Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dancing with Newbies

I am grateful to have a good group of "dance angels" in our community in Gainesville FL.  These are folks who are committed to being at the dance in time for the introductory workshop and asking beginners to dance - not just one or two dances, but all night long, I've watched as our dance angels approach the newcomers and ask them to dance even the last dance of the evening.

They're not just any experienced dancers though.  We didn't simply ask "Who wants to be a dance angel?"  They were invited specifically because of how they are with beginners, and they having been willing to "get trained" in how to dance with beginners.

We started our training by talking about our own experiences when we were first dancing and what kept us coming back.  I was surprised at the large percentage of our dance angels who kept coming back "despite" the other dancers rather than "because of " the other dancers!  We put a lot of thought into what it means to be a welcoming partner to a beginner.

Early on, we read Bruce Hamilton's document "When You're Not the Caller" and we also looked at "Five Common Myths About Beginning Contra Dancers" by Greg McKenzie.

From these documents and our own experience, this is what we've learned:

The beginners learn much more from the other dancers than they do from the caller (despite what the caller may think!). The caller is saying something that sounds remarkably like "blah blah blah" to someone who is new to the terminology, even if there has been an orientation workshop.  It takes a while for the words to make sense!  But watching the other dancers and being led by your partner and your neighbor through the maze is what really helps.

How does a dance angel best do this?  With body language rather than words.  If the experienced dancer is trying to explain the moves, the dancer just hears more "blah blah blah."  But a smile and directing the neighbor's left hand into the center for a left hand star brings it all together.  The experienced dancer especially does not want to try to talk over the caller.  Set the example that "we listen when the caller is talking."  Even if you think you could do a better job than the caller at explaining it, you are doing more harm than good by teaching the new dancers to ignore the caller.

Drop the fancy stuff.  When dancing with a new-comer, forget the twirls.  You want the person to begin to feel comfortable and safe so predictable is best.  Focus on moving in time to the music and being exactly on time for every move to reinforce to the newbie that we're dancing, not just wandering aimlessly.

As an experienced dancer, you may get bored if you're not doing a hundred flourishes a dance, but this is not the case with a newcomer.  If you encounter someone who is doing remarkably well and expresses interest, you may ask permission - "Would you like to try that twirl at the end of a Ladies's Chain?" and with permission try a gentle, one turn twirl.  If they're interested in doing more, its' great incentive to say, "Next time you come, I'll be glad to try (X) move with you!"  You can be sure he or she will be back next time!

Contra dancing should be a "complaint-free zone."  Don't complain about the band or the caller or the other dancers.  "This is one of our worst callers.  Come back next time and you'll have a better experience."  or "This band is awful, but we keep asking them because we don't want to hurt their feelings."

The message this sends to a new dancers is: "I can't have fun unless the dance is perfect. and I'm going to complain about everything that isn't perfect." The new dancer realizes that she is far from perfect and that she must be ruining it for everyone! Newbies are very self-conscious that they might "mess things up."  They're used to seeing dancing as more of a performance like on "Dancing with the Stars." It's a culture shift for people to realize that contra dancing is strictly for fun and that the "messing up" can be as much fun as "getting it right!"

If you let your partner know that you are having fun, even when she wanders off in the wrong direction, you'll allow her to get a little closer to that realization that she can relax and enjoy the dance.


  1. Ah, the things you can do when you have a single group organizing the dances. We sometimes talk longingly of being able to have "dance angels". The best we've been able manage is a loose confederation of those who respect each other's teaching. (Yes, we do pass new dancers around among ourselves when we can.)

  2. While I appreciate most of your comments, as a dancer of about 25 years and a caller, I find that there is a lot of variation in new dancers and how I address them and their needs. While I will never throw flourishes into walk-throughs, there are some new dancers who can handle flourishes, and want them, later in a dance. These are the dancers who have danced other forms, follow leads easily, and have a good sense of their bodies in space. For such dancers, if they are catching on quickly, I sometimes ask them if they want me to show them a new move or flourish. If they do, I still take responsibility for them and where they are, making sure that if there is some problem that I get them where they need to be for the next move.