Sunday, March 30, 2008

Taking Classes Over My Head: Part 1

"You’re taking jazz classes with Eric Ellis?"
"Are you taking Sho-tyme’s basic hip-hop class?"
I hear it in their voices--the wondering, "Why do YOU take those classes?" with the “I know you aren’t on that level” connotation. They are right. I sometimes fall into the lower 10% of a class at the beginning, but I don’t stay there. My goal is always to be the fastest improving person in the class, and I employ the same principles I learned about music to grow my dancing. One consistent paradox of growing quickly: Working the fundamentals hard moves you further over time than skipping the basics and trying the cool stuff too early.

Sho-Tyme: Basic Hip-Hop Instructor at Millennium

Association is a powerful thing, both in dancing and in life. Being around stronger dancers can improve your dancing faster than hanging out with those just figuring it out for the first time. It can also backfire if you're not careful. Getting too far over your head tends to create frustration, or worse, bad habits that require unlearning and relearning. Who has the time to do that?

Having danced a few years, I mix beginning and more advanced classes; but remember that I’m averaging two back-to-back classes, three times per week, plus a private lesson most weeks. If I’m not too tired, some weeks I’ll add another two or three classes, often at a beginning level, depending on my overall dancing mix and how much I go out to the clubs.

I didn’t start that way, and I’m constantly re-evaluating my class mix to get maximum return on my time.

I have a method to my madness; I don’t simply take random classes and I don’t go to more advanced classes for my ego (it would be crushed by now). I probably take many more beginning/basic classes than most of my peers, because in music I learned the most advanced musicians have excellent fundamentals, built over many years. The more solid your dance foundation, the faster you can grow over time.

My Class Guidelines:
  • Over-train the fundamentals
  • Be among the best at your level
  • If you can only take one class at the start, take the beginning classes until you are in the top few students (see points above)
  • Use the same strategy as you move to more advanced classes
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Back-fill where appropriate, taking both more advanced classes AND a class a level or two below your most advanced class
  • When taking more advanced classes, take a few privates from the instructor to really understand how things should look in class
  • Find instructors who appreciate and focus on the fundamentals, and don’t only work flash and style
As someone famous for taking classes over his head, I've played out these strategies for a couple years. You can use the strategies for your growth. Being a little older than most, I want the biggest return on my efforts, and sometimes that means looking at classes a little differently.
Many think I'm on the crazy side, but these principles provide an excellent return on the time invested.
I'll share my experiences and provide additional details in Part 2 of this article.
Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every
six months.
-- Oscar Wilde


  1. Maybe it's my imagination, but my experience is that practicing in a room full of good dancers can cause one to improve far more than practicing on one's own or, say, watching videos. I found this out when attending an advanced salsa class about a year ago where half the time was spent on shines. At the start, I'd look at myself in the mirror and think "dork".:-) But after just a few weeks being surrounded by people with a lot of style, I started to notice that, unconsciously, I was beginning to imitate them a bit.

    I just hope that having me in the class wasn't making them worse!

  2. My experience is similar to yours so we are on the same page. That said, there are cases where imitating them directly without building their foundation can be a negative longer term.

    It depends on how you go about it. The point is people should think about their strategy in terms of which classes they take.

    Sometimes moving up is a win, other times it causes some wins, but builds habits which have to be unlearned later. I'll provide my thoughts on the pros/cons in part two, and I hope you'll provide your point of view after that one also!

    As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback!


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero