Beginners' workshops

adapted from several posts over the years about how to bring newcomers into the dancing

Many dance communities include a session beforehand explicitly aimed at newcomers. During this time (half an hour or more in some locations), the usual pattern is to lead folks through a series of figures to prepare them for the dances to come.

The argument is that newbies need to know this information, and that a beginners session is the best way for them to learn it. My own experience learning contras came in an era when there were no beginners' sessions, so that's certainly influenced my approach. I think the best way is for the caller to plan a program carefully, introducing basic figures at the start of the evening and teaching more complicated movements, such as a hey for four, when the beginners can be assisted by more experienced dancers on the floor.

A beginners' session also sends a message that This Is Complicated, that you need a special workshop to learn what you need to know, and without that extra training a) you won't be able to do it or b) you'll mess up the evening for others.

I have a somewhat different approach that I take when I do a short beginners' session at my home dance. I think the most important things folks need to know are the rules of this alien subculture into which they've stepped, so here's what I try to do.

If there are a handful of new faces in the hall, I'll talk to them individually, welcome them, introduce myself, reassure them, and explain that we're not going to hold a separate session but to line up for the first dance at 8 PM. (I may also point them out to some supportive and strong dancers who have already arrived, folks who will take the lead in approaching the newcomers and welcoming them in for the first dance.) If we have half a dozen or more new folks at 7:45 or thereabouts, I'll gather folks near the center of the floor, close to me, away from the eight-member band that's still fussing with tuning and playing snatches of tunes. I don't use a microphone; I want folks to stay close to me. I tell them a few things about the evening to come. First of all, I thank them for coming.

I often think in terms of providing an overview of the sociological/anthropological subgroup that they've just entered. We dancers have our own norms, rituals, procedures—think "intense eye contact" for example—and they can seem off-putting to folks who haven't been inculcated in our ways. So, I talk about the general structure of the evening's program ("We start with simple dances where I can teach some basic figures, so please, please, please join in those first few dances! I know, the tendency we all have is to sit and watch a bit, but it'll be easier for me and for you if you join in at the start. Later in the evening, we'll build on those simple figures and add some more.")

I talk about how every dance is taught and walked through, and how I'll continue to prompt them. ("You don't have to memorize everything because I'll keep reminding you from the microphone after the music starts.")

I talk about the social norms at our dance: men ask women, women ask men, some people ask same sex partners, most people switch partners for the next dance, you don't have to already know a person to ask them to dance... "We're fortunate at our dance to have many experienced dancers"—and some of them are joining the group by now, hearing what I say, and this part of my spiel is aimed as much at those folks as at the newcomers—"who love coming to this dance because they know there will be new dancers here. We all learned to do this kind of dancing through the kindness of strangers. It's likely that someone will come up to you early in the evening and ask you to dance. You may feel you need to explain that you're new, that you don't know what you're doing. Believe me, they already know that! [generally provokes laughter] That's why they asked you to dance!"

"As you and your partner move up and down the line"—point to UP and DOWN—"each time through the dance you'll be interacting with a new set of neighbors. If the dance involves a neighbor swing, you'll find yourself swinging with lots of different folks. Every so often, you'll find yourself swinging with someone and it feels really smooth! Take a good look at that person... they'd be a good person to ask to dance."

Some comments about the overall structure of the evening—overall schedule, polkas and waltzes and other couple dances, break, location of drinking fountain and bathrooms.

Perhaps a comment about the usual way to line up in long lines, with a request to join the lines near the top of the set (more pointing out where that is) "because that way I can see you more clearly and help you out if I need to explain things again."

I demonstrate what to do when you're thoroughly confused in the middle of a dance, "because it happens to all of us! When all else fails, here's the fallback defensive position: Smile, keep your eyes alert, and hold both hands out like this. It's easier for others to take your hand to get you where you need to be."

"The best dancers here"—and again, this really is aimed at the more experienced folks who have joined us, in the guise of a comment to the newcomers—"will get you where you need to be without your even knowing that they did anything. With those dancers who aren't quite as skilled, you may notice a subtle gesture or pointing with the head. And of course, there are bound to be some folks who tug or give you a gentle push... they're trying to help as best as they can." [The message here to experienced dancers: "See if you can find more subtle ways of helping out."]

Throughout all this, my goal is to let the newcomers get a sense of me as a person: I'm the caller, I know what I'm doing, I am glad that they're there, I will take care of them, and I can be trusted. I want gto reassure them that they made the right decision to come, that they won't get in the way of the regular dancers.

"Some of you might be thinking, 'Oh, I don't want to ruin it for everyone.' All I can say is that you have a very healthy ego, thinking that you yourself have the power to ruin the evening for one hundred others!" This usually provokes another laugh.

I may say a few things about how to move, demonstrate simple walking to the music (while humming Arkansas Traveler or Turkey in the Straw or some other tune that they'll have heard). "That's Forward 2 3 pause, and Back 2 3 4. You'll notice I'm just walking, one step on each beat, not doing anything fancy. [break into caricature of vigorous jigging] If you find yourself doing this, you've been watching Riverdance too much. This is New England style dancing... we believe in conserving energy up here. No need to tire yourself all out with extra flourishes. Keep it simple!"

Demonstrate a straightforward dosido: "You may see folks on the floor doing all manner of extra twirls during this figure, like this. Don't worry about that... those are probably hard-core dancers who need the extra twirling to get as dizzy as they want. If you're new to this, you'll find that you're already dizzy enough!"

Finish up with "thanks for coming. When I look out at a dance floor and know everyone there, it's a sign that a dance is in trouble. What makes this series work is the infusion of newcomers like you. We have beginners here, we have folks who dance a lot. We have people of all ages, and you should know that some of the kids, those youngsters you see over there and those teenagers, really know what they're doing, so let them help you! We're really glad to see you and we hope you have a great time."

That can all be done in 10 minutes and then we can start the evening's dancing.

Do I do this every time? No, but this is certainly the most common set of things I cover. Sometimes I ask a fiddler from the band to come out and we'll move a little to music so folks can step to the beat, but even then I rarely teach figures and I never try to teach things like "hey for four" during a beginners' session. I think it's much more effective to teach figures when the newcomers are mixed up with more experienced dancers in the lines, where they can see good styling and learn by doing. If I have a few minutes left, I use it to chat up some experienced dancers in the hall and ask them to invite in the newcomers for the first few dances.

As a result, the dance is known as a great place for dancers to get started. In fact, one hard-core dance gypsy told me that he wasn't going to come to the dances any more. He wanted more complicated figures early in the evening ("I don't see why you don't start off with a hey for four? They need to learn it!") and "you're catering too much to the beginners." If that's my reputation, I'm comfortable with it.

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


Email David