After an extended absence wherein I traveled to Corolla, NC for The Balboa Experiment, I’m so happy to back home and writing again! Time to finish up this series on learning modes, and how to succeed in them, but also stay tuned for a very special teaser at the bottom of the post. =)
V. GROUP CLASSES
I don’t need to talk very much about these because they are, by far, the most accessible way to learn. Group classes are widely advertised, open to any ol’ Joe off the street, and are taught that way. Unlike other types of learning, the work of figuring out sensible content and learning methods, group dynamics and logistics, even down to the choice of music, is pre-planned for you. And all for less than a trente Starbuck coffee with all the fixin’s!
Historically, social dance was hardly the egalitarian utopia that we strive to be now. Old-timers talk a lot about how they aspired to greatness by glimpsing other dancers throw down in a “cat’s corner”, not by actually DANCING with them. Getting better meant shuffling away in a casket factory (coughWillieDesatoffcough), testing your ideas on a long-suffering sibling, or dancing alone with a fridge or wall before you even felt worthy of asking a better dancer to dance with you. And that’s only if you felt like getting any “better”! Thousands of people learned to dance only to be polite, romantic, or hang out with friends, so a reasonably sound sense of rhythm and comfortable frame was all they really set out to learn.
Nowadays, we take classes in in order to make us “better dancers”, and all aspects of a class are ostensibly geared towards those goals. Learning to dance in the swing scene has been commodified, structured, and treated to the same top-down format as a public school. Material has been listed, structured, and aligned to create progressive and scalable skill sets. We set up auditions and evaluations and competitions with granular distinctive details. We took a dance culture swimming in a particular economic, musical, and ethnic context where “show me something!” could be a vague but powerful goal, and created a scene where a disappointing dance could be summed up with “they can’t even do a swingout correctly.”
Now, I’m not knocking group classes. I LOVE group classes. I teach group classes. I took group classes. And I definitely expect each and every one of you to learn how to do a swingout.
But here’s the not-so-secret-secret: levels are inherently arbitrary and really just a way to group students together so you don’t repeat yourself. It’s a way to make sure the majority of students get to where they need to be in their dance without losing confidence or motivation or time. It’s the three pairs of serviceable work slacks I bought at Target for my first office job, or the dozen (non-local, antibiotic-laden, non-organic) eggs you grab from your local convenience store when you ran out for that one omelette recipe you wanted to try. Group classes will serve you well in a general sense, and if at some point you want something a little fancier, a little more custom fitted, then that’s when other modes of learning come in.
I really love group classes for the same reason I love language classes. They put you in a room of people who automatically want the same things you do. Swing is a social dance wherein we get comfortable interacting with others in a whole new way. And interacting with as many of these people, as often as possible, and with just a little peer pressure to keep you learning your grammar with the rest of the class is incredibly helpful and empowering and FUN.
I’ll never forget when we learned the verb form “to do” in Japanese class. I was sitting with three friends in a group and creating new sentences using our newly introduced verb. At some point, we realized that one of us (last name “Fuller”) had a name that was identical in Japanese pronunciation to an activity (“hula dancing”). We created the following simple sentence: Huula-san wa huula wo shimasu! (“Fuller-san does hula!”)
We were so inordinately proud of ourselves and we laughed so hard and long that the teacher had to come check on us. She was nonplussed. But I will ALWAYS remember that moment: the silliness, the hilarity, the friendship, and, of course, the verb form.
If you are taking group classes because you think it will make you a better dancer, you’re only halfway right. Group classes will teach you how to stretch yourself, make friends, be silly, make mistakes, learn from mistakes, meet people to dance with, and how to be a respectful, flexible, and kind member of the dance community. In other words, group classes will make you a better dancer, not just a better dancer.
VI. WORKSHOP CLASSES
It’s a little harder these days for me to get up early and take a workshop class if I’ve been up at late-night or getting ready for competition. But I still do it whenever I can, because (a) I’m enjoying them as an opportunity to learn the “opposite” dance role, but also (b) because I think I’ve finally figured out that what I pay for in a workshop is not to learn a move or pattern or specific thing, but rather to learn a teacher’s PERSPECTIVE.
For instance, I took a class with Peter Strom and Naomi Uyama where I learned some eight-count-turn-y move thing with a cuddle catch. I don’t know, I only did it the one time for class, and I’ve completely forgotten it. But what really stuck with me was how much Peter and Naomi emphasized that rhythm has needs to be the center of our dance. They made us stomp it out, clap it out, say it, sing it, and connect with it. Ultimately, what I took away from this opportunity was a part of Peter and Naomi’s set of values which shone light on my connection with the music and the dance as a whole. This is a lesson I can take home and continue applying it to my own movement in different ways, extending my time with them farther than a measly 72-hours.
And I think this jives with what I assume traveling instructors know about teaching classes around the world. They don’t get to hang around and see if things stick. They don’t get to teach a set of students for the next three months and make sure they work well together, are reaching their next set of learning goals, or progressing in the scene. They have to drop a deuce of genius and scram. So why not give you students the intangible? Why not try to communicate, not just forms and things and patterns, but also your philosophy, your perspective, your inspiration, and your joy? So you wrap it up and kiss it, you send it off into the crowd hoping for the best, all so that perhaps you’ll see those perspectives begin to light little sparks, catch fire, and light up a community. That’s certainly more powerful than a sugarpush.
There are so many other ways to learn that I can’t summarize here. I have a vague idea of listing the things that I work on when I’m following a less-experienced lead, for instance. Or maybe you learned via performance group (with no social dancing, no private practice, no workshops). In any case, keep an eye out for different opportunities. And try hard not to knock other students and their successful methods. Not everything is for everyone and the best thing you can do for yourself is begin sussing out the ways in which you like to learn and how you can incorporate more of that into your life.
I will say one thing, though, and it’s a bit of a teaser. I definitively don’t have all the answers. That would take a whole book. A really, really well-researched, experienced, and exhaustive book. I’m not the one to write that book. Thankfully, I don’t have to be.
More information coming soon…