I’m pleased to welcome Melissa Cyr of DanceSport Place for a mid-week guest post! Pay attention because this article is packed full of value and answers a few questions I know you’ve been wondering about. Meanwhile, I’ll be practicing my drills.
You’ve had a long day. It’s finally time for your dance lesson and you quickstep it to the car and head to the studio. You can’t wait to lace up your practice shoes and be transported from paperwork and drudgery to footwork and self-discovery.
Your coach starts the lesson but to your dismay, halfway through you’re still working on solo rumba walks across the floor. By the end of the lesson, you’ve hardly been in dance position at all, and haven’t danced together once to music.
The lesson ends and although you learned something (like how can rumba walks be so complicated?!) and your legs will be sore tomorrow, you feel unsatisfied.
“What happened to the dreamy laps around the floor, communing with my partner and the music? What about reviewing the new choreography we were working on for the showcase? It feels like I didn’t dance at all today. It felt more like a mind numbing session on the rumbawalk stair master.”
As disappointing as it might seem, some days your dance lessons will not include much
dancing. This is part of the process to become the best dancer you can be. Your coach is not punishing you or cramping your style, but is in fact, sharpening your skills because he/she is confident in your potential.
Before we go any further, let’s look at the difference between a teacher and a coach. If you’re reading this article on the Girl with the Tree Tattoo blog, it’s pretty certain that you are not just learning a few steps for an upcoming wedding, but you’re a bonafide, rhinestone-shining, spray tan-glistening competitive dancer. If that’s you, know that you are probably no longer working with a teacher, but with a coach. And with that distinct difference, comes a new level of expectation, both ways.
Teacher vs. Coach
Think back to your very first dance lessons. The objectives on those first lessons were to
introduce you to this new world of movement, get comfortable being up close and personal with a perfect stranger, and generally learn where your feet were supposed to go to avoid getting (or giving!) bruised toenails.
On these very first introductions to ballroom dancing, you only needed a teacher. You were simply receiving new information, from someone who knew more than you about the subject.
Once things started to get serious between you and the rhinestone life, it was time for a coach. Now, this may have meant upgrading from your teacher to a coach, or maybe your teacher took on the role as coach.
In either regard, your needs as a student changed, because you were ready for a collaborative interaction.
If you are a competitive dancer, the job of your coach is to take you to a level you didn’t even know you could reach.
A level you couldn’t reach on your own.
He/she will help you refine and develop what you know. Additionally, he/she will give you new information and challenge you artistically and physically.
The teacher/coach difference can be seen in every type of activity. Even as a dance coach myself, I found myself questioning the methodology behind my daughter’s recent voice lessons. You see, after a few weeks, my daughter’s new voice teacher had not introduced an actual song to her. I’m all for technique and drills, but I didn’t see the vision yet, of dry vocal exercises without a context to put them in.
I asked a friend of mine who is a voice coach (and also dancer!) about it and he explained it to me this way:
“Vocal teachers work the instrument (scales, warm up exercises) and vocal coaches work on performing songs (nuance, dynamic, endurance, artistic development). Sometimes you have both jobs done by the same person.”
For you as a ballroom dance student, your coach most likely takes on both of these roles:
Teaching is mostly a one-way process: giving information.
Coaching is a two-way process. It requires collaboration between the student and coach, and feedback from both sides to help the student reach his/her full capability.
This is important to know, because if on some lessons you feel like you are not dancing as much as you’d expected, it is because your coach is preparing you to be able to execute what they envision you can. You yourself may not even be able to see what they have in mind for you yet.
Let’s look at two of the greatest coaches of all time:
John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach, and Mr. Miyagi, fictitious karate master and chopstick wielding fly-catcher.
Basketball coach John Wooden’s guidance led his college basketball teams to win 21 national championships in his 30 years of coaching. But many of the top-recruited players to UCLA were miffed on their first day of practice to find Coach Wooden giving them a lesson on how to put on their socks and shoes.
Coach Wooden found this information to be vital to the success of the team. Because if this seemingly simple task was not done correctly, it would lead to blisters, which would then lead to a player not playing his best. Consequently, the team could not play their best.
Coach Wooden’s experience and long-view vision for his players allowed him to see what needed to be done, even though the players did not see the purpose of it…yet.
Throughout the season, he would also teach them how to practice, prepare for games, even how to tie the drawstring of their uniform shorts correctly. Time spent on these skills was different from running scrimmage games, and although the players may have felt like they weren’t playing basketball those days, ultimately, these skills were what made them basketball champions.
Isn’t that the kind of dedication to your development you want from your coach? To help you develop into a dancer that knows how to practice on your own, is mentally and physically prepared for competition and groomed to the utmost to ensure you look and feel as good as you can?
Teaching these things takes time, and the days you are working on these necessary skills, you might not feel like you are actually dancing much. However, it is during these times that your coach is preparing you to be ready, to SHINE!
Mr. Miyagi is, of course, not a real coach, but the beloved wise karate master from the Karate Kid movie. Before even a single punch or kick was taught, his unconventional approach to teaching karate to his young protege, Daniel, involved days of having Daniel trudge through cleaning chores at Mr. Miyagi’s house.
It wasn’t until later that Daniel realized the repetitive movements he was practicing during the chores were in fact drills that were training him for the exact skills he would need for karate.
As dull and repetitious as it sometimes feels, technique is mastered through drills. Every ballet class is structured with this in mind. Whether you’re Baryshnikov or a 6 year old little girl, you know that the first half of the class will be a series of repetitive movements done at the barre. This is to physically prepare you for the challenging center work in the second part of the class.
So, take heart, if you’re spending some of your lessons on the monotony of footwork in your Waltz or hip action in your botofogo. Honing your physical skills separately from the context of your larger routine, will pay off in dividends.
When those skills get reapplied into your choreography, you’ll be as surprised as Daniel was! Speed and strength became second nature to him, thanks to hours of waxing the car and painting fences. Spend a few hours polishing the floor with your footwork; it’ll be worth it!
Non-Dancing Dance Lessons
What exactly does a non-dancing dance lesson look like? Here are 4 examples of lessons that won’t include many laps around the floor, but will ultimately improve your dancing.
1. Technique lessons
As mentioned above, these kinds of lessons might not have you in contact with your partner much. Instead, you’ll be fine tuning your technical proficiency. You may or may not practice technique skills with music. If it feels tedious, remember, this is conditioning you, so when it’s time to actually dance, you can focus on your performance and expression, with less attention to mechanics.
“Technique, if it’s good and if it’s understood and applied correctly, allows more expression, more creativity, more possibilities.” -Donnie Burns
2. Artistry lessons
Time spent on artistry is sometimes overlooked, but should be a huge part of your dance
training. After all, the reason we dance is to express ourselves, show a difference character from our everyday persona, and to inspire and entertain.
When working on artistry, the lesson focus might be on arm use, gesturing, head positioning, feeling between the partners, character work, visualization, storytelling, or dynamics.
Developing your artistry is part of maturing as a dancer. This doesn’t come without a bit of bravery and willingness to examine your dancing soul:
Who are you as a dancer?
How will you interpret the music and movement?
What is the story you and your partner are telling together?
A good coach is helping you answer these questions. To find the answers, it might take slowing and deconstructing parts of the routines or doing non-dance exercises to find your uninhibited creative side.
“When a body moves, it’s the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Mikhail Baryshnikov
In lectures, you’re usually observing and may or may not be dancing in the class. Sometimes you’ll be only listening to the lecturer and watching a demonstration couple. Even without dancing yourself, observation will open your mind about ways to improve and methods to include in your own practice.
“The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.” -Michael Jackson
4. Video review lessons
Watching yourself is as important as watching the masters! How lucky are we in this era to have a film studio in the palm of our hands?!
In a video review lesson, your coach may want to spend a lesson watching and reviewing your practice or competition videos.
As much as you might dread seeing yourself on video, it’s imperative! It is only then that you can have an accurate picture of how you actually look and where you can improve.
At first, you might think these thoughts as you watch the playback:
“I felt fast, but I’m so slow!”
“My posture is worse than I thought.”
“I’m looking down too often.”
“I’m concentrating too much and it doesn’t look like I’m enjoying myself.”
Don’t want to watch yourself? No excuses! Here’s where you’ve gotta be courageous and face it! Awareness is the first step to improvement.
But, watching yourself on video is not just about finding your faults. It’s about celebrating your gains, too.
Your coach may want to point out a particular skill you’ve been working on that is now becoming muscle memory. Or highlight a beautiful expression, that you should be using more of.
Every serious athlete, team, or performing artist uses video playback to improve their own “game.” And they review them with their coaches. Why? Because, remember, the coach/student relationship is one of collaboration. The job of the coach is to provide feedback from observation.
This is especially important if you’re dancing pro-am. Since your coach is dancing with you, watching video playback is his/her opportunity to see the big picture from an outside perspective.
On watching disappointing game film: “You have to do the hard stuff, and watch that game, study that game, to not make those mistakes over and over again, just because you weren’t brave enough to face [watching] it.” -Kobe Bryant
To Get More Dance Time, Avoid These Things During Lessons
From the coach’s perspective, spending time on memorization or increasing your endurance is a waste of instruction time. Arriving at your lesson mentally and physically prepared in these two ways will make the best use of your time, no matter what your coach has planned to work on.
From a teacher/coach perspective, this is the number one thing that bothers me to have to spend time on. These days with a smartphone in everyone’s hand, recording choreography couldn’t be more convenient. Your precious lesson time should be spent in more valuable ways than going over steps!
After you’ve had a choreography lesson, video it, and review/know it by your next lesson. You do not need your coach to do this with you. Make a strong effort to have at least the basic foot placements and timing ready by your next lesson.
When it comes to competition, the last one standing is the winner. What I mean by that is the couple who can execute at peak performance from Cha Cha to Jive (or Waltz to Quickstep), is going to the final.
Lack of stamina is never an excuse! You can and should build up your stamina on your own, not use your coach and lesson time to force you to work out.
That being said, there is a time for doing rounds as you get closer to your competition, but you shouldn’t expect your lesson time to be used to improve your stamina or memorization. Make those things your responsibility, not your coach’s.
Trust the Process
Breaking a sweat and clearing the head after an hour at the studio makes every dancer feel accomplished. On the other days, when you are working more in your head than on your feet, remember you can still feel fulfilled rather than frustrated.
All great artists and athletes realize their goals with vision. You coach has a vision for you. You might also have a vision for yourself. The process of getting there isn’t accomplished only by mere repetition, but by strategic crafting. Trust your coach in the process and you’ll find your non-dancing dance lessons will spark even greater dancing days.