Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Classes vs. Privates (Part 1: Group Lessons)

Group or private lessons? People argue about these questions for hours:
  • Should I take group classes?
  • Should I take private lessons?
  • Are private lessons worth the cost?
The answers are easy if you're a "know it all" like me. The answers are (in no particular order): Yes, yes, and yes!

I was going to outline both group classes and private lessons in one article, but there is just too much to discuss. So I'm breaking it up into two or three articles. I'll focus on group classes in this article, privates in another and maybe write a third, if required, to pull them together.

Learning styles vary among individuals and it’s important to find a situation that matches the way you learn, your budget and your sense of urgency. The stronger dancers generally take both group and private lessons for a while, and you can get great value from both, but the return is different. One size doesn't fit all, so here's my take on these issues:

Group Classes - Strengths and Weaknesses
  • Short-Term Lower Cost
  • Lower commitment
  • Meet New People
  • Too Fast/Slow
  • Less Details
  • Can Lead to Bad Habits
Group lessons are a great way to get your feet wet with a new dance or a new instructor. They work well if you’re experienced with other dance styles, adding to your existing dances. They may be free at clubs (as part of the cover charge) or reasonable at dance studios ($10-20 per class). Many studios offer some type of "all you can eat" plan, where you pay XX dollars per month and can take all the classes you like. This can be a great deal if you take multiple classes per week.

Group instructors often teach toward the upper middle of the crowd and unless you are the average student, the class will be too fast or too slow for you. Few people become excellent with only group lessons, as the format doesn't lend itself to details. If you like details or find yourself slower or faster than the group average, groups can be frustrating and provide less value.

If you are the shy type, group salsa classes can be great (forcing you to mix with others) or terrifying if you don't get part of the lesson and you have to cycle through a set of people as you rotate. (I hated saying to the ladies each time, "Hi, I'm new and I just don't get this pattern yet...") At points it can go the other way, where the pattern is easy for you and you feel great with each partner. You have to try it yourself and see how it works for you.

Group lessons give you a “try before you buy” feeling for the instructor if you're looking for a private instructor, and/or a way to try out a new dance style.

From the instructor's point of view, there is pressure to provide more material than is reasonable because of the range of dancers. People are more likely to return when their lesson is "super sized" even if some students don't "get it," and the details are often left out or ignored. (Like most instructors, I agonize about what to leave out in a group setting, because sometimes you just have to live with the fact that some people are being left behind as you move on.)

In my case, I take group classes for styles I want to learn, but I’m not willing to practice as much. Often these are for non-partner dances. For example, I go to a hip-hop class once or twice per week, and some others as well. I stand in the back of the room and get as much as I can, but often it’s just too fast for me. I would love to be great at that style, but at this time, I’m working hard on other dances, and I rarely practice hip-hop outside of a class. My overall progress is slow and it keeps me really humble.

Classes are also a great way to review fundamentals IF you have a strong teacher and you are reviewing the materials. In other words, I can get value out of a basic class because reviewing and tuning my fundamentals is always a win. While the rest of the class is doing basic footwork, you can do the same footwork and fine-tune it (assuming you know enough to know what to tune).

Group classes can lead to bad habits, as the instructors don't have time to correct your details, even if they are obvious. In a group partner class, sometimes other students may "correct" you and actually give you bad advice, while sometimes your partners will inadvertantly encourage your bad habits. Be careful whose advice you take in those classes. Lots of guys like to tell others what to do, but most have no business assisting someone else.

I take a few classes in non-partner dances to gain some dance fundamentals. Some instructors leave me alone because I'm not even in the zip code in their classes.

I've found great instructors will push you and correct you when you are close, and give you space to grow when you are new and/or struggling with a new concept. It becomes a badge of honor to be corrected in many non-partner dance classes. The instructors often only correct the top two or three students and everybody else assumes those same corrections apply to them. (Basically like my Mom yelling at my sister for being out too late, and I'm getting the idea that same thing applies to me!)

Overall, I like group classes, and I take a set of them every week at the Millenium Dance Complex in North Hollywood, CA. Because I committed to a year in advance (but paying monthly) I can take all the classes I want each week, time permitting. It allows me to take some classes that are way over my head and just do as much as I can. (Often that's not very much; these are hard core dancers!)

That can be hard on my ego, but I just do what I can, knowing over time it all works together. I have a rule that I almost never leave a class before it ends, no matter how humbling it is at the moment. I've also learned what I like/dislike from the way different instructors teach, and I apply those insights to my own teaching. (Clearly that doesn't apply if you don't teach.) I’ve learned to stand in the back until I’m a little more seasoned, hiding behind the more experienced people. Obviously in partner classes we rotate among partners, so hiding in the back doesn't work as well.

Overall, group classes are an important part of the mix, but I take privates for the areas where I want maximum improvement in the shortest amount of time. On your way to excellence you'll probably combine both group and private lessons.

I’ll outline privates and how I work those around the group classes in my follow-up articles on this subject.

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  1. Totally agree. There are things you will never learn in group lessons. Everyone has their own individual areas that need attention and their own ways of learning. I often dance with partners who are in many ways good dancers, but for the want of a few basic faults which group lessons have never solved - but a private lesson would transform. You might be one of those dancers! Groups are a compromise - often a good compromise - but there is so much more to dancing well than you can learn by just trying to copy what the teacher is doing.
    I've not videoed lessons but I do take written notes - these are excellent reminders too. After a one hour lesson my head is exploding with new information - fantastic value. I need to sit down with a good cup of tea afterwards - well I am English :-)

  2. Reviewing/documenting a session immediately afterward is an excellent practice.

    I have the same "exploding brain" problem, and when I review the video I'm often amazed how much I missed. PLUS, I see the instructor's examples.

    Sometimes I review these tapes a year or more after the session, and find new value.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero