I’ll admit it: I get terribly jiggly and nervous talking to triple-A instructors. Or just instructors, period. It’s taken me a long, long, looooooooooooong-ass time to start acting like a real, live human around them. Which is funny, because if you’ve seen me on the dance floor, or in life, I don’t hold myself back from new people or experiences. But I always worried I would bother them, or ask a dumb question, or impinge on their free time by asking them for privates. Since many instructors rely partially on privates as a way to supplement income from other gigs, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you’re just joining us, I’m going over learning modalities and how to engage and succeed in them.
That first communication is the hardest. Teachers are busy and you can feel a bit like an ass trying to pull them away from whatever they’re doing to prepare for their next job. So I send an email. I can take my time with it, they can take their time reading it, I can take my time responding to it…it’s just generally easier for me. In fact, here’s a template if you wanted to just plug and play and reduce some of that anxiety:
Hello RESPECTED PERSON,
I’m a fan of your teaching style/dancing/performances/perspective on dance, and I would like to sign up for a private lesson with you sometime. I’m usually available DAYS around TIMES. Do you currently have openings for lessons, and if so, what is your usual rate? Is there a location where you prefer to teach, or should I research and provide a place?
Thank you for reading. I look forward to working with you.
Aaaaaaaaaand, because teachers are busy, you might consider sending a follow-up email after a week or so (or schedule Boomerang to do it for you):
Hello again, RESPECTED PERSON,
Just following up on my previous email to see if you’re available for a private lesson sometime soon. If I don’t hear back, I’ll assume it’s too busy a time for you. Otherwise, please let me know if I can look forward to working with you.
Rates for private lessons will depend very much on the region and the instructor’s experience (both as a dancer and a teacher). In the SF Bay Area, you can expect anywhere from $50 – $120 per hour as a response. Very generally, I would expect that taking a lesson from an instructor who is early in their teaching career and/or dancing career to be on the lower end. I also generally expect anyone charging $65-$90 to be a well-established teacher in the local scene or the national stage. Above that, I expect to be paying a professional instructor, which I personally define as someone who has a combined teaching and dancing experience of 10+ years, and someone for whom dance gigs are probably their main (possibly only) source of income. That’s the amount of focus, hard work, experience, and insight I’m paying for. Of course, regional costs of doing business or a teacher’s unique expertise may inflate or deflate these generalizations.
P.S. In addition to figuring how how much to pay, it’s a good idea to ask how they want to be paid. Cash (exact change only, please) is easiest. Paypal, Venmo, Square, etc. are all acceptable. I don’t know anyone who asks for checks any more. Also, I find it easiest to pay first thing in the lesson if by cash/check and after the lesson (on my mobile) if by digital means. But feel free to ask if they want to be paid in advance.
P.P.S. My fellow Americans…I don’t tip. If it’s your practice to tip, then go for it, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten in trouble for not doing so.
You can find teachers who give privates by looking at your weekly classes. Whose teaching style do you like the best? Who do you learn the most from? (Surprisingly, these are not always the same thing.) I’m going to say right away that you do not need to choose an instructor in a role that is your role…or a role that is opposite your role. You can learn from both. For instance:
I might ask for a private from the SAME role if I…
- want to add additional footwork variations/styling/vocabulary
- want to work on quality of movement, balance, aesthetics
I might ask for a private from the OPPOSITE role if I…
- want to work on connection
- want to work on counterbalance and counterbalance-specific moves
- want to work on flow and creating seamless social dances
Keep in mind, however, that the longer a teacher has been teaching, the more they are able to teach you what you need to know regardless of their primary role. Feel free to bounce a question to them about a topic you would like to learn, and they will tell you if they can do it. If not, they probably know other teachers in the area who might be a better fit.
The second place you can find private lesson instructors is by catching them as they move through your area. This works the best if you have been following a dancer you like for a long time: you admire their dancing, maybe their performance, or maybe you took a class with them at a workshop and you just LOVED their perspective. Follow them on Facebook (a lot of teachers announce when they’re heading to a city and looking to book gigs), check out their website calendar, and see if they will be local soon. If they have the time and the latitude from whatever event brings them to the area, they might be overjoyed to book a small gig and make the trip more financially feasible. If not, they might turn you down because of conflicts of interest (thinking specifically of workshops here), a desire for some me-time, or scheduling issues. No biggie; it’s a lot of work to be ON ON ON ON all the time, and respecting that instructors are human and not a never-ending spigot of life-altering education and double-rainbow happiness is the best way to not be that annoying student you were afraid of becoming.
What really differentiates privates from a regular class is not the number of students, but that students are expected to shoulder an equal amount of initiative and responsibility in determining the lesson content. Standard, top-down instruction requires relatively little input from the students; the teachers discuss and plan the lesson, execute it to their vision, and make adjustments, many times unseen, based on what they observe in their students’ skill and enthusiasm levels. There is little-to-no flexibility to turn a class on 6-count swing basics into a solo Charleston drill. But negotiations for privates will typically begin with the instructor trying to get a feel for what YOU want to learn and what you want to come out of the lesson knowing how to do. There are a couple of approaches you can take to answer this question.
“I don’t have a clue.” My favorite. Also known as “can you just dance with me and tell me what I’m doing wrong?” Totally a valid way to use private lesson time. An instructor should be able to zero in on a couple of aspects that need improvement and then run you through drills or make slight corrections to help you understand the issue and possible solutions. Start with a few swingouts…everyone can work on their swingout. But you still can’t be completely passive. If you do a few swingouts, and the instructor says your momentum on 3and4 need work, don’t stifle your secret desire to work on your swivels or something. You can actually spend an entire hour on 3and4. I have done it. It’s not pretty. If you want to switch topics mid-stream, if you want an instructor to be clearer about the connection between what they’re talking about and what you ACTUALLY want to talk about, or even if your brain is full of 3and4 and you need to JUST-STOP-TALKING-ABOUT-IT, you need to speak up. Instructors know that this is your time and your goals. They will accommodate your needs and learning styles.
“I want to learn that thing you do.” Instructors are happy to teach you the ways they think about dance that better facilitates how they do their amazing signature movements. But it’s important to remember that everyone’s body is different. Yes, you can learn technique and you can learn moves, and working harder on all of that will yield results. But they won’t look EXACTLY the same. And that’s a good thing! It means you are a super special snowflake and when you’re out there, people are going to want to know how you do that thing you do too. But back to the private lessons: be specific with your instructor. Bring a video clip. Half the time, something you think really stuck out in their dancing is something that is so second-nature they don’t have any idea that they’re doing it. Don’t rely solely on your ability to describe what you think is going on, or try to demonstrate it with your body. Remember, you’re there because you actually don’t know wth is going on in the first place.
“I want to be you./I love your style./Teach me to be awesome.” Incredibly unhelpful. These require some sort of cloning-time-warp machine that I’m sure is unallowable by the Intergalactic Commission on Mind-Body Bending. Please choose a different method.
“I want you to teach me this special thing that someone else does.” What. I can’t even. I can teach you my version of it, but it won’t exactly be it. We might both be disappointed.
IV. GROUP PRIVATES
In this section, I’m including privates for couples and privates for small groups.
Adding additional peeps can really help spread the cost of privates around, especially if you’re looking for somewhat-consistent lessons (once a week, once every couple of weeks, etc.). This also gives you easy access to a practice buddy. Because if it’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that taking a lesson is practically useless unless paired with practice. If you are using a private lesson (group or otherwise) to get in your practice time, then you could probably be using your money better. Yes, it’s nice to pay someone to give you that expert, instant feedback, but remember that this is a social dance; if we only ever danced with people better than us, I guarantee we would be worse dancers overall.
If dancing as a couple, maybe just try one lesson together before committing to a whole string. Someone you thought was cool in a 3 min. social dance after class might actually be a different kind of student in a one-on-one. If it doesn’t work out, then you could always say thanks and good wishes, and try another lesson with someone else. If it does work out, you can keep seeing each other on a more regular basis.
Damn it. Just when I thought I was done with the awkwardness of first dates.
Group dates–I mean…privates, are less intense. Since finding a space that fits everyone can mean some investment of time and money on the instructor’s part, it’s a good idea to commit to a certain timeframe (once a week for two months, etc.) This gets everyone on the same page about cost and commitment. You won’t have people dropping out precipitously (thereby raising the rate on others), and you won’t have to scramble for more participants last-minute. Get a good group of friends or people from classes that you think can be reliable, trustworthy, and about the same skill level. Unless your teacher is a local who teaches regularly and has intimate knowledge of the student landscape, the burden of organizing a well-meshed group will fall to you.
YOU CAN NEVER ESCAPE PEOPLE SKILLS
More’s the pity. If you’re like me, you got into social dance because it was the perfect amount of people: there was peppy music, you got to move your body around, and each interaction was a perfect, 3.5 minute globule of happiness with no strings attached. BLISS. But here we are now, trying to get “better” (whatever that means), and you have to talk with others, negotiate meetings outside of dance parties, awkwardly fork over cash, and make decisions about who you want to spend time with. All I can say is that it’s likely that other dancers are feeling your pain. Let that be your sole comfort as you send those emails out into the abyss.
What have we learned about privates?
Benefits: Insightful, expert feedback that can really take your dancing to the next level.
Obstacles: This still doesn’t excuse you from practicing. And now you also have to deal with money transactions, awkward first lessons, and clear communication with other humans.