I read an interesting article the other day in Backstage, a print and online publication dedicated to giving performers advice, tips and insight about the professional industries of acting, singing and dancing, entitled, 7 Things Not to Do in A Professional NYC Dance Class, authored by Kathryn Mowat Murphy. This is a topic that Evita and I have talked about at length for years now as we’ve compared our experiences as dancers in class against how others behave in our classes or classes we’ve observed.

Here is Murphy’s list of 7 no no’s:

  1. Don’t be oblivious to the teacher’s background
  2. Be aware of your skill level
  3. Have spacial awareness in class
  4. Don’t be on your phone
  5. Don’t be late and leave early
  6. Don’t ignore a correction
  7. Don’t yawn

Now, let’s look at each of these points as they relate to taking a swing dance class.

Know who you’re taking class from: Upon first inspection, this idea could sound pompous and egotistical to ask such a thing of dancers, but here’s why I think it’s important. Knowing a bit of background on the teachers before you come to class can give you insight into their style or approach. Do they sight their teachers or influences? Do they have unique or special knowledge or experience working with previous generations? What will they emphasize or value in their classes: will they likely be connection- or figures-focused? Will their style be influenced by where they come from or reside (i.e. L.A., Sweden, St. Louis, New Orleans, Seoul, etc.)?  All of this information is useful to you before you walk through the door, and it can help you better prepare to learn.

Be aware of your skill level: Oh boy, we could talk about this for a lifetime and still not arrive at a definitive conclusion as to the best way to go about this, therefore… I’m going to try tackling it in a paragraph (or two).

There are some basic sign posts that you should adhere to with respect to your general level i.e. if you’ve only been dancing for a year or less, advanced classes most likely aren’t for you. As Murphy says, “Yes, you may have been an advanced student in your hometown or at school, but know that you’re most likely a few levels lower than what you are used to when in New York City,” which I will say applies for when you travel to an event outside your home scene. She goes on to state that technique isn’t the only thing by which to measure the level of a class, suggesting elements like style, speed of class and other students all contribute to the class level. You should also know that the context for Murphy’s point here is very NYC dance class specific, so in the Swing dancing world this idea would apply to regional, national and international workshops.

Ultimately, context plays a big part in how challenging or easy a class may be, and looking at the title alone won’t give you the best indication.

Have spatial awareness in class: This was written with small NYC studios in mind, but I certainly think it’s applicable for any swing dance class, too. If teachers don’t explicitly address floorcraft in their class, then take it upon yourself (and for your partner’s sake) to work on it even as you’re focusing on class material. Afterall, it doesn’t matter how good the band is that night or how well you and your partner are dancing together, getting kicked or kicking someone else while dancing can ruin a dance and possibly the rest of the evening. So start strengthening your peripheral awareness in the classroom, and you’ll be a better, safer dancer on the social floor.

Turn your phone off (or on silent) before class: This one is pretty common sense, but I can’t tell you how many times Evita and I have been in the middle of class when a phone goes off in someone’s bag or purse. Not only is it embarrassing for you when everyone figures out it’s your phone causing the disruption, but it also distracts us and the rest of the students from the task at hand. If you’re expecting an important phone call that you absolutely must take, then maybe skip class for that hour. Learning to dance can be hard enough without trivial distractions like a ringing phone, so please take a quick, courteous moment at the beginning of class to make sure you’re not the one with the ringing phone.

Arrive to class on time and don’t leave early: My biggest pet peeve is students who leave class early, followed quickly by those who arrive late. It’s a simple courtesy, yet it’s not abnormal for students to show up late. I’ll say that in a professional NYC dance class, this rule is enforced by teachers much more often and more firmly, but that’s often not the case in the swing dance world. I understand that things happen from time to time that prevent you from being punctual, but at least extend the instructor the courtesy of acknowledging and apologizing for your tardiness. Similarly, if you know that you’ll have to leave class early, PLEASE say something to the instructor before class begins.

(My third biggest pet peeve is those who sit down, yet stay in the rotation, during class…because hey, we’re tired too! More on that in a minute)

Take a correction, at least for that class: Hopefully you’re in a class to learn something new, so when a teacher takes the time to offer feedback, making an effort to incorporate the changes is, at the very least, a sign of respect and shows that you care. It may not be something you adopt going forward, but before you outright reject a concept or method, try it first (and more than once) before deciding that it’s not for you.

(And no, we don’t need to know that some other instructor does a swing out this way or that – speaking up in that moment only holds up the class and makes you that person.)

Don’t yawn (or our world – sit down): In whichever way you’d like to express your fatigue, the classroom is not the place to do so. And I wish I didn’t even have to address this point because it seems like common sense, but to me there are few things that show more disrespect than sitting down while taking class. If you’re too tired to take the class, then don’t take the class! I remember taking a Tap workshop from Professor Robert Reed, and he would call out individuals for things like chewing gum, standing with crossed arms or with hands on hips. If he caught you with crossed arms while he was talking, he’d walk up to you and say, “what are you, some sort of superstar dancer,” as he unfolded your arms. I think the bigger point here is that body posture and language are important not only to how we take in information, but also it could subconsciously convey your attitude towards the teachers or class material.

Final Thoughts

One of the striking characteristics of ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, musical theater and tap dancers is their discipline and adherence to structure in the classroom. While you might not have professional aspirations with your swing dancing, I think there are many things to learn about how to take class. Ultimately, developing good habits in the classroom will make you a better dancer more quickly. The way I see it, if you’re going to invest the time and money to take class, don’t you want to get the most out of the experience?