I regularly have people contact me to ask advice about teaching their first Beginner Swing Dance class. I’ve been teaching for a long time, since 1999, and I can’t even guess how many Beginner lessons I’ve taught throughout the years. These days I teach at least 3 Beginner lessons a week, and I truly love to welcome new people to the dance. Teaching for all these years has been a great learning process, and I really love to teach dancers their first steps and give them that first taste of what Lindy Hop is all about.
I used to teach very differently than I do now. After working with Frankie and observing Beginner classes all over the world as well as the result of my own lessons, I’ve changed the way that I do things a lot.
What is the Goal of a Beginner Swing Dance Lesson?
Ultimately, I’ve changed my mind about what the goal is for a first Beginner Swing Dance lesson. I used to have the mentality that it was about “getting it right, straight from the beginning” and mindset made me want to get into a lot technique, connection work and detail oriented work that in all honesty I’ve since thrown out the window.
The fact is that no matter how great of a first lesson you teach, only a certain percentage of people will continue past the first lesson, and an even smaller percentage will continue past the 6/8 week mark. This is (usually) not the fault of the teachers or the lesson. For some reason that is a mystery to me and Lindy Hoppers everywhere, not everyone gets hooked on Lindy Hop. I don’t get it, but it’s just not going to become every person’s passion. Now I 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? Let’s face it; it’s already hard enough to promote classes. Once you do get people to show up to the class 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 even if they aren’t going to continue with the dance, I want them to have a nice memory and clear picture of what this dance is all about.
The Lindy Hop Spirit
Really, that spirit is not encapsulated in technique and precise details. It’s not about footwork, or specific concepts about connection. Remember, during the swing era nobody went to a dance studio to learn; they were inspired by the music, they copied each other, they were guided by the energy in the Savoy ballroom or whatever dance hall they attended. It was about feeling the music, feeling a nice stretchy connection with your partner and creating shapes together. It was exciting, it was infectious, it was a bit wild and it was FUN.
I started to understand that in the “first touch” with students the real goal is to give them a clear picture of the spirit of Lindy Hop. In that lesson, my goal is now to capture their hearts with the soul of the dance. That’s the best way to hook them to continue, and even if they don’t continue, they’ll still be left with that clear memory of what Lindy Hop is all about which they wouldn’t have if I had spent the lesson working too much on footwork or connection concepts.
So I stopped focusing too much on the footwork or the details and instead I now 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 play a lot of music and let them play around with shapes, twisting, 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 for me any more. The first thing 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.
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™