Friday, August 3, 2007

Club Classes: Insiders View

I had around 50 people in my class at Mama Juana's last Wednesday night. As the numbers grow larger, an instructor faces a few dilemmas which may effect you. Today, I'm going to give you some insights into the issues we face, so you can get more out of any class you take.

First, the great things: We had a blast. I tend to have fun when I teach and we laughed at lot. I find it easier to learn when everything isn't so serious (maybe that's just me). While learning, everybody makes some mistakes if they are stretching, so as an instructor I want to keep the mood light. Learning to dance isn't like truck driving school, where a mistake means road kill or a few parked cars turning into pre-crushed scrap metal. If you aren't having any fun in a group setting, find another class.

Most club classes are NOT where you will find the dead serious dancers (exceptions include people who actually take their time reading dance blogs!) In my mind, serious dancers go to places that have mirrors so they can fine-tune their look and feel, and I don't mean on the ceilings.

Most people go to club classes to meet attractive people, have fun, have some drinks, and unwind. A few (whisper it quietly) are even there to hook up with said attractive people (after enough drinks, everybody is attractive until morning). Some, however, are there to dance and learn, because that also makes them more attractive.

This creates an interesting backdrop for an instructor. We start with a class outline and have our game plan in place, but then 20 extra people show up, who have never taken a class. Now it doesn’t make sense to follow our original outline. Most instructors will adjust the materials slightly based on who shows up. We may move faster or slower or totally change our materials on the fly.

Here are the major points to remember:

  • Most instructors will NOT pack every minute with detailed instruction
  • Most skip some fundamentals, since average dancers want “cool stuff” now
  • You should be proactive if you want fine-tuning
  • Maximize your social networking during class time
  • Don’t expect dance excellence from club classes
  • There are always a few students who don’t belong
  • Many instructors rotate the students quickly, to maximize the social aspects
  • Support the instructors you like, since the club owners will fire the ones without good numbers

Here is an example of the relaxed attitude toward teaching that I learned from a very successful club instructor: When the music ends after a practice dance, if the room is buzzing with people talking, an instructor like me waits before starting to teach again. I may wait thirty seconds, two minutes or even longer if everybody is socializing and the room has a loud buzz of people enjoying themselves. That can seem like a long time if you stop after the song and say nothing to the people around you.

This used to drive me crazy as a student! I was there to learn dancing, and I wanted the instructor to get on with it and teach me another move! (NOW!!) Problem: I'm not normal.

Remember, in a club class, the majority are there to meet people and (maybe) to improve their dancing. For many people, if they meet someone interesting, that trumps becoming a better dancer. When the song stops, but the instructor doesn't restart immediately, use the time to build your social network! Tell your current partner what you liked, ask them what nights they go dancing, what brand of hair color they use, or if they think Emmitt Smith should have really won last year's "Dancing with the Stars." In other words, practice your social skills and say something to the people around you. Once class is over, you want people to dance with, and the other students are the perfect place to start.

Start with your current partner, but it's fair game to talk to anybody around you. Just be sure to include your current partner unless they are rude and ignore you.

Leaving Out Details
As the class gets larger, an instructor has to decide what to skip, what to gloss over, and what to emphasize. Personally, I agonize over what to leave out. I would love to give you every chance at being excellent as you dance. But unfortunately, I'm not telling you everything I think you should know. Most people will bolt for the door or go have a drink if I start a ten-minute discussion about closed position, frame, clave history, why the music matters, finding one in the music, and/or body posture. Some get impatient if I take too long showing “basic.” They say, “Cool, I get it, now let’s do some real dancing.” Their basic may have eight or nine steps instead of six, but they just want to partner with someone NOW!

While I'll say general things like “Listen to the time in the music” or "pretend you have grapefruits under your arms," or "if your male partner is ugly, look at his forehead," please understand that I can't tell all or try to fix everybody. I'll bring up as many important points as possible, but if you ignore me, I probably won't say much. As an instructor, I get used to people totally ignoring me. It started with my Mom, but that's for my therapy sessions.

Being Proactive if You Want Details
As the class gets larger, YOU want to ask questions during practice time. Get the instructor's attention, because I go where I think someone actually cares about getting it right. Some people just want to be left alone for a few minutes while they figure something out or talk with their attractive partner. Some want details, but everybody is different, so your instructor will help those who want some assistance. Sometimes I simply stand on the side watching during the practice songs. I may be taking mental notes of what to point out when teaching time starts, and I may be deciding who could be helped by a few comments.

I often see a few people going horribly wrong, but my experience tells me some people still don't want any assistance from me. I'll make myself available for questions, but I'm not going to be pushy in a club setting, at least until they've worked on some things a little on their own. I’ve often asked one-on-one during practice time if a guy has a question and he says “no… I’m good.” My dog would immediately see this guy has no clue which foot is called “left,” but that guy doesn’t want to talk to me or ask a question. I smile and move on, looking for someone who can’t wait to hear my wisdom. (That happens every few months.)

Face Time and Rotating
In my case, I rotate the class quite a bit. I figure if you love the person you are dancing with, you get a little taste during the practice and now you know whom you want to dance with after class. On the other hand, if you get a total beginner, or they belong to the Natural Odor Society, or the guy who buys his cologne wholesale so he can use it to fumigate his condo and bathe in it, then rotating regularly is a good thing. Not all instructors believe in the quick-rotate concept, and when you get that "perfect" partner, it all seems too short. But that's why you are at the club. You can ask that person to dance after the class, and if you really want, ask them again if the chemistry is right.

Some Students Shouldn’t be In That Class
A club class is NOT where everybody is equal. We could call a class the "Advanced Salsa Class for Ballet Experts with a Black Belt in Mandarin Origami" and we'll still get a guy who says "Which foot do I start with?" and/or "Do I pay the lady before or after the dance?"

An unbelievable number of people ignore the fact that it's called "Intermediate" or "Beginner" or "Fast Beginner" (code for intermediate/advanced). But it's a social scene, so few instructors can (or will) kick him out of the class. A few people (read: "men") believe intermediate means they have seen salsa dancing on TV, so they couldn't be a beginner. Their mom has served salsa long before it overtook ketchup as America's favorite condiment, so don't bore them with that basic stuff. This means the instructor will review but rarely fine-tune some people. Hopefully, he rotates enough. In practice, we end up ignoring the guy, hoping he'll go sample the latest bar offerings, but we rarely force him to go sit down. You would like to think someone would realize when they are hopelessly over their head, but nobody is placing bets on that.

With people at all levels, there are bound to be some people (probably you!) who are really too advanced or too beginner for the material if you don't approach it correctly. If it's too "easy" for you, then work on your style and details. EVERYBODY can improve their fundamentals, which will improve everything else, so if the class is "below you" (in theory), then take the time to fine-tune your moves and polish your transitions, connection and overall feel. Look for ways to do the simple moves extremely well, and see if you can make your partner look better. You want your partner to notice how easy it is to dance with you, even if it's simply your great attitude.

If it's too advanced, turn doubles into singles and simplify other moves. If you are following, ask your lead to slow it down for practice. If required, count out loud for your partner and ignore the tempo the rest of the class is using to figure out the tougher parts of the move. Fast and sloppy are often normal, so if you slow things down during practice and get it smooth and comfortable, you'll stand out on the floor.

Socialize After the Class
After the class ends, don't go sit in a corner or leave! Be sure to work your social network you just established, even if you don't dance (although I recommend you do). You just met 20 people, so say hi, ask them to dance, and practice the parts of the lesson you remember. If you don't remember much, so what! Do what you remember and use any other moves you learned from a previous class. The more you dance, the easier it is to remember moves (I write them down, but that's for another article).

Most instructors won't say this out loud, but if you want individual attention and fine-tuning, you really need to consider a private. The larger the class, the less an instructor focuses on a couple people. I'm selfish as an instructor; I want people to have a good time and return next week. I keep it moving, keep it fun, even if you didn't get all the details. That is life of an instructor at a club. If you tell me you love my class, but don't show up again, the club owner will still fire me unless enough people do show. (If you dislike an instructor, don't go to their class! Unless others really like them, they will be replaced at some point.)

Keep supporting the clubs, since we all want great places to dance. If the lessons go well, it feeds new beginners and improves the intermediates. As you grow in your dancing, you realize we always need more new people in the scene. Over time, people come in and out of the scene and having new people keeps the club alive for your dancing.

As you become more advanced, show up early at your favorite club and take the group class if possible, knowing you’re helping your scene grow. Enjoy those classes, but realize the instructors are forced to teach to the center of the crowd, and that is probably not where you are if you are working toward dance excellence. On the other hand, even in a weak class, you can fine-tune your existing materials and enhance your social networking skills. This means you can create your own value, no matter how the class is actually handled by the instructors.

Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.
-Oscar Wilde


  1. rotation is good! it gets everyone involved so no one has to sit out if they don't have a partner. i hate going to a lesson a hour early and then watching from the side because the instructor rarely rotates.

  2. Some rotation is good, but I go to a class where they rotate every pattern. We spend as much time changing partners as dancing with them! Perhaps 4 try's then rotate for a simple move would work well.

  3. Of course there is a balance on the rotation. If I had to choose, I'd select more rotation rather than less. Nothing is perfect.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero