Q&A: Everything you ever wanted to know about an All-Star WCS dancer
– posted by Maria
Recently, I had an interesting online conversation with a new-to-West Coast Swing dancer whom I met at the Michigan Classic event weekend. He had many questions for me, and with his help, we’ve turned that conversation into this Q&A.
Q: What was your goal/strategy when you were first getting started with comps?
A: Ha! I had no goal. My West Coast Swing teacher strongly encouraged me to compete, so I did. I won my first contest (Newcomer division at Swing Niagara 2006). I’m the kind of person who doesn’t easily quit once she starts something, so I just kept at it. I went through some very frustrating times and some very fun times in competition. At this point, my main goal in competition is to make finals so I can show off in a spotlight final.
Q: It sounds like a lot of WCS dancers have previous dance background. Tap, Jazz, and Ballet I’ve heard too. Where/who did you learn WCS from, if I might ask?
A: I learned from local teachers here in Ottawa, Canada. When I started here, it was with a country-and-line-dance community that was beginning to get into WCS. There were a few really excellent couples who loved WCS and would travel to learn it, but a local dance didn’t feature much WCS. Those couples inspired me to travel to events and I started taking private lessons with Jordan & Tatiana, Mario Robau, Angel Figueroa, and various others; most recently Arjay Centeno and Jennifer Deluca. I have always needed to travel to learn the dance.
Q: When I went to my first event, I learned that a lot of major cities have regular WCS lessons and parties. As you got more experienced, did you try to introduce WCS to your community back home?
A: Since about 2008 I’ve worked with different people in our community to give WCS here the chance to grow, through classes, workshops, and social dances. My goal has always been to bring the “authentic” WCS experience of the U.S. to here – the quality of instruction, the current music and trends, and so on. For the past 3+ years I’ve been able to offer non-stop weekly lessons and social dances. Today, our WCS scene in Ottawa is awesome! By awesome, I mean it is growing, positive, inclusive, fun, and dancers are progressing well.
Other people are now stepping up as well, in particular to fill gaps where I don’t or can’t spend my time – such as runnig weekend dances, hosting large workshop weekends, coaching teams, DJing, and so on. There are so many elements and roles that go into continuous growth of a healthy scene.
When I started there really wasn’t a Canadian event for WCS, so learning and competing was 100% travel across the border. Every once in a while, Toronto would bring in a pro for a weekend workshop, but mostly we’d drive to Syracuse or Boston. Now, we even have a couple of really good Canadian events within driving distance: Toronto Open Swing & Hustle Championships, and Montreal Westie Fest. I’d love to see one in Ottawa one day, too.
Q: How much time do you spend learning or practicing, either now or when you were starting out? (On your own vs. in the studio, e.g., group classes/private lessons)
A: This has changed for me over time. At first, it was perhaps 2 hours a week. That included an hour group lesson and another hour of practice a week. I would also spend a few minutes a day practicing my footwork solo.
As my first partner and I progressed, we also started to take private lessons once a week.
As we got more “into” the dance and formed some strong friendships, we also started to practice with a small group of friends about once a month for 4-6 hours. And we’d travel about 3-4 times per year to take in workshops and get private lessons at weekend events.
When we were creating choreography routines to perform locally, that added another 2-3 hours a week. We were also asked to start teaching, which in a way is a form of practice and learning – perhaps another 5-10 hours a week over time.
When I started doing competitive routines with a different dance partner, we would do a non-choreography practice for 2-4 hours a week and then a choreography session 2-4 hours a week, in addition to 6-10 hours of teaching.
My current dance partner and I meet 3-4 times a month to practice for 2-3 hours each time. We also do a small-group practice about once a month. We dance weekly at the social event I run, and that’s pretty much non-stop dancing for 2-3 hours plus teaching. We also spend time preparing workshops and discussing concepts. I still spend some time doing solo drills as well, but most of my solo practice these days happens when I’m teaching.
I’ve also always liked to cross-train, so I make time each week for other dances, like Hustle, Salsa, and Kizomba. I’ve spent time in some solo-dance classes like House and Dance Hall. I have always spent some of my training time taking private lessons in other styles.
Today, I spend at least as much time on organizing, marketing, administrating, and leading the WCS community here as I do practicing, dancing, performing, and competing.
Q: Do you have suggestions for practicing by yourself when you don’t have a dedicated partner or have the opportunity to practice on good dance floors?
A: Hmmm, I think the second issue (bad floors) would be a bigger problem than the first!
Practice Without a Partner
I have written these articles about practicing without a partner:
There are always solo drills that you can and should do – especially when you are new to the dance. You can also do a lot while connected to a stretchy exercise band tied to a doorknob or table leg.
One of the things I tell ALL of my students is that if they really do want to get better at West Coast Swing they have to dance it socially on a regular basis.
Practice Without a Good Floor
These are some ideas:
- Only live in places with wood floors 🙂
- Make use of open public space available in the local universities/colleges to practice.
- Try to find a friendly local cafe or restaurant with wood floors that would welcome dancers once a week on a slower night – and remember that they make their money by selling food and alcohol, so attendees need to respect that if they want this to be viable.
- Set up small-group practices in someone’s home where there is floor space – many people in many communities do this.
The best thing you can do for yourself and your community is to rent a public space or dance studio and share the cost. This way, you have partners, you can talk through things with others, you have the floor space, AND your community will have a chance to grow.
Q: What are the most important things a new(ish) dancer should focus on?
A: The biggest problem that pros and instructors and judges see in the dance is people over-reaching their foundations.
It’s tempting to learn “cool” moves and styling before you have a solid foundation of basic technique, or before your timing is solid. When you see a high-level dancer doing amazing things, it’s a result of their technique and foundation – and they have built that over many years.
These are my personal thoughts about what new dancers need and what they should do:
- Allow yourself to be a “Beginner” for at least a year. Maybe for longer. Take Beginner-level classes for at least a year. Do technique drills regularly for at least a year (or forever). IMHO, dancers need to focus on the rhythm of the dance and the basic movement techniques for at least a year to build a good foundation.
- Be immersive in your own learning. Take regular lessons with excellent teachers, and do what the teacher asks of you. When you take a group class or private lesson, spend that time doing what is asked, and listening as if the instructor is speaking directly to you – even if you think you’ve already “got it” or you “already do that”.
- Practice solo technique and drills. A good teacher will give you specific drills to practice on your own. If you have a partner, they will also teach you how to practice with a partner.
- Be patient and realistic. There’s always some ridiculously talented new dancer who will grasp everything very quickly and move up faster than you. Don’t compare yourself to others. Be realistic about your own progress, and get reliable feedback from someone who has experience teaching, coaching, and judging if possible.
- Find one good coach. I honestly believe this is more valuable than taking lessons with every pro or champion you can get access to, certainly in the early days when you are building a good foundation.
- Know your goals and motivations. If you want to compete, you will need to be coached and trained somewhat differently than if you want only to social dance well. Although both types of student must build the same foundation, the focus of coaching/training for competing is shaded differently than it is for a student who has non-competitive goals.
Q: Favorite/best drills in the beginning or today?
A: My favourite drills haven’t changed, and they are the same for beginners and dancers at higher levels:
- Dancing and drilling technique in half-time – i.e. very slowly
- Dance for two, hold for two
- Rhythm drills
- Rolling-through-the feet drills
- Balance and imbalance drills
- Turning technique drills
Q: What do you do when you get stuck in a dance plateau?
A: This happens all the time, to every dancer, at every level. We are frequently looking for new inspiration and motivation. Here are some articles that address plateaus either directly or indirectly:
- In a Rut? Shock Your System
- Give Yourself a Break
- Learn both roles
- I’m Broken
- Are You Over Training?
- The Dance Journey: from Unconscious Incompetence to Mastery & Back
Q: How can you help less experienced dancers without “teaching on the dance floor”?
A: Don’t help – encourage. It can be really hard to control yourself from “helping” someone you can see struggling. But as someone who’s been in the scene for quite a while, who constantly listens to and witnesses the challenges and fears of new dancers, I can say with 100% confidence that the answer is encouragement.
Everyone takes their own path to “good” or to “great”. The best thing another person can do is to be encouraging of progress, whatever that looks like. Someone else’s progress might not look like yours, or like your idea of what progress “should” look like.
I wrote this article that partially addresses the topic. Another thing I would add is what do to if you are asked for help:
- Refer them to an experienced instructor if one is nearby.
- If you’re their only option for instruction nearby, focus on basics – basic patterns and basic technique. Build a good foundation.
- Never feel like you have to “know everything” or even pretend to know much just because someone else looks up to you as an expert or role model.
- Be ready to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that because I’m not there yet myself,” and perhaps follow it up with, “But if you’d like to practice with me or share a lesson with me, I’d love to do that!”
- Focus on encouragement! Reward small wins with reinforcement.
Q: How did you start to learn and practice musicality?
A: Since I was a toddler, I’ve been able to find a beat. And as a kid and teen and youth, I was in multiple dance classes every week and learning choreography every week, so I don’t remember not having musicality. My challenge was learning how to fit my creativity and musical expressing into the boundaries of a partner dance.
For me personally, musicality intensives with Mario Robau Jr. and Robert Royston have been fantastic. Coming up with ways to teach musicality, talking to my peers and other instructors and pros and musicians about it – those things have helped, too.
I always say that you can’t be introduced to musicality early enough or often enough.
- Take musicality workshops and intensives every chance you get! Take them with every teacher who offers them. Take them for the rest of your dance life. There is truly no end to the exploration of musicality in this dance, and for every class you take on the subject you will find some new way to think of it or explore it.
- Timing and rhythm are the best, most foundational musicality – always go back to timing and rhythm drills!
- Listen to music actively. Count it out, listen to the details in the music, listen to songs without their lyrics (you can find karaoke versions of most popular songs). Royston teaches how to map songs and that’s been good for me to learn how to focus and nuance my musicality.
- Check out the DVDs that champions have available on this topic.
I wrote an article about musicality in WCS: Why is Musicality Such a Big Deal in West Coast Swing?
Q: General tips for attending WCS events?
A: My biggest tip would be to attend with a group of friends if you can. Also:
- Set a few goals for the weekend that are not competition related. E.g. “I’m going to ask 3 really good dancers to dance”. “I’m going to take 2 workshops a day”. “I’m going to come back with one new thing to work on in my dance”. “I’m going to meet one new person who I want to keep in touch with”. etc.
- Pay attention to the schedule.
- Stay healthy. Get rest every night, eat well (nutritious food), stay very hydrated, limit alcohol consumption.
- Stay safe, be safe. Many events have codes of conduct to be aware of – but we should always keep the safety of ourselves and others in mind. Dance event weekends can be unsafe places for vulnerable people.
- Take advantage of the workshops and social dancing. I would say that as a new dancer, if you have to make choices about how to spend your time, do workshops and social dancing over competitions.
- Pack smartly! I wrote this article on What to Pack for a Dance Weekend.
Q: What are your suggestions for those who are interested in starting to compete?
A: I’ll answer this in two ways. First, what I wish I’d know or been told when I started to compete:
- Working with a pro and doing pro-am strictly competitions is very beneficial. Because I was recruited to teach early on, and because I didn’t have a pro nearby to do this with, I missed the opportunity and it is a regret.
- Your competition activities and results may become a source of difficulty for other people. Be prepared for some animosity. Stay grounded and humble. Be a decent person first.
- In WCS, the numbers are consistently not in favour of followers. Do the math and understand the implications of it. Set your expectations accordingly. Sometimes in All-Star level there will be more leaders than followers; this will NEVER happen in Newcomer/Novice/Intermediate and rarely in Advanced.
Second, things that I tell my students now:
- Our form of competition is subjective and highly situational. If you are used to competition in other realms – like racing against a clock or hitting a ball a certain distance – WCS dance competition may be frustrating and feel unfair to you.
- When you enter a contest you are inviting others to judge you. If you have difficulty with judgement, competition may not be the right choice for you.
- Competition results are poor indicator of the things that matter most in a social partner dance, including: connection, communication, and partnering skills.
- This is a hobby – have fun, enjoy the experience, and help others enjoy it, too.
Here are two articles on the topic:
Q: Any suggestions for getting comfortable with yourself on the dance floor, especially when it comes to musicality and having to interpret the music?
A: Just have fun! You will discover yourself, and new things about yourself, just by doing – by expressing yourself freely. The rest will sort itself out over time as you learn the technique and the boundaries of the dance. That said, it’s a partner dance, so be sure to focus on giving your partner a good dance as a priority.
Also, I wrote this article 6 years ago but it’s applicable here: Becoming YOURSELF Through Dance.
Q: What have been some of the benefits outside of dance that you’ve gained due to things you’ve done in dance? (e.g., having good posture habits comes to mind)
A: I love this question, because I see in my own life as well as the lives of students and other community members here how this dance can bring so much to one’s whole life. For me, the benefits include:
I’m not by nature patient or a follower. This dance still teaches me how to be more patient, and how to let others take the lead (sometimes). It’s also a channel to explore my “self”, understand myself better, and that definitely leads to greater confidence and better decision making in life
As a creative and physical person, this dance has helped me grow and become more comfortable with who I am at the core, as any good creative outlet does. When I dance I am fully “in the moment”. There is a ton of research on the neurological and spiritual benefits of this.
I have met so many fantastic people through this dance, many of whom I count as some of my closest friends. I love my “dance family”! This dance is an activity where you will mix and mingle with people of all kinds, all walks of life, all professions, and all ages. That is so enriching!
Teaching and coaching are passions of mine, and this dance has allowed me to hone those skills and receive incredible personal fulfillment from that.
I’ve always been physical, and dance wraps up physicality with music, a social experience, creative expression, and more. It’s really the perfect activity for me. It’s developed greater body awareness, it keeps me healthy and motivated to stay healthy.
Q: What are some things you can do outside of dance events and practice that will help your dancing? (e.g., exercise, nutrition, etc., but anything really!)
A: See my cross-training article. Specific things I can recommend include:
- Stay hydrated and eat well
- Work out/get personal training, specifically for: flexibility, alignment, strength, balance, imbalance, and proprioception
- Listen to and learn about music and how it’s constructed
- Watch videos of yourself dancing as well as of others