This week, I was called an “offbeat teacher.” I’m assuming, of course, that the critic was referring not to my dance timing, but rather to the unconventional way in which I teach my class, especially at the Foundation level. Let’s face it—I don’t simply tell students to parrot movements, to forget how they learned to count in primary school (“what happened to the 4 and 8?”), or to attempt fancy patterns without understanding the physical dynamics of how the pattern is actually supposed to work. And most of all, I don’t take dance instruction deadly seriously.
There is, as you might expect, method to my apparent madness. I’ve spent more than a decade teaching people who are relatively newer to dance. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to introduce what are tricky physical concepts to people who begin with relatively little body awareness. I experiment with different approaches to see which may connect better among people who – through years of teaching experience – I know have trouble with some fundamental elements of the dance. For those to whom dance movements come easier, it really doesn’t matter how I introduce the basic step, be it in the conventional way in which practically every other teacher in the world introduces it, or in one of the several, less conventional ways that I invented to convey the weight-shift, syncopation that is characteristic of salsa. The challenge that took considerable time and experimentation to solve is how to introduce the basic step to those whose feet simply refuse to get the three-steps-and-a-pause pattern.
Similarly spot turns. And ditto for travelling turns. What I attempt to achieve in the “offbeat” approaches I use to instruct dance technique is to make the dance more accessible to more people who often feel marginalized, dismissed, or otherwise inferior in more conventionally run classes. Additionally, there are two other distinguishing characteristics of my classes that would definitely fall into the characterization of “offbeat”—my use of bad jokes, and the fact that (at least in the Foundation class) I don’t count.
“Why don’t you count out the pattern?” I’ve been asked more than once. Actually, it’s more than dozens of times, since counting the “1,2,3; 5,6,7” rhythm pattern almost seems to be a signature of salsa dancing. And that’s the problem. Over the years, I have observed, and danced with, more people who dance to the count in their head rather than with either the music or their partner. And that’s simply not what partner dancing – or any dancing – is about. I remind students fairly regularly that in this dance – and many others – you dance with connection to three things: the music, your partner, and the floor. If you look back over previous editions of Mark’s Lead, you’ll find numerous discussions of this idea. By teaching to sounds, I train both novice and experienced dancers to connect to sound and musical rhythm. By teaching to rhythmic words that describe the motion (“weight-shift-and-step,” “get-out of-the-way-and-back-in-the-way,” “bas-ic-step-and-walk-walk-flip”) I’m training dancers to connect their own body to the floor in a way that allows someone who primarily lives in their head – more cognitive learners – to get into their body through embodied learning.
In the Repertoire class, I shift to connecting the more advanced pattern moves to specific numeric beats in the 8-count musical phrase. By then, the numbers have become expressions of music, and can serve their intended purpose, that is as a map between physical movement and musical rhythm. And, by the time a student is ready for Repertoire class, they understand that dancing is indeed done to music, not to an arbitrary count.
As for my “offbeat” humour, I could blame my own Dad for that, in the same way that my adult daughter blames me! But as an adult educator (yes, formal credentials and all) I’ve learned that humour helps to make abstract concepts more vivid, and therefore more memorable. It reminds people that dance should be fun and light, and not so serious. It relieves the pressure and often self-imposed stress that some people bring to dance classes, especially for those who might be a bit unsure about this whole dancing thing, brought to dance classes by a life partner.
So-called offbeat instructors aren’t for everyone. Then again, it’s unlikely any instructor will connect with any and all students all of the time. But after teaching literally thousands of students over all the years, with whom I’ve had the privilege of sharing my joy and love of dance, perhaps offbeat is what you might enjoy for staying on-beat.
See you on the dance floor.