BackTeaching Dance Technique



I believe a club caller should teach dance technique.  Probably many club callers will take exception to this.  “I'm a caller, not a teacher”, they may say.  But if the club callers don't do the job, who will?  People occasionally ask me where they can go to learn to dance, and I don't have a good answer.  There are plenty of clubs where you can learn dances (though we tend not to, relying on the caller), but very few places where you can learn how to dance well.  There's an occasional Technique session at a festival or dance weekend.  I sometimes teach a bit of technique at a Saturday Dance (in desperation), but I don't think that's the best place for it.  The club callers are the ones on the spot, who know their club's strengths and weaknesses and could do a little teaching week by week to bring the whole standard up.  I'm not for a moment suggesting that you should spend vast amounts of time teaching the finer points every week — that may well drive people away — but ten minutes a week could have a dramatic effect on the way your club dances.

Another excuse is “I don't know how to teach technique”.  Well, nor did I when I started calling, but I saw how other people did it, thought hard about it, wrote myself some notes and had a go.  I don't consider myself a particularly stylish dancer, but I could see there was a need for this sort of teaching.  I remember telling Betty Chater that I sometimes wonder what right I have to stand up in front of a group of people and tell them how they should be dancing, and I was greatly reassured when she immediately said “Oh, so do I”!

I'm afraid another excuse is “I'm not a good enough dancer to teach technique”.  This leads to the immediate question: “Why are you a caller then?”  Surely anyone teaching any subject should be able to do what they're teaching!  But probably the most common answer is “People don't come here to be taught — they'll pick it up as they go along”.  And the results of that approach are plain to see in the lamentably low standard of English Folk Dancing in this country.  People are as likely to pick up the wrong way of doing things as the right way, if that's what they see.  Isn't it about time we changed our approach?  All over the country I hear people complaining that we need new members or the clubs will die out, but nobody seems to be doing much about it.  If newcomers visit your club, are they impressed by what they see and therefore willing to put in a bit of effort to join in with the activity?  Or do they see a bunch of people ambling about with no style or life to them?  If we want to encourage new dancers — particularly younger ones — we must present them with something vital, something which catches their enthusiasm and interest.  I don't share the belief that people will walk out in disgust if the caller spends five or ten minutes an evening teaching them how to do some move or step better.  “Little and often” is much better than putting on a Dance Technique Workshop once every couple of years — which the people who most need it wouldn't dream of going to.  Why not give it a try for three months and see what happens?

How do you teach Dance Technique?  First of all, what is Dance Technique?  It's a set of skills which enable you to dance well: possibly to impress an audience or adjudicator if you're in a Display Team, but usually to increase the enjoyment of yourself, your partner and the rest of the set.  Technique is not artificiality — English Folk Dancing is supposed to look natural and unforced — but it still requires a lot of skill.

Some aspect of technique are: moving in time with the music; fitting the steps to the music so that you arrive in the right place at the right time; dancing in an appropriate style for the dance and circumstances; being aware of the other dancers and helping them as necessary.  But how do you teach this?

First of all, you have to take people as you find them.  This is where you as a Club Caller have the advantage over me brought in from outside to run a technique workshop.  You know what your dancers can do, what they will find difficult, what they will object to, and how far you can push them.  In his wonderful book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Steven Covey distinguishes between managers and leaders.  People follow a manager through fear of the consequences — he may make them redundant, or not give them a rise, or just make their working lives miserable.  But people follow a leader because they want to — they are inspired by him, they believe in him, they enjoy the way he runs things.  Obviously a caller falls into the leader category: he rules by consent, and if he goes too far the dancers will sit down or walk out — or at least not turn up the next time he's booked to call.

As I said earlier, the trick is to do things gradually, rather than hitting them with half an hour's technique in one go.  And you need to get the dancers on your side.  If your attitude comes across as “You lot are terrible dancers and I'm going to sort you out”, you've had it before you start.  That's a manager speaking.  A leader would say something like: “This kind of dancing is great fun, and we all do it because we enjoy it, so let's spend a few minutes looking at ways to make it more enjoyable for everybody”.  Remember, if you're not enthusiastic as a caller, the dancers aren't likely to be either.  If you find the “Seven Habits” hard going, why not try Dale Carnegie's highly readable “How to win friends and influence people”?  It will give you lots of ideas about dealing with people and making them willing to do what you want — and the reason the title has become a cliché is that it's such a great book.

So, having sorted out your approach to the dancers, how do you teach them technique?  There are many ways.  Betty Chater never said “Now I'm going to teach you all how to dance better”, but during a workshop or dance she would impart quite a lot of technique, without getting anyone's back up.  She would gently suggest that if you tried it this way you might enjoy the dance more.  She also taught by example; whenever you watched her dance you could see the style shining through.

Let's take something really simple: lines forward and back.  It should take three steps and a close for each part.  What you often get is two steps forward and a sort of close, two steps back and a sort of close, then either wait two beats for the music to catch up or carry on with the next movement.  How can you get the dancers to do it right?  Well, they may never have thought about it before.  It's such a simple movement; how could they possibly be doing it wrong?  Point out that it's the same movement as “Up a double and back”.  The difference is that instead of all moving in the same direction they're meeting someone, so they need to take smaller steps rather than fewer.  Demonstrate it to them while singing the music; some people learn best by seeing.  Some people advocate counting it out — “forward, two, three, together; back, two, three, together” — others say this encourages people to count rather than listen to the music.  You can make a joke of it; I've had a whole room of dancers shouting out “one, two, three, together”, but at least they were doing it right.  As I keep saying, don't hammer them into the ground with it.  They'll get bored if you keep on the same point for too long.  But it's a good idea to return to it a couple of times in the evening.  The next time the movement turns up, you can say (with a smile): “We all know how to do this, don't we”.

Let's look at a more complicated movement — a Grimstock (mirror) hey.  I remember once asking the dancers at a workshop why they weren't fitting it to the music, and getting the reply “no-one's ever told us how”.  Of course, before they can think about fitting it to the music they need to be able to follow the track.  Don't be afraid to spend the time necessary to teach a movement properly; it wastes more time in the long run if you don't.  Start with the ones facing down and the threes facing up, both with inside hands joined, and the twos facing up slightly apart.  Emphasise that you take your partner's hand at the ends and let go in the middle: “bulge in the middle” may get a laugh and therefore be remembered better.  You may need to tell the threes not to let the ones get through them.  Now set them going, and keep saying “Take your partner's hand at the end; let go in the middle”.  Remember to “praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement” (Dale Carnegie).  I once heard of a well-known dance teacher: “She always criticises us; she never tells us we've done anything well”.  On the other hand, sometimes you can “throw down a challenge” (Carnegie again).  If you've got the crowd on your side you can get away with saying “That was terrible!  I know you can do it better than that”.  But don't use this approach too often!

Once they're confident of the track you can look at the timing — though if they've struggled with the track it's probably best to do an easier dance next, and teach another dance involving a Grimstock hey later in the session.  You can walk the track on your own, either singing the tune, or to the music, or maybe just counting.  The dancers need to be aware that after four bars of music (eight steps) they should be in half-way positions.  Now get them to try it to the music, and tell them each time: “You should be half-way now”; “You should be home now”.  Many dancers seem to think it's good policy to keep a few steps ahead of the music; you need to let them know that being ahead is just as bad as being behind.

One more example.  I was teaching a “Hole in the Wall” cross at the Intermediates Class at Cecil Sharp House and trying to emphasise that it's three steps to cross and face, three steps to fall back to each other's place, but they were having real problems with it; they wanted to cross and face in two steps and step back on the third.  Suddenly inspiration struck.  “You need to hover on the third beat”, I told them, and instead of “Cross, two, three, back, two three” I said “Cross, two, hover, back, two three”.  The whole movement came together once they saw what I was getting at — and they were pleased with themselves.

I realise that I've talked at length on just one aspect of teaching technique — fitting the movements to the music — but I felt you needed some real detail rather than vague exhortations to get your club dancing better.  Of course there's a lot more to it.

I called at a Club Night in Luton in May 2001 — never been there before — and I decided in advance that I would teach the waltz step.  I've got a page of notes I've written on Waltz Time, so I went through that and we did a simple dance in waltz time.  In the second half I called “An Enchanted Place” — a more complicated waltz dance — and reminded them of what I'd said about the step.  I didn't hear any complaints — any murmurs of “I came here to enjoy myself, not to be taught”.  I mentioned a few other technique points during the evening — not a separate teaching session, just something while I was doing the walkthrough or the dance.  Barbara Burton, who was playing for me, said they were dancing much better by the end of the evening.  And lots of them came up to me afterwards and said how much they'd enjoyed the evening, which they certainly wouldn't have done if they'd objected to being taught.  On the other hand I've never been booked there again.


General points about teaching technique

You must know what you want them to do, and what you don't want.  If you just have a vague idea of “I'd like them to dance better”, it won't happen.  Of course you can be spontaneous too (though this only comes with experience) — you can see them doing something wrong and seize the opportunity to correct it.  Some people say you should never show them something wrong, but I find it very helpful when the teacher says “I don't want it like this; I want it like this”.  Of course you need the confidence to get down there and show it, rather than staying safely on the stage.

You have to know most of the answers, but not all of them.  There have been times when I've taught something and someone says “But surely it's better to do it like this”.  If they're right, or if both ways have their merits, don't be afraid to admit it.  People shouldn't lose confidence in you because you're willing to see other people's points of view rather than dogmatically insisting that your way is right.  Don't feel threatened if people question you — it means they're interested and they feel secure enough to ask you things.  Don't dismiss their ideas as nonsense — that gets you a bad reputation.  If you can say something like “Well, you can do it that way, but I think you'd have a problem in this situation”, they are more likely to come round.  You can demonstrate both ways and ask the other people what they think — it doesn't have to be all you.  And if most of them agree with you, you've made your point without putting the other person down.  I've certainly changed my views as a result of what other people have said at my Technique Workshops — it doesn't do to be too dogmatic.  You can always finish the topic by saying “Well, I still prefer my way, but other people will tell you differently”.  Remember that in English and American Folk Dancing there is no one right way (as there is in RSCDS Scottish or Modern Western Square).

I've written myself sets of notes on various aspects of Dance Technique, all of which are available here.  When I'm asked to do a Technique Workshop, or indeed when I'm doing any Workshop or perhaps a Club Night, I can look through my notes and select a few topics.  I also have the names of a few dances which illustrate the topics.  So I can put together a session fairly easily — except when I decide it's time I did something new!  Sometimes, especially if I've just written a new set of notes, I will basically read them out — though I hope it doesn't come across that way.  Sometimes I look through the notes just before I'm about to speak again, and enough of it stays in my memory to enable me to seem spontaneous.  It's important that you sound lively and enthusiastic, or they certainly won't be.  If you're really not interested in technique, don't teach it.  You need to come across as confident without being dogmatic — just as you do when calling a dance.  Remember, you can't force them to do it your way; you can only persuade them.


Dance Style

We all know stylish dancers — and we all know lots more who aren't.  How do you teach style?

First of all, there's no one style — Playford, American and English Tradition all have their own style, and what looks right in one is very wrong in another.  Let's look at the Playford style as it is danced in England in the 21st century — other countries and other centuries are certainly different.  Cecil Sharp quoted “a lady of distinction” as saying: “The characteristics of an English Country Dance is that of gay simplicity.  The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motions of the arms and body unaffected, modest, and graceful”.  Surely this is still true.  The RSCDS style is strongly influenced by ballet, but ours shouldn't be.  However, “unaffected” doesn't mean “sloppy” — dancers should stand up straight and tall rather than slouching.  Sharp studied traditional dancers before he started interpreting Playford, and realised that the way to move forward is to lean forward — sticking your leg out doesn't do much!  Dancing is a controlled fall (unless you're doing Argentine Tango).  If you're not travelling, your head and body need to be above your feet, but if you're travelling they aren't — just as in skating.  Sharp also says that to do this the body needs to be in more or less a straight line from head to foot — no bend at the neck or waist, or sag at the knees.  He talks about dancing with the whole body, not just the legs.

Chris and Ellis Rogers wrote an article in the Winter 2001 “English Dance & Song” (the magazine of the English Folk Dance and Song Society), in which they talked about good posture — they say it's not something you can pick up when dancing and drop in the rest of your life — the muscles need to be firmly and permanently honed.

Imagine that a string runs through from the top of your head to between your legs.  Imagine that someone is pulling gently up on that string.  The top of your head moves up, your neck stretches, your chin tucks in very slightly.  Your shoulders drop, your torso lifts from your hips, your stomach pulls in gently, and the base of your spine stretches towards the floor.  Your weight moves onto the balls of your feet; your heels rest lightly on the floor.  When you can maintain this comfortably while moving and breathing easily, you have achieved good posture.
But can you teach this?  First you need to be able to do it yourself; you won't convince anyone otherwise.  If you read those words out and do the actions as you mention them, maybe you will give people the idea — I don't know.  Chris and Ellis say that good posture is something you will learn from few dance technique workshops, and also that one workshop is not enough —
it must be repeated and reinforced and practiced until it is firmly in place