How to Give a Beginner a GREAT Dance

Think back to your first dance lesson. Remember your first West Coast Swing social dance night. How did you feel? What occurred and how did you react?

I remember the first West Coast Swing dance I attended. My partner and I were so intimidated! I’d never had to follow another leader before. He’d never had to lead anyone else before. He was petrified that he’d accidentally touch someone’s boob. I was stressed out about all the moves that were being thrown at me without having any experience with most of the scenarios. I distinctly remember telling my partner that we had stumbled into a bizarre sub-culture and that we would need to be careful of “those people”.

It’s a miracle that we stuck with it. But here’s why we did: because we met some nice people who were friendly and encouraging.

When you’re a beginner, EVERYTHING is strange. The class or the room is filled with people you don’t know. You may never have danced in your life, so you are asking your body to do things it finds strange. You may be there against your will. As if it’s not already difficult enough to get your body to move in new ways, in partner dancing you have to do it in front of other people! In front of a person who is looking right at you the whole time (your partner)! It’s actually a miracle that ANYONE sticks with it!

A new dancer is the most precious of all, yet they feel the least worthy. They are the most vulnerable, the ones most likely to give up. If you can make a new dancer feel comfortable and have fun, you’ll improve your whole dance community.

If you aren’t sure how to do that, I’m writing this to help you out.

Baby Birds

I think of new dancers as baby birds. They are awkward and new to the world. They are just discovering their feet and their wings and their faces. Their first social dance is equivalent to being thrown out of the nest. They need a soft landing.

How to give a soft landing:

  1. Introduce yourself first. Say hi, offer your name, and ask for theirs. Ask how long they’ve been dancing. If they’re new, tell them that’s awesome. Then ask them if they’d like to practice their (dance) moves on you.
  2. Be O.K. with a no. If they decline a dance, be O.K. with that. Maybe they are overwhelmed. Maybe they aren’t comfortable with so much touch yet. Maybe they are sore or tired. Maybe they feel too sweaty. Simply say, “O.K., I’d love to dance with you another time – please come and ask me later on.”
  3. Be patient. If you feel impatient when you dance with someone, it’s because your expectations of that partner or that dance were flawed. Shift your focus. Forget about your dance/experience and make it a game or challenge to yourself to figure out how to make your partner’s dance awesome.
  4. Smile. A lot. Develop a perma-smile. The other thing to realize about a baby bird is how sensitive they are. Every single experience is new, and they are taking it all in. If a grimace comes across their partner’s face, they’ll notice it. If their partner looks impatient or dissatisfied, they’ll see it. Those little cues will shut them down with anxiety and they won’t be able to make progress. But if you smile, they’ll relax and will learn and improve faster. (And so will you!)
  5. Say thank you and use words of encouragement. A more experienced dancer with confidence in what they are doing might take for granted the power of encouragement. So make an effort to think of one thing that you enjoyed about the dance, or some area of potential that you see in the dancer, and comment on it. Please do not say, “wow, you have great potential” or “you’ll be good one day.” Just issue a simple and straight forward compliment: “That was great, you were on the beat the whole time!” “You were easy to lead/follow.” “You made me smile.” – Something heartfelt and simple is all it takes to give a baby-bird dancer a soft landing.

Technical Tips

For an experienced dancer to give a beginner a good dance requires some thought, intention, and self-awareness. You’ll need to pay attention to your partner and make adjustments based on their abilities.

Oh wait – that’s a best practice for any dance with anyone at any level!

But I do think it’s helpful to be intentional about how you dance with a beginner or brand-new dancer. The Smoothstyle instructors put their heads together and came up with these tips:

  1. Keep it simple and clear.
    Leads, go back to your basics – think about the first 5 patterns you learned and stick with those for the first part of the dance. If the partner is following brilliantly, try a few more basics and add a turn or two. See how they respond and adjust accordingly.
    Follows, begin the dance with basic footwork and rhythms. Many new leaders will be looking at your feet for help. Practice your perfect “anchor-and-1”. Practice smiling.
  2. Make it interesting. Once you understand your partner’s comfort level and abilities, try to make things a little more interesting. It’s inspiring to see the possibilities of the dance, but remember, you are dancing with a baby bird, so it doesn’t take much to be interesting.
    Leads, start leading the basic patterns with different hand connections. This is eye-opening and interesting for new follows.
    Follows, try an anchor variation or a styling on “1” that does not disrupt the lead-follow dynamic. If these changes lead to stress or confusion in your partner, go back to #1 above. If your partner smiles and enjoys these changes, add a few more.
  3. Stay on time. Newer dancers may get off time easily. If your own timing is very good, you might be able to help your partner keep theirs, too. First – keep mostly basic timing and reduce your use of syncopation.
    Leads, you can bring a partner into closed and do two-beat rhythms on the spot until you can get the follow onto the right foot on the right beat. Likewise, you can use some pronounced double-resistance in open to accomplish the same thing. Syncopating can also help get timing back on track.
    Follows, it can be more challenging to get a lead back on rhythm. Here are some techniques:

    • Wait for a couple of patterns, as the problem may fix itself.
    • Exaggerate your anchor with a pronounce triple step until the leader sees it and catches on
    • If the lead pulls you forward too early, you can shorten your slot to give yourself more room/time to step on “1”
    • In more difficult cases, you can disconnect – say on a side tuck, and reconnect only on time
    • If all else fails, smile and follow whatever – a few minutes of off-time dancing can be fun, too, if you change your expectations

Just Don’t…

There are a few things that you must absolutely never do when you are dancing with a new dancer. I see these behaviours occur regularly, so the message isn’t getting out, or perhaps we don’t realize that we are committing these errors.

  1. Do not instruct on the dance floor. Instruction can be verbal or non-verbal, and neither one is acceptable:
    • Verbal instruction. Do not verbally “help” your partner while dancing. Do not “give them a tip” mid-dance. Do not say things like, “oh, that was the move you learned tonight”. Do not say, “I’m going to do that again – turn the other way this time”, etc.
    • Non-verbal instruction. Do not use facial expressions to express displeasure or failure.
      Leads, do not keep repeating a pattern that your partner isn’t able to follow, in hopes that they will “get it”. Move on.
      Follows, do not “intuit” what you think a leader means and “back-lead” a pattern in hopes of “showing him how it should go”. Get to the end of the slot with the information you are given and leave it at that.
  2. Do not use force.  
    • Leads, never increase your connection so that you can haul a follow through a specific movement or pattern. Instead, simplify or change the patterns you are leading. The follow is not pivoting on a whip? Stop trying to lead whips. Not turning in the right direction? stop leading that turn.
    • Follows, if you need to manage a rough lead, decrease your connection and stay a little ahead of the lead’s timing, especially on turns. Is it good technique? No. Will it help you protect yourself? Yes. Increasing your connection will increase your likelihood of injury.
  3. Leave judgement off the dance floor. You have no idea what your partner’s background is, where their health is at, or what kind of day they’ve had. If, in the middle of a dance, you find yourself judging your partner, switch your focus. Practice your perma-smile instead, and start to think about the one positive thing you are going to say to that partner when the dance is finished.

Next time you go dancing, make a point of dancing with someone who’s new, and be intentional about how you go about making their experience awesome!

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