Some dance pedagogy guidelines by Richard Powers
First, two disclaimers:
1) In giving these guidelines, I don't wish to convey an impression of superiority over any other instructor. We're all working on becoming more effective teachers and we all have room for improvement.
2) These are suggestions, from my observations over the past 35 years, not absolute rules. Some of my approaches may differ from the ideals of other instructors, as you might expect.
And two short observations:
1) Not all of the following guidelines and suggestions are essential. I've seen teachers miss some of these guidelines by a mile and still have an effective class, leaving their students satisfied and even delighted.
But some of these guidelines are especially important, mostly common pitfalls to avoid. So I've labeled some of my guidelines as
which means essential, in my opinion. (The most important suggestion here, halfway down this page, has a triple arrow.) Failing to do these may cause a negative impression or confusion in your class.
But most of these guidelines are merely recommendations. They may make a good class better, but omitting them won't hurt a good class.
2) This page is long, and some of the best suggestions are toward the end. So you may want to read this in daily installments.
The sections below are:
Your lesson plan
Students' comfort zone
Teach with your whole mind
Timing of a class or workshop
Presentation of yourself
Your choice of words
Pace of the class
Teaching experienced dancers
Aging teachers and/or students
Keep in mind the big picture. In preparing for a class we tend to get caught up in the smaller details of the steps and patterns, focusing on the how and forgetting the why, so teachers often find they've finished the class without addressing the larger picture. What is the essential quality or attraction of a particular dance? Who dances it, and why? In what way is the dance fun? (Too many teachers are so serious about improving their class that they end up marginalizing fun.) Why is this dance significant?
The other half of the big picture is your students' motivation for being there. What do they want to get out of the experience? Why are they taking your class? How is this dance relevant to their lives?
See your class from their perspective, to meet their needs.
I know you could answer those questions when you stop to think about it, but I've found that if you think through these questions immediately before a class, you'll notice a remarkable improvement in the success of that class.
Why does this work? Because if you review these basics and ideals to yourself right before your class, then all of your spontaneous ad-libbed comments will tend to point toward the big picture, and help shape it. This cognitive approach to teaching supplements the linear approach (your lesson plan) in important ways. This pre-class mental review is like putting surgical instruments out on a tray before an operation. If the questions above are freshly reviewed in your mind, the answers will more readily occur to you during your teaching.
Take charge immediately in a direct, friendly, assertive way. Don't pussyfoot. This is important for new teachers, who are sometimes meek and tentative.
Don't start a class with a lecture. Get them moving right away.
Know your audience. You will need to use very different approaches for different groups, depending on their dance experience, age range, preferred dance styles, and whether they wish to use your material professionally or recreationally. If you're traveling to a new group, ask your workshop sponsors many questions about their participants ahead of time, so you arrive prepared.
Take detailed notes on every class you teach, including which concepts (like partnering tips) you mention. When we brainstorm a lesson plan for the first time, all of the details are freshly in our mind during the class and it goes well. But when we teach that dance the next time, perhaps a year later, most of the details, and how we broke them down, and which concepts we mentioned, have faded from memory. That's when you'll be glad you took detailed notes.
Update your notes. Immediately after your class (or as soon as you can) note (1) what worked especially well, (2) what didn't work as well, and (3) what you would have done differently, now that you have the benefit of hindsight. If you have a written lesson plan, you can quickly note how your class differed from the plan (I use a red pen) — crossing out the steps or details you didn't get to, and noting what you added at the spur of the moment.
Take as many other classes as you can, closely observing what other teachers do that is especially effective or problematical. Take notes on your observations.
Your lesson plan
Plan out every aspect of your class:
What you're going to cover,
in what order,
how you're going to break it down,
how long you're probably going to spend on each part,
how the elements will relate to each other and to material previously covered.
This includes developing back-up plans. What kind of material should you prepare in case the students turn out to be mostly experienced quick-studies? What if they're slow-learning non-dancers? What if they're a mixture of the two in the same class? And don't forget to bring music for teaching those back-up plans.
Reminder for the following few pointers: • means the suggestion is important but not critical.
I recommend teaching by iteration, teaching the basic framework and weight-changes first, then shaping and embellishing it to achieve the final version. This gives your students' "muscle memory" a chance to build itself from its components, and also provides a logical concept and clear structure for the student mind to grasp.
Possibly throw them quickly through a step first, to see who catches it easily. Then break it down to an easier framework and build it back up. This way, they see the final step quickly before perfecting it, and they see the context of the step.
For confirmation of that last point, here is recent student feedback from my Stanford course evaluation page: "I like how Richard let's us 'try out' a figure before actually teaching us the steps, so that we understand them conceptually."
I sometimes take this approach a little further, demonstrating a step then asking the students to "fake it" once before I teach it. When they approximate it, they'll discover the tricky spot or stumbling point, and thus will watch for it more closely when you teach it. This gets them to ask the important questions, and for them to want to know how it goes, before you give them the answer.
Another benefit of the iteration process is seen in mixed-level classes. I encourage the beginners or slow-learners to remain at the level of detail that feels comfortable to them, as I continue adding more details for the more advanced dancers in the class. And I assure them that the further iterations and style pointers are optional, for those who may want them.
The iterative process works especially well when teaching partnered dances. If you teach the unadorned foundation version first, then a slow-learner who didn't master the next detail can continue functioning at the basic level while the partner in their arms adds the further details. They have a chance of staying in their comfort zone, which is important for their absorption on new material, if they aren't apprehensive about messing up their partner with their slower pace of learning.
Here's a little more on students' comfort zone, because I don't want to speed by this important point. Your students will reach their optimum learning pace if they're just a small, reachable step beyond their comfort zone — enough to be stimulated and motivated, but not to the point of feeling pressured or stressed.
When students are pushed out of their comfort zone, they emotionally put on the brakes. Learning stops. Besides, if they find themselves thinking, "I don't feel good in this class," they probably won't return to your next class.
Discomfort can also be cultural. Students from Asia or India often feel uncomfortable with a close embrace in couple dancing or sustained direct eye contact. Young women also tend to be uncomfortable with a close embrace. I suppose you could dismissively tell them, "Get over it," but they'll learn better, and stay in your class, if they're not pushed out of their comfort zone. If you feel that close embrace or direct eye contact is essential to your dance form, they may adapt to it in time — but only if they stay in your class.
This one is important. If you're feeling overwhelmed by all of these teaching tips, just work on this one point (your students' comfort zone) for now. Closely monitor your students' progress to pace your class close to the perfect balance between boring and stressing them. Monitor the pace of the average of the group, not worrying too much about the few of got it instantly and the few who are struggling (more on that later).
In a related point, never EVER lose your temper in class. Period. No exceptions. There are so many reasons why this is critical that it should be too obvious to require explanation. Most of the reasons have to do with losing control of the class. And losing control of yourself. (How can they expect you to control the class if you can't control yourself?) And thus losing their respect. Your anger will also hinder their learning pace by adding anxiety to the class.
I'm often asked for a formula of how to break down a dance in order to teach it. Of course there are no general answers – each kind of dance and step is too different for one formula – but here is a specific tip which I find effective:
You may be so adept at a dance that you no longer remember how it might be difficult for a beginner to grasp. So make yourself clumsy. Make your feet heavy and sluggish, almost drunk, then observe where you stumble. What are the basic weight changes and articulations that make it work better? I find that this helps me come up with a plan to teach that step, and helps me break it down into its elements, beginning with the basic weight changes.
Similarly, when you're teaching beginners, remember what aspects were tricky a long time ago when you were a beginner. See a dance through a beginner's eyes. Some of the worst teachers I know are the most adept dancers, because they don't know where the difficulty can lie for a beginner (because everything is easy for the adept teacher) so they don't know how to tell their students to get past the stumbling blocks. But hopefully you can remember what made a difficult step easier for you when you first learned it.
Another way to find the beginner's mind is to learn the steps you're teaching in mirror-image, using opposite feet and turning in the other direction. This makes it new to you. You may discover parts which you thought were easy, that are actually tricky for a beginner.
Appeal to visual, mathematical, auditory and kinesthetic learners by describing the same step in several ways.
Some people learn better with specific details to master, while others need to grasp the overview gestalt of what the dance, step or pattern is all about. You will have both detail and concept-oriented people in your class – both left brain and right brain thinkers – so include details and concepts to reach both kinds of students.
Some think visually, so give them visual imagery, maybe drawing patterns on a white or blackboard (pictures and diagrams, not words). Some are more mathematically inclined, so specify how far you turn or step. For the kinesthetic thinkers, describe how the step feels when it's done right.
Don't slow down the class with these alternate approaches. Keep them moving. But since they have to repeat the steps to practice them, you can describe the same step in several ways while they're practicing it.
If you'd like to read more about this, look into Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences
If teaching partnered couple dancing, always have one track of your mind on the woman's role. Many teachers make the mistake of teaching an entire session only addressing what the man's role does, without offering many suggestions, advice or secrets for women to improve their dancing.
Repeat important ideas throughout a class or course, maybe in a different way each time. Saying something once doesn't mean that everyone will truly hear it, or be ready to understand it. This is especially true in a dance class, where students are often internally processing kinesthetic information instead of listening to you. Then after the second or third time you say it, Aha!, the light bulb will go off.
Some teachers recommend that you teach the most significant style first, and minor stylistic variations later, because people have the greatest retention of their first-seen version of any dance.
Possibly teach the most difficult step early in the class (after covering the basics of course) while the dancers are the freshest. This also allows a difficult step to stay in the memory the longest and be practiced the most.
If a sequence ends with the most difficult step, you may be setting your class up for frustration. You don't want your students to hit that mess when they're the most tired and their brains are full. So maybe teach the final difficult steps first, then work backwards. This also give the most practice repetitions to the most difficult steps.
The best solution is to be the choreographer yourself, and choreograph your sequence with the easiest (yet satisfying) steps in the home stretch.
Here's another approach to creating a lesson plan: Think show-biz, constructing your class like a theatrical production with three acts:
Act 1) Your first impression. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression, and if you get off to a bad start, it will take twice the effort to change their minds.
Once you have your lesson plan, memorize it. Don't bring your notes out onto the floor and start reading from them. Maybe keep your notes on a side table, to skim while they're practicing a step. You always want to assure your students that you know your material completely, backwards and forwards, not reading it from a script.
Act 2) As if writing a good mystery drama, think about which clues they need to know first. And what are the actors' (your students) motivations? How will it resolve? The topic of your play is your dance – which dance steps they need to learn first, and why – but the drama of your dance class has clear parallels to a mystery.
Act 3) The big finale, their final impression, so they leave your class happy and satisfied.
Teach with your whole mind
There is much more to effective teaching than a good lesson plan. Most of the pointers above are left-brain awarenesses, but I think that great teaching is both logical and intuitive, a perfect balance of left & right brain awarenesses. I prefer to think of this as vertical and lateral thinking which is different from brain lateralization but similar in some ways. Use both vertical and lateral thinking in each class.
This is not a 50/50 balance, but a 100%/100% total awareness. Both vertical and lateral thinking must be fully engaged for maximum effectiveness.
One aspect of teaching from the right-brain (or lateral thinking) is allowing your intuition of the moment to have an equal voice with your lesson plan. Follow your hunches when they differ from your lesson plan, rather than following the plan slavishly.
To access the right brain, relax. Possibly meditate right before a class, if that works for you, or just sit and quiet your mind. You will then be noticeably more observant of how the class is doing, not stuck with your mind in your lesson plan.
Truly watch the dancers to see what they're not getting. This is like being a good listener in a conversation. Don't just follow a formula or plan. Effective teaching is like good partnering in that it's simultaneously leading and following. Teaching is more leading than following, but you still must be observant and keenly perceptive.
I've often been asked, "What percentage of the time do you follow your lesson plan, and what percentage do you improvise?"
I improvise all of the time, 100%, based on a solid lesson plan with several backup plans. In other words, our highest priority is watching the class to see what they're getting, at what pace, inserting unplanned details to fix problems, skipping over details which they obviously already have and don't need pointed out. Be 100% prepared (your lesson plan) then 100% observant of how the class is really going, and spontaneously ready to change the plan as needed.
Willam Christensen, founder of the San Francisco Ballet, said that a syllabus makes a bad teacher better but a good teacher worse. Good point, but I recommend doing both. Prepare a syllabus (lesson plan) as a guideline, then modify it as you teach the class, as needed.
Timing of a class or workshop
These pointers apply both to creating a lesson plan (vertical thinking) and in-class spontaneity (lateral thinking):
Be a clock watcher. Start and end classes on time. Your students may have another class to go to after yours and will rightfully resent your making them late.
Going overtime shows your students that you're disorganized and can't form a workable lesson plan (see gaining respect of your students below). You may believe that teaching overtime demonstrates your enthusiasm for the material, but in your students' eyes, it only looks like poor planning.
In planning a class or course, make sure that you don't try to cover too much material, or too little. Actually, don't worry about planning too little. Many or most beginning teachers make the mistake of trying to cover too much material in a class.
Make sure each class or topic is brought to a satisfying closure.
On the other hand, if a dance is taught over several days, it's sometimes more effective in the long run to end a class with a difficult challenge, promising to finish (or even fix) it the next day. This unresolved difficulty sticks in their mind, like your tongue which can't stop probing a cavity, and their mind may partially resolve the conundrum overnight. This often makes the next day's class more successful.
In planning a day-long workshop, be aware of their relative energy/awakeness level. They may be ready for challenging material first thing in the morning, physically refreshed but sleepy after lunch, and both mentally overloaded and physically exhausted by the end of the day, especially after 4:30 pm.
In an all-day workshop, brain-fade tends to set in at the two-hour mark, even in the morning. Make sure you have a plan to prevent attention from wandering at that time.
The first class of the day can easily be 75 or even 90 minutes long. But schedule afternoon classes to be shorter, maybe 60 minutes each, when their attention span shortens. Another way to enliven the mid-afternoon slump is with humor.
Don't lull them to sleep with slow material at the end of the day. The best choice for the last period is something physically lively but mentally easy.
Presentation of yourself
Authenticity is the source of true authority. Your credibility is directly correlated to the students' perception that you're genuine. Some teachers fall short because they attempt to project an image of something which they are not. What you are always communicates more powerfully than what you say.
Be more interested in your student's success than your own image. Don't grandstand... the class is about them, not about yourself.
But, on the other hand, realize that your reputation is important to them in one respect: they want to know that you are knowledgeable, and that taking your class is worth their valuable time. You need to gain their respect. Being overly modest or self-deprecating can be just as bad as acting self-important and boastful, because it may raise doubts in their mind about their decision to take your class. "Did I make the wrong choice? This teacher's not very sure about himself. Maybe I should have taken that other class instead."
Your body language should convey confidence and security with the material. Don't fall apart when you err. Don't be overly defensive of your image when you make a mistake, but take it in good-natured stride. Be honest about what you don't know.
But don't be apologetic about your teaching. (I once heard a teacher say, "I imagine many of you won't come back tomorrow.")
This is different from advising, "Don't apologize." As mentioned, if you mess the class up, yes, admit it rather than vainly trying to cover for it or trying to blame something else. You can be both confident and authentic without any conflict between the two.
Balance authority with a relaxed atmosphere, to help set them at ease.
Why set them at ease? Because as mentioned above, they'll be happier and they'll learn much faster if they're in their comfort zone, or a reachable step beyond it. But if you're flustered, your discomfort will influence their comfort level.
Speak audibly — clearly and loudly without shouting. Never be shrill.
In a large room, also speak a little more slowly.
Use animated tones, without droning. Use contrast. Allow humor, or at least be good-natured.
But I still prefer to be fairly relaxed, not animated to the point of being hyperactive. I recommend a tone of relaxed authority. Remember, you want to let your students stay in their comfort zone. Anxiety interferes with the learning process. But you can't avoid the fact that the process of learning a new dance does push your students, often resulting in some anxiety and frustration, so your calm and reassuring warm tone of voice is important.
Articulate your words – don't mumble – enunciate, but without straining your face, mouth or neck at all.
A good enunciation exercise is to vocally over-articulate the beginning of the alphabet just before you head into the class. I do this to break out of my habitual everyday voice, into the articulated classroom voice.
Do voice exercises before teaching a large class, to preserve your voice. A good exercise is to repeatedly voice a relaxed descending yawn (out in the hallway, before the class).
Use a wireless microphone for a class of more than 40 to 60 people, to preserve your voice and to be heard.
If they can't understand you (mumbling), or can't hear you (talking too quietly), they will assume that what you're saying must not be important, and they won't pay attention.
Your choice of words: quantity
Don't talk too much. Be efficient with your words. Choose only a few of the most effective words — those which are vivid and evocative yet precise.
1) They would rather spend more time practicing their dancing and less time listening to you talk.
2) They need to process the information in their minds, which can't happen unless there are quiet moments to think through what you said.
3) Minds saturate after a barrage of too many words, and their minds start blocking you out.
4) Whether you like it or not, your students are accustomed to getting information very quickly, through broadcast media and the Web, so they get very impatient with long-winded explanations. You can't change them, so work with this to become a more effective teacher.
Yes, you have to convey your information with words, but use the fewest words possible — those which efficiently convey both the details and the spirit of the dance.
This includes counting while the music is playing, "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8" nonstop during the music. Yikes. That's why you play music – they can count just fine. Many students complain about this one. It's annoying.
Another verbal barrage that students often find annoying is a constant, "C'mon you can do it! Go! Go! You're doing great!" cheerleading, non-stop for an hour. Enthusiasm and encouragement are fine of course, but any non-stop barrage of words will soon be blocked out, as students need to think through what they're doing. Then they'll miss something important, real information buried in the cheerleading, because they've switched you off.
If you ever feel like you've been talking a little too long, the truth is that it's already been far too long. Why? Have you ever driven to someone's house for the first time, following elaborate directions of turns and landmarks, and thought it took a fairly long time to get there? Then the next time you drive there, once you know the way, doesn't it seem much shorter? It's really the same time, but it feels half as long once you know the way. Why? Because you now know where you're headed... you have the destination visualized... your mind is already there, so it seems shorter.
It's the exact same dynamic with talking. You already know the way (i.e., you know what you intend to say) but your class doesn't. This is their first time down that road, and it can seem like it's taking forever (your talking, that is), just as you're thinking the opposite – "this isn't taking too long to say." Who is right? They are.
Your choice of words: quality
Be both a poet and a technician. Convey the subjective spirit as well as analytical technique. Be inspirational. You teach it digitally (linearly, one aspect at time) then they dance it in analog. Convey both.
Provide precise degrees of movements when applicable — length of steps, degree of turn or turnout, etc.
But don't overspecify when flexible adjustments must be made to accommodate partnering, or when you're teaching a dance which favors individuality. Unnecessary specification is one of my pet peeves.
Don't forget the other physical aspects of a dance beyond footwork: quality of movement, energy levels, posture, what to do with free hands, facial expressions, flow of movement, etc.
Be consistent in your terminology. If a step has five different names among different schools or traditions, pick just one and stay with it. Using multiple terms may only confuse your students.
If you want them to remember the name of a dance or step, have them say a new term audibly. This sends the word through a different part of their brains, from merely hearing it, and thus helps retention.
Basic Pedagogy 101: Repeat questions before answering them, as many questioners speak too quietly to be heard by the other side of the room.
Point out and demonstrate what you liked seeing (even if you only saw a hint of it). Opt to speak in the positive more often; in the negative less often. Try to maintain the anonymity of those who do a step incorrectly. Be discreet and maybe mention it privately later. But you may point out the individuals who are doing it well.
Tell why a step is done this way. Logic always makes a better and more lasting impression than arbitrary rules, or saying, "because that's the way my teacher taught it."
But don't make up bogus answers. Why not? Because today, people (especially young people) are tired of hype and are increasingly adept at spotting and dismissing false reasoning. Authenticity is the source of true authority.
Conditional teaching. Experimental research, conducted over 25 years, has proven that when your students are presented with any facts as absolute truths, they tend to use the material thoughtlessly, often making bad, inappropriate or limited decisions. But when they're presented with the same information in a conditional way ("Maybe it's so, but maybe it's also this other way"), they process the information, and use the information, in smarter, more effective, and more creative ways, and also enjoy it more.
Read the page on Ellen Langer's research and findings here. This can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your teaching.
Sometimes a class is taught by a lead/follow couple, who both speak, sometimes equally. The reasons are usually to offer an additional viewpoint and to not marginalize one of the partner's roles.
This arrangement can be effective when done well, and problematical when it's done badly.
The most common problem with two-voice teaching is if it doubles the talking time without adding enough new information to justify the additional non-dancing time, thereby violating one of the most important teaching guidelines.
If you're team-teaching with a partner or collaborator, never rephrase what they just said, even if you think you can say it better. Your slight "improvement" in phrasing doubles the talking time... not a very effective ratio. Just as you're starting to think, "I would say that differently..." immediately replace that thought with, "...but that's good enough for now."
Even worse, team-teaching can lead to one person affirming what the other just said. Have you ever experienced this? One teacher finishes saying something about the step, and the other can't let it stand without his approval, adding yet more words to the class like, "Yes I agree, blah blah blah." The class doesn't need to know that you agree. They assume you do, since you're a team, and they want to dance, not listen to more words. The approver usually thinks he's complimenting his partner by adding his approval, but instead it's an insult to one's teaching partner to imply that their words cannot stand alone without your approval.
Another disaster is when both count and/or talk while the music is playing, each with different words, at the same moments. If this is acoustic, your students ears might be able to separate the two voices, but if each has a microphone, the two voices mix into unintelligible mush over the speakers.
Effective team teachers usually plan in advance who is going to say what, with one perfect thread of information coming from two alternating voices. A few rare team-teachers have a great sense of this pacing without planning in advance. But unfortunately team teaching can also make a class less effective than a single voice, if it's not done well.
Bottom line: Never lose sight of your primary goal, for your students to grasp the material as effectively and efficiently as possible. Your students are smart – they know that a single voice isn't marginalizing any gender or role, and can accurately describe both lead and follow pointers. They're there to learn dancing, and they appreciate a well-paced class. If two alternating voices can provide that for them, great!
Pace of the class
Don't rush your students. Make sure they have a solid foundation before moving on. If you're afraid of boring them, find other ways to educate or entertain them, rather than just feeding them more steps.
On the other hand, keep the pace of your class moving. Don't let it get bogged down. Don't rush them, but don't bore them either. Talking too much is boring. They want to move, not stand around listening to you talk.
Then when you have something important to say for a few minutes, let them sit down to listen.
One of my solutions to this problem is to skip the classroom discussion of a dance's history and significance, then e-mail this information to my students within the day. But this only works if you have all of your students' e-mail addresses.
Too fast? Too slow?
The best way to keep the pace moving is to change partners, if you're teaching a couple dance form. It's amazing how quickly the group will equalize the combined skill of the individuals. Those who have it will show those who don't, lead or follow, experienced or newcomer. The couples who don't change partners often keep repeating the same mistake over and over, with no feedback from someone who has succeeded with the figure.
I've often been asked another pacing question, "How much individual attention do you give in a class?"
This isn't a rule, but my personal priority is to care for the greater group. One of my pet peeves is a teacher in a large class spending five minutes working with one individual or couple who has a problem, while 98% of the class who got it stands around bored.
But sometimes you can see that an individual's difficulty or confusion might be true for others too, so you can address that point to the entire class. I tell my students this is a "Repair Clinic" only intended for those who are having this specific difficulty. So I tell the class, "If you're not having this problem, don't fix it." This is serious, not a whimsical comment. Often you'll make a comment to help someone who is under-rotating, for example, then you'll see someone else, who already had it perfectly, now over-rotating after your comment.
Then unfortunately, you'll occasionally get a student who demands that you stop the class to solve their unique problem, which no one else has. (Some psychiatrists call this behavior a "demanding sense of entitlement"). In those cases, you have to be firm for the good of the class, so that the progress of the other students doesn't get stalled or bogged down.
Speaking of a demanding sense of entitlement, sometimes you'll get a couple who refuses to change partners when you ask them to. Of course they'll usually be the only couple who doesn't get a figure by the time everyone else has it. Yes, you guessed it — they'll often demand that you slow the class down just for them.
A related question is, "Do you keep working on the step until everyone gets it?"
No, on the average I go for 90% to 95% of the class. The remaining few will usually be helped by their partners who already got it. And the few who are exceptionally slow learners already know they're slow, and would rather that you not make a fuss over for them.
Teaching experienced dancers
I'm sometimes surprised to see a professional dance teacher who apparently hasn't thought through the difference between teaching beginning versus experienced dancers. Where do I see this most clearly? In the strictness of detail demanded when it comes to personal style. Beginning and advanced dancers have very different needs and wishes in this area.
When teaching beginners, who are a clean slate, of course you'll teach them the version you think is best, with all of the stylistic details for your preferred form.
But when your students have been dancing for years or decades, they've already developed their personal style, or maybe they've mastered a different teacher's style. It's now who they are. Fred Astaire thought this is a good thing. (click for a short quote)
First, they're probably happy with the dancer they've become, and they're taking your class to learn more useful variations and partnering tips from you, not dismantle the dancer they've become. Secondly, they probably couldn't change their personal style if they tried.
The aware teacher will work from this platform (their personal style), giving their experienced students useful new material for them to integrate into their dancing. The unaware teacher will dismiss their students' accumulated style as "incorrect" and attempt to tear it down, hoping to rebuild their student back up in the teacher's preferred style. That's not going to happen! A one-hour class will not undo twenty years of their dancing in a different style. If you attempt to do that, they'll think, "I can't learn from this teacher!" and not come back. And they'll justifiably resent the disrespect of a teacher dismissing their personal style.
Now if they've signed up for a lifetime of private lessons to learn your style, that's different. But this section addresses dance classes or workshops.
You may find it difficult to be patient with experienced dancers who appear to be "doing it wrong," which often means they're merely dancing in styles different from your preferred style. So how should you respond? (A) Dismiss their dancing style, making them wary, defensive or resentful? Or (B), see the class from their point of view. Why are they taking your class? Probably to learn new figures and become better dancers, based on the dancer they are.
I recommend approach B. Allow them to keep their experience and personal style as their platform upon which to build improvements. If you wish to introduce your stylistic preferences, present them as "try this out" options instead of "you're doing it all wrong" rules. Inspire, don't reprimand. They'll be much happier, meaning they'll learn better (comfort zone). And they'll come back to your second class.
Aging teachers and/or students
As a teacher, you don't have to appear young or youthful. Maturity commands respect. However students unconsciously pick up our most subtle stylings, and if you start moving in an elderly way, so will your students. You can't just suggest, "Do what I say, not what I do." The way you demonstrate a dance is important. (If you're not feeling elderly yet, then be preemptively aware of the ways in which your movement limitations may affect your students some day.)
The good news is that your dancing skills will enable you to walk and move in a younger manner. You know that dancing is acting, so you can mostly act like the movements of a younger dancer, to a certain extent. Here's how...
Study the way that the elderly walk. Watch closely and then imitate their walk. Specifically, you'll see (1) head slouched a little forward, (2) shoulders slightly hunched up, (3) elbows pinned back (that's an important one), (4) limited range of head and arm motion, (5) a shuffling gait. Try it – practice that exactly, so you know how it feels. Now reverse all of those. (1) Head tall but not stiff, (2) shoulders down, (3) elbows at your side, not even slightly pinned back, (4) animate your head and arms, (5) stride like a younger person.
Try different strides. The next time you're walking down a sidewalk (maybe when no one is watching) try the John Travolta strut from Saturday Night Fever. Try a hip-hop stride, not to be a poseur, but to expand your range of motion. Loosen up and put a spring in your step. Then keep a little bit of that animation whenever you walk, move or teach your dance class.
You can take this further by doing stretches every day, yoga and/or Pilates.
If aging or an injury has limited your range of motion permanently, train a younger dancer or couple to be your class demonstrator(s). Your students need a visual prototype, not just your words.
Tempo warning: There may come the day when you think to yourself, "That music feels too fast. I think I'll slow it down for them." Or, "I can't believe I've been teaching it that fast all of these years!" No, the music isn't too fast; you're just slowing down. If your class is comprised of younger people, don't slow the class down to a tempo which works for an older teacher.
Conversely, be aware of the movement limitations of the older dancers in your class. Some dance groups are an aging population — the same dancers getting older every year, for decades. In that case, modify your material to be achievable and satisfying for their age range, which may mean lowering the impact level, slowing the tempo, and simplifying memorization tasks. Remember, you don't want to push them too far out of their comfort zone. You can still teach them new and challenging material, but not challenging to the point of frustration or injury.
When using recorded music, have complete technical expertise with the CD/MD player, iPod or laptop that you'll be using. Avoid using a machine you're unfamiliar with, or come in early to get to know it.
Select all of the music for your class ahead of time. It takes time to find a perfect track for a particular step, with the right tempo, quality, energy level, and emphasis on the right beats. Some teachers make their students stand around as they start to fumble through their CD collection searching for a good track. It's even more embarrassing if the track you chose doesn't work well, and you have to stop it and start searching again. So go through that process before class.
If you play CDs, a more specific tip is to buy a red grease pencil at a hardware store, normally used for marking glass, and write the track number of your pre-selected music on the CD case. After class you can erase it with a tissue.
I don't use CDs so I list my pre-selected tracks in my lesson plan notes.
Know how to count into the music. Use the same number of preparatory counts each time.  I prefer to count into a dance just as a musician would, saying something like, "five, six, ready, and..."
But do give them some warning! It's amazing how often teachers just start dancing a step without warning, and expect the class to read their mind that they were going to start. Yes, your students can start a moment late and catch up with you, but they'd much rather know when you're going to start.
"Than you would begin a sentence in the middle, or."
Did that make sense to you? Neither does starting and stopping your recording arbitrarily. When playing your recorded music, allow the musical phrases to finish, as live musicians would do. Musicians would never start and stop in mid-phrase, any more than you would begin a sentence in the middle, or stop speaking halfway through a sentence. I recommend that you play your recorded music the same way.
This guideline isn't marked as essential, but you should realize that your musical phrasing of recorded music demonstrates your respect for the music. So if you start and stop your music arbitrarily in mid-phrase, it tells your class that you don't care very much about music.
Most teachers teach a dance step tacet (without music) so they can be heard clearly, and then after the class has practiced it a few times, they put on the music. It's the natural progression. However...
When you do this, you must make sure that you have brought your teaching tempo up to the same as the tempo of the music which you're about to play. It's a huge mistake to teach a step at a slower tempo then put on music which is significantly faster, guaranteeing frustration or failure among many of your students.
A helpful hint is to hear the tune that you're about to play in your head, while you're still teaching it tacet. With a little practice you'll be able to bring the class up to the exact tempo of the music before you play it. This way, the music supports their dancing, at just the right tempo, instead of pressuring your students.
Changing tempo: Your music deck probably has pitch control, which is almost essential for teaching dance. We usually need to start a dance at a slower tempo then let the speed pick up with practice. However the slowed pitch sounds unnaturally low. My favorite solution is the Amazing Slow Downer software available online for both Mac and PC. This is the highest quality software I've seen for slowing down or speeding up the tempo without changing the pitch. If you play music from a laptop, you can do this in real-time, in class. I don't use a laptop for my class music so I pre-record the music on a disc, at several tempos slowed by Amazing Slow-Downer. Superscope makes a CD player which changes tempo without changing pitch, but all firmware solutions that I've seen sound watery and choppy when slowed more than 8%. Amazing Slow Downer retains realistic fidelity when slowed 50%. Speeding up music is easy with software or firmware; it's the slowing down with fidelity that's hard.
More on ideal dance tempos is here.
When you're thinking through your back-up plans, include possible problems with music. How might the sound go wrong? What components or connectors for the sound system might be missing? When teaching in a new space, consider bringing a backup sound system (even if just a boom box), extra batteries for a wireless microphone, and extra audio adaptors for other's sound systems.
Working with live music is a full discussion in itself, but the short version is to respect your musicians, never treating them like hired help, or worse, as an equivalent to canned music. Let your students applaud them at the end of class. But you know this, so I'll skip that topic for this page.
If teaching to a group in the round, be sure to show a step at several angles, for those who couldn't see an important detail from their side of the room. This may also avoid some mirror-image problems. Don't wait for them to request this. If they have to ask to see it from their viewpoint, you've already failed to consider their point of view.
Dance teachers often have to deal with the mirror-image problem, when a student facing you has to step or gesture to their right, as you're showing it to your right, which is the opposite of a mirror image. One solution is for you to mirror the step yourself, gesturing to your left as you mean (and say) "right".
A second solution is to teach with students in a large circle and have an assistant on the other side, facing you. Ask your students to follow the person in front of them.
A third solution, if they're in a circle around the perimeter of the room with you in the middle, is to have them all turn a quarter to their right, asking them to follow most of those ahead of them. They can clearly see both you and those ahead of them.
Another tradition is for the teacher to face a large mirror, with the students behind, also facing the mirror. It's not ideal to turn your back to your students, but most can see your face in the mirror.
When men's and women's steps differ significantly in partnered couple dancing, sometimes it's effective to have all of the men stand behind the lead teacher/partner and all woman behind the follow teacher/ partner. After teaching the step(s), let them walk straight forward to find a partner.
Don't forget warm-ups and stretches when necessary.
In partnered couple dancing, don't forget to change partners every five minutes or so. Students learn much faster when they change partners, with the extra benefit of learning how to dance with people of all shapes, sizes and experience levels. But many dancers come with a favorite partner, who they dance with first, so I like to return them to their first partners once in a while, and then again for the last dance of the class.
Consider providing handouts and music recordings where applicable. Syllabi can also be put online, and I sometimes e-mail my students the dance descriptions after a class.
Be generous in your appraisal of other dancers and instructors. This is not only considerate of others in your field, but it's good for you too — everyone knows that only those at the top can afford to be charitable toward their competitors.
An ideal that I value is to use a dance to illustrate a higher concept, such as partnering, traditions, ways to be a better person, new ways of using the mind and body, analogies to personal relationships, something philosophical, beyond the steps. But this is optional.
It's great if you can make your class convey more than just steps, but it's not necessary.
Have a greater concern with your students' progress and comprehension than in enhancing your own reputation. This dedication must be sincere, and not just an act. Effective teaching is like good dance partnering in that it's primarily dancing for your partner's success rather than showing off your own fancy steps.
This concern for your students is also a sign of maturity. Small children constantly clamor, "Look at me Daddy! Watch me Mommy!" Then we grow up, and hopefully we mature into valuing others' happiness and progress. The few teachers (fortunately not many) who don't understand this stand out in bold relief to their students, as self-absorbed grandstanders more interested in displaying their erudition than in helping their students learn the material.
But I know you're completely devoted to your students' success, or else you wouldn't have made it to the bottom of this page.
Teaching makes you smarter
Take a look at this page, Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter. It's a report on several studies which show that rapid-fire decision-making maintains or increases your intelligence as you age. Teaching a class involves even more rapid-fire decision making than dancing, so it's ever better for you. Then furthermore...
I like R. Buckminster Fuller's definition of genius. In his opinion, genius isn't a mere quantity or capacity, but the combination of rational and intuitive thinking, both left-brain and right-brain, vertical and lateral thinking. And it's the simultaneous use of both kinds of thinking, not exercising linear rational thinking first thing in the morning, then doing something more intuitive an hour later. Genius is being fully rational and fully intuitive at the same time, seeing both the minute details and the overall big picture at the same time.
Teaching a class, in any topic, is one of the ultimate simultaneous combinations of vertical and lateral thinking, as your planning strategies morph with your spontaneous assessment of your students' progress. But as the research shows, it depends on continual split-second decision making, not repeating rote routines. You don't have to be a genius, but to stay smarter longer, don't always follow the same lesson plan. Teach it differently each time, spontaneously making those changes in class. Or teach topics you've never taught before. Challenge yourself. Plan your class thoroughly, then welcome chance intrusions. Every day. Research shows that it will keep you smarter longer.
The human mind can't keep track of a hundred pointers simultaneously so don't even try to achieve perfection in teaching. It doesn't exist. If following some of these guidelines helps your next class be 5% more successful, great. Don't be hard on yourself — it gets better with each class.  Allow mastery to develop at its own pace.
But you do have to try. Improving your teaching takes concentration and effort. You can read these pointers, and understand them, and even agree with many of them, but nothing will change until you incorporate them into your teaching. That takes a conscious effort on your part and practice. And don't forget to take lots of notes before and after your classes.
Enjoy the process, every step along the way. Some teachers dwell on the belief that they're not "there" yet, and look forward to the day when they are. No, it's much more rewarding to realize that you are already there, completely immersed in the moment, while also helping others. What could be better? Enjoy it!
I would like to thank both the good and bad exemplars in my many years of taking dance classes. I learn as much from the bad examples as the great ones.
I'd like to thank Angela Amarillas who has partnered my classes for the past 20 years, giving me valuable feedback each time.
And for this topic I'd like to thank my collaborator of the past 30 years Joan Walton, for participating in many discussions about dance pedagogy over the years. It's a fascinating field.
Photo by Jason Chuang.
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