RAQ: Teaching Dance

Written by Aahz (comments and suggestions welcome)
Copyright 2001, 2002, 2004
Last modified 1/2010

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Table of contents:

Key points:


Introduction

I've run across a lot of dance teachers over the years, some better than others. I've also tried a lot of different forms of dance, including folk (mostly Balkan/Israeli), square, ballet, contra, Regency, ballroom, belly, and Haitian. This RAQ is a distillation of what I believe to be the best practices of all those teachers.

To a large extent, this RAQ is aimed at teaching beginning students, particularly in the semi-structured environments that characterize dance taught as an adjunct to the actual dancing (e.g. the half-hour that many contra dances devote to teaching before the dance begins, or the hour that many folk dance groups use for teaching before request dancing). It should also be no surprise that much of this advice applies to any sort of teaching.


Keep their attention

The basic rule of teaching, all teaching, is to keep the attention of the students. If you don't have their attention, they won't learn.

Generally speaking, if you have students who are motivated to learn, the way to keep the attention of the students is to keep focusing on the material to be learned. This requires some judgment when teaching dance, because the correct statement of the previous sentence is, "keep focusing on the appropriate material to be learned." That is, you as the instructor need to keep a sense of proportion; focusing excessively on style may be a good way to lose the attention of the class.

Keep 'em moving

For teaching dance, this is one of the most effective ways of keeping attention. People who are moving around are more likely to stay awake and less likely to get bored.

More importantly, though, constant practice is the key element for learning dances. The goal is for the students to learn to dance so well that they no longer need to think about what they're doing. Building up the muscle memory during teaching helps people remember the dance even after teaching stops.

Use multiple teaching methods

Each person has a different way of learning. Most people will learn better if you accomodate their learning needs, and using multiple methods makes it more likely that you'll hit a person's preferred learning method(s). More importantly, people usually retain what they learn better if you use multiple methods to engage different parts of their brains.

Some methods of teaching include:

If there are different steps/figures for different people in the dance, make sure to carefully specify which people are performing which steps/figures. This is particularly important for couple dances, where there's a tendency to assume that the man will "just lead".

One common mistake that I've seen is excessive reliance on verbal instruction, which leads to the next point.

Demonstrate

This is one method of teaching, but it is so critically important for teaching dance that I'm making it a separate section.

Demonstration is primarily a visual technique, but it is not only a visual technique. Demonstration is most effective when it is accompanied by auditory reinforcement, either calling out instructions verbally or using the music to orient the dancers to the steps. Demonstration often works best as a prelude to the actual instruction, by showing the students what they're expected to learn.

One caution: many people have problems with mirror-image demonstrations (when you're facing your students so you can watch them and catch mistakes). They will find it helpful if you find an experienced dancer to be your assistant and demonstrate from the same orientation as the students.

Give feedback

The final element of all instruction is feedback. Because much dance is taught in a cooperative social environment (rather than an academic setting), it is especially important to give constructive feedback that encourages the student to keep learning.

You need to remember that "constructive feedback" refers not just to correcting errors, but also to delivering positive reinforcement. People tend to be just as poor at recognizing success as they are at recognizing failure. Tell them when they've done it right! You'll have happier students.

It is critical that the feedback be focused primarily on the material being taught. For example, if the teaching is focused on footwork, excessive attention to posture and hand movement will detract from the teaching. This paragraph should not be construed as objecting to all miscellaneous feedback, but as an injunction to stay focused.

Giving feedback requires that the instructor pay attention to the students. Alas, many dance classes have one instructor and more than twenty or thirty students -- some even have as many as a hundred students with only one instructor. Fortunately, such environments are almost always salted with experienced dancers, many of whom are likely to be experienced instructors themselves. You should make a point of using these resources to give feedback to students. A good ratio is one helper per 10-20 students.


A sample script for teaching

Here's where it all gets put together. This is a sample script that walks through teaching a dance, using all of the techniques described above (to make the example concrete, I'm using Black Nag, an English country dance):

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References

Here are some additional references that I used to help write this RAQ:

NEFFA Dance Leadership links
The Markid's Responsibility (dead link, available in archived form)
dancing.org: Work In Progress


What's a RAQ?

A RAQ is a Rarely Asked Question, as opposed to a FAQ (Frequently Asked Question). I call this a RAQ because my experience is that too few dance instructors consciously try to improve their teaching skill. I borrowed the term from Raphael Carter's Androgyny RAQ (which sadly no longer exists, but is available from the Wayback Machine in archived form).