What I’ve Learned Teaching Intro to Blues

This quarter was the first time I have actually taught a continuous set of blues lessons in my life. There I’ve said it. The cat is out of the bag! I mean I have always been trying to figure out moves with my friends even before I even knew it was called “blues dancing”. I remember finding a page on Apple’s .mac webpages of “dance moves” and trying to copy it at school. Last night marks the end of the first quarter of 2010 and the end of drop-in beginner blues class hosted by Bees Knees Dance. It will soon be replaced in April by a progressive series (wow!) beginner blues class. Here a few things that I’ve learned along the way (please note I am no expert in teaching or teaching methodologies).

Working with the “I already dance blues” scene aura

To be honest, the greatest challenge I have encountered so far (and biggest learning growth) in Toronto is trying to figure out when I get the “I already dance blues” attitude when trying to convince others I think would be good candidates for the beginner blues class.

“Why would I need to take dance classes in a dance that I already do at the bar and [the weekly swing dance venue]?”

You know, from one point of view they are completely right. There is no “right” and “wrong” way to dance blues (ed. see Bryn’s comments after the post though) as there is a right and wrong way to dance other dances such as ballroom or the local flavor of lindy hop. So why even bother with a class?

So my strategy – instead of trying to convince them that what “they” are doing is not what the rest of the blues dance community in North America are doing, I am simply going out and dancing blues that I know as much as I can, wherever I can. Then when others ask me what kind of “styling” I am doing, I point them to awesome workshop events (and consequently youtube dance clips ie. bluesshout) that I have learned from, and if they want to learn but a small piece of that, “hey by the way I’m trying to unload all my knowledge to the dance scene as fast as possible so we can grow”.

Dispelling the “blues is dirty” mentality

Yes, I get it. You went to a blues house party one time and all you saw were people grinding all up on each other and getting drunk. Yes, that’s a part of the blues dance scene here but it doesn’t have to be like that all the time. In my opinion, blues dancing is a very classy dance. Let me show you why… [proceed to show dance clips online].

As an added learning benefit of my crusade to make blues dancing in Toronto a more “legitimate” dance, I’ve started actually reading more about the history of blues music, culture, and dancing. Win-win.

Get people interested in the music (and the rest will become easier)

The music is super important to a dance.

If your students are not into the music, they won’t be into the dance. During the classes I try to introduce as many great blues tracks as possible and I always send a track list to anyone that asks. I have found that by doing this, students are more likely to come back and take additional classes.

It’s a bit more effort to do this on a weekly basis but…

Teaching is hard work

Teaching does not make me a lot of money, when compared to the amount of time spent doing it. Between renting out studio space, emailing interested dancers and answering their questions, constantly printing promotional materials, lesson planning, and going out social dancing as much as possible, I probably would make more money working at Starbucks (which conveniently is underneath where we hold classes). But you know what? I would do it all for FREE because I love every single moment of it.

It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of hard work. But each and every time I end a dance class, I feel reinvigorated about the dance myself which means I want to work even harder to make the next class better. The personal growth for myself clearly outweighs the time spent prepping and teaching.

Actually care!

I’ve also learned that you actually have to really care about your students. Like actually. For reals. Otherwise, it will show through in your teaching and in the class. You cannot fake sincerely wanting another human being to succeed in something that you love doing yourself.

Admittedly, during the course of this year, I came to class one time just not being motivated or interested at all. It was a blizzard outside, I had a long day at work, and I’m pretty sure hills were being perpetually created wherever I started walking towards. Never again.

If things were getting a little stale, I changed something up, anything really to get me amped up again. For example, maybe the warm-up is just a bit longer or with a more jaunty song, or perhaps I’ll try to put a more “intermediate” move in just to see if I can break it down for everybody. The lesson for me really was to not let external factors negatively spill onto my students, who have taken time out of their evening to come to class.

I cannot stress how much actually caring has been beneficial to the success of the blues dance class.

Have a great teaching partner who will compliment your strengths

Kathleen has been a great teaching partner this year and keeps my craziness in check. She’s also the same height as me.

9 Comments

  1. Bryn

    Word! With one minor correction: there *are* wrong ways of blues dancing. There are no wrong ways of moving to music (only good and bad ways ;)), but there are wrong ways of blues dancing.

    Also, you can eventually get to a point where you’re making good money at it. I’m only partway there, but I still doubled my salary this month by teaching workshops (although that’s not saying too much, considering my pathetic salary).

    But a big, gigantic AMEN to getting people interested in the music and caring about your students. Those are soooooooooo key.

    Congrats, Randy. I know you’re doing great things over there and I can’t wait to see how it changes the Toronto scene (and beyond?).

  2. Kathleen

    Haha. Keeping your craziness in check? I thought I was losing it.

    What I’ve learned from teaching:

    1. You won’t be a great teacher unless you would do it for free. :D

    2. Resist the urge to teach for free; I’ve noticed this when taking classes as well, but paying for something is a reminder that you have something of value to share, and makes you work harder.

    3. There are always days for both teachers and students when things get a little stale. This is the opportunity to change things up; either do something particularly challenging, or something very silly.

    It’s been a pleasure! Looking forward to progressive classes…

  3. Thanks for posting this. A few things you mentioned I’ve noticed also. But you mentioned some things I could pay more attention to.

  4. Kevin

    The “I already know”… attitude is a stubborn one to dispel. How can you make a student out of someone who doesn’t want to be taught?
    It is always sad when people take something extremely positive, confidence on the dance floor, and turn it into something extremely negative, an unwillingness to improve themselves.
    When I want to convince people to take classes what I often do (not that it always works) is tell people that classes will give them a deeper understanding and allow them to be more creative out on the dance floor. It isn’t about knocking their dancing, it is about showing them that there is more to the dance, that their training is incomplete. I sometimes feel like I am channelling the aura of the kung-fu master. (You must empty your cup, you must be one with the dance, you are not yet ready…)

  5. Terra

    Great post Randy and I love everyone’s comments that they have shared. Great work and passion from all of you. Keep up the good work!

  6. Thanks for your comments everybody. Great stuff going on here :)

  7. John

    Great insights in your post, Randy. We’re trying to grow our blues scene here in Chicago, too. There have always been people who know how to blues dance here, but these are the more experienced dancers who have traveled and taken blues to expand their dance knowledge. We are now actively promoting blues dance on multiple fronts and teaching blues classes regularly. There’s a group of people here that are organizing monthly dances, monthly workshops, weekly lessons, and a yearly event (CUBE-the Chicago Underground Blues Experience), along with a smattering of occasional house parties.

    While we have a small group of people here (who are not necessarily working together intentionally), you are the main force in promoting blues dance in your city. I think it’s awesome that you are pursuing this. Keep it up! See you at SHOUT!

  8. Yo John thanks for posting! We are years behind Chicago for sure in terms of having an active blues scene but we’re working at it :) Oh also I would like to acknowledge that it is just not me doing all the scene building here in the Tdot. We have other organizations starting to hold dances that have blues content throughout the night that are getting people interested in the dance. However, organizations and people in leadership positions in Toronto are still a bit weary of having an all-blues format due to it’s non commercial viability ($$$). Luckily I already have a full-time job so we never really need to make money off our events (though we do).

  9. Alisha

    Thanks for the honest observations…by the time I get back, you’re going to have zillions of people :p Bixous to you two!

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