I regularly have people contact me to ask advice about how to teach Beginner Swing Dance classes. I’ve been teaching for a long time, since 1999, and I can’t really even guess just how many Beginner Lindy Hop lessons I’ve taught throughout the years. These days I teach a minimum of 3 Beginner lessons a week, and I truly love to welcome new people to the dance; it’s incredibly rewarding. Teaching for all these years has also been a great learning process. It’s a joy to teach adults their first steps and give them that first taste of what Lindy Hop is all about.
However, I used to teach very differently than I do now. After working with Frankie and observing Beginner classes all over the world, and as a result of my own lessons and watching the cause and affect of my actions, I’ve changed the way that I do approach things.
What is the Goal of a Beginner Swing Dance Lesson?
Ultimately, my focus shifted because I began to identify the real goal of the lessons. I’ve completely changed my mind about what the actual goal of the first Beginner Swing Dance lesson actually is. I used to have the mentality that it was about “getting it right, straight from the beginning” and that mindset made me want to get in to a lot technique, connection work and detailed information. I’ve since thrown all that out the window.
I’ve come to understand that no matter how great of a first lesson you teach, only a certain percentage of people will continue past that first lesson. An even smaller percentage of those students will continue past the 6/8 week mark. This is (usually) not the fault of the instructors or the lessons. Though it remains a mystery to me as to why not everyone falls in love with Lindy Hop, not everyone will get hooked. I’ve come to accept that the world is made up of 2 kinds of people; Lindy Hoppers (even if they don’t know it yet) and everyone else. It took me a long time to understand that and to feel that that’s ok. C’est la vie.
So what is the goal of the first lesson? Once you bring people through the door, it’s your big chance — and sometimes your only chance — to give people a taste of what Lindy Hop is all about. For the people who are meant to become Lindy Hoppers, that first lesson is the chance to capture their hearts with the spirit of the dance. And for those people who aren’t going to get hooked, I still want them to have a nice memory and clear picture of what this dance is all about.
The Lindy Hop Spirit
It’s not about the steps. The spirit of the dance is paramount. That spirit is not encapsulated in the technique, moves and precise details that experienced dancers feel compelled to share. It’s not about footwork, or specific concepts about connection. As contemporary dancers, we really need to step back and remember that during the swing era nobody went to a dance studio to learn. People went to a dance hall, they were inspired by the music, and they created new ideas and copied one another. Everything was guided by the energy of the music and the people dancing around them. It was about feeling the music, feeling a nice stretchy connection with your partner and creating shapes together. The dance was exciting, it was infectious, it was a bit wild and it was FUN.
I started to understand what that the priority f that “first touch” with students should really be about; giving them a clear picture of the dance and especially the feeling and the spirit of Lindy Hop. In that lesson, my goal is now to capture their hearts with the soul of the dance and I shape everything around that idea. It’s the best way to hook them to continue, and even if they don’t continue, they’ll still be left with a clear memory of what Lindy Hop is all about. They wouldn’t have had that exposure if I had spent the lesson working too much on footwork or connection concepts.
Now I give them a first class “experience” where they get an idea of what Lindy Hop is all about. I tell them about the roots of the dance, about the Savoy, about how it developed. I remind them that they should be giggling and not taking themselves too seriously and that nobody took dance lessons back in the day. I use as few words as possible and instead play a lot of music and let them play around with shapes, twisting around, cool breeze in the knees, pecking. If they stick with the lessons then later on we get in to other details, but that isn’t the focus of the lesson any more. The first goal is to get them to feel the music, to feel their partners, to laugh and have a good time.
Beginner Class Focus
When I teach, I focus on keeping the energy up, rotating a lot, not too much talking and a lot of doing, and getting people social dancing to the music a lot. Ideally I start with a warm up with music and then I try to get the music playing a lot by the second half of the class and get them playing and practicing sooner rather than later.
My Other Important Advice
- If you have fun, they’ll have fun! Your smiles, laughter and general happiness can be contagious. Similarly, if you’re not enjoying teaching Beginner classes then you should really evaluate yourself and why you’re teaching.
- Do a simple warm up with music, preferably in a circle.
- In classes with 30 people or less, do a quick ice breaker.
- Give some historical background about the dance. “Lindy Hop is the original swing dance created by the black dancers in Harlem, New York at dance halls like the Savoy ballroom. It was inspired by the popular swinging jazz music of the era and was danced from the late 1920s until just after WWII.”
- More music, less talk.
- Learn to “sing” when you count. Practice counting in with rhythm and swing in your voice. Your voice should instil the swing into them.
- Volume is important. If you don’t have a loud enough voice, invest in a good wireless microphone. It’s hard to build energy in the room or to really make students feel comfortable if they’re straining to hear your voice.
- Rotate often.
- Beware of couples. That “rotate often” advice goes 10 fold when you see that people have come together as a couple. About 75% of the time or more, one of the people in the relationship has dragged the other person to the dance lesson and people behave differently when they get back to their romantic partner. These Beginners will often get neurotic when they return to their boyfriend, wife, etc. Keep an eye on who arrived together and avoid keeping them together too long.
- Require that everyone rotates. Rotating is part of the Lindy Hop culture. Don’t make exceptions for Beginners who want to stay together. It never works out in the long run. If they don’t want to rotate then Lindy Hop probably isn’t for them anyway. You can suggest private lessons instead.
- Avoid negative examples. Avoid mentioning any “don’t do this” advice and stick to what they should do.
- Always suggest that the dance is fun and easy and not to over think it. Never tell them that a move is “hard” or you’ll impose that idea on them. Keep it fun and if they struggle, remind them that it’s their first class, they’re doing a great job, and it gets easier with practice. Keep it light hearted.
- Name drop: tell your students about Frankie Manning and the dancers of the Savoy. Mention musicians: great suggestions for Beginners are Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.
- Organize a good music playlist in advance that’s clear and swinging for Beginners. Here are some suggestions. My beginner playlists are not necessarily made up of my very favourite songs but instead focus on a clear beat and a good tempo.
- Get the social dancing from Day 1. After they’ve learned 3 or 4 moves, try to put on the music straight away and give them the idea of leading and following and playing around with each other in a light hearted way right from the start.
- End on a high note with music and big applause.
BEGINNER LINDY HOP – Review Videos
Here are some videos that show what I teach and when. The videos make it seem like my lessons are more technical than they actually are and that’s because these are meant as review videos, not for teaching the first time.
8 Count Month
Beginner Swing – Week 1
Beginner Swing – Week 2/3
It’s totally up to you what you decide to teach, but maybe you’ll find my experience with this helpful. Time has changed my mind and led my classes in a new direction. Maybe you’ll prefer this methodology too. I wish you luck!
Director, Head Dance Instructor
Bees’ Knees Dance – Anyone Can Dance™