PREPARE WELL, AND IN ADVANCE
This is common sense. Yet it is incredible how frequently this does not happen. (So if the dance was composed on the plane trip to the session it might be tough to come well prepared.) Good preparation includes:
- the teacher having a thorough understanding of the DANCE and the MUSIC
This means analyzing the dance well and understanding its structure as well as how it relates or does not relate to the music, all the way through the music. 99%+ of our dances have discernible and recognizable patterns. The instructor should explain how the dance is structured, rather than forcing the student to piece it together as a stream of consciousness.
For example, "it has 3 parts plus a chorus, repeats 2 times", etc.
- preparing your LANGUAGE TERMS in advance
Picking up from the original theme, the instructor should know what movements he/she is going to teach. Pick words you can use that get your message across to describe those movements, before you ever show up in the teaching situation.
Choosing vocabulary for the first time in room filled with hundreds of people usually does not work and is unprofessional. Yet how many of even our experienced leaders look like they are trying to invent the wheel when they are out there in front of the crowd?
- preparing your partner and/or assistants in advance
How many times have we seen couple dances taught poorly because the instructor has not taken the time in advance to prepare the partner?
Way too often the preparation is last minute if at all, haphazard, and inadequate for preparing the demonstrator to be both self sufficient and a valuable assistant in the teaching process.
For couple dances, since almost all of them have at least some difference between the men's part and the women's part, make sure as an instructor that you are totally versed in the steps for both sexes, small differences, transitions, etc. and that you give equal explanations to both sexes.
INTRODUCE THE DANCE
Don't just get up and start teaching steps. What is the name of the dance? Whose dance? Whose music? What's the theme or meaning?
Explain that we are about to do a dance of the following style and structure.
It has X parts, repeats Y times etc. AND PLAY THE MUSIC BEFORE TEACHING!
More times than not, the music assists with the learning and almost always is critical to the enjoyment of the dance. If the dance is worth teaching, the teacher should be able to tolerate any downside risk associated with people making premature judgments about the dance.
Make a decision regarding demonstrating or not demonstrating the dance in advance.
In my opinion people are visual in their learning of dance, it helps them to see what the goal is.
Occasionally it might be intimidating because the dance may appear more complicated than it actually is, but I would say that 70%+ of our dances should be demonstrated prior to teaching. I would be surprised if we see demos more than 10% of the time. (A side benefit here is that most of our instructors are a pleasure to watch, so the demonstration makes a nice entertainment experience for the crowd).
BREAK THE DANCE DOWN, AND THEN BUILD IT UP WITH APPROPRIATE REINFORCEMENT
In a workshop situation, most of us respond well when the dance is broken down into logical pieces.
The music/dance structure usually provides the right guide. The pieces should be based on either how the music works or logical units of the dance.
They should be short enough so that they are easily digestible but not so short that there are too many of them.
And after you teach a piece, let the group repeat the piece until it is ready to move on. If the piece is not being absorbed, choose a different explanation rather than just repeating, usually louder, the explanation that is not working.
Now comes the reinforcement. I believe that when one teaches a dance of the pattern A, B, C, that one should:
Practice A, B
Practice A, B, C
Again, it seems that way too often the leader is more focused on getting through the explanation than on getting people to actually understand, absorb and know the dance.
PLAY THE MUSIC DURING THE TEACHING!
Leaders often seem to be in such a rush to get through the pain of teaching that they don't play the music enough during teaching. The music should be used routinely as part of the reinforcement and enjoyment process.
After the dance has been taught and played through, take questions and reinforce problem areas before playing it the second time through.
FAVOR THE USE OF WORDS VERSUS NUMBERS
I am constantly amazed when I look at some of our workshop leaders presenting in Hebrew on Hishtalmut tapes. I discover that most of them actually do know how to communicate effectively using dance terms as opposed to showing us how well they know how to count from 1-8.
It seems that when they get to this side of the ocean their thinking changes and that describing a dance by doing nothing more than counting must be more helpful to us. WRONG!
Sarcasm aside, and with appropriate sympathy for the discomfort one feels when operating outside one's language comfort zone, the leader simply must force himself/herself to be descriptive rather than numerical.
I see this problem from even the best of the leaders. Counting does have its usefulness. Sometimes it is indispensable, but only when explaining how the movement corresponds to the music.
And then, one needs to give cadence, not just counts. How many times have you heard the instructor screaming 1,2,3,4 and have that not correspond to the movement of the feet?
If it is a Yemenite step with a rest on count 4, don't count 1-4. 1-3 plus hold, maybe.
Or even better - say "a yemenite step with a rest on count 4". Use the language!!!
Differentiate between a triplet and quick, quick, slow. In other words, be precise and have your words match your meaning. (This is where a guide of standard terms would be useful, both for words and rhythm patterns).
Tell us whether we should be using our right or our left foot and, if it matters, be clear which sex you are addressing when you give that instruction..
This leads me to cueing. I believe in giving verbal cues during the learning and reinforcement process.
Not everyone absorbs them, needs them, or can even process them, but for those who can, I find that it more quickly enables the correct movements to come out their feet.
Numerical cues are worthless, so again don't bother counting from 1-8 when cueing. After-the-beat cues are useless even when using words. Don't use them. On-the-beat cues are sometimes helpful. Anticipatory cues, when appropriately done, are the best.
In other words, tell the students, in words, what steps are coming, in enough time so that it will help them with the memory process, but not so far in advance as to confuse the current movement.
I consider this list to be basic and fundamental to professional quality Israeli Folk Dance instruction.
I think they apply to most situations most of the time. Are there legitimate exceptions? Certainly. Do I always get my instructors to follow these guidelines? I claim only mixed success. Are problems sometimes due the director of the camp/workshop rather than the teacher? Definitely.
There are a few things at play. First, we are dealing with people here and no one is perfect or 100% consistent. So even if my instructors totally agreed with the points above, sometimes, in the heat of the moment, things come out differently than planned.
Next, and as an example, at more than one Chagigah (the Israeli Workshop weekend I co-direct), the program has been so full that the teachers are under a lot of pressure from me to stick firmly to the schedule and complete their teaching within an allotted time segment.
This may make it psychologically and/or physically difficult for the teacher to adhere to all of the guidelines above. In such a case, as a camp director, I am trying to create some balance between getting people exposed to material and keeping the weekend moving, as opposed to the pure learning experience. Sometimes we do well at this. Sometimes less well.
I would still submit that the above guidelines can and should be followed in the vast majority of workshop situations but am willing to recognize that a teacher's performance may be influenced by some factors outside his/her control.
I am convinced however, that if instructors follow the above guidelines, they will in general find themselves being more successful and popular with their audiences, which will benefit all concerned.