How to Help a New Dancer Improve

– posted by Maria

As a partner-dance teacher, I’m asked one type of question most often:

  • “But what if my partner isn’t doing [insert proper skill]?”
  • “But what if my partner doesn’t know [insert skill or move]?”
  • “But what if my partner is doing [insert bad habit]?”

“But what if…” questions all reveal that the student asking the question is struggling to dance well with different partners.

The good news is that you can get better at this! To do so, you need to develop two categories of skills that will help you to have consistently awesome experiences when partner dancing.

1. Technique

Dancers who seem able to “dance their dance” with any partner, or who make every partner look good, have strong individual mechanical technique. To adjust to any partner, you need to develop these mechanical skills:

  1. Mastery of timing – strong dancers have strong timing that cannot be compromised by a partner.
  2. Grounding – strong dancers have a powerful relationship with the floor and they prioritize that relationship over the connection.
  3. Balance – strong dancers are in complete control of their own balance in a wide variety of positions and situations.
  4. Frame and ability to hold your own space – strong dancers master the multi-faceted aspects of “good frame”, have excellent proprioception, and can move independently within their own space regardless of what their partner may be doing.

2. Mindset

Dancers who give great dances tend to have a different mindset from those who struggle from partner to partner. To increase your enjoyment of every dance with every partner, develop these mindsets:

  1. Quality mindset: shift from being concerned about the quality of YOUR dance to the quality of dance you are giving your partner. 
  2. Curious mindset: shift from judging the quality or success of a dance to being curious about where the partner is at and what that opens-up in you.
  3. Conversation mindset: shift from wanting to “do all your things” with every partner to treating each dance like a conversation. Each dance will be unique;  each partner will ask and require a unique use of your communication skills. 
  4. Patient mindset: shift from impatience to acceptance. 

Both Mindset and Technique are learnable and teachableplease talk to me about how I can work with you to improve either or both.

We’re All Human

Even “good” dancers have a greater or lesser distribution of skills within those two categories.

  • It’s possible to make every dance feel great with very little technique, if you have an exceptional mindset (although it’s also likely that you’ll cause injury to a partner).
  • It’s possible to make every dance technically successful with exceptional mechanics and a poor mindset (although your partners may not feel good after the dance).
  • Each of us will prioritize and respond differently to these unique skill sets, and we’ll find our “favourite” partners within that.

If you are a competitor, both skill sets are needed to advance. It’s common to see a dancer rise quickly in competition and then “stall out” at some point because they’ve reached the maximum of their current skill level in either mindset or technique.

If you are a more experienced dancer having difficulties dancing with new dancers, this is an opportunity to fail-test your skills and pinpoint where you can improve. It’s also your opportunity to contribute to the success and growth of the community by encouraging others.

But what if …

Two “But what if…” questions deserve some special consideration.

But what if it hurts?

There are situations in which a dancer puts a partner at risk. Squeezing the connection, closing a hand, using force, and moving into high-risk positions are examples. I don’t believe anyone takes up partner dancing to hurt others. In situations when you are being hurt, I recommend to follow this protocol:

  1. Politely stop the dance by saying that you aren’t feeling well, or that you feel pain, and need a break (avoid blame, just state facts).
  2. Assess whether that situation occurs for you with many partners or just one, frequently or rarely.
  3. Ask an experienced instructor to help you troubleshoot.

But what if I KNOW my partner is doing something wrong?

If you know that your partner is doing something wrong, it’s likely because you used to do that same thing wrong and have corrected it in yourself. But, “helping” in class or socially is likely to be counter-productive – here’s why:

  • The thing you know another dancer is doing wrong may not be the most important thing for them to deal with at that time. A good instructor can recognize and support the PROCESS of learning.
  • You’re unlikely to be able to explain it well. The problem you notice may be a symptom of a root problem that needs to be addressed.
  • Your feedback may be taken as insult or judgement. As a fellow student you do not have the implicit permission to teach that the instructors do. This includes if you are an instructor taking a class, in which case you are in the student role.
  • If numerous people in class rotation “help” every partner, it becomes overwhelming, confusing, and discouraging for new dancers.
  • If you’re focused on what your partners are doing, YOU are not improving.

With 10+ years of experience teaching dance in private, small-group, large-group, and workshop settings, I can say with absolute, 100% certainty:

The best way you can help a new dancer improve is to smile, speak encouraging words, and give compliments.