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Learning to Dance on Youtube

My friend Stu Sweetow, videographer extraordinaire, sent me the picture at the right with the excellent phrase, “Real men take dance lessons, because you can’t learn connection on youtube!”  This inspired me to once again take up my blog, which my many fans have no doubt noticed I have let slip for several months due to more pressing matters in my life.

The Question

The blog-worthy question is, of course, what is connection and why can’t you learn it on youtube and maybe also, if not connection, what can you learn on youtube?

 

Connection in partner dance is the skill of leading and following.  It is how the leader communicates to the follower what to do, without telling her in advance what the step will be.  It is how two people can move around the floor as if they are one without choreographing and practicing a routine ahead of time.

 

Connection is a right brain skill and you have to feel it to know what it is and if you are doing it right.  That’s why you can’t learn it on youtube.  Different dances have different kinds of connection, but the basic principles are the same. Once you have learned how to connect to a partner in one kind of dance, it’s a lot easier to learn how to do it in another.

 

What part of dance don’t you understand?

 

So is there anything you can learn on video?  Yes there is!  Once you’ve learned how to dance (connection) you can pick up new steps on youtube if you’re a visual learner and you work at it.  But if all you know are the steps, not the connection, you’ll be hard to dance with and dancing won’t be much fun for you or your partner.  You know something’s missing but you don’t know what it is.

 

Connection Vs. Steps

So here’s my advice if you are the kind of learner who has the discipline and learns well from videos.  Take private lessons FIRST.  Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and learn connection.  Then find cool steps on video that you like and practice them.  If you fall in love with a step and somehow it isn’t working, take a private lesson and ask a teacher what you’re doing wrong.  There’s probably something tricky about the lead in that particular move.  Have fun!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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My Favorite Dance Students, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post, so if you missed it, read it here first.

Another reason some of my students fit my target market is an unusual learning style.  One of my specialties is finding out how people learn so that I can teach to their particular learning style.   Most people are some combination of visual, audial, or kinesthetic learners, but some people just don’t learn in any kind of normal way, so they know they need a teacher who can figure them out.

Often they already know how they learn and they tell me exactly what does and does not work for them.  It still takes a fair amount of creativity, even so, to figure out how to make dance fit the parameters of their learning style even when I know what it is.  For me,that’s the fun part.

But also there are people who don’t have a clue as to why it’s so hard for them to learn. The last student who fit this description was a hundred percent kinesthetic learner.  He got nothing from watching while doing and no kind of explanation, counting, or verbal reminders of any kind had any effect whatsoever.  I had to back lead the moves so that he could feel what his body should do and then repeat over and over until his muscle memory took over.  Even then, he never had any conscious understanding of what he was doing, or why.  He just knew what it felt like.  Fascinating!

A lot of my students self identify as hopeless dancers because at some point in their youth they attempted to dance with someone who said something devastating to them when they were feeling particularly vulnerable.  My friend and mentor Frankie Manning said that when he tried to copy his mother as a young child, she said “You’ll never be a dancer, because you’re too stiff!”  Frankie’s response was “I’ll show her!” and used that memory as fuel to become one of Harlem’s greatest dancers.  (Frankie’s mother, by the way, didn’t remember that she ever said that.)  None of my students had the “I’ll show her!” response.  Mine had the “I’ll NEVER give anyone a reason to say anything like that to me ever again because this is the LAST time I’m ever setting foot on a dance floor.”

We’ve all experienced responding to a trauma by creating a belief that in some way kept us smaller for the rest of our lives.  Until maybe at some point we decided to challenge it. Usually because something we want overshadows our fear of taking on that old ingrained belief.  Like a fiance who really wants a first dance at her wedding.  Or a guy who really really likes a girl who really really likes to dance.  Or a shy guy who’s figured out that  being a great lead is the world’s best babe magnet.  By the way, a friend of mine who admittedly learned to dance to get girls and then found he really liked it told me it’s a great way to get your foot in the door but you still have to work really hard to get them into bed.  So it does have it’s limitations.

I work primarily  with beginners, so I teach a lot of the same material  over and over again. I never get bored because I teach it differently to each student.  I do tend to tell the same jokes over and over but I never get bored with that either because I’m always just as funny.

I have so much respect for these people who are willing to be so vulnerable, to place so much trust in me to see them week after week doing the one thing that makes them feel the most inept.  What a gift they give me with that trust.  And what a reward for us both when they find out they CAN learn to dance and not only that, but have fun.

I believe that anyone really can learn to dance and find the joy that is our birthright.  Who do you know that is convinced they can’t learn to dance but might have a compelling reason to question that conviction?  Wherever they are, somewhere out there, there is a dance teacher for them!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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My Favorite Students, Part 1

I’m not going to talk about specific students in this post, but rather the kind of people I most like to work with, and why.  In other words, as marketing people like to say, my target market.

I like to work with people who think they can’t learn to dance.  This isn’t everyone, of course.  I do have students who come to me without the baggage just because they heard I’m a good teacher and they want to learn to dance, but the majority have some kind of issue to get over.

Sometimes they are people who have always wanted to dance and have finally reached a point in their lives when they are willing to take on this huge challenge.  They’ve been attracted to, and terrified of, this enticing activity for as long as they can remember and here they are, giving themselves up to someone who does FOR A LIVING this thing at which they feel totally incompetent.  Could anyone possibly be more vulnerable?

They often begin by assuring me of how competent they are at whatever they are good at, least I mistake their ineptitude at dance for general stupidity.  If, as is remarkably often the case, what they are good at is technology, it gives me a perfect opportunity to put them at ease because how they feel about dance is how I feel about what comes so easily to them.  I still have phones that don’t do anything except make phone calls as you would know if you’ve ever tried to text me.

Dancing has always come easily to me but that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to my student’s experience.  I studied Jujitsu for eleven years and not only did I totally suck at it, but I still couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag.  We’ve all got things we naturally do well and things that make us cross eyed.  I love seeing people take on the challenging stuff and truly feel honored that they trust me to guide them through it.

Because I specialize in teaching people who are dance phobic, the one thing a lot of my students have in common is a conviction that they are terrible dancers and will be difficult if not impossible to teach.  “I’ll bet I’m the worst student you’ve ever taught,” I hear from almost everyone except the worst students I’ve ever taught.

So why do so many people self identify as hopeless dancers?  Many of them are not only not hopeless, but are perfectly normal.  Sometimes people think they can’t dance simply because nobody ever taught them.

So when they tried, of course they failed miserably and were mortified.   They assumed the problem was not their lack of education but that something was just wrong with them.  They just can’t dance.

There is a popular myth about leading and following in dance.  The assumption is that it is natural for men to lead and women to follow and that they should just kinda know already how to do it without any instruction.  The truth, of course, is that not only is it a skill like any other, but it is not even gender specific. In fact most people are naturally inclined toward leading or following and you have about a 50 50 chance of falling into the category that society has assigned to your gender, not unlike the rest of life. You may remember a past post or two about that.

OK, so how about the people whose self image is on the money, the ones  who really DO have a tough time learning to dance?  Well, they fall into all kinds of categories.

Some of them have difficulty finding the beat, and I’ve devoted entire posts to that in the past.  But most of the people who have the most challenging time have a kind of physical dyslexia, and I encounter this phenomenon all the time.  It’s as if they understand how to follow the instruction, but by the time it gets to their feet, it gets twisted into something different.  They do get it eventually through perseverance, but it takes dedication and a lot of practice.  And a very patient teacher of course.

I once had a student who took a month of dedicated practice to learn the box step, something my average student can learn in about 10 minutes and a quick student can learn in about one minute.  Next week I’ll talk about some other reasons people might fall into the category of my target market.  Stay tuned!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing Ambassadors

 

conference photo booth

Posing with another host at the Airbnb conference

I didn’t get Fridays dance blog written because I spent all weekend at a very inspiring conference for Airbnb hosts, of which I am one.  For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Airbnb is a company that matches travelers with people who rent out places to stay.

Dance Lessons for Internationals Tourists

Hobnobbing with other hosts, I met a young woman who has a large place in SF that houses about 14 guests at a time.  We talked about organizing a group dance class for her guests and taking them to Lindy in the Park.

Friendly dancers welcome visitors

I often take my guests, most of whom are visiting from other countries, to LITP.  They get to try out a very fun dance, meet a group of very friendly dancers, and go out to eat afterwards.  We engage them in conversation and they get to know the dancers and the dancers get to know them.

 

Dance is truly an international language.  My guests, as well as other international visitors to LITP, often say it was the highlight of their visit.

 

Someone said they wouldn’t be surprised if Airbnb won the Nobel Peace prize some day.  I can see that, and I also think dance communities have a hand in the movement for world peace.  After you’ve shared a dance and a meal with someone from another culture, somehow the idea of shooting at them just doesn’t make sense.

 

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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What is Your Learning Style in Dance Class?

elderly couple dancing

No matter how you learn, you’re never to old to learn to dance!

If you know how you learn, you’ll know what kind of dance teacher can teach you.  Some teachers do know about learning styles, but most teach the way they learn, so the easiest way to pick a teacher is to observe until you find one who teaches the way you learn.  If you know your learning style is unusual, don’t waste your time in group classes.  Find the best private teacher you can and explain how you learn.

Learning styles for dance

Most people are some combination of visual, audial, or kinesthetic.  Kinesthetic learners don’t get it until they do it, but most of them also are helped by something like counting (audio) and/or watching while they do it (visual).  This post was inspired by a student of mine who is 100% kinesthetic.  Counting does not help him remember to move his feet.  Watching me is equally unhelpful.  He just has to do each piece of the movement over and over again until his muscle memory kicks in and then he can put it all together.

Teaching an unusual dance student

One way to work with such a student is to dance with him, back leading the movement until he feels the timing and can do it on his own.  If your learning style is this unusual, you’ll be lost in a group class of any kind and unless you have an unusual amount of self esteem as well, you’ll probably feel inept or stupid.

The truth is anyone really can learn to dance, but it takes knowing how you learn (or finding a teacher who can figure it out for you), and finding a teacher who can work with you.  

The rewards of learning to dance anyway

Some people are more challenged than others. We all have areas in which we are naturals and areas that challenge us.  If you are drawn to learn a skill in an area that does not come naturally to you, know that it will take time and patience.  The rewards, however, are that you will open up parts of yourself you never knew existed and realize that you are more capable than you ever imagined.

And of course, you’ll also be dancing, which has it’s own fabulous rewards no matter how easy or challenging the path to that end.  Dancing is our birthright.  Don’t let anyone (including yourself)  tell you you can’t have it.

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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When Is It OK to Say No to a Request for a Dance?

animation

How it feels to be turned down for a dance

At a recent outdoor dance event I was approached by a couple wanting to know if this event was open to anyone.  I chatted with them briefly and after learning that they didn’t know anything about dance, told them that there would be a lesson in about half an hour.  Then they asked if I would teach them something.  They didn’t know I was a dance teacher, so this wasn’t a rude request.  I taught them a basic step and danced briefly with the woman to show how the basic was all she needed to know in order to follow this simple dance.

Getting stuck with new dancers

A woman who had been watching us immediately jumped in and took my hand in indication that we would dance together.  It was obvious after the first step that she didn’t know anything either.  She clearly wanted to dance and didn’t know how, saw that I more or less instantly turned another newbie into a competent follower and wanted the same experience.

 
I’ve mentioned before (see how to tell if you need dance lessons)  that a mark of a great leader is the ability to instantly assess the skill level of the follower and lead a dance that she can follow without feeling stupid and that makes her feel like a great dancer.  I can do this, but unless it’s a friend I’m fond of, it’s not much fun for me.  In this instance I did dance with her, but I did have the thought that if another would-be dancer was waiting for her turn that I would have to come up with a polite excuse to turn her down.

Rules of  Dance Etiquette

Generally speaking, if the music tends to be short numbers and the custom is to dance once with each partner as it is in the swing community, it’s ungracious to turn down a dance.  However, if the request is from someone who is dangerous, drunk, or inappropriate, it’s definitely OK to do so.

You can say “no” to drunk dancers

Several years ago I was at a dance in a club.  A family was having dinner, celebrating a birthday.  They were all drunk and the birthday boy asked me to dance.  I have long curly hair that’s very distinct and seems to be a magnet for drunks.  I didn’t want to put a damper on the occasion so I accepted, but afterwards he informed his family that I was great and they should all dance with me, which is how I ended up dancing with an entire drunk family.  I was too polite to say no, but I don’t recommend this.  Being too polite to say no has gotten me in far worse trouble than this, so I suggest practicing in situations like this if you have this problem too.

 
In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been hard to simply excuse myself saying I had promised the next several dances and had to get back to my friends.  It can be hard to come up with a good exit line when you are taken off guard, so I also recommend practicing in advance.  You don’t have to be rude to say no, but if you don’t prepare, it can come out that way.  “Ask me again when you’re sober.” will get you out of there, but is unnecessarily rude.  Think up a few good excuses to have at hand for emergencies and you’ll be able to get away without creating a negative vibe.

 
And if you’re an advanced dancer, do be nice to the newcomers and grace them with an occasional dance.  They’ll remember you when they gain more experience and you’ll be rewarded in the future!

 
by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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How Long Does it Take to Learn to Dance?

nerdy guy asks girl to dance

Asking a woman to dance the first time is always hard

I get asked this question by at least 70% of the people who ask me about dance lessons.  The truth is it’s impossible to answer because everyone learns at a different rate.  It might take one person an hour to learn what another could take a month to finally understand.  It also depends A LOT on how much you practice.  This point is nowhere better illustrated than in the TV show Dancing With the Stars.  The contestants vary tremendously in natural talent but they all practice practically nonstop with skilled instructors.  They don’t all make it and they are not all fabulous but they ALL do learn to dance pretty well.  None of my student will put in a fraction of the time these contestants do but it’s a great case for anybody being able to learn if they are sufficiently motivated.

Debby Reynolds did not dance at all before she was cast in her first movie, Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly.  Kelly was given the task of teaching his young costar to dance, and nobody would have guessed that she didn’t have years of dance training in her background.  Here she is holding her own with two of the greatest dancers ever to grace the silver screen, Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly.

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Of course Debbie obviously had more than her fair share of natural talent, lucky for her, but she also trained to the point of exhaustion.  This is why I always encourage my students to get out in the real world as soon as possible and go dancing in public.  At a dance, you’re dancing for 2 or 3 hours and it doesn’t feel like practice.  It feels like going dancing!  When you practice at home, 15 or 20 minutes feels like a long practice period for most people.  Yes, you do need to practice at home until you have enough basic moves to feel like you know what you’re doing, but you don’t need to be good at it.  Most people will never get good in their living rooms.  You get good on the dance floor, dancing socially and having fun.  If this is your goal, bite the bullet and do it sooner than later.  It will feel scary the first time no matter when you go, so do it as soon as you know enough to maneuver your way around the  floor with a couple of basic steps.  Adding new moves one or two at a time each time you spend an evening on the dance floor is a much easier strategy than trying to remember the 20 steps you learned in your first class when you venture onto the floor for the first time.

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Choosing a First Dance Song

 

footprint pattern

Your “first dance” music will become “your song”!

Blogs by Djs and other wedding professionals often suggest first dance songs for couples who haven’t come up with their own and need ideas. As a dance teacher, I have a somewhat different perspective. A recent post in wine country wedding magazine lists five songs that are their top picks. Their first pick, At Last by Etta James, is also the first pick for many of my students. If they have a particular relationship with the song, if they picked it because of it’s special meaning for them, I can make it work. But if they picked it because they saw it on a blog like this one, or just thought it was a good choice because it’s slow and romantic, I’ll steer them away from it.

It’s part of my job to educate my students about what makes a good dance song. At Last, and in fact the number two song on wine country’s list, Elvis Presley’s Cant Help Falling In Love, are both ballads. Ballads are great if you don’t know how to dance and want to spend your first dance rocking back and forth in a clench like you did in high school.

When people come to me, however, they want to learn how to do a real dance and for that you need something with a beat. The beat in a ballad is so slow that by the time your get to the end of a measure you can’t remember when it started. For all intents and purposes, it has no beat. A perfect song for a real dance, a waltz, foxtrot, or nightclub two-step, say, has a clear easy to find beat.

A good dance song has clear measures and an easy beat. You can tell if it’s in 3/4 time (a waltz) or 4/4 time (practically everything else). The beginning of each measure is clear and didn’t happen so long ago that you’ve lost track by the time you get to the next one.

Many people who go to wedding blogs for song ideas are not dancers and are not taking lessons. A ballad is ideal for these people. A song with a beat is hard to dance to if you just want to sway to a romantic mood. The confusion is when they come to a dance lesson with song in hand, and it’s a ballad. If you are learning to dance for you wedding, get your ideas from your teacher, not your DJ.

I encourage my students to come with as many different songs as possible if they are considering more than one. That gives me an opportunity to help them select one with a good dance beat. If, however, they want “At Last” and only At Last will do, the way to work around it is to forget about the measures and dance to it as it it’s just a series of slow beats, like a techno song. Then I teach them waltz steps so they can step on every beat. It’s too slow for a combination of slow and quick steps, and no one will notice that it’s not a waltz because they don’t notice the measures anyway.

If they have time for a more challenging dance, Blues Dancing can be done to a ballad as well because it can be adapted to the mood, rather than the beat, of the music. It’s a much more challenging dance to learn to lead, however, so they can choose, dependent on their time and budget.  The bottom line is, any song can work, but if you’re a beginner, make it easy on yourself. Pick an easy song if you have a choice!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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