During the eight hours we drove back from Inspiration Weekend, two of my dance friends and I started reflecting on improvement. We talked about our strengths, things we wanted to work on, and made solid plans to schedule real practice sessions soon. Okay, part of the reason was to keep me from falling asleep at the wheel, but it really yielded some fresh revelations.
Normally, I don’t have a strong habit of practice. In almost all cases, I prefer learning in groups, and so moving from weekly classes to more self-directed improvement has always been difficult. Two of the best practicers I know grew up with alternate (non-public-school) methods of learning, and I’ve noticed that it really serves them well now: they are focused, self-motivated, and deliberate about their efforts. But even they will take any opportunity to learn through a variety of modalities. The more I teach group classes, the more I’m convinced that mastery of our dance comes to those who are the most open to learning through a variety of methods and not through weekly classes alone. If you’ve been wanting to expand beyond those weekly commitments, this primer will help you navigate to the experiences you like best.
- SOLO PRACTICE
- GROUP PRACTICE
- GROUP PRIVATES
- GROUP CLASSES
- WORKSHOP CLASSES
I. SOLO PRACTICE
Literally means practicing on your own, without a partner. This sounds impossible, but it’s incredibly effective! Most of the dancers I know with great quality of movement have reliable solo practice habits. They practice their triples. They practice their rock steps. They hold onto a door and work on their swivels. They work on their charleston kicks, and on their pulse. They do work on their solo jazz vocabulary (what most people think of when you say “solo practice”), but this can also be a shorthand for working on your lindy aesthetic, rhythm, and creativity.
In order to practice successfully on your own, you’ll need a minimum of several square feet of flat flooring (pergo, hardwood, and even vinyl will be acceptable…also keep an eye on your subfloor; wooden subfloors are the best for more cushion and bounce, while cement subfloors will put more strain on your bones and joints), and a way to look at yourself, either through a mirror (you can sometimes find cheap mirrors by people renovating their bathrooms), by recording yourself dance, or ideally both. If you don’t have a strip of appropriate floor at home/work/public space, you can also search for dance studios in the area; ballrooms are particularly affordable with floor fees ranging from $5 – $10 for unlimited practice on their sprung floors and wall-to-wall mirrors. Find a way to play music, either through your phone, a set of speakers, or a pair of earbuds that will stay put with a holster of some kind for the device itself. PROTIP: look for earbuds made for athletes and runners; they are specifically fashioned or sized to fit in your ear and not come out with vigorous hopping. Also, I like to holster my music player near my hip area and run the earbud cables under my clothing, as opposed to armbands with cables flopping all over.
Once you’ve gotten your logistics all settled, you need something to practice. The most straight-forward way is to have a friend video you during a social dance, then take that video home and make yourself watch it. Unless you’re Frida, you probably don’t look like Frida. In fact, you probably don’t even look the way you thought you looked in your head! Slow it down, back it up, watch again. What do you want to change? Isolate what you want to work on, and practice doing it a different way. Will it feel weird? Sure, everything feels weird the first time you do it. After practicing like this for a while, ask another friend to take another video (preferably with the same partner as before, but this isn’t a dealbreaker). Has anything changed? Why or why not?
But I get it: you might need a little more structure. Like…a lot more structure. So what’s a private practitioner to do? Rhythm Juice has an online course specifically geared towards quality of movement. Rebecca Brightly has numerous blog posts and online courses about making a better personal practice. You could crawl through iDance for lessons on spinning technique, movement training, swivel technique, and solo jazz. And don’t underestimate the power of YouTube! You can find breakdowns of nearly every solo jazz step or routine out there, all for the low, low cost of free.
Benefits: Cheap, convenient, easy to schedule, relevant to your particular dancing goals.
Obstacles: Finding an appropriate space, staying motivated, arranging your own curriculum, steep learning curve in self-assessment skills.
II. GROUP PRACTICE
Adding one or more dancers into the mix will open up your options for practice. Suddenly, you can practice coupled routines, air steps, and other concepts requiring another human being like stretch, counterbalance, flow, responsiveness, partner-motivated turns and rhythm, and certain variations. Your practice space needs to be larger and you need to find the right practice partners. The dancers you choose should help you stay motivated, bring their own ideas and inspiration to the table, and inspire you with their own dancing. Under this category, I also include performance groups, which really need a strong mutual vision to succeed and get the necessary dedication from their members.
The starkest shift from personal practice to group practice is how you move from brutal self-assessment to mutual feedback. Most people have different scales for those experiences. You might be harder on yourself than you are on others. You might be used to not saying anything “bad” about someone’s dancing, ever, or need an outside person to bring critique. But learning how to give constructive feedback not only improves your dance group, it also improves your understanding of the dance. For the smoothest conversations, try to use “I” phrases: “I don’t feel a rotation in that lead”, “I feel like you may be grounding a lot there”, “When you do that, I feel a lot of energy moving side to side and I want to have more linear stretch”. Be honest and humble. Realize that partnered practice will uncover partnered problems. Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes it’s them. Sometimes, it’s both of you. Because of this, it may be helpful for dancers new to practice to start in a small group, maybe 2-3 couples. Comparing the lead and follow of a few different partners can really help you pin down the origin of problems.
It helps to be able to lead and follow so you can demonstrate your points, but if you didn’t know how to do it before, you certainly will learn now. Many a discussion has been quickly illuminated for me by a partner switching the roles and just saying, “what I want is THIS…but what I feel from you is THIS.”
Benefits: Cheap, caters to mutual goals of improvement, instant feedback on changes from a partner or observer
Obstacles: Finding an appropriate space and time to meet, finding a good partner(s), learning to give and receive constructive feedback
PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF GOOD
As many as 5 years ago, I was telling myself that if I wanted to really improve, I needed to find a regular dance partner. Here I am now, without a regular dance partner, but I have still made strides in changing my dance. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it’s more important to develop a habit of practice than to find that perfect someone to kickstart your practice with. As people move or lose interest in exactly what you want to work on, you will naturally flow between different partners and groups. Sometimes group learning stagnates. Sometimes a partner’s learning and communication methods aren’t compatible. Sometimes you just need a plain old break from each other and get a different perspective. In comparison, focusing on that self-motivated, inspiring, self-evaluative, hard-working habit, whether alone or with others, will pay off for a long, long time.