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Teaching Experienced Folks to Dance

by David Kaynor

(This article was originally posted to the Usenet newsgroup <rec.folk-dancing>.)

At the conlusion of an interesting post, Barbara Ruth writes

A well-stated and timely contribution.

Is "dancing" necessarily always in opposition to "making athletic movements vaguely to connected to the music?" Are they actually always incompatible? I submit: NO. Not when neighbors and partners are alert and responsive to and gracious about each others' preferences and ideas (and mistakes).

Contra dancing connects us and generates and affirms shared enjoyment because of techniques which, when implemented in a mutually agreeable manner, enable us to exchange entertaining neighborly greetings and courtesies with strangers and even people with whom we would not customarily interact while sharing more profound pleasures with those to whom we feel closer.

I cautiously invoke Robert Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors" line here in proposing that good technique, sort of like a good fence, defines boundaries more amicably than walls do while expressing artistic values and relating harmoniously to the landscape. REALLY good technique is in fact also a bridge over which, by invitation, we comfortably cross these boundaries to enter and explore each others' spaces and experiences. Each phrase in contra dancing offers opportunities for technical excellence to lead to interactional excellence.

Celebrating its development among new dancers rather than bemoaning its absence among ourselves may be our best investment in a bright and attainable future. But what IS technical excellence, anyway? Who defines it? Is it necessarily incompatible with "family" or "community" or "fun" dancing?

Who teaches it, and to whom?

That experienced dancers "teach by demonstration and gentle leading," as Greg McKenzie recently suggested, bears significantly on this. Among the many elements of contra dancing influentially "demonstrated" and "gently led" by many of us:

WE don't do that. WE would never do that.

OUR experienced dancers would never do that.

Perhaps not, for the most part. But the few who do figure significantly in the first impressions and initial learning of new people (assuming they come back at all!), no matter how energetically callers and dance cops try to preach and admonish.

Numerous dancers, including some relatively new ones, have shared thoughts with me in recent months. Recurrent in their accounts: Surprise and dismay at and growing discouragement with technical AND social slovenliness at dances in Greenfield.

Finger-pointing, accusing, and delivering ultimatums hold little appeal. For one thing, I have always feared and been ineffective at direct confrontation, both one-on-one and over the microphone. Besides, it seems an unpromising tactic in this situation anyway. But more things than my calling and playing alone have to change if I am to continue to earn sustaining amounts of income and more important rewards from a professional, artistic, social, and personal experience of dance in which I believe. Hence the struggle to clarify values and ideals and achieve them in word and deed.

In the "beginners' hour" first implemented years ago, newcomers and experienced dancers work together on basic skills and concepts in the context of fun, easily-learned line, circle, and contra dances and are urged to dance the entire night for free as a modest recognition and reward for their extra effort (most insist on leaving $5 bills in the fiddle case anyway).

Thus, in action, the expressing of an ideal. Others can attest that I work hard for it, especially when you consider the full four-hour regular dance which immediately follows it, the exhaustive publicity which precedes it (and draws up to 100 dancers, half of them brand new, to a single one), and that I facilitate, teach, call, and play singlehanded through the whole hour.

We explore (and in some cases re-explore) solid basic skills. There is no pressure to either rush the dancers through their own teaching and learning or gloss over my own. Discussions of courtesy and convention are thorough. Quality time is invested in technique and timing demonstrated, led, and emphatically endorsed by experienced dancers. Everyone's successes are praised.

Praise: The beautiful, underused resource. The underemployed trustworthy agent of change. Genuine praise never cheapens; and it costs so little. Why are contra dancers so frugal with it?

Initially, I presented the session four times a year to attract new people to my tiny Greenfield dance, which was dominated at the time by graceless, predatory, and variably-groomed men. Soon, however, I realized that some of these technically and socially underdeveloped "experienced" dancers, when they came to the beginners' hours to help, actually improved THEIR OWN dancing and overall identities as well. Former Liabilities and Losers evolved into Assets and Winners in the process of helping others and... maybe for the first time... received enthusiastic, heartfelt thanks and testaments to their worth from their peers.

We called it "The Beginners' Hour," but its real title was "The Hour of Unqualified Success."

Greenfield dances in the late 80s were known for solid excellence in all respects. Coincidence? Sheer good luck? Divine intervention? Something in the drinking water?

We'll see. Perhaps soon.

David Kaynor <dakaynor@k12.ucs.umass.edu>


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Last updated on July 27, 1996 by entropy@prismnet.com (Kiran Wagle)