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Zen and the Art of Wedding Dance Teaching

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Introduction by …

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Zen and the art …? Been done before, hasn’t it?

Years ago I read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘. This book changed my outlook on life, but it didn’t really sink in until I started teaching as a career (rather than as one duty within my job).

I use this title format in homage to Robert Pirsig’s groundbreaking (for me at least) book whenever the theme of my writing is: whatever you think is obvious and straightforward, may be so much more so that we cannot see it for the effort of looking too deeply.

In other words: truth is simple, yet subtle.

I hope that Mr Prisig doesn’t mind this tip-of-the-hat in his direction.

It’s not really about teaching dance at all

Dance teaching to beginners, a bit like English teaching to second language learners, has a completely different focus to what most teachers and learners expect. I see these expectations with each client and with each new teacher I train.

It’s not really about the steps and arm positions. Of course those are taught, demonstrated, and corrected. But these are not the bulk of the teacher’s effort, nor even the most difficult to cover.

So what is it about, then?

Well, the essence is that beginners rarely find beginner material difficult to actually do. Sounds obvious, and is, but by definition the beginner material is usually pretty easy. So something else must be the major problem, and therefore should be the major focus. Recognising that it’s all about confidence is not rocket science, yet this simple fact is so often missed.

Almost all effort is in reducing the anxiety felt by the wedding couple about their dance, particularly as felt by the groom. This is further explained below in Needs Analysis – Sorting The Problem

Yes, the teacher needs to know the material very well, but all that doesn’t help if they ignore the real needs of beginners.

Art or Science?

I’m a scientist at heart and by training. I’ve also trained to be:

  • a leader (as distinct from a manager),
  • a manager (as distinct from a leader),
  • a trainer (as distinct from a teacher), and
  • a teacher (as distinct from a trainer).

The more I think about all these distinctions (meaning both respected professions as well as importantly different perspectives), the more I find that we have over-complicated things. We have systemised them, which is fine to aid quality and training, but perhaps at the cost of humanity and common sense.

I write about this more elsewhere, but here I’ll just say that teaching is certainly a science – meaning that you can learn the techniques and underlying theories of what works, when and why. It is more of an art to do well, though, in the sense that you really dig into your humanity in order to achieve the best teaching.

More on this below in “How to Teach”

Needs Analysis – Sorting The Problem

Needs analysis is the cornerstone of all good training design (all design, in fact). The needs of most wedding couples preparing their wedding dance sprout from the following characterisics (distilled from hundreds of client couples).

  • They are generally beginners, although perhaps the bride has done some jazz/tap or perhaps ballet.
  • The groom generally is reticent and this stems from not wanting to look foolish, and this may be exacerbated by their painful awareness that the bride has more dance experience and possibly unattainable expectations.
  • The bride would really like a shared moment of intimacy with her new husband, and this is more important to her than expectations of dance performance by the groom.
  • Comparing the above two points shows an all-too common misconception each partner has of the other. Addressing this is a key aspect for the teacher and, when done well, this is one of the most rewarding humanist aspects of helping the wedding dance couple (see below).
  • Neither generally wants an over-the-top production, preferring instead something that is easy to learn and remember. However they may be under the impression that a choreographed routine is the norm – an unfortunate consequence of Youtube wedding dance videos and TV shows like Dancing With The Stars. This is another key aspect for the teacher to address and, also presents opportunity (see below).
  • They want to dance to their own song and, whatever dance style that may strictly point to, they still generally want a classy, elegant looking dance. This may seem to cause a problem, but in fact makes things a good deal simpler (see below).
  • Couples come in all shapes and sizes. This may mean somethings are not practical, requiring great tact yet strong leadership perhaps from the teacher, but it also presents an opportunity to show that anyone can be made to feel very special when dancing.
  • Couples are extremely busy and very focussed on their wedding, quite possibly enduring uncommon stress in the weeks just prior, which is precisely when the dance lessons must occur. The teacher needs to allow for this, but it also represents a brilliant opportunity (see below).
  • A typical wedding venue has a small dance floor. The couple may be dancing on uneven or outside surfaces.
  • The couple will not have a chance to practise in the last few days leading up to the wedding, nore on the day.
  • The couple will be dancing in unfamiliar, possibly impractical clothing especially the bride in her dress and shoes. Obviously the wedding dress may critially affect what she can do – specifically she cannot easily go backwards which is how most dance step patterns are designed. The teacher needs to check this carefully.
  • Some couples may have something in mind they especially want to do, such as a dip or lift. These can be done if made simple and safe.
  • More than anything, the couple need to feel they will be respected, kept safe, and absolutely will succeed in achieving what they want for their dance.
  • Oddly perhaps to mention, but the onlookers at a modern wedding generally have very little critical dance knowledge. Those older people who may have dance experience, will be aware of this and consequently be delighted at any effort made by the wedding couple to dance well. In fact it is not much work to create a dance that will impress and delight a crowd these days – another golden opportunity.

Golden Opportunities

Often, it is true that a challenge is also a golden opportunity to shine. This happens in a few ways when teaching a modern wedding dance. These often become the most rewarding aspects of wedding dance teaching (and learning).

Taking the form of generally misplaced expectations, and raised in the Needs Analysis, these are further explored now.

The couple misunderstand each other’s expectations.

People generally don’t dance these days.

Choreography is expected.

Great challenge, many lessons, and great expense are expected.

Lessons in a studio are expected.

Modern songs are not designed for traditional, formal-style dance.

Pre-wedding couples are stressed.

Anatomy of a Wedding Dance (and Lessons)

What makes up a good wedding dance? As already covered, a wedding dance has specific needs quite distinct from other dance learning. A perfect wedding dance perfectly meets the needs of a typical wedding couple. That sounds over-simple, but in fact this philosophy keeps the teacher on-track.

Drawing from Needs Analysis – Sorting the Problem above, the perfect wedding dance addresses all those needs with appropriate balance of priority for the particular client couple. In brief this means:

  • The dance must be easy to learn and to remember.
  • The lessons must be at the client couple’s home, and after normal work hours.
  • The dance should most probably be Waltz/Foxtrot style, regardless of the music.
  • The overall needs, analysis, agreed goals, and resultant lesson program must absolutely guarantee success. This successful progress must be visibly evident during the lessons.
  • One or two advanced patterns are necessary, but in simplified form.
  • Attention must paid to the big picture as well as detail. The dance is part of a larger organised event and must fit well. This means the entry and subsequent transition must be covered as well.
  • Lessons and the dance itself must be enjoyable in order to give the desired (relaxed) visual effect and for the couple to feel that they have done well.

The dance itself begins with the entry to the dance floor, which in turn must follow on smoothly from whatever immediately precedes – usually the cutting of the cake. The couple need to take positive control of when the music starts, usually just as they enter the dance floor but definitely not before they are absolutely ready.

It is always worth spending time on teaching a workable dance position and hold. An overly formal body position is not needed, nor useful, but a strong dance hold helps the groom feel confident that they will stay clear of the bride’s feet. It also encourages the bride to let the groom control the dance – as is very necessary for it to work properly.

A simple repeatable pattern forms the foundation, usually a closed box rotating gently to the left. This is taught on the first lesson (reviewed from the demo lesson prior) and quickly becomes second nature. Teaching this gives the teacher an accurate idea of the learning disposition and style of the couple.

The dance should be in-place (like Latin styles) rather than travelling the line-of-dance (like ballroom styles). This is why the closed (not open) box is the foundation pattern, and is for two important reasons. Ultimately, it takes too long to for the groom to learn navigating and steering in addition to pattern content. Also, a typical wedding venue gives greater priority to table space than dance floor space. Consequently the dance floor is usually too small for a ballroom-style travelling dance.

Highlight patterns are injected at the four cardinal directions (walls usually). These are initiated with proper lead/follow signals. The intervening boxes are not counted (as this would be a distracting mental effort). As the couple get more comfortable over the course of lessons, they will tend to do fewer boxes between highlights. The teacher needs to account for this.

The dance speed should generally match the feel of the music, but not necessarily match the exact tempo. Matching music tempo is a much lower priority than the couple dancing in synch with each other. Consequently the choice of music matters very little. Focussing on rhythmn (quick/slow) too much at the beginning of the lesson program is usually very unhelpful. However it may be that one person of the couple is more in tune to tempo and rhythmn, so the teacher needs to manage this (down to the lowest commmon ability).

Generally the highlight patterns progress in increasing difficulty leading up to the finale. They should most probably also be taught in this order. Choice of patterns may recycle elements to help memory, as long as their similarity does not in fact cause confusion and mix up. Patterns may include under-arm turns, balance steps, cross-overs, pivots (spot turns). Swivels and 5th position patterns (rock steps) may be problematic, but can be attempted with care not to overshadow the need for the dance to be easy.

The finale should probably not be attempted to fit exactly to a point in the music, but if this is necessary this may be achieved with a buffer of boxes leading up. Else the music may be actively faded out by the DJ/band in response to the couple. Finales may include swing-out-in, wrap-up, and dip style patterns. The essence is it must be safe and practical, and suitable for holding still for perhaps 2-3 seconds (for photo and applause).

What happens immediately next should be covered, perhaps using the original simple box for the bridal party joining and for dancing with parents. In general it is a good idea for the couple to finish their song and for the bridal party to join on the following song. This allows for a proper finale, and in any case the bridal party wouldn’t join quickly enough to effect in the main song.

The lesson formats are very simple: review what was done previously, introduce an appropriate amount of new material, allow enough practice time to consolidate knowledge and to develop skills, link to next lesson.

The teacher should dynamically and carefully assess what amount of review is necessary, and what amount of new material is appropriate. The review and link to the next lesson helps to maintain the big picture, and evident awareness of progress.

Selection of teaching material should stay within predictably safe bounds, but flexibility is important in adjusting the level of difficulty. The client couple want to feel they are achieving something worthwhile yet within the realms of possibility. Sometimes it is necessary to abdandon something and, if this becomes necessary, this should be handled tactfuly yet decisively so as not to waste precious time.

How To Learn

There are some simple things a learner can do to enhance their own learning. Ultimately this will save them time and money.

How To Teach

Learning to teach is both complex and surprisingly simple


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