I've included John's comments below, but thought I'd start a new thread on
introductory lessons, which is sort of the bigger picture of what we talk
about when we talk about a caller teaching the swing.
I don't call much, but I still teach introductory lessons before weekly
dances every now and then. In my community, it's pretty common for local
callers (or even some local dancers who aren't callers) to teach the lesson
when there's an out-of-town caller booked for the night. I think this
system has advantages and disadvantages: as an organizer, I like being able
to control what goes in the lesson, since, as discussed below, I have some
fairly strong opinions on what makes an introductory lesson welcoming and
successful, but if I were a traveling caller calling my home dance, I would
feel at a disadvantage if I could not tailor the lesson the program I
intended to call.
So, what do you all focus on when teaching the lesson? It seems from the
previous thread that there are several approaches:
- teach the moves that are most difficult for dancers to get (right and
left through, ladies' chain)
- teach the moves in proportion to how many times you call them during the
night (swing, allemande, circle)
- teach the moves that will mess you up the most if you don't do them right
(half promenade across, half chain, half anything, really)
- teach skills, such as sharing weight
My approach is really to do none of these. I do teach dancers how to share
weight, and generally teach it in the context of a circle, then a two hand
walk around with one other person, then a buzz-step swing. If I have time
after that I may quickly go through a few other moves, but I don't consider
that a necessity.
Instead, what I focus on is teaching newcomers to dance with a variety of
partners, ask experienced dancers to dance, listen to the caller, look up
for help when lost, and clap to show their appreciation for the performers
at the end of each dance. I tell them explicitly what I think is most
important and what I am there to help them get out of the night: I want
nobody to get hurt, and I want them all to have a good time. At the end of
the lesson, I will even try to point out experienced dancers who I think
the newcomers should dance with at some point. I tell the newcomers that
they should dance each dance with a different person, that it is totally
fine to sit dances out if they need a break, and that if somebody asks them
to dance but they don't want to dance with that person, simply say "no
thank you." I also identify members of the dance committee who are in the
room in case they have any questions at all or have any problems during the
dance, and again stress to them that we are here to help them have a great
The way I view it, if I teach 20 moves in a 30-minute lesson, the newcomers
will not remember those moves after an hour of dancing. If I teach them
that the community is committed to ensuring they have a safe, fun dancing
experience, and that experienced dancers will help them through the rest, I
think that is 90% of what helps newcomers get the most out of their first
Obviously, my view of how the lesson should be only works in communities
with a lot of experienced dancers. I'd never be able to get away with
teaching a lesson without telling anybody what an allemande is if the hall
is full of beginners.
On Tue, Jun 23, 2015 at 2:13 AM, John Sweeney via Callers <
Thanks for all the great ideas/
Yes, I should say gallop instead of skate-board – I start with “Now walk
fast on the spot” before I tell them to turn, so I assume they are going to
keep alternating their feet, but some don’t! Maybe “gallop” will help. I
did get one guy at a workshop tell me that he had been taught to keep one
foot fixed on the floor on a single spot. I showed him what would happen
if we both did that – in slow motion, otherwise it could have been quite
Ron asked, “Okay, so what about my first comment: Not everyone is
physically able to do the buzzstep swing?”
Well, my first statement was “Yes, of course I always tell dancers that
they can walk instead of buzz” and the last line of my sample teach was,
“If you are having trouble with the buzz-step then you can always just
So I thought I had covered that. Sorry if I have misunderstood.
At one of the weekly sessions I run we get around 25 to 30 people each
week; most of them are ladies, and the ages range mainly from 50s to
mid-80s. We provide badges saying, “Please swing gently” and we tell them
they can walk. I always teach the buzz-step and they all try it. Most of
them carry on doing a buzz-step and very few wear the badges after the
first few weeks once they have got used to swinging.
They also love my no-swing contras – they don’t need swings to have fun!
Ron also said, “The single most important thing to teach a dancer is "it's
okay to make mistakes".”. I agree that that is important and we joke about
the mistakes a lot. Sometimes they have the most fun when they fail
But my Rule #1 is:
“Every dancer has the right to get on the dance-floor and have fun without
I have been hurt a lot on the dance-floor. I used to dance Ceroc/Modern
Jive three or four nights a week. You know the way that some people yank on
you when they step back in the Balance before a swing? Well in Modern Jive
you step apart about once every eight steps, and the general level of
technique teaching at Modern Jive classes is very low, so most of the
dancers have never been told that they shouldn’t pull when they step back.
In fact some of the <expletive deleted> teachers actually tell them to pull
to generate tension, without mentioning that the level of tension required
is around the one ounce level, not the one ton level! So I ended up with
repetitive stress injuries which weakened my muscular infrastructure and
when an aerial move went wrong in a practice session I ended up tearing one
of my rotator cuff (shoulder) muscles badly.
– that’s me in black.
So, having had two shoulder operations, and not wanting any more, if my
partner appears to be about to throw their whole weight at me when they
step back in a Balance & Swing then I step forward to prevent it. (Once
having asked a lady to stop pulling on the step-back as she was hurting me,
and failing to get through to her, next time we stepped back I pulled on
her. She immediately got cross and said I had hurt her. The irony appeared
to be completely lost on her!). And if a lady leans back in a swing then I
move my hand from her shoulder blade to her waist so she has to stand up or
fall over! I have learnt a lot of self-defence skills over the years!
I recently ran a “Contra Skillz – Style and Technique” workshop at a UK
festival and the experienced dancers loved it – most of them do want to
improve and do want the caller to do some teaching. (Of course, they
self-selected by attending the workshop in the first place!)
One of the guys is a very good dancer, but my wife, Karen, complained that
his swinging was far too forceful; he was rigid and using too much power.
The first thing I taught in the workshop was that most people will swing
better if they relax. Next time she swung with him, he was, as usual,
rigid, but, because I had empowered her by teaching relaxation, she felt
able to say, with a big smile, “And relax <she breathed out>” – he did the
same and suddenly turned into a wonderful swing partner. She heaped on the
praise and he felt good that he was giving Karen a better swing.
I agree with Tom that we all have different perspectives and so we
approach things differently. That is a good thing as far as I am
concerned. If all callers ran their evening the same way then the dancers
would get bored. Different approaches help different people, and give the
variety needed to keep the dance alive.
My perspective is based on learning the Galway Swing from my Irish mother
when I was a teenager (take an Allemande Right hold, each of you cup your
left fingertips around your partner’s right elbow, buzz – great fun!), so I
have been buzzing for fifty years and would always choose it. But of
course I walk if I or my partner is tired, or if my partner can’t cope with
a fast swing, or if they are such a bad swinger that I need to slow the
swing down to avoid damage. Though actually you can do a slow, controlled
buzz-step swing and that can feel great too.
I also agree that programming is crucial to a successful evening. Apart
from avoiding overuse of particular moves or sequences, providing variety,
and trying to include something a bit different, I am also building the
move set slowly so that newcomers get to a point where they can do great
dances later in the evening because they have seen all the bits already.
The Right & Left Through is such a counter-intuitive move that I often
leave it out completely. If I need it for a particular dance then I can
change it to a Half Promenade. I certainly never spend time teaching it in
a beginner’s workshop unless I am planning to use it multiple times in the
Thanks again for all the great ideas in this thread.
Maybe I should stop rambling now… J
John Sweeney, Dancer, England john(a)modernjive.com 01233 625 362 & 07802
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