How to Read a Syllabus

One of the most important habits to get into for any dancer is practice. If you’re trying to stick to a budget, practice is even more important. Put simply, whatever you pay for and don’t remember is wasted money, and whatever you don’t practice you won’t remember. We can simplify the equation an see that whatever we don’t practice is money down the drain. Unfortunately, practicing on one’s own, or even with a partner, can cause you to run into problems when you both remember a step or technique differently, or worse, don’t remember at all.

What’s a Syllabus?

This is where a syllabus is one of the most useful tools in any dancer’s arsenal. There are two types of syllabi: written syllabi and video syllabi. We’ll handle the proper use of videos in a future article; for now, let’s talk about written syllabi. To give our discussion a proper example, we’ll use the sample pages from the DVIDA bronze American rhythm syllabus.

First, let’s talk about what a syllabus is and what it isn’t. Put simply, a syllabus is a written record of the proper way to do every legitimate step of a dance. When a teacher tells you where your foot is supposed to be or when you’re supposed to turn, it comes from the syllabus. When a judge evaluates your dancing, the syllabus is what he or she is comparing you to.

That said, a syllabus is not the be-all-end-all of dancing. Syllabi are constantly being revised as the dances change. New steps come in to vogue and old steps are retired. Just because a certain step doesn’t appear in a bronze book doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate step or that it’s inappropriate for the bronze level; it may simply be case of the pan being too small. This is especially prevalent in the case of American style street dances, like west coast swing and salsa. Also, a syllabus is not a substitute for a qualified teacher. Remember: syllabi don’t make corrections and they don’t tell you how to do something, they just tell you what to do.

Open it Up

Now let’s go back to our sample syllabus. At the top of the page we see the copyright information, which admittedly matters (especially to me. This is why I’m linking to DVIDA’s official site rather than copying it for this one). We also see that we’re working with cha cha, which is rather relevant. But just as important is to note that this is the DVIDA syllabus. Not all syllabi are the same, and there are several syllabi out there. I promise to talk a bit about each one at the end, but for now all we need to know is that while different syllabi will contain many similar elements and patterns, they are not identical. In fact, each of them is copyrighted.

Beneath the title we see a number and the name of the step, which tells us that this is the tenth step in cha cha, and is called Shadow Positions. We also see that this is the Leader’s part. Then we get to a chart.

The chart is probably the most intimidating part of reading a syllabus for the first time. It’s big, it’s awkward, and it has lots of abbreviations, jargon, and numbers. We’re going to decipher everything together, column by column.

The first column is the step number. Any time either partner takes a step, that is a count. A waltz box will have six counts, one for each step. In some instances there will be a count where only one partner takes a step (most syllabi don’t introduce this until silver), and in some instances there will be a count where neither partner takes a step, such as the drag on tango. Your rule of thumb should be that each count represents a distinct motion, either of the feet or body.

The next column is the foot position. This tells you where you will put your feet. If the step begins with a previous figure, it will be listed here. So far we know the first thirteen steps will begin with steps 1-13 of a cross body lead. Then steps 14-16 will be the man’s cha cha forward with his right foot. Things become distinct with step 17 where the man steps forward.

Next over is dance position. There are many dance positions, such as closed, open, promenade, and so on. With this pattern, the leader uses the same dance positions as his crossbody lead for steps 1-12, but should finish in Left Side Shadow Position for step 13.

Because these syllabi true to communicate a great deal of information in a relatively small amount of space, every syllabus uses abbreviations. Likewise, every syllabus contains a glossary that will not only say what the abbreviation stands for, but what it means as well. They may contain additional information, such as line of dance diagrams or pictures of different dance positions.

The next column is the lead type. This is only found on the leader’s charts. Sometimes the lead for a step will be very simple, such as a weight change (WC, as in step 17), while at other times it will require a more complex description, such as steps 22-23.

Next we have the degree of turn. This is very closely tied to the foot positions referred to above. A common question is whether the turn happens before, after, or during the step. Generally the description will make things clear – in our sample, the turn description is very clear that the leader continues to turn while taking steps 18-19. If it isn’t speciified, the turn should be taken before the step.

Next we have the count. This tells us the beat value of each step. Count may be specified in terms of quicks and slows, or it may have numbers.

Finally there is a summary column. This tells us what each step is supposed to accomplish, what it’s supposed to be. If we consider all the previous columns to be a technical explanation of how a motorcycle engine works, this is a picture of the assembled engine, or at least a close up of one component.

Other dances may include other listed elements, such as contra body movement, rise-and-fall, or footwork.

At the bottom of the page is additional information. One line informs us that the footwork will be ball-flat throughout, which means it will be ball-flat on every step unless specified otherwise. Another line gives styling suggestions or variations.

So What?

When practicing, choose one element at a time to work on. Go through a pattern slowly, working on precise foot placement. Repeat for several minutes. Then go throughout another column, working on solid dance posture. And so on.

Another way to use a syllabus is to refer back to to remember steps. Many arguments between leaders and followers can be settled with an impartial syllabus. There have been several times when I’ve had to eat my own foot when contradicted by a written syllabus.

Where do I Get One?

One of the most common questions is where to pick up a syllabus. A more pressing question is which syllabus to use? There are three syllabi commonly used in the United States. The ISTD or USISTD maintains a catalog of all competitive dances and most social dances. The prices are reasonable but the catalogs contain fewer steps than other syllabi.

The DVIDA syllabi are becoming increasingly popular among independent studios. They are a bit more expensive than ISTD but contain more steps. A further advantage of DVDIA is that they were written to be compatible with all other syllabi. A student who has learned from another system will still feel very comfortable with DVIDA.

Finally, there are franchise manuals. These are copyrighted and carefully protected by their owners, studios such as Arthur Murray Intl. and Fred Astair. If you take lessons from a franchise, you will learn from their syllabus, but they are not generally available for home purchase by students. If you are learning from a franchise, ask your instructor which syllabus he would recommend.

Generally, the right syllabus is whichever style your instructor is using. Think of it as your text book: if you’re taking a science course, you get the science book. This is your dance book.

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One Response to “How to Read a Syllabus”

  1. Video Syllabus « Dancing Through the Recession Says:

    […] posts focusing on the economics of dance are among the most popular and commented on, we consider How to Read a Syllabus among the most important.  It was one of the first posts we wrote, not because it was an easy […]

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