is. Don't tell people a dance or step or figure is hard - tell them "this is a little weird until you get used to it", or "you need to practice this for a while, but eventually your muscles will do it automatically, and then you'll wonder why you ever thought it was confusing". Side note: no matter how simplistic a dance is, don't refer it as 'boring'! If you say it's boring, why should they want to do it?

4) Movement in company is easier than movement alone. I know of no period precedent for dancing Canary in a longways set formation, but I specify that for my Canary arrangement so people can easily look sideways to resynchronize themselves if they get lost while doing the dance. This is also why so many people seem to have trouble with the middle figure of Hyde Park - the head couples and side couples do very different things at the same time, and the inward-facing square formation means you can only look within your own set for cues if you aren't confident of what to do next.

5) Abstract random sequences are hard to remember, though it does get easier with practice. Short phrases that repeat and evolve in predictable ways, like those of English Country dances, are much easier - people pick up on the patterns pretty quickly. Some dances offer the possibility of enacting microdramas as you do them - especially 15th-century Italian balli - and the storyline helps people remember the step sequences.

6) Intense interest makes it easier. A few people with late-period personae can have their interest in relatively complex dances caught by the idea that "my persona would have known this". A stylish demonstration, especially from performers who are known as social dancers of average skills, can attract more people - "that's cool, I want to do that, and how hard can it be if X can do it?". And for the widest appeal of all - sex sells, so play up any available Mating Dance angle for all it's worth.

When a dance has multiple sections A, B, C, D, etc, first teach section A, then B, then do A and B without stopping before going on to section C. Then do A, B, and C without stopping before going on to section D, and so on.

Develop "cueing sequences", or "cadence calls", or "chants", for the dances you teach. By this, I mean speaking the cues for dance steps or figures, plus additional words, so that your voice provides the proper rhythm and tempo for the dance. An example, for the A section of bransle Charlotte, is "and a double to the left, left, right, and a double to the right". (You don't need to sing them to the tune of the dance, but if you have a good singing voice, you might try it.) Sometimes this requires you to spit out several syllables in the time for a single beat of the music, which takes some practice.

Try to provide a graceful simplification of the most demanding steps, so the people who are having trouble don't get too discouraged. There's period precedent for this - Caroso's dance descriptions are liberally sprinkled with simpler alternatives of passages.

If a dance has a verse-and-chorus structure, teach the chorus first. It will stick in the mind better, so that if some people are having trouble with the verse figures, they get a sense of encouragement as the chorus comes around and they do it successfully. If a dance has an introduction figure, teach it last, so people won't have forgotten it by the time you're ready to put music on.

When teaching 15th and 16th century Italian dances, some people begin by teaching all the steps to be used. I believe that can work for a dance *class*, but I think it is not a good idea for dance practice. Step-drills aren't very much fun, after all. I think it works better to start with just the steps needed for the first section of the dance being taught. Then as I go on to each new section, I prefix it with teaching the additional steps needed.

Teach sequences of dances in the same genre, so people get used to the idiom of movement for the genre, which makes learning the dances easier. For example, you might start a series on 15th-century Italian by teaching Anello for 2 weeks, then the 3rd and 4th weeks teach Gelosia and review Anello, then the 5th and 6th weeks teach Rostiboli Gioioso and review Anello and Gelosia, then the 7th and 8th weeks teach Leoncello Vecchio and review the others as needed. If your attendance has been consistent, people should be able to do at least Anello and Gelosia without needing prompting by the 7th week.

By the way, I really do not advise attempting real teaching during social dancing at events. When I run social dancing, I normally "teach" anywhere from half to three-quarters of the program - but in this context, what I mean by "teaching" is actually a very fast run-through of the dance, quite literally restricted to two minutes or less. These run-throughs are meant to let people participate, nothing more. If the dance is complex enough that a moderately coordinated newcomer can't pick it up well enough to participate from that two-minutes-or-less run-through, the dance is on the program "for those who know it". More detailed teaching disrupts the flow of the program. People who know the dance already are bored. Most of the people who don't know the dance aren't really all that receptive to detailed teaching - they're looking for a good time, not a learning session. If you've got live musicians, they get bored - musicians like to play, after all, and time you spend teaching is time they don't spend playing. Save the real teaching for dance practice, or a class.

Managing a dance practice ...

Dance practice really does need to be weekly - if it's less often, people just don't remember things from one session to the next.

If attendence at an ongoing dance practice is really low, or everyone is convinced your group just can't support an ongoing weekly practice, try offering a six or eight week series. If possible, schedule it so the series ends just before a local or nearby event with dancing. Consider making up a syllabus in advance and publicizing it. This provides people with some motivation to arrange their schedules so they can get to the dance practice consistently, and a finite short-term commitment is easier for a lot of people.

Pay attention to who attends your dance practice, and what they do there. In particular, who are "the cool people"? To be blunt, this often means the chivalry, but it can also mean other peers, other hot-stick fighters, group officers, or even someone who just has a lively, popular personality. If any of these are attending your dance practice, but only to hang out on the sidelines and chat, or they dance only the easiest dances and head for the sidelines at the first hint of something new, you've got problems - their example will influence others to do likewise. Try talking to them about it, keeping in mind that asking them to help you is likely to get better results than telling them they're causing you problems.

You'd like your dance practice to have a happy, lively atmosphere, without going over the line into rowdiness that disrupts the teaching. If your group is rowdy, and especially if they were OK and they're turning rowdy, start by taking a serious look at yourself. It is really not very likely that anyone is deliberately trying to sabotage you. The dancers may be bored, you may have been teaching the same material for too long. Your teaching technique may need work - if you get muddled in the middle of teaching a dance, that leaves openings for wisecracks and clowning. You may just have been running dance practice too long, and you need to take a break and let someone else do it for a while. Talk to your group about it - explain that the rowdiness has gotten disruptive, and ask them to help you figure out where the problem is, and to have patience while you try to fix it.

I always begin a dance practice with a short warmup session. Renaissance dances are (mostly) not strenuous enough for warmups to be physically necessary, but doing warmups provides a psychological transition between pre-dance-practice socializing and dancing. It also gets people used to the idea of moving to your cueing. If you cue some of the warmup exercises using a three-count, that helps make triple meter more familiar. You may also be able to include step-drills for a few steps as part of warmups (but be careful to not overdo it, step-drills aren't much fun).

Here's a basic warmup sequence:

I start with stretching up (reach for the ceiling) alternating with down (reach for the floor), maybe 3 times. Then I have everyone stand up straight, and pay attention to posture - heels more or less together, toes turned out only as much as is comfortable, keep your knees over your toes (lest you do horrid things to your ankles), roll your buttocks under (to straighten the lower part of the spine), belly firm, lift from the diaghram, lift your chest, pull your chin back, lift from the top of the back of your head, make your spine as long as possible - and in this position, relax, and smile!

Now into demi-plies, calling cadence using a three-count (bend your knees as I count 'down, two, three' and straighten up as I count 'up, two, three'). After four or five repetitions, alternate with releve (go up on your toes as I count 'up, two, three' and lower your heels slowly as I count 'down, two, three'). This introduces people to the idea of keeping small movements under control, and helps make triple meter (the three-count) become familiar.

Jump in place for a bit, using some combination of straight up and down on one or both feet, scissor-kicks, and stright up and down on two feet but alternating which foot lands in front. (This can be part of the step-drill for teaching galliard.)

Do calf-streching exercises for a while.

Stand on one foot, make little circles in the air with the other to roll the ankle around - change feet and do it on the other side.

Scrunch your shoulder up to your ears, and back, and down, and forward - roll this sequence around a few times, then go the other way.

Optionally, add a couple more step-drills for things you'll need later in the practice.

Start practice with easy dances - I begin with bransles. (And Arbeau - well, actually, his pupil Capriol - notes that in good society they begin the dancing with bransles.) The most complicated dances and most intensive teaching should go in the middle of the session, then end with easier dances and reviews of the complicated dances that were intensively taught in the last few weeks.

If your practice lasts more than an hour and a half, it's probably best to call a break a bit past the midway point. In Carolingia, where dance practice also serves the functions of social venue, newcomer orientation, and recruiting for event staffing, the break gives people a few minutes to chat, and then we call for announcements. Then I do a few minutes of what I call "culture corner", which is often reading from primary dance sources - perhaps the etiquette sections of Caroso, or some of Arbeau's commentary on the place of dancing in society. Or I might talk about something - maybe "there was a royal court at the event last Saturday, did anything happen that you didn't understand?", or why certain dances are done differently in various groups, or I might bring in some costume books and show people the clothes that match specific dances. You may not need the announcements period, but I recommend doing a culture corner.

People expect to move during a dance practice. Get them moving as quickly as possible! For all dances you teach, but especially for something new, or soemthing a bit more complicated than your norm, give the dance's name, origin, and setup information (ie 'circle of couples', or 'longways set') and launch right into movement. Explanations and background information can come later. If you talk too much at first, some people's attention will drift, and you run the risk of the more timid or less enthusiastic ones deciding that they don't really want to do this after all. This does not necessarily apply to dance *classes*, where attendees self-select for more intensive interest in dancing - but even there, give some consideration to the idea of "movement first, lecture later".

Try to get into the habit of citing your sources as you teach dances, at least once or twice per session. At minimum that's country and approximate date of origin, it might also identify the original source and the person who did the reconstruction. This helps the dancers understand similarities and differences among dances. Eventually you may find that the out-of-period dances fall out of favor, as people assimilate the idea that (for example) Gay Gordons goes with clothes you just don't see at events - and if not, at least they'll *know* they're making a compromise.

Movement perception and learning styles ...

Every so often you'll encounter someone who just can't seem to learn how to dance. There are a very few people who genuinely can't dance, but most of the time, the problem is how their perception of movement matches up with your teaching style.

As far as I've been able to figure out, there are two ways to perceive and learn movement, and I refer to then as analytic and holistic. Analytic perception breaks movement down into small pieces and then builds up again - first you do this and then you do that - and for people who learn this way, the connection between movement and music is rhythm. Holistic perception deals with movement in much larger chunks, and for people who learn this way, the connection between movement and music is the emotional expression of the music. Some people can learn either way, others are strongly oriented to one or the other. Movement systems are the same way - ballet and aikido, for example, are holistic and always taught that way, fencing can be either, SCA fighting can be either although it's usually taught analytically. Renaissance dancing, square and contra dancing, and the dances you encounter at international-folk-dance clubs are analytic and usually taught that way (though you'll sometimes encounter holistic style teaching from a ballet-trained instructor).

People who are strongly oriented to one style or the other have trouble learning from the opposite teaching style, even if the instructor is very good. I am strongly analytic, and I had an awful time studying aikido - I kept trying to learn it analytically, and that just doesn't work. When an experienced ballet dancer, an aikido black belt, or an SCA duke is having problems in your dance practice, you can be pretty certain that the problem is NOT that the person can't learn a movement system. You may be able to cut down the frustration quite a bit just by explaining that the person's learning style doesn't match your teaching style, so of course they're going to have problems.

I don't have much advice for attempting holistic-style teaching, other than noting that it relies heavily on demonstration. You might advise a holistic learner to concentrate on watching the best dancers in the group, and making a point of putting the person with a partner or a set that already knows a dance well - "just go where they push you, the fine points will come later". (Actually, the latter works well for anyone who's having trouble, regardless of learning style.) If you happen to be able to explain holistic style teaching in terms a strongly analytic person can understand and make use of, please come tell me about it!

And finally ...

There is some homework to be done.

If you don't know at least the date and country of origin for the dances you teach, spend some time going through your dance manuals, reading the supporting material - you ought to know that stuff.

Find a time and place where you can make noise without interruption, set up your sound system, play the dance music you teach with, and practice cueing the dances. Then practice cueing while demonstrating. Then practice without music. Eventually, you want to be able to simultaneously call cues for a dance (with or without music, and when it's without, maintain correct rhythm and tempo with your voice), demonstrate it, and watch the dancers to see who's having trouble and with what - and you can't do the latter until the first two become automatic. It may take a while, so practice regularly until you can do it.

If you feel your movement-teaching skills are weak, consider doing a couple of months of regular attendance at a local folk-dance club of some sort - an international-folk-dance club is probably the best bet if one is available. You'll need a few weeks to get acquainted with some of the dances, and then you can spare some attention to studying the teachers for tips you can use.

The most important homework, though, is to think about each teaching session after it is over. What worked, what didn't? Can you think of alternatives that might work better?

Mara Kolarova

Meredith Courtney
12 Melville Ave.
Boston MA 01224

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