Archive for June, 2009


June 28, 2009

We often like to envision learning as a simple process: you go to lessons on a regular basis, and after each lesson you dance a little bit better than you did before.  If we were to chart out our learning on a graph, with time on the bottom and proficiency on the side, we imagine the result would be a constant slope, perhaps a gentle slope for someone who takes very few lessons and practices only a little, and a steep slope for someone very dedicated who takes many lessons and is always practicing, but a stead rate of progress nonetheless.

I am sorry to inform you that this idea is a lie.

Dancing simply doesn’t work that way.  Our chart would instead look like a staircase: completely flat for a while, then a jump up, then flat again, then jumping again.  Furthermore, as one gets farther along, the flats become longer and longer.  Frustrated yet?  You will be.

I have heard many theories about why learning dance occurs this way, but I didn’t really understand until I started Viennese waltz.  Unlike other dances, such as American slow foxtrot or jitterbug, where the dance will function, if awkwardly, as long as one places one’s feet correctly, Viennese waltz  depends on a number of techniques to even move.  Yes, foot placement matters, but one cannot place one’s feet without driving from the standing leg, or pointing correctly on 2.  One cannot move past one’s partner unless one moves through one’s partner.  One cannot keep up the rotation without the sway produced by stretching through the ribs.  Without the technique, the dance doesn’t work.

That technique requires time, however.  Until I was doing everything, my Viennese waltz couldn’t function.  I remember long afternoons (due to my physical learning style I always booked my Viennese lessons as double-lessons.  I wanted to tire myself out so that I would be too exhausted to make ineffecient mistakes) drilling on reverse turns over and over and over again, focusing first on feet, then on toes, then on the core, then on the ribs, and so on.  It never seemed to make a difference, until one day something clicked.

Once it clicked, the dance became magical.  Effortless, even.  The once frantic tempo felt incredibly, ludicrously, slow to me.  We glided and flowed across teh floor with an ease I’d often envied from afar.  How could this dance have given me such trouble before, when it was this easy?

Of course, it was only easy because I’d drilled the technique and had everything functioning.  If I’d left even one aspect out the dance it wouldn’t have worked.  Even now, if I forget my frame and my shoulder creeps forward destroying our connection, we come to a crashing halt.  But still, I’d moved from the first plateau (“I can’t do this!”) and jumped up to the second plateau (“It sort of, kind of works, sometimes.”).  I then plateaued again until I attended a master-class workshop and jumped to the third plateau (“It works great as long as I’m concentrating.  Don’t distract me!”).  I’m just now getting into the fourth plateau (“Wow, I don’t even need to think about this!”), at least for my reverse and natural turns.

While these jumps can be encouraging – in fact, I’ve often compared them to an addiction – the plateaus are incredibly frustrating, all the more so for their greater and greater lengths at higher levels.  For some people, the frustration is enough that they stop their lessons altogether: the’ve reached a level of proficiency they’re satisfied with and it’s not worth the time, effort, money, and frustration required to reach the next level.  And each of these items is a resource, one that must be paid in greater and greater incremements for each subsequent jump.  Some students, however, want to see how far they can go.

The best way to break through a plateau is to take a new appraoch to training.  Maybe you need to see a different teacher, especially if your current teacher as taken you as far as he or she can.  If that’s not the case, perhaps some time with an outside coach, either a private lesson or a master class, may help by providing a new persepctive and feedback but retaining the teacher who knows your dancing and learning styles.

Another way to break through is to vary your practice routines.  We’ve extensively written about practice before; applying some of the more intensive techniques, particualrly the idea of dancing consciously.  Don’t just go to practice, put on a song and dance to it, but really focus on one technique.  Use a mirror and practice by yourself, as slowly as possible, making sure to do every movement your teacher is pushing you to do.

A third way to break through a plateau is to make dancing a more regular part of your life.  This can mean doing more – more lessons, more classes, more social dancing – but I like to think of it as deliberately including dance in your routine.  Get a few technique videos and make a daily habit of watching and practicing one for fifteen to twenty minutes.  Join a dance website and participate in the discussions.  Leave a comment on this blog.

Another way is to set a goal.  Training for a competition, performing a routine, or taking an examination (including both teacher certifications and student medal examinations) can provide the focus to learn the material in a new way that just saying, “I want to dance better,” doesn’t always offer.  By having a quantifiable measure of progress, as well as a deadline, one can reach the heights of ability via a regular, ordered system of improvement.

Above all, don’t let yourself get discouraged.  It’s easy to see where one wants to be and realize how far there is to go as a dancer, but think of all the progress you’ve made so far.  Watch a video of yourself dancing from a year or even six months ago, and I think you’ll see you’ve already made a jump.

Your Dance Fantasy

June 21, 2009

I know we talk about goals a lot here, but it often helps to remember that goals come in many different varieties.  We know that can be long-term or short-term, they can be personal or expansive, but did you also know that goals don’t need to be about making your dancing better?  Sometimes the best goal is just about enjoying the dance.

Close your eyes for a minute and think about your perfect dance.  What does it feel like?  Who are you dancing with?  What music is playing?  What style are you doing?  Where are you?  Are there other couples on the floor?  Is anyone watching you?  Where do the steps come from?

Dance goals are about more than being a better dancer.  In fact, the best goals in any field are about more than improvement.  The best goals are about taking greater satisfaction from a field.  Your first goal as a dancer should always be to get more enjoyment from dancing; improving your skills is often a great way to do this but is not the only way.

When thinking about ways to save money on dancing, think about what gives you the most value, and that often means what things make you happiest.  This April I spent several hundred dollars going to a hustle and west coast swing competition, knowing I was going to do rather poorly.  I could instead have spent that money on additional lessons to improve my swing and hustle, waited til next year and assuredly would have done much better, but the value for me was not in a victory or even the dance skills but in the shared experience with my studio and my new partner.  The greatest value for me was not in the dance itself but in enjoying the dance within the dancing community.

Think back to your fantasy dance from the beginning of the article.   Are you on a path to make that dance a reality?  What do you need to do to pull it off?

One of my dreams is to travel with my girlfriend to Austria for ball season.  To this end, I’m investing quite heavily in smooth.  We’re attending several American Viennese balls to get a sense of ball culture, as well as practice our Viennese waltz on the crowded social floor of Viennese balls, compared to the normally near-empty floors when Viennese waltz plays at ballroom parties.  I’ve also set myself a target skill level (teaching certification in full American-silver smooth and rhythm); as passing that exam becomes viable, I’ll have a sign that it’s time to start saving money for the trip.

What do you really want to do with your dancing?


I’m preparing and running a workshop at Gen Con Indy this August on incorporating dancing into larps, and I saw your picture First dance ( ) on flickr featuring dancing in a larp setting.  Would you be willing to fill out a brief survey about the event?  Thank you for your help.


Time to Go

June 14, 2009

We’ve talked before about finding a great teacher, but what happens when you find a bad one? For that matter, how do you recognize that someone is a bad teacher? Above all, how can you leave a studio with your dignity, relationships, and finances intact?

It’s Not You… It’s Me

In our article on finding teachers, we discussed finding a teacher who can help you reach your goals as a dancer. A teacher is the wrong teacher if they’re not helping you reach your goals for any reason. Those last three words are important. A teacher can do a great job in many respects but if you’re not achieving your goals, he or she isn’t the right teacher for you. I cannot make this clear enough: someone can be an excellent teacher but wrong for a given student. You are the only standard by which you can measure the teacher, you and no one else.

A few years ago, I was taking lindy hop classes with a university organization. These were good teachers who had trained many very skilled dancers and built a thriving lindy hop community where none existed. In addition to my two hours of weekly class, I was also taking semi-regular private lessons from them. Both the class and the lessons were extremely well priced, and I was able to go out to the organization’s social dances and hold my own as a beginner. When I went to lindy hop events, however, I found myself lost and confused. The lessons had prepared me to dance with the organization’s dancers, but not in the larger lindy hop community. I recognized that while I was getting a lot out these lessons, they weren’t right for me. When it came time to renew my lessons, I opted out and devoted the time and money to my ballroom lessons.

The above case is an example of a no-fault break. The teachers were doing a great job, but it wasn’t what the student is looking for. This is extremely common. There are many approaches to dancing, and to the teaching of dance, such that it is extremely unlikely a teacher’s default method will be perfect for every student. A good teacher will be able to adapt to meet the student’s goals in private lessons, and good students will focus on getting what they can out of group classes even when the class’s focus doesn’t perfectly suit their goals, but if these modifications are insufficient it may be time to leave that teacher.

Another common sticking point is price. Dance can be very expensive, and if you don’t feel you’re getting your money’s worth it is absolutely time to move on. A friend of mine was taking lessons from a former Soviet champion. They were working on slow waltz and, after months, the teacher had only shown her the turning box. Due to all of the teacher’s emphasis on technique, my friend had the most beautiful turning box I have ever seen, but she had no knowledge of the rest of the dance. She moved on to another coach who helped her expand her exquisite technique to other steps. This is a case where the student was getting a great deal out of the lessons, but not enough to justify the price she was paying.

Finally, some teachers are just bad. The United States does not require dance teachers to be certified or even have undergone training in order to teach dance. A would-be teacher could simply order a few dance videos and syllabi then set up an operation teaching dance, all the while reading the books and trying to stay one step ahead of the students. And by could, I mean this happens with unfortunate regularity. Still other teachers may be great dancers, but have little to know ability to explain to others how they do what they do, or how their students can do the same. If you’re stuck with a bad teacher, it’s time to leave.

Some signs that you have a bad teacher:

  • You don’t feel you’ve learned anything in the past two lessons.

  • You’re dancing feels the same as it did six months ago.

  • Going to lessons has begun to feel like a burden.

  • Dancing itself has begun to feel like a burden.

He’s Not Really So Bad

Once you’ve recognized a problem, don’t make excuses for the teacher, and don’t hide it. Speak to your teacher or the studio manager right away. The studio wants to keep you as a student and if you’re unhappy with the lesson, they know they need to make a change if they want you to stay with them. They may not be able to do something about a class being too fast or too slow – which, after all, must accommodate the learning speeds of all the students – but they can certainly change how they approach private lessons, or give you additional attention (or homework) so that you get more out of group classes.

Some people may bristle about criticizing their dance teacher. They may be concerned about hurting his or her feelings or coming across as a complainer. All I can say about this is that if you don’t speak up, nothing will change: the lessons will continue in their current state.

One area that absolutely must be brought to the teacher’s attention is problem students. You may not consider this to be the teacher’s fault, but he or she is responsible for conduct within the class and enforcing said conduct. When I first switched to WordPress, the very first article we published automatically linked to One Smart Cookie’s blog about some very unpleasant group class experiences. I was shocked at what the teacher was allowing to go on in her class. The following activities are never acceptable in a group class and it is the teacher’s job to stop them:

  • Intoxicated students.
  • Students criticizing other students.
  • Poor hygiene.

Students should not have to confront one another about these problems, and a teacher who can’t handle them in a respectful but firm manner, is not mature enough to teach.

Getting Out

You’ve identified a problem teacher, you’ve tried to deal with the problem through proper channels, and it’s still not working out. You may need to leave the teacher. How do you handle this properly? The dance community is very small; bad-mouthing the teacher will not help you. Creating a dramatic exit will not help you. Both of these actions are likely to follow you around, may cost you your friends who still take lessons from that teacher, and may make it difficult to get any remaining tuition refunded to you.

The easiest, and often best thing to do, is to simply finish your current enrollment and not renew. If you always purchase lessons individually this is as simple as not showing up again. If you’re on a package, you can finish the rest of your lessons but don’t sign up for any additional lessons. Note that some studios, may put pressure on you to continue, as evidenced in the following Yelp review:

On to the sales pitches. They’re neverending! You think a used car lot is bad? These guys put them to shame. Also, with as many items that you have to pay for (see the list above)….you can see how often you get hit with them. Their routine is to pull you into a closed room with either the studio owner, or the assistant manager…and occasionally your instructor to “tag team” you. It’s hideously uncomfortable, and almost to the point of being sleazy.

These sales pitches can be helpful as a way to ask questions and learn about the program, however if your mind is made up to leave, don’t let them pressure you into a private room for a consultation, and if they do get you in there stay resolute. Most studios, even those that do use sales methods such as this, are respectful of their students but there are unfortunate exceptions.

Your teacher may ask you why you’ve decided to leave. If you followed the advice given above, and spoke to the instructor about problems you were having before you decided to leave, this won’t be a surprise to him or her. Simply remain respectful but reiterate your complaints and emphasize that they have not been sufficiently addressed. If you did not talk to your teacher while he or she could have still done something to help you, don’t be surprised if they seem upset.

The biggest hurdle is getting your money back if you still have lessons remaining. Unfortunately, getting refunds from dance studios can be an incredibly difficult prospect. Your best bet is not to speak to them directly but to write a letter. I have seen people spend weeks trying to get a refund in person or over the phone without much success, and I have seen manager’s writing refund checks after scarcely reading letters. Your letter should have the following sections:

  1. Remind them who you are. Identify your name, your teacher, your level, when you started at the studio, and, if you’re on a package, when you started your current package.
  2. Explain your complaints and any steps you took to have them addressed. The more you can demonstrate you’ve already tried to reconcile this with the studio, the more likely the manager is to issue a refund without further attempts at reconciliation.
  3. Request a refund. Be specific and request a certain amount, as well as how you arrived at that figure. For example, “We are requesting a $500 refund for the unused 10 lessons of our 20 lesson package.” If you signed a contract, search the contract for any information regarding refunds and include the relevant text.
  4. Include all your contact information in case the teacher or manager has any questions.

Send the letter by certified mail. If you do not hear from the studio within one week (mark it on your calendar) call and ask to speak to the manager.

It is an unfortunate when a student must break off ties with a his or her studio, but your dancing is too valuable for you to waste your resources on people who aren’t helping you become the dancer you want to be.

We Were Interviewed!

June 11, 2009

This August, my girlfriend Terri Ann and I will be teaching beginner dance workshops at Gen Con, a gaming and science fiction convention in  Indianapolis. interviewed us in anticipation of the convention.  See the full interview here.

New Format!

June 8, 2009

Hi everyone!  No article this week, but intsead we’ve moved to hosting on WordPress.  You  know what that means?  You can add comments!

So if you’re new to Dancing Through the Recession or just want to give some feedback, why not visit some classic articles?  How about our first post: “Dance on a Budget.”

Finding a Partner

June 6, 2009

Last night I had a try out with a new partner, Kayleigh.

I’m starting too soon. My partner Ellen and I are scaling back our partnership for financial reasons.

No, now I’m too early. I have been looking for a partner. Ah, there we go.

I actually hear this rather frequently. People are often looking for partners and, difficult as the search can be, it can also be very rewarding, both personally and financially. As always, the first question in finding a partner is to identify your goals, not just personally but regarding the partnership itself. Did you know there are actually different kinds of dance partnerships?

  • Competition Partner: The one most people think of, when it comes to a partnership is the competition partner. You and your partner train to compete together, then go to a competition, dance together there, and hopefully win. The focus is on those competitions: you focus a great deal on technique and presentation, and may eschew other dance opportunities to focus on your dancing together. Partners must be of similar skill level, have similar levels of dedication, and be willing to spend a great deal of time with each other. These partnerships can be very high-stress and are known to frequently break down.

  • Social Partner: Often neglected, the social partnership is formed by two people who simply enjoy going out dancing together. This partnership often has a basis in friendship or romance. Of all partnerships, social partners are the most tolerant of differences, including skill level, goals, time, and dedication.

  • Performance Partner: Similar to the competition partner, performance partners actually have much more in common with theatrical dancers, such as ballet and contemporary dancers, as the focus becomes not simply developing social dance to its highest level, but transforming it into a public art form. Performance partners prepare routines together which may be performed in competitions, but also for parties, studio showcases, or even paying gigs. Yes, performance partnerships can actually generate revenue… if they’re good enough.

  • Lesson Partners: When people think about taking lessons together, they usually imagine taking them with a loved one, or even a friend, but sometimes it can be beneficial to take the lessons with someone who’s simply another dancer. The most obvious benefit is that one is splitting the cost of the lesson among two people, but it also provides both partners with someone to practice with. Lesson partners may be found in group classes but are most commonly associated with private lessons fro the financial benefit.

  • Business Partners: While rarely thought of as form a dance partnership, for many professionals one’s dance partner is also one’s business partner. In addition to prize money, winning competitions, teaching at events, and giving performances are all a form of self-promotion, to say nothing of running a studio together. All of these require the two dancers to be in-sync with one another, on the floor as well as off.

Once you know what sort of partnership you want, you’ll have a better idea what you’re looking for. If all you want is someone to go dancing with on Friday nights, nearly anyone will do – even if they don’t know how to dance they can take lessons! On the other hand, competing will require a great commitment to one another, as well as the dancing, and will further require someone who can match you in skill, finances, and time. When I look for a partner, I utilize every resource I have. I make sure all of my teachers know I’m looking for a dance partner, as well as my friends, family and co-workers. I post on web sites and bulletin boards, both those used by dancers and otherwise. I’ve found potential partners through Craigslist and online dating sites, such as OKCupid, even though I wasn’t looking to date (a fact I repeated no less than three times in my profile). While I do not utilize, I have heard positive things about it from those who do. Regardless, I have soon made contact with several potential partners.

The next step is to make sure you’re both looking for the same type of partnership. Consider this Craigslist post and compare it to this lady’s post on Both are women in the same age category but they have very different goals and very different levels of dedication and skill. While the latter woman wants to dance over two hours a day, five days a week (not an unreasonable expectation for a competitive dancer, I doubt I’d receive much enthusiasm were I to approach the Craigslist woman with such a schedule. Likewise, if I were to approach the DancePartner woman with a proposal to “go cheese it up” at a local dance, she’d probably feel I was wasting my time. The message: don’t be afraid to state what you’re really looking for.

After establishing that you both have similar goals in mind, I strongly recommend holding a try-out with your partner. For high-level dancers (gold and open levels) this may be an audition, but for most dancers this simply means trying one another out. Do you enjoy dancing with one another? Can you stand to be around each other for several hours? Are you physically compatible? Do your styles work well together? Don’t think of this as an evaluation (although that is a part of it) but an experiment to determine if you’ll actually like dancing together.

Having established a dancing rapport with your partner, now is the time to discuss methods. Is your potential partner willing to do three lessons a week? If so, can you both pay for three lessons a week? For that matter, whom do you want to take lessons from? If you’re going to compete, which competitions will you go to? How often do you want to go to them? Are you both willing to travel? What styles do you want to pursue? Standard? Latin? 10-dance? 19-dance? West coast swing? Lindy hop? How often do you expect to practice? Is either of you willing to compromise, and if so, on what? You don’t need to iron out every detail at this point, but you should both be thinking about them.

Next should come another try out. The two of you should jointly decide on a coach and take a lesson together. Failing that, try a group class together. If the lesson goes well, then it’s time to start ironing out the rest of those details. Congratulations, you have a partner!

This is, admittedly, a long process. Many potential partnerships will fall through, but those that do so are the partnerships that you probably shouldn’t have been in. Having established the partnership, it’s easy to see why so many dancers are so protective of them: finding a good partner is a blessing

Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

June 6, 2009

This weekend, I had the pleasure to dance with my wonderful girlfriend at the Balticon science fiction convention. We performed in the masquerade costume contest, doing a paso doble based on the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean (video is not up yet, but you can see pictures here. For the record, my Terri Ann made all the costumes herself). The dance went reasonably well, but both before and afterwards we discussed whether it was ready – whether we were ready – to perform it publicly. Were we good enough?

Whenever you ask that question, you need to follow it up with, “good enough for what?” As always, it is important to know what your goals are. For a dancer to compete (and win) he or she must be much better than to survive a social dance. Yet to be an acclaimed social dancer may require even more developed skills than to compete. Performance may require more developed skills than both. And to make matters even more confusing, each of these activities requires different skills.

Furthermore, one must recognize there are different levels of “good enough” for each goal. As I mentioned above, one requires minimal skills to go social dancing, yet to be a popular and renowned social dancer requires very advanced skills, particularly at lead/following and floorcraft. This is important because dancing is not an all-or-nothing skill. Growth usually occurs in stages. The chart about halfway down in this article (read the rest of the article, too!) does a great job of illustrating how progress as a dancer is often staggered, occurs in jumps, and takes time.

So once your goals are identified, how does one move through the stages? The obvious answers – private lessons, classes, practice, videos, etc. – are correct but they leave out too important elements: patience and determination. You must be patient with your progress but also determined to make more progress. Every time you take a lesson you should be saying to yourself, “I may not dance perfectly today, but I will come out of the class dancing better than when I went in.”

So one takes lessons and improves one’s dancing, but how do you know when you’re, “good enough.” That’s when those initial goals come back. Are you winning your competitions? Are you a popular social dancer? Does your performance generate praise and requests for future performances? If so, you’re good enough for what you want to do. If not, you need to work harder and take more lessons. The problem, however, is that upon reaching those goals students are often unsatisfied. That’s when it’s time for a new goal.

Going Prefessional

June 6, 2009

No, that’s not a typo.

I constantly emphasize the importance of setting goals, and when I started my own dance business this past February, goals were an important start of the process. I knew what I wanted from the business, and what I didn’t want. For example, I didn’t want to endanger my amateur status for competitions. I didn’t want to get in trouble for violating my non-compete clause with my new studio. Nor did I want to harm business at my new studios. On the other hand, I did want to provide quality dance instruction. I wanted to help people without having to be a pushy salesman. And I wanted to make enough money to pay for my own lessons.

That last one was the key goal. It told me how much revenue I needed the business to generate. Which, surprisingly, wasn’t that much, and was a goal I met after just my first month.

There’s a concept in the world of dancing that doesn’t have a name, but should so I’m going to name it. I call it a “prefessional dancer.” A prefessional is a dancer who generates revenue through some aspect of dancicng, but is not yet a professional; which is to say they’re not making a career out of dance nor are they competing at a professional level. There are a lot of dancers out there who should consider going prefessional. Maybe you’re one of them.

The first thing you need to consider is how can you use your dancing to generate revenue. Traditionally, people do this by:

  • Teaching

  • Performing

  • Judging

  • Partnering

We all know what teaching means. You can teach group classes or private lessons, advertise a great deal or by word of mouth, and rent space in a studio or make do with lesser dance spaces. Regardless, however, you must know your material. If you don’t already have a syllabus, get one, both the written and video syllabi. You should know every aspect of what you’re teaching for both the man’s and lady’s parts. Try giving a few free lessons to your friends and family before you start charging, to see what you need to improve on with your teaching.

Performance is any occasion where you dance for other people. This can mean a stage performance to a talent contest with a prize. My favorite performances are window dressing performances. These are events where you and your partner largely serve as mobile decorations for an event. These events may not pay as well as teaching but they go over great at fund raisers in which case you may be able to claim the cost of your services as a tax deductible charitable donation instead – remember, you don’t need to get cash to profit from your dancing.

Judging is a very difficult area to get into. It requires extremely high levels of certification, but can be very lucrative once you break into the field. If you’re interested in becoming a judge, speak to your teacher.

Finally, there’s partnering. While not very common in the US, some people will hire dancers to either practice with them or serve as escorts to events. If you’re dancing is at a high enough level (at least silver, gold is better), consider being a paid dance partner.

Keep in mind, however, that while these types of gigs pay, there are numerous other ways to profit off of your dancing. If you want a vacation, for example, cruise lines often offer discount cruises to amateur dancers who can teach a class. Even if you only make a little money through dancing, if you start a business to promote yourself then many of your dance expenses, including costumes, videos, and travel costs, become tax-deductible business expenses (NB: I am not a tax expert. See an accountant before trying this).

Above all, stay open to new ideas. Think about how you can make dancing work for you. If you compete, be sure to carefully read USA Dance and the NDCA’s distinctions between athletes and professionals – and recognize that some competitions use entirely different definitions.

Lastly, I highly recommend Bob Thomas’s classic article, “Swinging For Cash,” on how to get started as a for-profit dancer.

Pro-Am: Top Bargain or Waste of Money

June 6, 2009

When you start talking to competitive ballroom dancers about the expenses of the hobby, nothing is likely to raise their ire nearly so much as the concept of pro-am. “Pro-am,” is an abbreviation of “professional-amateur,” and is a form of competition in which couples are composed of one professional dancer and one amateur dancer. Dancing With the Stars is a pro-am competition, and is probably the best well-known pro-am competition in the world, but one doesn’t need to be a celebrity to enjoy pro-am. Pro-am is most popular in the United States, though it is gaining popularity around the world.

The main benefits of pro-am are that one gets to compete with your professional. This is no small thing, and goes well beyond simply having a good partner – after all, everyone else on the floor has a professional partner too. Rather, the advantage is that you are dancing with your professional. Your partner is not simply a good dance partner but your teacher and your guide. He or she knows your strengths and weaknesses, and how to show off the former and hide the latter. Your professional partner has done more dancing than most amateur partners could ever hope to, and so is extremely unlikely to make the kind of mistakes that crop up in amateur-only competitions. He or she has a great deal of experience competing and knows what to do to make you stand out for the judges.

In short, when you compete pro-am, you get to compete under the best possible circumstances imaginable: with a professional, experienced partner who knows your dancing as well as humanly possible.

Those are the benefits. The disadvantages are fairly significant, however. The first one every pro-am detractor will raise is the cost. While some studios (often including chain studios) don’t require any additional pro-am fees for all students who register for the competition through their studio, others charge between $10 and $30 a dance, this on top of a $25 to $35 per-dance registration fee to the competition organizers, and that on top of a $100 to $400 registration fee just to be eligible for entry. A ten-dance competitor could end up spending an extra $300 just to get on the floor for fifteen minutes the whole weekend!

Nor is that the only cost associated with pro-am. While amateur partners can practice together for free, or at least for the low cost of a floor rental fee (generally $10 to $20 an hour), practicing with your professional requires you to purchase additional lessons Competitive partners are advised to practice three to four hours a week. To do that with a professional partner at $75/hr would cost up to $300 every single week. This is on top of coaching lessons, which are no longer split with an amateur partner, and costumes for any showcases, which generally come out of the amateur’s pocket.

Finally, there is time. While any professional can dance pro-am with his or her student, the fact is that just as with any other type of competition, some professionals are better pro-am competitors than others. Maybe it’s because they’re better teachers, maybe they look better on the floor, or for whatever reason they just do better. These professionals are in extremely high demand and it can be very difficult to book time for all those extra lessons, even if it’s within your budget. You may have a hard time booking floor time with even the less-demanded teachers during competition season.

Is pro-am worth it? That depends on the dancer. Some will see it as a great way to expand and improve their dancing, while others will see it as a colossal waste of money. Some will see it as a viable alternative or supplement to amateur dancing, while others will see it as a tactic for studios to squeeze extra money out of their clients. The real question isn’t whether pro-am is worth the cost, but whether it’s worth the cost to you, and that goes right back to setting goals. If you’re goal is to be the best dancer you can be, and you’re willing to budget for it, you could do a heck of a lot worse than to compete pro-am.

Finding the Perfect Teacher

June 6, 2009

I don’t remember who said it, but while reading Dance Forums one day, poster responded to someone who was unhappy with her current teacher and wasn’t sure whether she should stick with him and hope for the best or look for a new one The posters advice:

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

This Zen-sounding advice has been a cornerstone of my dance history. I look back at all the teachers I have known, from a high school chemistry teacher volunteering her time to start an extracurricular swing dance club, to a world rhythm finalist. It would be trite to say they have each taught me something; rather, they have each helped make me the dancer that I am today.

When I first began teaching professionally, my studio manager told me, “Your favorite dances will be your students’ favorite dances.” It was true. Perhaps it was enthusiasm, perhaps it was emphasis, or perhaps it was only that the students who already liked those dances opted to stay with me, but it didn’t take long until I saw my attitudes and opinions about dance reflected back by my students. This is vital to remember when searching for a new teacher.

The other side of the equation is that as a student you will be a reflection of your teacher. If you know you love American rhythm, it obviously doesn’t make sense to take all your lessons from a teacher who specializes in international standard; the teacher may know the dances, the teacher may even be very good, but how well does he or she understand the dances, not just technically or aesthetically, but personally? I don’t just want a teacher who knows the dance, I want a teacher who loves the dance.

Currently I take lessons from three teachers. One comes from a competition-focused studio. She is one of the most technically-minded teachers I have ever had and drives me something like a football coach. Another teacher comes from another studio that does a lot of competition (successfully, I might add), though it is not focused on it; I decided to take lessons from her after seeing her dance in a Jack-and-Jill. The third teacher is someone who my girlfriend and I have admired for years for his choreography. I’m considering adding a fourth teacher; I’m training for a new level of certification, and this new teacher is an examiner so it only makes sense to do some training with someone who has in-depth knowledge of the test.

Each of these teachers is radically different in their approach, but that’s a good thing. I would even say it’s vital, because I recruited each teacher for a different purpose, whether it is technique, social ability, choreography and styling, or knowledge. In truth, I would trust any of these teachers to teach me what the others are teaching, but that’s not our student-teacher relationship. I have a better rapport with teacher B when working on lead-and-follow and connection and so that’s what I want to use my time with her to improve.

When deciding to take lessons from a new teacher, the first question you must ask yourself is is this teacher intended to supplement or replace an existing teacher. If it’s the former, then you need to have a clear idea of what you expect to learn from the new teacher that you’re not learning from the current teacher. Share that information with the new teacher! Just going to a new teacher and saying, “Make me a better dancer,” may help but is unlikely to yield the specific results you’re hoping for. On the other hand, if you’re replacing a current teacher, whether because you can’t continue studying with your current teacher (say, because you’re moving) or are unhappy with that teacher, it’s important to go into that first lesson with an open mind; ask the prospective teacher for precise notes on what it is you need to improve and what areas he or she wants to work on with you.

The student teacher relationship is a complex one. Students tend to be very open with their teachers – I know many of my students’ medical histories, romantic histories, personal troubles, finances, and many other personal details – but it is not a relationship based on friendship. The teacher is an authority on several matters, but it is not a relationship based on authority. The student pays the teacher, but it is not a relationship based on finances. This complexity is why it is so important to find a teacher you have a rapport with and who can help you meet your goals. It can take awhile to find that teacher, but the results are well worthwhile.

And when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.


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