Consider Leveling Down

Colored stacking rings are not an inaccurate depiction of how most students see learning; just keep layering them on.

Anyone who has attended a weekend event with auditions or level-checks knows the anxiety and worry that accompanies being held under the microscope, amongst throngs of unknown dancers, under the tightest time restrictions, when you are guaranteed at most a half-second of consideration from your swing dance idols. For many students this is their first encounter with being judged by anyone in a dance that was supposed to be all about fun. In comparison, your local weekly event has porous leveling systems if any, and very few will enforce them based on skill assessments, opting instead for time-based calculations. (Been dancing for a year? Go to advanced. Taken this class before? Go to the next level.)

As a consequence, we are a community that does not teach self-assessment skills.  We don’t accustom students with the searing eye of outside judgement. So is it a surprise when our small fish plop into a larger sea and feel cheated, misunderstood, isolated from their peers, and yearning for as high a level as they can get as a way to validate their time and emotional investment?

I’d like to suggest another approach.  One that doesn’t work for every person or every event, but one that makes me feels comfortable and emotionally safe while also encouraging a more individualized and accountable approach to my progress.  LEVEL DOWN.  I’ve taken beginner crash courses as an advanced dancer for years now, with several advantages:

Relaxed learning environment

Everything in the level down is something I’ve learned before. I don’t struggle to wrap my head around something new and feel like I’m falling behind. I don’t feel the urgency of taking everything home and incorporating it into my dance, only to find that I’ve forgotten 90% of what we did. I am essentially learning to REVIEW, PRACTICE, and ASSESS my understanding of the content against what I’ve already been doing. I will *remember* 100% of the content because I already *know* 85% of the content. And now I’m doing it ten times better because I have a deeper understanding, a different perspective, and a judgement-free opportunity to practice it outside of the rat-race. When I level down, I take copious notes about things that I’ve just noticed I do differently than the instructors, who are usually the BEST EXAMPLES of that thing.

Goodbye disappointment

You don’t expect your fellow students to be at your caliber, so you don’t take home grievances about not being able to learn the newest, hottest thing because “none of the leaders/follows could even swingout”. When you are the student with more experience, you’re not dependent on the skill-level of your partner to know that you’re doing something right. Having experience with the content, you are better able to see where something is going wrong and why, or when something feels better and why. It’s not the blind leading the blind. There’s a consistent variable on which to experiment with the finer details and that variable is YOU. You can change your posture, your balance, your timing, your rhythm, your distance, your tension, etc. all while never deviating from the THING that your partner is trying to do and that you already know.

A better schedule

Beginner crash courses, specifically, are usually less hours than other tracks. I find the more that I dance, the less I’m able to successfully absorb hours of content. Crash courses are cheaper, require less time in class, and still include access to dances, late-nights and sometimes even competitions. However, since these classes also skew earlier in the day, this is a schedule requiring high-level, well-timed napping skills.

If you’re taking general courses (outside of a Masters/Invitational track) your schedule is usually the same whether its Intermediate Minus or Too Real Plus, so there isn’t a clear logistical benefit to leveling down. But I do find it can make for less anxiety when…

Skipping classes

I…don’t want to encourage everyone to skip classes. It throws off role-balance, can make the instructors feel shitty on a Sunday morning, and you are literally losing value that you paid for. That being said, if I’m going to skip that 9:00am Sunday class, I feel better about missing a 6-ct passby review than one on triple texas-tommy reverse spin pushes flow.

This one’s for the teachers

I will never get tired of watching other teachers introduce the fundamentals. Both because they bring their own personal dance perspective, and because they are incredibly efficient about communicating a lot in very little time. I take notes on new ways to teach my students at home, and I learn new angles from which to consider my own fundamentals.

The downsides:

Your schedule might not line up with your friends in other classes, so you sometimes eat lunch alone. I mean, there’s always a chance that you will be assessed at different levels with different schedules anyway, so that’s not a big obstacle.

You won’t be able to use your level as a reference for registering at other events. But level assessment isn’t a cohesive, coordinated system anyway. It varies greatly based on the size and competitiveness of the event. You could be Intermediate in a large, national but get invitations to Masters at a local exchange. Hell, you might even get different levels at the same event in different years. Level titles usually don’t mean anything more than “we’re putting you in a class with even role distribution and it will correspond with whatever bottom, middle, or upper slice of the community that has registered for our event.”

You might be discriminated against at the social dance for wearing a lower level wristband. I have zero fucks for that kind of behavior and won’t care to dance with those people anyway. Other people will want to dance with you, and they will be the kind of people you want.

Also, don’t level down if it means you’re missing out on getting new and rare content! Crash courses are sometimes scheduled to conflict with special events that we don’t expect newbies to know or care about yet, so keep an eye on the full schedule so you can still make rare topics or historical lectures and interviews.

In summary

My decision to level down in classes stems mostly from my realization that weekend events can be sucky places for my growth. Unless I’m meticulous in taking clear notes, reviewing recaps, and implementing all of the content after an event, I’m likely to take away at most one or two actually useful things. I find progressive learning easier to do on a weekly basis, with a cohort of dancers I can try it with, either in classes or practices.

I’m not opposed to taking higher-level classes; I have taken those classes and will again. But I feel there’s a misconception about what those higher-level classes are. They really do go back to fundamentals to refine your understanding and stoke your creativity. So if you really want to learn like an advanced dancer, the solution is clear: take fundamentals classes and refine your own understanding. You may surprise yourself with your own ability for insights and creativity. And you may just find your favorite (and most available) teacher and inspiration: yourself.

One thought on “Consider Leveling Down

  1. Lori, you’re exposing my secrets! While I’ve been recovering from whatever dread pulmonary hell I’ve been in for the past 3 years, I have been registering for events as one or even 2 levels down from where I’d self-rate. I recommend it for finding a relaxed but deep learning environment, and meeting people in a new cohort.


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