Dr Duncan James > ticket2dance > How to Teach a Dance Class

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“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

William Arthur Ward

How to Teach a Dance Class

Here are lots of tips based on my experiences as a dance teacher.

At start of class ask followers to give feedback to the leaders and obviously encourage leaders to do the same for followers. I may nominate a particular day to be "follower feedback day" or "leader feedback day" to help with group learning but I will not do this if I feel the class are in very different situations in their personal learning. I will often model an interaction between a leader and a follower to show how these discussions can be positive experiences. Example ways that followers might describe the lead include:- too early, too late, timing good, too weak, too strong, strength good, not clear because hands moving even when there is not a lead, etc.

I try to never say something is wrong. I believe that dancing is a fun activity where it does not matter what we look like but just that we are enjoying ourselves without disturbing others. So, suppose someone is learning waltz then if a particular movement that someone is doing is not harming anyone else but is not typical to waltz then I will generally say something like: "great dancing, I like the way you are trying different ways of moving but to make it more like waltz you could...". And in general conversation during the class I will try to say: "Is this waltz?" This is instead of: "Is this correct?". The emphasis in my teaching is to see all dancing as good and simply see the class as a way of creating new choices and authentic styling.

I have found that an impossible balancing act in a group class is addressing everyone's individual needs and also giving the group as a whole a good shared experience. Sometimes I have taught a class and worked really hard at giving everyone individual feedback and when I do this I find the lack of shared learning aims can make it difficult for shared progress and practice after the class. And if I just focus on group goals I find individual issues get in the way. I try to find a "least worst" balance between these two teaching approaches for every class.

How many partners to move on each time? If a class is working constructively together I will generally just move everyone on one at a time. If a class has some issues such as some learning-style clashes I will try to keep saying a different number: this makes it less obvious when I pick a particular number to keep people apart. I have seen some teachers always move on people 2 every time: be aware that if you have an even number of couples in the class this means any given student will only have danced with half the other people so in this case I recommend sometimes calling an odd number such as 1 or 3 to give everyone a chance to dance with everyone.

During the regular practice time in the class I try to play music for at least 3-5 minutes without me interrupting. I have found this is (on average) a popular time to give students time to work on the learning on their own. If the gaps are shorter than this I get complaints that I am interfering too much. If the gaps are longer I find people want more input.

I try to share a clear "learning intention" at the start of every class. This means explaining what improvements or learning I am planning for during the lesson. The reason I find this important is that some people have a learning style where they seem to benefit from knowing where the class is going. Definitely some people don't care and consider it wasted time. So, I try to be brief and maybe just spend 20 seconds explaining.

As a dance teacher I often exaggerate my stepping to make it clearer for my students to see. This generally means my styling is not typical for the dance. For this reason I try to remind my students every 15 minutes or so that this is an issue and demonstrate briefly without the exaggeration.

A great lesson I learnt once was to stand in different positions during the lesson. The reason I do this is partly to keep things more dynamic and help the students maintain good concentration. I also think it is a way of dealing with things like line-of-sight when students watch me demonstrating, for example it prevents one student having a pillar in the way for the entire class and not saying anything.

If I teach a sequence I make sure that I mention that the sequence is just an example. This is because some students have a preconception, perhaps from other learning, that the order a teacher demonstrates a skill in is the one it has to be done in. I encourage my students to be flexible and either experiment with different orders of doing moves/movements or simply let go and improvise in an unplanned way while dancing outside the class.

If a student is finding something difficult I will usually first demonstrate and/or explain it at least one more time and give them space to ask questions or practice if they want to. Then, if the student is still finding it difficult I usually try to think of a simpler exercise that just practises one element of the problem move/skill. This is a univeral approach I now use as a challenge to myself to take pressure off the student and help them with understanding or experiencing something they are obviously struggling with.

Once people have begun their tasks spend 2 or 3 minutes just observing. If someone interrupts with a question I might say: "Not now, I'm watching carefully." Then I might use descriptive praise to reinforce things like thoughtfulness, taking time, thinking, not rushing, authentic styling and so on. Then I might drift into a teaching role. Obviously I might break from this approach in some cases, for example if someone is repeatedly doing it wrong and not realising but even then I try to be patient.

Allowing mistakes. RElated to the principle of allowing time at the start without interfering I also try to not fix mistakes with too many tricks. I have found the same as has also been found by researchers: too many tricks to fix problems during learning can cause a student to struggle when they try to use the skill in real-life. Therefore I will often avoid the "quick fix" and simply give practical help and then let the student keep practising and trying to overcome the problem. (This means that many of the things I learnt in my early years as a teacher I no longer use!)

Descriptive praise is a way to add value to praise and help the student be empowered to develop further on their own. I try to eliminate words such as good, fine, excellent, great and so on. Instead I try to use specifics and don't slip in a "brilliant" at the end to water down the specific. If this is difficult I might start a sentence with "I really like the way..." and then finish by pointing out something good.

People use differences in movement to learn. So I like to highlight differences between movements to aid learning.

Demonstration is an important first stage in my teaching. I have had a lot of feedback from students that wanted to see the whole thing before then having it broken down as a teaching process. In some cases I find people are then too impatient and this damages their learning: however overall my experience is that the benefits of an early demonstration outweigh the downsides.

A skilled demonstration speeds up learning. However, an unskilled demonstration is almost as good if the teacher provides a commentary on good/bad points and ways to improve it. This has been shown during research. I mainly use this with more advanced students as I find beginners who are not used to learning get confused as they may be concentrating on the look and not listening so much to the words (which I think is a legitimate choice if someone is new and trying to find the best way to personally learn) then demonstrating mistakes can cause confusion.

I feel strongly that teachers should not tell students off for forgetting to do something they learnt earlier. (1) I have often seen students who are clearly trying hard forget something in which case telling them off seems pointless negativity when there was no malice. (2) If I let the mistake go and wait I often find it was only temporary while they were focussing on the new thing. (3) Learning is difficult. I think you should give people a break!

I try to help students by observing characteristics of their movement and describing it to them. They may not be equipped to do it themselves. eg "I observe steps 2 and 3 are in time and step one is early, good relaxed legs and large movements in the shoulder that you might decrease at some point but I think it looks OK". I have often found that students quickly fix things because they just didn't realise.

Feedback directs attention. You are directing the learner's thoughts (and worries and emotional responses and thinking delays, etc) away from other things when you mention something. So, as a teacher be aware of where you are sending the student's attention.

Consider the likely range of conditions a skill will be used under... and make the lessons prepare for this full range. This is an important principle in my teaching and why with dancing I aim to get my students dancing around a crowded dance floor within minutes of starting to learn.

Contextual Learning (versus Blocked Learning). This is a principle that has been developed during research into learning. (i) Blocked learning means learning one thing at a time in big chunks (eg learning one move all lesson). (ii) Contextual learning means learning many things at once in small chunks (eg covering 2 or 3 things in one lesson). Blocked learning has been shown to give great performance during the lesson, but poor retention and adaptability. Contextual learning has been shown to give OK performance during the lesson, but great retention and adaptability. I think this can be misunderstood in dance teaching because teachers do not realise that one move might involve multiple different skills. So, even if I only "teach one move" I will split it up into component skills and teach those separately and not as a single thing.

Contextual Learning is thought to be good because (a) learners can compare and contrast different things. (b) Learners get extra practice at "starting cold" because they keep doing new things.

3 stage posture instructions that I often use:- (1) Stand up. (2) Lean so weight is in balls of feet. (3) Bend knees slightly.

Some tips on leading I like:- A good follower has arms like bungee cords; Lead follow can be practised by trying to be too soft, too hard and then just right; Beginners lead 99% of the dance, advanced leaders lead 51% of the dance. You might open the palm of the lady's hand towards the direction of turn to make it more comfortable.

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

unknown (often attributed to Aristotle but I have seen no evidence for this)

The End of a Class

I like to close a lesson with interaction particularly because it helps me tune my teaching to the specific needs of a group.

Here are some good questions to ask your students at the end of a class. You could get people to do "secret voting" but all facing forward and doing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in front of their chests. I try to ask a few of these approximately once every four weeks so I can keep trying to improve:-