I’ve met countless people who believe that they can learn a dance by only going out and social dancing. I used to be one of them. Luckily, I was never of the “I watch YouTube and now I get it!” school, but I was of the “Well, I’m mostly a follow and I think I can pick this well enough on the social floor!”
Truthfully, I really got away with it too. Or, I thought I did. I found out later that the only one I was fooling was myself – and other dancers with attitudes similar to my own. Dancers knew that I was missing many foundational building blocks.
Spoiler: if you ever want to truly learn a dance, you need lessons and/or training. It’s just the way it is.
Now, let me define ‘knowing a dance’. To me, knowing a dance means that a person understands and appreciates the technique and structure of the art form they are practicing. It does not mean a rough approximation of some of the fundamentals that allow a person to survive on a social floor. That – to me – is not ‘knowing’ a dance. That is a person who has a desire to go out, be social, and move their body. Maybe they are also doing it to feel sexy or attractive. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is important to recognize when you know a dance versus are going out to a dance club as a fun social activity.
As I’ve said in previous articles, I have no issues with any type of person at socials, as long as they do not behave dangerously. However, I’ve met lots of people who claim they are a ‘dancer’ when it is clear they have not invested in actually becoming one. These are the people I take issue with today.
I’ll use myself as an example here. I can survive on a Kizomba dance floor. Or even a Blues, Lindy, Tango, Hustle, etc. floor. I would never say that I truly ‘dance’ that style. I simply dabble in it. Why? Because I lack the training. If a strong dancer from that genre watches my feet or movement, they will look at me and inherently know that I don’t know that specific dance style’s technique or foundation.
But, to someone who just goes social dancing, I often appear as a ‘great’ dancer (or so I’ve been told) of that genre simply because I know how to move.
Therein lies the danger.
If I didn’t know my own limits, it would be easy to assume myself a ‘dancer’ of those styles simply because people who dance socially think I am great. I could think that I ‘learned socially’, and just have a natural gift that negates my need to take lessons. And you know what? In many circles, I may get away with it for a very long time. But, there are several risks associated with never taking lessons and ‘learning’ on the social dance floor.
This is the biggest one. Not taking good lessons makes you likely to hurt both yourself and others.
My primary dance is Brazilian Zouk, which to me is simultaneously one of the most fun, beautiful, and fulfilling dances – and one of the dances most likely to cause dance-prohibitive injury if not learned properly. Why? We have something that no other dance has: led and followed head/upper body movement.
I cringe every time a lead or follow comes into this dance, tells me it’s ‘easy’, and proceeds to make up head movement. I’ve met lots of ‘social dancers’ who have left us because they hurt their necks or backs by trying to copy movements without understanding mechanics. The biggest tragedy of this is that these injuries are at least 95% preventable if even one of the partners knew how to protect the dance (All dances have this same issue. Even West Coast Swing – one of the lowest-impact social dances – suffers from shoulder injury proliferation).
If only the follow knew not to dip themselves from the lower back.
If only they knew it wasn’t the neck, but the upper body, that executes the movement.
If only they knew that it was a led movement and not ‘styling.
If only they knew how to compensate for a rough lead.
If only the lead knew not to dip backwards, but straight down.
If only the lead knew not to interrupt the follow’s upper body movement.
If only the lead knew how to compensate for backleading.
If only the lead knew that it is a very gentle movement.
That is a lot of ‘if only’s.‘ Even if it’s only an occasional group class or private, or just a brief question to a teacher if something feels off, make an effort to learn properly before executing a movement. If it feels risky, don’t do it until you learn how. If something hurts, STOP, and ask before you do it again. No exceptions.
Also: that random guy who is telling you the ‘right’ way to do that crazy move likely isn’t a teacher. He doesn’t count as a ‘lesson’.
Learn it right the first time. It takes a lot more effort to undo something that is a habit than to learn from scratch. My favorite students are the ones who we get fresh-off-the-vine, so to speak. I don’t care if they have 2 left feet. I don’t care if they’ve never moved. Give me a fresh beginner, and I can make sure that their first habits are solid.
Give me someone who thinks they know it because they’ve been social dancing for 2 years, and my job gets much harder in many ways.
- A – Bad habits.
- B – They think they’ve got it, even if it’s wrong, and they don’t want to start from the beginning to fix it.
- C – When they go social dancing, it’s far more likely that they’ll default into their old ways.
Take it from someone who social danced for a year before starting to get training. The amount of time I spent undoing my bad habits was enormous. I honestly wish that I had the access and foresight to do lessons in that first year. It would have saved me so. much. trouble.
Lack of Growth
Plateaus are hard enough without good foundations. They are so much harder if you skip training. Eventually, you reach a ceiling where no amount of natural talent will save you from lack of technique. Sometimes, I see super creative, amazing people who I just want to force into a beginner class to establish their foundations. They have so, so much talent. These are the types of people who could rise to the top of the scene so quickly – if only they were willing to go through the tough-slugging in the foundations of the dance. There are so many people who work really, really hard and end up far surpassing these ‘talented’ individuals by sheer power of will and investment in their dance education.
The other half is people who get legitimately frustrated that they aren’t able to do more – and sometimes end up quitting. Or, they attend a congress and assume that they’ll be able to keep pace with all the workshops, and end up frustrated because they’re missing the foundations that would allow them to master new material. So, feeling like they can’t do it or that they’ve reached their peak, they leave.
Never Knowing What They Are Missing
There’s a school of thought that says that the more you are able to do something, the more you’ll be able to appreciate when others do extraordinary things in the same field. Dance is no exception. If a dancer is just casually milling on the dance floor, the chances that they will be able to appreciate the great leads or follows and really be able to enjoy the full spectrum of dance is limited. The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to appreciate great dancing (as opposed to great-looking movers) on the social floor.
I’ll never forget when one of our more recent students (who by the way, is working their butt off on this dance) said to me “There are so many people who just are missing super-simple things that I take for granted now! I feel what’s going on, and I can feel when something is off, but they have no idea that they could just do one thing to make it so much better!”
Prior to taking lessons, that person would never have known that these little things were off. Even better, that dancer can rest easy and compensate for those partners having difficulties and has the knowledge that allows them to tell it is their partner who is having an off-moment rather than some deficiency in their own dancing.
What if there are no lessons near me?
That sucks. I know the feeling. Not having access or plenty of money was one of the main reasons that I did not invest in dance education for a long time.
If there are no lessons near you, then I would suggest investing in a trip to a major center to get your training. If you can’t afford that, then the next best thing is to connect with a strong teacher via the internet or Skype. It’s not ideal, but it definitely beats YouTube. These people can help guide you from afar, and can at least visually see when footwork, body positioning, etc. is off.
Many top schools and teachers also offer online instructional videos for a fee. Once again, these are not ideal, but they are far superior to going completely training-less and injuring yourself or someone else.
If you have access to a school but money is an issue, talk to the school you like about volunteering or getting involved in helping to run the school. Many have scholarship or work programs that can help really devoted, eager students access education programs without needing lots of money. 🙂
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