Greetings my people! It’s time for a little tough love and uncomfortable truth. I’ve written about numerous problems hindering the growth of our scene, and this post will address another. Often students will take a few months’ worth of classes, and then quickly grow bored and want to focus on learning “moves”, or quit learning altogether. Why is this? Well, part of it might be YouTube and the way dance is marketed, but a large part of this is students thinking that they are more advanced than they are. This at best results in a less than stellar social dance experience for their partners, and at worst can result in injury, as Monica Kay shared in a recent post.
What contributes to this inflated sense of dance ability? Well, part of it is on instructors. Instructors want to be positive and encouraging to our students, and don’t want to be overly harsh in our criticism of beginners, which can sometimes be misconstrued as “yes I’m awesome!” Many instructors will bow to the pressure to teach moves and patterns super early to beginner level dancers who want to dance like their favorite YouTube star. When these students are able to do the patterns in class, they then think they’re high level, not realizing that the only reason it worked is that the follows backlead the whole time, and then when they can’t replicate it on the social dance floor with folks who don’t know the patterns, they will blame it on the lack of ability of their dance partners, rather than their own lack of lead/follow ability. This is a problem.
Another reason relates specifically to follows. I wrote a blog post a while back on the lack of respect for follows in the scene, from leads, instructors, and promoters, but ironically, also from follows themselves! I won’t rewrite that post, but from what I’ve seen this is due in part to the prevalence of bringing solo male instructors (who don’t follow at an elite level) to dance events (which we are working to change), which created a lead-focused experience, and also put far more pressure on leads to get better than follows. Follows were often told to “just follow”. In addition, having all these elite leads around, and seeing the reaction of the follows who would line up and clamor for dances made the guys even more fired up to learn and level up so as to get the same reaction. The follows on the other hand, would sometimes get bored in “just follow” classes, and either not want to stay, or would lead instead. And in social dancing, they would dance with the top leads and think that because they had a decent dance that they are top follows (which is a very flawed assumption). And leads, either because they don’t want to be seen as a jerk and not get dances, or for example because they are an instructor at a festival and don’t want to insult festivalgoers, won’t offer anything that could be construed as a criticism, even if the follow is causing the lead pain!
So this has created a situation where many students think they’re far more advanced than they are, and resist any assertions to the contrary. Where instead of being able to set expectations for students based on their experience and expertise, instructors often feel pressure to teach “moves” and patterns to students whose technique is not advanced enough to perform the moves safely and competently on the social dance floor (of course this excludes instructors who do this due to their prioritization of marketing/commercial interests or lack of foundation and technique themselves). Where follows think they are advanced after a few lessons and don’t think they need to continue training, instead focusing on socials and festivals and dancing with elite leads. This is a problem.
So what’s the answer?
Instructors, do your best to set realistic expectations for your students, and resist the impulse to teach students techniques they are not ready for. There may be students who leave your classes to go to “move” oriented classes, but it will be better for your reputation and the safety of your students in the long run. Also, continue to invest in your own training, so that you might continue to offer ever-increasing value to your students.
Students, invest in quality training from reputable instructors, and seek frequent and honest feedback, and LISTEN TO IT! Focus on developing your basics before worrying about “moves”.
Leads, when you do feel ready to attempt moves, be sure to keep the safety of your follow paramount. The sign of an elite lead is NOT how many moves he or she can vomit into a dance, but how comfortable, safe, and secure his or her partner feels when dancing with him or her.
For my follows, PLEASE continue to invest in your follow ability. Many of you are out here literally hurting leads’ arms with your poor follow technique, but they are too nice to say anything to you. Invest in training from instructors who follow well. If you’ve only learned to follow from a solo lead who isn’t a great follow, then it’s time to supplement your training with instruction from those who are. If your instructor only leads and doesn’t follow well, you may find yourself investing a great deal in instruction that is little more than teaching you how to backlead, which will be very tough on your leads on the social dance floor. Understand that just because you’re able to dance with an elite lead, that doesn’t make you a top follow. In fact, an elite lead can have a decent dance with a first day beginner! That’s more a testament to his (or her) ability than yours. Seek feedback from instructors and dancers you trust and respect, and LISTEN to their feedback. There may be lots of issues in the dance scene in France, but one thing I love is that the follows there are all very motivated to be as “light” and responsive as possible, and the excellent social dancing available there is a testament to that. I would like to take that particular aspect of the scene and bring it home.
Lastly, I want to give a shoutout to all the students out there who are investing in quality training. I know that learning African dance can be tough and very humbling (I know it is for my partner and I), and that dancing should be fun, but we firmly believe that dancing is much more fun when you know what you’re doing. Connection requires trust, relaxation, and confidence, and that is impossible without quality technique, and that requires quality training and HARD WORK. I’m aware this may ruffle some feathers, but as always, what we do and say is for the betterment of the scene. Thank you for reading, and I will see you all on the dance floor!