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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Latin Dance Classes

How to Find a Good Teacher

I got hooked on Latin dance after attending a salsa festival at Seattle’s Folklife Festival in the spring of 2009. I jumped head first into salsa classes, with the intention of later learning additional Latin dances. But I ran into some problems.

DISCLAIMER - I am a not an expert, nor have I even tried many Latin dances; as of November 1, 2009, I am a beginner-intermediate salsa student only. I decided to research and write this article partly to help myself understand the topic. However, I do have some experience with a variety of dance teachers, and I’ve received some tips from more advanced dancers. If you disagree with something I’ve written or feel I’ve omitted something important, please share your comments with all of us.

My first salsa teacher made me uncomfortable, though I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. His dancing seemed a little lame, but what qualified a beginner like me to judge him?

I began hearing horror stories about him before he went postal on me in class one day in an intermediate class.

Bailing out was a smart move, though it set me back nearly two months. I wound up taking classes from a REAL salsa dancer - a teacher who actually moves his body (more about Cuban motion later), is also a musician and speaks Spanish. As a bonus, his studio is right across the street from my home! Why should I travel across the city to take classes from some amateur jerk when I can learn from a pro in my back yard?

But I was in for more surprises. For example, I take pride in my ability to find the beat, yet I couldn’t figure out why I so frequently lose it.

I found the answer when I took a Musicality workshop as part of a series of workshops associated with another Seattle salsa festival I enrolled in after having taken salsa classes for several months. The instructor explained that the beat changes in some salsa songs, which can be 3/2 one minute and 2/3 the next.

I have still more technical problems to relate, but they’re best saved for the Salsa page. What I’m trying to sy is this: Latin dance isn’t easy. And the technical challenge is just half the battle. What about social skills?

That can be a formidable barrier to people with no background in social dancing. How do you ask someone to dance, and can/should you dance with them twice in a row? How do you lead them to the dance floor?

These are just a few of the questions I ask myself when visiting the Century Ballroom, Seattle’s salsa mecca. And how do you choose a partner without interviewing them? After all, I don’t want to dance with a woman who dances on the advanced level for fear I’ll bore her to tears. On the other hand, how can I practice the more advanced moves I’ve been studying with a rank beginner?

For all these reasons and others, I found myself suffering from Salsa Anxiety, to put it mildly. I had decided to take classes until New Years, then decide whether or not to drop out, but I began thinking about throwing in the towel a couple months earlier.

* * * * *

Most dance teachers have dealt with all these problems. A good dance teacher is therefore an advisor as well as a teacher. The problem is finding a good teacher, and that’s mostly a matter of doing your homework.

Unfortunately, it can very hard to compare teachers and classes. In fact, some of the better teachers are relatively invisible (here in Seattle, at least). Some appear to be too modest; they don’t even list all their qualifications on their own websites. Ironically, the worst teachers can sometimes get the most publicity.

Of course, you can always ask other dancers and students. However, their advice can be flawed, especially if they’ve only taken classes from one or two teachers.

But don’t despair. I did the homework, and the results are below.

Finding YOU

Before you begin searching for a dance teacher, you should check out one other very important person: yourself.

Everyone enters the Latin dance arena with different experiences, skills, talents, motivations, goals and expectations. In addition, everyone learns differently - and there are also differences between the sexes, as well as in their roles as dancers (lead versus follow).

With that in mind you might begin by asking yourself why you want to dance. Do you see yourself as a very casual dancer who just goes out one or two nights a week, or do you want to be a hotshot? Do you want to become a performer or a teacher? What dances do you want to learn? Are you male or female?

You may not need the best teacher in town if you’re a very casual dancer, are just testing the waters or want to learn a relatively simple dance. But if you want to be a good dancer, then a good teacher is certainly a major plus.

Salsa poses special problems. It’s a relatively difficult dance to learn, and there are relatively few really good salsa teachers out there. Making matters worse, there are at least three major types of salsa (On1, On2 and the more traditional circular salsa).

Your progress will also depend to a great degree on your dance background (or lack thereof) and aptitude. One of my favorite dancers at local venues performs with unmatched passion. She’s especially good at bachata, which is reportedly her favorite dance.

One night I asked her who her teacher was, and she told me she never took classes; she picked up everything she knows on the dance floor. Which raises another issue.

It’s my perception that men teach dance to women far more than the other way around. I often see guys walk into the Century Ballroom and ask some novice to dance, then teach her a few moves. In contrast, I very rarely see women teaching men.

Of course, my observations apply primarily to salsa, and they may be little more than an inaccurate stereotype. (I’m anxious to get some feedback on this.) The point is that a dance teacher who works well for men may not work as well for women, or vice versa. If you want to take a ladies’ styling class, you’ll probably want a lady teacher.

How to Choose

Once you’ve evaluated yourself and established some goals, you’re ready to find a dance teacher. But what should one look for in a good dance teacher or school? How can you tell if a teacher is good? What resources can you use to supplement this reference in your search?

I posed the question What makes a good salsa teacher? on SalsaForums.com. More experienced dancers quickly reduced my list of ten tips to two or three fundamentals. The general consensus is that the most important quality in a good teacher is (big surprise) teaching ability. Dance ability is also very important. Musicality is another very important quality in a Latin dance teacher.

So I rearranged my list while retaining some of the less important or more controversial items, all of which should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Big Three

1. Teaching Ability - Is an instructor a good teacher? Can they explain things clearly, or do they simply teach by asking students to imitate their moves? Do they go into detail, explaining why certain things are done the way they are? Do they display a deep knowledge and love of Latin music and dance? Do they have a sense of humor? Do they appear to be genuinely interested in helping their students become better dancers?

A good key word here might be rapport. Do you feel a connection with your teacher, or does it feel like you’re both in your own little world?

2. Dance Background & Ability - The best dancers can be poor teachers. Conversely, poor dancers may be good teachers, but they’re severely limited if they can’t even demonstrate whatever they’re trying to teach. Ideally, you should look for an instructor who’s a good dancer and a good teacher both.

How long has a teacher been dancing Latin dance? What kind of training did they receive? How many Latin dances are they familiar with? Do they have a background in ballet or other non-Latin dances?

3. Musicality - Obviously, there would be no Latin dance without Latin music, which can be incredibly complex. Since you’ll probably never be truly good at Latin dance without understanding the music, it helps to have a teacher who understands the music, especially one who teaches musicality. In fact, some schools offer special courses on musicality. If yours isn’t one of them, you might inquire about a private lesson focusing on musicality.

You’ve struck gold if you can find a good Latin dance teacher who’s also a musician.
(One of my favorite salsa teachers is a singer and flamenco guitarist.)

Points to Ponder

Some of the following items may be trivial or downright stupid. However, I think most of them have a little merit. It certainly doesnt hurt to keep them in the back of your mind when looking for a dance teacher.

4. Dance Style - No two dancers are exactly the same. Every dance teacher has a unique dance style, based largely on their background and training. For example, a salsa teacher with a background in ballet will likely dance a little different than a salsa teacher with a background in flamenco. But even two dancers with the same background will likely have different styles. It’s nice to experience different styles, but it’s even nicer if you can eventually find a teacher with a style you would like to emulate.

5. Cuban Motion - As far as I know, this has no bearing on tango (which I’ve never tried), but it’s what salsa is all about (in my opinion). So I was amazed to discover that many salsa teachers don’t even exhibit Cuban motion when they dance!

So what is Cuban motion? The term refers to the movement of the hips and rib cage that is so characteristic of Latin dance (not just salsa). For some examples, check out the videos Cuban Motion in One Lesson and The Cuban Motion in Salsa Dancing for Beginners.

Note: This item was roundly criticized in the discussion I started at SalsaForums.com. One individual noted that some teachers may cover it in depth without using the term Cuban motion. Others suggested it isn’t that important in a beginners class. Some even said that learning it wrong in the early stages of your dance training can have disastrous results. One individual wrote that beginners who are exposed to Cuban motion don’t learn it any faster than people who first tackle it as intermediate students.

This might be an item you want to discuss with your teacher. I think most Latin dancers would agree that a good teacher is generally one who has mastered Cuban motion and teaches it to students at some point.

6. Diversity of Classes - Does a teacher or school teach just one dance (e.g. salsa), a few dances or many dances? Do they only teach Latin dances, or do they also offer classes in ballet, swing or other non-Latin dances? Do they offer special classes, like musicality or Latin music/dance history or culture? Schools that offer a variety of classes focusing on a single dance (e.g. beginning, intermediate and advanced salsa series plus musicality and reverse partnering) probably deserve a little extra attention.

One of my salsa instructors often includes a little merengue or bachata in his salsa classes. He and many other salsa teachers also have special workshops focusing on bachata, tango or other dances, often inviting other instructors who specialize in a particular dance.

I’m not suggesting that a teacher who only teaches salsa is better or worse than one who teachers salsa, merengue and bachata. It’s just something that may or may not have relevance for you.

7. Awards & Accomplishments - How can you distinguish a great dancer from a mediocre dancer if you don’t yet have a clue about Latin dance? Well, the better dancers often participate in performances or competitions. They may have their own dance companies. If they or their students have won awards or placed among the finalists in prestigious competitions, they’ll typically brag about it on their website.

Unfortunately, this can be misleading, as competition requires a different skillset than social dancing. In fact, some good performers are terrible social dancers.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore a champion or a showy performance group, but it needs to be put in perspective. A teacher’s greatest accomplishment is his or her students.

8. Spanish - A Latin dance teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, some of the best Latin dance teachers in the world don’t understand Spanish. (OK, that’s just an assumption; I haven’t actually queried the world’s best teachers regarding their linguistic skills.) However, if you really want a holistic experience, if you want to understand the origins and culture of Latin music and dance (not to mention the lyrics), then it’s really cool to have a teacher who speaks Spanish.

9. Studio - A dance studio can make a lot of difference. Is it big enough? Does it have a mirror - not the kind that hangs on bathroom walls, but one that covers an entire wall? Does it have a good music system? What kind of floor does it have?

Several more experienced dancers scoffed at this suggestion, noting that dance teachers often teach in rented spaces, out of their homes or in students’ homes. But if you’re considering taking classes from a teacher who
teaches in a more traditional studio, it wouldn’t hurt to check it out.

10. Website - This may be my weakest suggestion. A lousy teacher could have a fabulous website and vice versa. However, I think a website can sometimes tell us a little about the person it represents. A website that features some educational material relating to Latin dance gets my attention.

One very helpful feature is websites that post online videos of moves taught in classes. Of course, many teachers allow students to film videos of them in class. But it’s more convenient if the video already exists.
And what about students who don’t have video/digital cameras?

More Things to Consider

Neither a dance school’s location nor class fees are necessarily indicative of that school’s quality. Nevertheless, they may be important to you, depending on your transportation and financial situations.

Class size is a two-edged sword. On one hand, smaller classes mean more individual attention (and less confusion). On the other hand, a small class size may be evidence of a bad or unpopular teacher. (However, one of my favorite teachers has extremely small classes).

Tip: A really small class can be as effective as a private lesson, at a fraction of the cost.

Larger classes can be nice simply because they give you a chance to meet more fellow students and potential dance partners. Large classes might indicate that a particular teacher is really good...or they might just reflect connections or a lack of competition.

Dance classes are good for something other than teaching - dancing. In fact, your fellow students may be ideal partners, if only for practice. Some dance schools offer parties, socials or similar events. That could be a big plus.

* * * * *

There’s one more thing I want to throw in here. Until I think of a better word, I’ll refer to it as holism. Does a particular teacher like to talk about the history or origins of Latin dance? Have they studied Latin dance in other countries? Do they touch on philosophy, explaining or asking what salsa, bachata or some other dance means?

A holistic teacher may help students with their personal growth, not just dance skills. In other words, a good teacher may be able to help you find yourself. If you’re only interested in learning how to dance, then nevermind.

Additional Resources

There are other resources that can assist you in finding a good Latin dance teacher. If you live in Seattle, check out my article Latin Dance Classes in Seattle.

But even Seattleites would be well advised to enhance their search with some additional aids listed below.

1. Word of Mouth - This is a logical starting point. Just remember that some of the people you talk to could be a little ignorant or biased. It would certainly be more helpful to talk to a couple dozen people than simply act on advice offered by two or three.

2. Internet - Again, this can be deceiving, as bad dance teachers may be great web designers or publicists. However, you can glean a lot of information from the Internet. Remember that most dance teachers like to sell themselves, so if you can find very little information about a particular teacher online, that might be a danger sign.

3. Videos - This is one of your most powerful aids. A video may not say much about an individual’s ability to teach, but it certainly indicates their dance level. So how about it? Is your prospective teacher good enough, confident enough to put a video online, and does that video showcase a real talent or a mediocre dancer?

4. Website - A dance teacher’s website may say a lot about the teacher it represents. Is it well organized and attractive? Does it display a knowledge of and love for Latin music and dance? What about communication skills? Does it link to videos that reinforce classes?

5. Trial Class - Before you shell out $50-$100 for a series of classes, find out if a teacher offers an introductory trial class. Dance teachers sometimes offer special classes at local venues. Maybe a teacher you’re interested in teaches one of the drop-in classes that are offered prior to dances at many Latin dance clubs. Or perhaps s/he teaches an occasional class or demonstration in connection with local Latin dance events. (One individual says he judges a dance teacher by dancing with that teacher, as well as their students, and attending a class to see what they teach and how.)

* * * * *

So that’s my free advice on finding a good Latin dance teacher. If you have helpful comments or suggestions, please contact me or post on my blog. If you think it’s totally arrogant for a novice salsero to offer advice on teachers and/or you think my ideas are lame (or worse), check the links in the Reference section below for more free advice offered by more advanced dancers, some of whom may even be teachers. :)


How to Pick an Instructor (The Guide to Salsa)
Finding a Good Instructor (Sam Boone, ToSalsa.com)
Seven Habits of Highly Effective Dance Instructors (Karin Norgard, Joy in Motion, 2009)
Great dancers are NOT always the best teachers (The Unlikely Salsero - Don Baarns, April 25, 2007)
Studio vs. Club Classes: Different Animals (Part 1) (The Unlikely Salsero - Don Baarns, Sept. 24, 2009)
Club Classes: Insiders View (The Unlikely Salsero - Don Baarns, Aug. 3, 2007)

1 comment:

  1. Well done David. Excellent article.
    See you out and about sometime.
    Dennis Richards