Dance teaching - as commenced at Gittisham Folk Dance Club.

Teaching folk dance at Mackarness Hall, Honiton in Devon.

For discussion.

This hall has always been hired by the club for evening sessions - these last from 6 to 11pm - or 5 hours. To date, the club has made use of the hall only from around 7.30 to 10.30pm - or 60% of the time for which we are paying. The hall costs us 40.50 per evening so in effect the club is wasting up to 16 per evening or 160 annually assuming we rent the space 10 times per year. It is only very recently I learnt the terms under which we hired this hall.

One of my proposals to utilise this 'free' time is to offer lessons in folk dance in order to improve the quality of dancers in the club, and help to introduce folk dance to newcomers but in a more structured way than is possible at callers evenings. Other local halls are far less expensive - something that I continue to argue should be more fully investigated.

I have now danced for over 10 years - including French, Breton, Irish Set and a few oddments at festivals in addition to mainstream English folk dance and ceilidh. For many years I danced quite badly owing to the fact that so little was actually 'taught' in a professional manner in local clubs - in contrast to what happens in many other dance styles such as Ballroom and Jive.

In the last 8 years I have attended many dance workshops and tutorial sessions at folk festivals and dance weekends and have picked up a range of tips and teaching techniques from experts as well as from a range of superbly competent dance partners. My idea is that I now should pass on some of this advice and guidance to other club members and some newcomers as a part of proper teaching of folk dance (and to include remedial lessons!). This would be teaching moves and component parts of dances rather than teaching of whole dances (but a few could be included) .

As I see it there are four distinct problem areas that affect not only Gittisham Folk Dance Club but many other small folk dance clubs, and festivals such as Towersey and Sidmouth, both of which attract many non-expert dancers to their ceilidh events.

1. Despite having been dancing for years, some people fail to appreciate the importance of being in the right place, at the right time and facing in the correct direction. This is the principal reason they get fast dances wrong - they know all the moves, but if even a couple of dancers in a set of six or eight get out of place, some fast dances break down very quickly.

2. Many people have never learnt to do couple dances properly. They make awkward and/or uncomfortable partners for waltz and polka, for example. Many do not know how to do a range of other couple dances - which is rather limiting. I can teach all these, as can other competent club members (but some like to think they can teach but can't even do the basics properly themselves!).

3. Many people have never been taught how to swing properly - that is, to do the basic 'buzz step' swing which is the default method for most folk dances except step-hop where other options can be employed. Again, this makes them distinctly uncomfortable as dance partners, and can even be dangerous. I regularly teach people at festivals how to swing properly - some women have been astounded at the difference it can make to their swinging even after 2 minutes of instruction. Further guidance and some diagrams showing how to swing are shown here. Some photos from Sidmouth Folkweek are here.

4. Many newcomers would benefit from intensive learning sessions for moves such as grand square and variants, and moving on to learn the discipline of complex flutterwheels, grand sweep moves, reels etc. All of these I can teach very easily.

Dance partners can be grouped into two broad categories:

A. Those who have learnt at some time in their lives to swing, waltz and polka properly. Often they have learnt ballroom dance.They know the importance of balance and where to put their feet and especially in swinging, the orientation of their feet. These partners are usually quite comfortable to swing with and often very good indeed. Age, size or shape makes little difference!

B. The others! Oh dear me. For both men and women, these range from acceptable through to appalling, some think they are swinging properly because they have been doing the same thing (and very badly) for a decade or more. It is not primarily their fault - they have never been taught properly. Often they don't like being told they are doing it all wrong. Unfortunately, the longer they have been dancing badly, the more remedial teaching may be required. Some have developed quite comfortable alternative techniques because of a need to avoid the extra stresses on their right knees and ankles that a buzz step swing involves. Better shoes (with more slip to the soles) can help too, as can having a decent dance floor.

Lightbulb question:

How many teachers does it take to change a jerky, nervous or uncomfortable dancer into an accomplished smooth dancer? Only one, but the pupil has to be willing to change.

Of course experienced dancers often get things wrong - or they appear to do so. Often I put in extra moves and turns that often work but sometimes don't quite work, so it looks like a mistake. But it was more of a miscalculation as to what I could get away with! A good dancer can always recover quickly from errors.

So this is what I could offer (in addition to what other competent people could offer).

Finally, I would like someone to teach me the polska - I did it properly at Towersey some years ago ........It's an offset dance which makes it both unusual and difficult to learn. The walking forward bit is easy once you get the hang of it. Turns for a man are sweep round and step on left foot, tap right, step onto right. Repeat....Sounds easy doesn't it.......

Some discussion of basic folk dance moves is here.

Your views are sought - please email stevewozniak42 (AT) hotmail.com

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