Friday, April 18, 2008

Taking Classes Over My Head: Part 2

This is part 2 of a series on Taking Classes Over My Head. Check out the previous article, cleverly named "Taking Classes Over My Head: Part 1."

Imagine an up-and-coming athlete who decides he’s skipping strength training because he “just wants to play the game.” That doesn’t work, because strength is foundational to playing at higher levels in sports. Similarly, if your dance goals include being above average, investing in your foundation while pursuing higher-level classes is an excellent strategy for longer-term growth.

Most people dislike being called a beginner as an adult, even if that's their current status. Many guys prefer struggling in the intermediate or advanced classes rather than be caught dead in the beginner class. For many, it's simply uncool to be at the novice level, and they can't wait to "move on," even if that means skipping some fundamentals. They purchase “advanced” DVDs when they are far from mastering the lower level DVDs from the same instructor.

As someone famous for taking classes over his head, I’ve seen some great progress and been frustrated at points. I highly recommend you attend some classes above your level, even if you sit out part of the class and watch. Being around great dancers can inspire or depress you, depending on your personality and goals; but either way, it’s good to see what you’ll be like in a few years if you put in the effort.

It’s also important to note that I approach solo and partner dancing differently. In individual dancing classes (jazz, hip-hop, samba, salsa footwork, etc.) you should challenge yourself by trying the higher-level classes at regular intervals. If you create a bad habit or try a move and get hurt, that’s far from ideal. But it’s your issue, created by reaching higher, and you can dial it back a little before moving forward again. Being around the stronger dancers can accelerate your growth and inspire you to work harder, although sometimes going back a level is the best strategy for longer-term growth.

In a partnering class, being over your head isn’t always the best idea. You can injure a partner trying to perform a move that is too far beyond your current skill level, not to mention frustrate partners who are also trying to improve. You can also build a set of partners who avoid you at the clubs, knowing you’re not ready for prime time. You need to balance your level with that of the class in partnering situations, and be mindful that your background (or lack of it) affects others.

Sometimes you need another approach and I employ a method I call “backfilling.” If I’m going to take a class that’s over my head, I make sure I’m also filling in the gaps in my experiences. This translates into taking lower level classes at the same time, hiring the instructor for private lessons, or watching instructional DVDs and/or on-line clips that provide foundational information.

I’m also not afraid to abandon a more advanced class and go to a lower level—including beginner—if the moves or techniques are too far over my head. After a while, (weeks or months) I’ll continue the lower level class and ADD the more advanced class to see if I’m ready. I often continue with the lower level classes along with the advanced class for a few months or more after moving up, reinforcing the basics, while also working on more advanced material at the same time.

As I’ve stated, there can be a dark side to going to classes over your head. Without a proper foundation and some backfilling, more advanced classes can frustrate, build a set of bad habits, and in a partner situation, hurt someone. If you do take more advanced classes, stay out of the way when the moves get too complex for your current level.

In a group class, instructors don’t have the time (or desire) to fix you if you’re too far away from the class average. Many teachers focus on the better dancers in the class, especially if they label the class as intermediate or advanced. This means you sink or swim mostly on your own. Sometimes beating your head against the wall when the majority is much further down the road isn’t a good use of your time.

Many classes build on previous knowledge and it’s your responsibility to be sure you can keep up, especially when partnering. When taking classes over my head, I often take some private lessons with the instructor, sit out parts of classes if appropriate, and make sure I practice on my own to get up to speed. The private lesson gives the instructor a chance to slow down the material and explain details that others already know from previous experiences.

Combining private lessons and classes, I learn the right way to do the exercises or can ask for clarification of complex class materials during my next private lesson. The combination creates a multiplier effect. I get more from the classes and grow much faster, sometimes passing people who were beyond my level and have taken the classes for months or years.

As stated, taking advanced classes and challenging yourself to move up is an excellent idea. However, if you take too many shortcuts and ignore the lower level material, you’ll pay a negative price over time. Those who gloss over the fundamentals often end up either being weaker than they should be or going back later to fill in the blanks.

Free lunches rarely exist on or off the dance floor, so be sure to backfill and seek out the fundamentals as you move up the class ladder. Over time, you’ll become an excellent dancer if you continue to seek out instruction, no matter what they label the classes or DVDs.
There's nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean
level wouldn't cure.
--Ross MacDonald

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero