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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Teaching Beginners
By Dave Slater, 1994

Dave Slater


Teaching international folk dance to any group is a skill that requires practice, flexibility, and a sincere desire to communicate what you know to your class. Teaching beginners is not much different at all, except in a very few particulars.

The most common mistake most groups make is to assign the teaching of beginners to a beginning teacher. In fact, beginning dancers need the best, most experienced teacher you can give them. Advanced dancers can learn from anyone, even a teacher who cannot speak English, because they already know how to move. Beginners, for example, often have to be told how and when to shift their weight from one foot to the other. For this reason, they require a teacher who is used to watching a crowd and sensing how much of a breakdown a step needs.

The following ideas on running a regular beginners class are the result of teaching a beginners class for twenty-six years. I find, however, that most of the ideas apply equally well to an intermediate class. I'm not going to discuss a One-Night-Party for a non-dance group, such as a church social, etc. That's a special case that requires a separate article.

  1. A teacher could be responsible and committed to the class; must be prepared to be there every week, rain or shine, even if it means turning down a date with the person of your dreams.

  2. START ON TIME! Don't penalize those who arrive on time by making them wait for those who are late. Rather, start playing a warmup dance on the MINUTE the class is supposed to start – usually with a dance the class has learned recently. This accomplishes two things. First, it gives them a chance to practice what they've already learned, and second, it gets them warmed up, because most beginners' dances are not very demanding physically. One warmup dance is enough, although in an intermediate class, three might be more appropriate before starting to teach.

  3. HAVE A PLAN. Know what you are going to teach and in what order. Plan your progression of steps and dance in a logical sequence. You can be flexible. If the situation warrants it, you can change, but having a plan makes things a lot easier. It's important to know ahead of time what cue words you're going to use in prompting the class. Some people find it difficult at first to dance and talk at the same time. For this reason, you should practice at home, dancing while cuing the steps, OUT LOUD, to an imaginary class.
  4. Beginners learn slowly, but they're not babies. Don't teach something easier only because it's easy. There are plenty of easier dances that are fun to do. Challenge the class a little, but make sure they succeed.

    As far as the progression goes, some dances lead logically into others. A few examples: the buzz step in Ve David can be followed by the Swedish-Finn Mixer. The opening step in Hot Pretzels can be followed by almost the same movement in Road to the Isles. Also, the rhythm of Šetnja – Slow, Slow, quick, quick, Slow – can be followed by the basic Tango step, which has the exact same rhythm.

    Save the Waltz for last, however. It's my experience that of all the basic dance steps, the Waltz is the most difficult for beginners to learn. For that matter, most experienced folk dancers Waltz badly. They do an American-style side step Waltz instead of the true European Waltz.

    Most teachers know that it helps to be able to slow the music a bit while teaching, so make sure you have a machine [or computer program] that has this capability. Then, after they've learned the dance fairly well, you can slowly bring the music up to normal speed.

    Beginners need a lot of prompting, so, after you've taught the dance, it's a big help to them if you go back to your machine and use your microphone to cue them while they're dancing to the music.

  5. Make absolutely sure you know your material. Where did you learn the dance? From whom? Where is it from? Have you studied the dance notes? Do the dance with proper styling. With beginners, don't drill on style because it's more important that they have a good time and feel a sense of achievement. Tell them and show them what the style of the dance should be, so at least they can see what the dance ought to look like.

  6. A few final comments. If you teach beginners, you must be patient and compassionate, up to a point. In any beginner's class, there may be a few people who simply cannot keep up with the rest of the class. As much as you may wish to help them, I suggest that when 80% or more of the class has learned something, go on. Don't hold back the whole group for one or two people. The same applies to answering questions from the floor. Make sure the whole class understands the question and answer it for everyone.

  7. USE PRAISE – and lots of it! Whenever they've accomplished something, tell them so. People need positive feedback.

I believe beginners should be exposed to as wide a variety of dances, from as many different countries, as possible, Don't censor their first experience by not teaching line dances, or couple dances, or whatever. Remember, a teacher projects his or her attitudes in may ways on on many levels. If you teach only line dances, your class may well think there's something wrong with couple dances, and vice versa.

A final note on attitudes. Remember to show your own enjoyment and enthusiasm. Help your class to feel the same way. Keep your class exciting by not wasting time between dances. Encourage them to change partners, and use some humor. Remember that folk dancing is primarily a social and recreational activity for the majority of international folk dancers.

In the final analysis, your class should be able to walk out saying, "I had a good time tonight!"

Printed in Folk Dance Scene, April 1994.