Friday, January 4, 2013

How Many Instructors? (Part 1)

When social dancing, you may have as many partners as you can handle. That is really none of my business. In most cases, more is better than less, because dancing with a wider range of people improves your game over time. Since you are doing it out in the open, nobody should care.

I can’t say the same for private instructors/mentors. After teaching private lessons for over 30 years, and taking from at least 20 instructors across music and dance, I have established a few guidelines that I recommend to others. I will stick to the ones related to dancing for this article.

Baarns Private Instructor Guidelines:
  • You are looking for approximately three primary instructors/mentors
  • At least one of your primary instructors should be the opposite sex (in partner dances)
  • You're looking for regular inspiration and brutal honesty at points

Your Three Mentors/Coaches

In an ideal world, over time you'll find three people who will assist you in being the best you can be. You may go through six or eight instructors (more or less) to find the right three that will be your primary mentors, but overall you are looking for around three during the first few years you dance. You can think of these mentors as your dance instructors/coaches.

They should be experienced enough to teach you the steps and techniques for you to move to your next level, but also provide concepts and ideas that may take years to develop. They should be opening your eyes to a much bigger world than just the next sexy cross-body lead variation or a hot shine routine.

These people should inspire you and be the type you trust to be brutally honest with you. Few people realize how difficult it is to find objective opinions!

Your mentor has to be secure enough to tell you the truth, knowing you could stop paying them for privates. If your current instructor is always singing your praises, be careful. That is NOT helpful if you want to be your best. They don't need to be rude, they shouldn't make you feel like a loser, but you should be hearing balanced feedback, including them pushing you when you really deserve a kick in the pants.

If you want unconditional compliments, get a dog, not a mentor. Or call your Mom; mine is always available for telling me how great I am for the cost of a simple phone call (and my Mom is totally objective, we all know that.)

I can also find a few of my dance partners to say, "I love you, man," when they are thinking, "Gee, when he moves his hips like that, he looks a little too feminine." If I do something like that around my mentor, she’ll tell me, “That is really not a good look on you! Girls do that… Don’t you ever let me see that move again…”

She delivers it with her trademark grin and fun-loving tone, so I know I need to change something without being offended.

That is a great mentor. Not only can she help me improve my dance, she will point out the issues that everybody else sees but simply ignores because they are too nice or won't say it. She wants me to be exceptional and I respect her experienced opinion.

It also helps if they have a sense of humor, but that may just be me. Overall, you want to find someone that is straight with you in an encouraging way. They should inspire you to be your best, but also be clear when you can do better.

In the next article we'll explore how many private instructors to consider at one time and some additional details.

Let me know about your experiences with private instructors via the comments.

How Many Instructors (Part 2)
Wondering Eyes: Cheating On Your Instructor

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This article was originally published in July 2007 and was only a two part series. After some minor edits it's been divided into three parts to make it easier to read and digest.


  1. I have a private instructor that I love. She's patient but always points things out in our lessons. One thing that I try to do is dance socially with my teacher. That way, she can see what I'm doing and when our lessons come around, she can point out things that she saw while we were dancing.

  2. Hi Don,
    Not many of us are lucky enough - or have the time and resources for three private coaches! But a thing I recognise from your article is the need to have someone who is prepared to give honest feedback. In my first year of dancing I was lucky enough to find a friend who had no compunction at all in pointing out when I went off-time, gave a duff lead or did something else wrong. She was a rare find as it was always done in a genuine spirit - she was a good dancer too so knew what she was talking about. Six years later I have another favourite dancing partner who is also very prompt to point out faults - annoying though this can be at times - she has contributed considerably to improving my dancing. But it can be a hard trick to pull off. There are all too many "know it all" types ready to criticise their partners on the dance floor - often it is they who are at fault. This kind of mentoring only works with a trusted and respected friend - someone who you know enjoys dancing with you and is only motivated by wanting you to dance even better. Highly recommended if you can find someone.

  3. #Joe: I appreciate the feedback!!

    I'll expand on this in another article. I don't recommend three at once. You mentioned over found a friend who assisted early, then another after six years. That's valid, just be on the lookout...

    One of my primary mentors I don't see but a couple times per year at this point.

    More as soon as practical.

  4. #Eric: Right on dancing with your instructor socially so she can make adjustments when you're in private.

    My only suggestion there is be mindful sometimes when instructors dance they just want to dance, not pay attention to your dancing.

    Ask her to dance occasionally, but also sometimes stay away (unless she is actively encouraging you to ask). What you don't want is her to feel like she has to dance with you every time, especially in a social situation.


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero