Diane Silver
Calling for contra, square and other set dancing; couples dance and other social dances.
I can't believe this much fun is legal!
Contact Schedule Dance Calling Asheville Area Family Dance Articles, Essays, Publications, etc.
Home Page What Others Have to Say Workshops Clogging / Flatfooting Day-Job/Non-Dance Stuff

The Fine Art of the Beginner Lesson
by Diane Silver

Click here to stream or download an MP3 of my beginner lesson. (~9.5 MB)

A number of people have asked me to publish my beginning contra dance lesson that I do at weekly or monthly dances where a beginner lesson is advertised. So, since you asked, here is a little analysis of the rationale behind my beginner lesson, and a link to an MP3 to hear how it actually goes.

I think the traditional approach to the beginner lesson is to start with the easiest moves, such as circles, do-si-do, stars, etc., and then build toward the more difficult moves, such as swing, ladies chain, and hey-for-four. Some callers start with an explanation of the structure of the music and practice just walking in time to the music, or they start with an explanation of the contra dance lines, including 1s and 2s, and what to do at the end. I understand the logic behind this kind of progression, but a while ago, I turned the whole thing upside down, and here's why:

In the context of a modern contra evening, there is likely to be a mixed crowd of experienced dancers and beginners (and of course, many intermediates). We always hope that the experienced dancers will be welcoming, helpful, patient, and positive, allowing the caller to teach as needed to bring the beginners up to speed, but we also know that not everyone will meet those idealistic expectations. Some experienced dancers will become impatient, frustrated, and eventually intolerant when there is too much wrangling needed on the floor, when the line unzips, when neighbors are continually late, when more often than not they don't get good weight, and when the caller goes on and on. In addition, some experienced dancers, with the best of intentions, will try to help beginners by giving a personal side lesson on how to swing or how to give weight. While this is well-meant, if it is done during the walk-through, it has a negative impact because the poor beginner is trying to listen to two teachers at once. They end up not really hearing the walk-through, and then they are disoriented in the dance. Talking over the caller is also rude, but that's another issue.

The beginner lesson is supposed to give new dancers the tools they need to get started, so that hopefully they won't be overwhelmed and frustrated and eventually give up. There is no way you can teach everything they need to know in just 30 minutes (sometimes only 20), so I believe the beginner lesson must be about setting priorities. What is the most important information for them to have going in, so they can succeed in the early dances? My goal is for everyone to have fun - the beginners and ALSO the experienced dancers, so what do the beginners need to know so they don't frustrate the old-timers? I believe weight, swing, and progression are the top priorities.

In addition, what are the concepts that are most difficult to teach on the fly, i.e., that require the most explanation, where it's difficult to actually see what is going on? These are the things that should be covered in the beginner lesson, when everyone's attention can be focused. Moves that are easily learned through observation (therefore, not requiring a lot of talking), can be left out, in the interest of time, to be learned on the floor. For this reason, I don't waste precious time on circles and stars, and I breeze through do-si-dos and allemandes pretty quickly. I focus on weight, swing, and progression, and then if time, right-and-left-through and ladies-chain, with a focus on the courtesy turn, which is always the part that trips up the newbies.

In addition, there's a question of order. In educational lingo, there's a concept called "scaffolding." It's the idea that learners build new information on the foundation of previous knowledge. Just as you can't work on the 10th floor until you have the first 9 floors below it, people need basic knowledge before they can put it together into more complex understanding. But, that basic knowledge has to be relevant to the more advanced ideas. Furthermore, learners have a limited capacity to absorb new information at one time, and at some point, they reach saturation. So, while circles and stars may be easier than swinging, I start with the concept of weight and swinging, specifically because it is more difficult. Better to cover the hard stuff while the learners' minds are completely clear and they have the greatest capacity to absorb new information. Also, circles and stars aren't the building blocks of swinging, weight is, so starting with them is irrelevant to developing good swingers. And if the beginners learn how to swing well, the experienced dancers will be MUCH more willing to dance with them. Then through experience, beginners can pick up how to circle and star and go forward and back, mostly through observation and imitation, without a lot of side talking needed during the walk-through.

Finally, dance is kinesthetic, so while the challenge is to find words to get the dancers to do what you want them to, giving good weight is something they need to FEEL. I take them through some brief exercises that let them experience what that means, so they can FEEL what it's supposed to be like, and then put a label on the feeling so we can talk about it again. (Listen to the MP3 and you can hear how I do that - too much to script out). Also, I do teach a buzz-step swing. I think just teaching a walking step and letting them pick up the buzz step as they go is a cop-out, for all the reasons just discussed - the mechanics are subtle and kinesthetic, so you can't see what makes it work just by watching. The buzz step requires a bit of explanation, and some scaffolding, so it's worth spending time on it during the lesson so folks aren't talking over you during the walk-throughs.

So, based on the above analysis, I've taken the traditional order of teaching -- walking to the music, circles, stars, do-si-do, allemandes, ladies' chain, then swing - and I have reversed it. First, I teach weight, swing, and balance and swing (what it really means to balance!). Then I touch on allemandes and do-si-do, but I keep it brief. I do all this in a big circle, rather than long lines, because everyone can hear and see better when the teacher is in the center of a circle, rather than up front or somewhere along the long lines. Again, the logistics of how contra dancing works can be picked up relatively easily through observation and silent assistance from others, while weight and swinging cannot. Make the most of the limited workshop time! (I simply run through the line logistics as part of the walk-through of the first dance. Since I've already taught all the moves in the dance, the actual walk-through is very short).

Back to the workshop: Once we've done weight, swing, balance and swing, do-si-do, and allemandes, I form a Sicilian circle and teach the grand concept of "pass through to new neighbors." Again, newbies unzipping the line is one of the things that really frustrates experienced dancers, so if nothing else, if they know how to progress and look for new neighbors, experienced dancers will be much more willing (and able) to help them with other moves. Then, if time, I do right-and-left-through and ladies-chain, emphasizing the courtesy turn.

Everything else -- hey-for-four, petronella spins, wavy lines, etc. -- are taught the first time they are encountered in the evening. Of course you could teach any of these moves if time allows, but I intentionally spend more time on weight, swing, and progression, and there is seldom time. But I think the trade-off is worthwhile because more advanced moves are more about navigation than mechanics, and again, navigation is more easily picked up on the fly, while mechanics are often invisible (where to go, rather than how it should feel). Also, by this time, saturation starts to set in and it's better for new dancers to get to dance some easy examples using just those basic moves, and also to learn the navigation of how contra lines work, before overloading on even more moves. This is why I save the hey for later in the evening, once we're ready for it.

Many callers use music throughout the beginning lesson, having the dancers practice each move in time to the music, as they go along. I don't do this because, again, it's a matter of prioritizing the use of that very limited time. For a church group or wedding or conference, where everyone is a beginner, then yes, I teach one or two little concepts and then do a dance that uses them. But in this context, I am focusing on the most critical information in an effort to set them up for success once the music starts. They're going to have three hours of great music, but no time for extensive teaching once it starts. Plus, you can give tips for fine-tuning as you go along, such as explaining the musical phrasing, and still keep the walk-through short and sweet.

I know many callers will disagree with this approach, and obviously, everyone will make his/her own choices. I offer this run-down because I've had good success with it in some of the most challenging circumstances - i.e., big numbers with big extremes - 100 or more experienced dancers with little patience and 50 or more total newbies who won't just get absorbed, plus many in-betweens. With these basic skills, beginning dancers can get through the dance without melting down, and knowing how to swing and give weight, they can actually feel what makes it fun, and that success gives them their first taste of the dancers' high. And when beginners don't melt down and do give weight, experienced dancers are able to enjoy even the simple dances that begin an evening, and everyone has fun. And that's the goal.

Click here to stream or download an MP3 of my beginner lesson. (~9.5 MB)