Care and Feeding of Beginning Folk Dancers
By Loui Tucker
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Being a beginner at anything — whether you're learning tennis or bridge or French cooking or Russian — is tough. A beginner's self-confidence and poise can really take a beating during the first months of contact with the new activity.
I have had several discussions over the past few months about beginning dancers — with teachers, with current dancers, and with beginners themselves. What are teachers doing to make it easier for beginners? What are current dancers doing to ease the way for their friends who are starting to dance? What do beginning dancers feel is needed to facilitate their learning and increase their comfort level?
START AT THE BEGINNING
Most dancers and teachers agree that if you want to encourage a friend to start dancing, you should first try to find a class for beginners in the area. It is, however, an ideal that is not always possible to attain.
If there isn't a beginners' class, at least pick one of the smaller local classes where the energy level isn't putting stress fractures in the ceiling beams. Beginners have told me there is very little that is more discouraging than attending the most popular and crowded night of dancing and stumbling over your own two feet while watching the stars of the dance floor glide
Beginners frequently have tender, if not downright fragile, egos. We've all seen them retreat to the refreshments table after a discouraging bout with pivot turns. After all, when they look around the room, they can't tell if another dancer has been dancing 20 years or 2 years. Everybody is a better dancer than they are, and the prospect of trying to attain the same skill level is daunting. Besides needing large doses of encouragement, beginners need a class that operates on lower level that will decrease the perceived distance to the goal, thus increasing the likelihood that the challenge will be accepted.
Beginners should realize that dance classes are like new shoes. Sometimes you have to "try on" more than one class before you find a good fit. Each class provides a slightly different learning environment, social atmosphere, and physical ambience. Even the same teacher on a different night in a different dance hall can create a completely different mood. Beginners need special encouragement so they won't give up after the first try.
I also believe it's important to give beginners more than one reason to dance. This way, if the first evening doesn't provide instant gratification, they'll be more willing to consider going a second time. If they're going to meet people [new in town or newly divorced], mention the aerobic benefits of dance. If they're going to work off stress, remind them that friendships are great tension-relievers.
WHICH IS YOUR "INSIDE" FOOT"
A first visit to a dance class is not unlike a visit to a foreign country. Wouldn't you at least like to know the words for "please," "thank you," "hello," and "goodbye," and a little about local customs?
Before your friend's first evening of dance, schedule a mutually convenient half-hour and introduce some of the basic vocabulary and etiquette of dancing. Demonstrate the grapevine step and the Yemenite step. Briefly practice step-hops and 3-step turns and pivoting. Mention that most dances move counter-clockwise; show him/her how to join a line of dancers and how to hold hands. Talk about standing behind the line of dancers to copy the steps and avoid the shock of joining a line and having it take off to the left for Cimpoi. Tell them about wearing layers of clothing and proper shoes. [I've seen so many women come to their first dance class wearing a special dress, ornate jewelry, and high heels!]
DANCERS HOLD HANDS WITH THE NICEST PEOPLE
A lot of well-meaning dancers hand a friend a flyer and say, "This is a great class. You really should go one night." Most beginners I spoke with agreed that it is far better if you can accompany your friend and act as a tour guide. Introduce the other people at the class. If possible, talk to the class members you know ahead of time and ask for their cooperation in dancing next to your friend in the line dances and with him/her for some of the easy couple dances.
If you know which dances a beginner can handle, request a few of them. Enlist the teacher as well; if you've taught your friend Tzadik Katamar and Ersko Kolo, ask the teacher to play them early in the evening. Of all the many nights you dance for your own pleasure, dedicate this one evening to making your friend's night enjoyable.
A TIME TO PLANT, A TIME TO REAP
Beginners are often hyper-sensitive. They are aware and are hurt when a good dancer, no matter how carefully and inconspicuously, slips out of a circle next to them and joins in again elsewhere. If they get up the courage to ask someone to dance a couple dance, rejection — even a delicately worded one — is doubly hard because they attribute the rejection to their beginner status. I believe there is nothing more damaging to the health of the dance community than an advanced dancer who habitually rejects a beginner and then accepts the invitation of another advanced dancer.
If you're an established dancer and you become aware of a beginning dancer in your midst, take the time to introduce yourself, and guide the beginner through a dance or two. I have heard so many dancers — both men and women — lament the lack of eligible dancer partners, while ignoring the potential that lies in every beginning dancer. I hear dancers say, "I don't like dancing with beginners because then I can't enjoy the dance and I go dancing to have a good time."
Just remember that beginning dancers don't stay beginners forever. In six short months a beginner can turn into popular, attractive, graceful partner, and if you were there in the beginning, encouraging and helping and guiding, he/she can be your popular, attractive, graceful partner. Take just ten minutes [time for three dances] out of your two hours of dancing. Those ten minutes of cultivation can pay off in the future.
I often think we should provide beginners with buttons or T-shirts bearing Ashley Brilliant's line: "Appreciate me now and avoid the rush...."]
I remind myself frequently that beginners are the fresh water that keeps our pool from becoming stagnant. Drought puts a strain on the ecosystem. In the case of a dancer-drought, we have the power within us to "make it rain."
Make it one of your New Year's Resolutions to bring at least one new person into the dance community this year. Make another resolution to dance at least one dance each evening with someone new, someone you've never danced with before — whether by initiating or by accepting an invitation.
Loui Tucker is an Israeli dance teacher. She also has been preseident of the Folk Dance Federation of California.
Used with permission of the author.