Making the Most of Your Classroom Experience

Maybe you've just started taking dance, or maybe you've been studying for years, but in any case, you've decided to brave the exciting world of group dance classes. How can you make the most of your classes and see improvement in your dancing? A few important tips:

·         Pay attention what your instructor says to the whole class. Treat corrections or clarifications directed at the group as though they could be directed at you personally, and look for ways to adjust your own body/dancing. Generally, in a group class if an instructor makes a broad comment, it means that many or all of the people in the room can use hearing it (some to a greater extent, but most everyone can get something out of it.)

·         Develop a thick skin. When your instructor corrects you, she’s not picking on you. She’s trying to help you get better! Sometimes she may be trying to help you correct a critical flaw, but sometimes, she may see you’re very close to getting something well and she’s trying to help push you to the next plane. It’s hard to take correction or criticism, but it’s the only way we can get better. Avoid making excuses, and ask for clarification if you're not sure what she's telling you.

·         Seek out feedback. Ok, so now you’ve worked on thickening that skin…now ask for the tough feedback. Don’t just fish for compliments, actually ask to know how something is going and (if you’re ready for it) let the instructor know you’d appreciate her honest assessment. (Remember, not everyone takes feedback well, so your instructor may be a little nervous about hurting students' feelings or angering people. Letting her know you *want* honest feedback lets her know she can give it to you, and that helps you get better.)

·         Avoid moving up a level for social or ego reasons.  Be sure your technique development matches your class level. When in doubt, ask your instructor’s opinion. Also, when moving up, consider taking two classes simultaneously for a session or two—one at the lower level (where you feel confident and can continue to really master techniques)—and one at the higher level where you will feel challenged. This is good for your technique, and it can help for you emotionally. When you move up to the next level—to a class populated at least in part with people who’ve taken that level before—you may feel clumsy, awkward all over again. But in your old class, you’re the old pro.

·         Try not to compare yourself with others. Everyone comes to the dance with a different set of experiences, different strengths, and a different biology. Every dancer had her movements she struggled to get, and some that came to her easily. Be patient, give yourself permission to not be perfect right away, and remember, it's not a contest.

·         Train your eye for detailed observation. Train your eye to watch movement carefully. Notice where your instructor places her weight. Which muscles are working and which are relaxed? What are her hands, feet, arms and hips doing? And how is what you're doing similar or different? Being able to observe the details and observe specifically what you need to correct in your movement is the first step toward being able to do the movement properly.

·         Recognize that the darkest hour is often right before dawn. Sometimes you’ll hit plateaus where you feel like you’re not moving forward quickly or at all. That’s ok. We all go through periods of this. Also, recognizing what you’re doing wrong is a huge step toward being able to do it right. So, when you see what you’re doing wrong but your body won’t correct it just yet, don’t despair and don’t give up—change is coming!

·         Practice ALWAYS! Practice in the shower, the office, the grocery store, or anywhere you go. Not all practice needs to be a serious 60 minute concentration session. The shower is an excellent place to practice your undulations. Pumping gas? You can get several minutes of shimmy practice! Waiting on line at the grocery story? Dainty hip-drops! Alone in the bathroom at work? Three-quarter shimmy and Tunisians! Look for little moments throughout the day when you can practice the moves you're working on. A few seconds here and there (tummy flutters on a conference call….) can help you get better, and can give you a lift during the day. (Note: if you're too weirded out to dance at your own local grocery store, go to the Chicago Ave. Kowalski's in Minneapolis. They're used to it by now.)  

·         If you don’t know what the most important parts of a movement are, ask. I once substituted for a Level 1 class that was working on a choreography. They were doing very well, but at one point in the dance, the ladies did something I can only describe as "the chicken walk". I watched, baffled, for several moments. Then it hit me. Their instructor had shown them a walking movement…but they'd focused on her kicked-up foot (a particular stylization of hers), not the "core" of the movement (which was in the core of the body). They were so focused on this stylization that they had missed the actual movement entirely! It was an understandable error (and easily fixed), but it serves to illustrate the point—recognize what the important parts of a movement are, and what is just optional stylization. You'll never be worse off for asking, and one question might prevent hours of public chicken-walking.  

·         Take classes from more than one instructor. Of course you'll develop a taste for your favorite instructor and it's good to have a primary relationship, but if there's more than one instructor in your area, take advantage of your good fortune! Different teachers have different styles and methods, and you can learn from them all. Plus, sometimes you can hear the same comment 500 times from one instructor, but simply hearing it in a different voice makes it hit home. So challenge yourself to try out someone in addition to your regular instructor (and be wary of instructor who don't want you to go to anyone else!)

(c) Mirah Ammal, 2006