"If you aren't dancing, you're wasting your feet!"
Thoughts on Teaching a Beginners Workshop
By Jerome Grisanti
There are many ways to teach a beginners workshop; indeed I have taught beginners in many different ways and introduced moves in different orders over the past six years. The following sequence of moves and concepts is based on a logic and a philosophy that have evolved in that time. Sources include Chris Bischoff, Charley Harvey, Becky Hill and Seth Tepfer.
The logic is a progression of difficulty from simple to more involved. Thus it progresses from moves involving two people doing the same thing (do-si-do, allemande, balance) to moves involving a couple doing different things as individuals (swing), to a group of four doing the same thing (circles, stars) to two couples doing the same thing (long lines, promenade) to couples doing different things as individuals (right-and-left through, chain, hey).
The philosophy is to communicate the basics (and only the basics) in a comfortable, relaxed way. This includes encouragement and information.
One thing I’ve become very conscious to avoid in recent years is offering too much information. Remember, to a beginner EVERYTHING is new and potentially important. So with that in mind I keep in mind that I’m going to explain and walk through a series of moves with a limited amount of advice on each, and that many of these moves will show up over the course of the evening, along with a few others that may be taught.
If I have experienced dancers helping me, I will ask them to perform the moves in their simplest version for now without adding embellishments. Experienced dancers can help best by remaining silent: this models listening to the caller, and also emphasizes the other modes of connection (touch, eye connection) that dance offers.
Another good source for beginner workshop information is Seth Tepfer’s web page,
The Old Farmer's Ball has a wonderful list of guidelines for experienced dancers:
Do-si-Do: I teach a straight (no twirl) do-si-do, noting that we end up where we started. Most folks can do this easily and thus we start with success. Language: "Walk forward, passing by the right shoulder, and back up to complete a loop."
Allemande: I discuss the connectiom (as if arm wrestling, but not squeezing the hand or thumb). I walk through it once. I add notes about avoiding dizziness by looking at the other person’s face. I also add notes about “presence” or “weight,” using the scale from Spaghetti arm to Schwarzenegger arm, and encouraging something in between that I call “Springy” arm. We practice with left and right hands, also fractional (1 ½). I may note that we can turn the allemande faster if we step closer to one another -- not a harder grip, a closer stance.
Balance: I mention the connectiom (gents thumbs up, ladies palms down), we practice a few times. I revisit “springy” if necessary. I remind them of being children playing push-me pull-you. I sometimes mention other connectioms (right hand to right hand balance, for example). I occasionally explain that the balance lets us know where the other person is and it just feels good with the music.
Swing: I start by revisiting the right allemande in
a demonstration, saying this is the only time I’ll encourage you to look
at my feet. Notice how we’re both walking the same circle. Then I explain
the swing connectiom (gents right hand behind woman’s shoulder blade, her left
hand on top of his right shoulder – that’s the frame – and the other two
hands join as well. After practicing, I remind of looking at your partner’s
face and keeping the move smooth. I say there is other footwork possible
but I recommend a smooth walking step if it’s all first-timers. (For second-timers
I’ll discuss the paddle step, again emphasizing smooth gait.) Then I discuss
finishing the swing, encouraging men to remember their right hands and
women to remember their ending spot as well.
Circles: I emphasize connectedness with springy arms. Hands about chest height, elbows pointing down. Lots of opportunity for success here. I may do a spaghetti arm circle to drive home that springy is much more fun.
Stars: I encourage dancers to watch the person in front of them during stars and circles. If I teach hands-across stars, I suggest they connectiom as for a balance rather than as for an allemande. If it's a cog-wheel star, I suggest they keep their thumbs on top next to their fingers, not gripping.
Long Lines: I ask dancers to imagine long lines facing each other, even ask them to hold hands with the imaginary next person, then lead the long lines. Again, this is easy to have success. I encourage small steps. Language: "A-one, two, three, pause" rather than "one, two, three, four."
Promenade: I demonstrate hand position and then say we’re going to trade places as a couple with the couple across from us, with the gents passing left shoulders. I have them note that when they turn as a couple the woman always moves forward. We practice a few times, then I change hand positions to that used in courtesy turn. We then practice promenade again and I call the final move a “courtesy turn.”
If time is tight, I can stop right there and trust experienced dancers to help with additional moves during the dance. I usually prefer to do the following as well:
Right-and-Left Through: I say we’re going to again trade places with the opposite couple and end with a courtesy turn, but we won’t hold on to each other as we walk across the set. Instead, we’ll walk over as individuals, and then meet again for a courtesy turn. (Warning: The first time through, many women will tend to turn to their right, away from the courtesy turn). We try it once, then I say “now that you’ve seen it and know what to expect, look for your partner after you pass through for the courtesy turn.” We practice several more times until everyone is comfortable. For many beginners, this is the first tricky move. Lots of encouragement here. Notice the women keep walking forward, but the man does a little back stepping in the courtesy turn.
Chain: I explain that the ladies will trade places, but of course it won’t be that simple. If experienced dancers are available I use them to demonstrate. Otherwise we just try it once. I note that they already know the courtesy turn, and that the lady always walks forward (never backwards or sideways – that’s the gent’s job). After a few practice chains I suggest to gents that their first move is to sashay to the right to occupy the space where the lady was a moment before. This sets them up to “receive” the lady for the courtesy turn. I normally do not teach the twirl, other than in passing: i.e., “some dancers will twirl instead of courtesy turn.” I also encourage gents to “lead” the lady into the chain. Language: "Ladies take right hands, pull by, give a left to the opposite gentleman to start the courtesy turn."
Hey: I don’t always teach the hey, as it is not a “basic” move and often time has run out and the dance is starting. When I do teach the hey, I start with the half hey, again saying we’re going to trade places with the other couple by weaving across the set. We try it. The advice I offer is to pass right shoulders in the middle and left shoulders on the ends. After a few practices we’ll do a full hey, which I explain is a half hey that ends with you turning around and doing another half hey. I say in the turn back there’s time to take a few steps so you don’t need to rush. We do a few full heys.
Stray advice: I call everyone together to again emphasize that we’re here to have fun, that anyone may ask anyone to dance, that it’s best to stick with experienced dancers, and that the beginning of each dance starts with finding partners and taking hands four. If I'm not the caller that evening, I will ask a newcomer to dance with me and then start forming hands four down the line.
That's it. We're done. Have fun! Thanks to the helpers!
Sequences: If I have time, I will call a sequence to demonstrate the idea of progression and to introduce the concepts of “up” and “down” the hall. One of my favorites for this is “Nice Combination” by Gene Hubert:
A different sequence with similar ease is “Marion’s Delight” by Carol Kopp:
Music: If I have time, or if someone is noticing the music, I’ll note that all the moves take place within a phrase of music. Then maybe demonstrate with a do-si-do or allemande. Many folks will not be consciously aware of the phrasing of the music. It’s not utterly necessary to discuss music.
Additional Moves: If there are experienced dancers but no beginners, I might discuss style or moves that I wouldn’t cover for beginners. Or I’ll just explain these during the walkthrough if I’m calling. These descriptions are also good for all dancers to know in order to help themselves or each other.
Gypsy: Right-hand allemande holding on only with your eyes.
Roll away: Trade places, with the man leading the woman in front of him, nose to nose, and sliding into her place with a half sashay. End facing the same direction. I emphasize the feeling of connection. The person doing the half-sashay leads the roll with a gentle tug.
Box the Gnat: In this move, the man and woman trade places. Face each other, take right hands, make an arch. The woman walks under the arch to where the man was standing while the man walks around her into her former spot on the floor.
Swat the Flea is the same as Box the Gnat, but with left hands.
California Twirl is similar to Box the Gnat, but starts with woman’s left hand in gent’s right hand. Both start facing the same direction rather than each other, make the arch and switch places, both end facing the same direction (opposite of the starting direction).
Star-Through: similar to California Twirl, use same hands but start by facing one another. Arch, trade places, end facing the same direction. (example, neighbors on the side balance and star through to face across the set).
Square-Through: Start in a group of four, improper. Give a right hand to your neighbor, pull by and look for your partner. Give left hand to your partner, pull by, look for your neighbor, pull by the right again, with partner pull by the left again. There are many variations of this move, including balances. This is basically a wrong-way Grand Right & Left. The key teaching phrase is: "the next move happens within your little group of four." This keeps folks from straying into other sets. The move I've described is actually Square Through Four. You can have square through two or three or five places as well.
Figure Eight: Usually done as a half figure eight, this move usually has the number one lady cross the set below and around the number two lady and end up where the number one gent started. Meanwhile, the number one gent crosses the set below and around the number two gent, ending proper. The full figure eight continues with the number one lady crossing below and around the number two gent while the number one gent crosses below and around the number two lady. The full figure eight ends with everyone where they started.
Rory O’More Slides: Form a wavy line with neighbors in right hand and ladies in the center holding left hands. Balance right and left, then slide right (step close step) to trade places with that neighbor. Repeat to the left (balance then slide).
Rory O’More Twirls: After doing the slides, I encourage dancers to feel the weight in the balances. After the second balance, give a gentle push with your right hand. This puts you in a clockwise twirl. Make sure you’ve traded places as before and take hands again to repeat to the left. Not everyone will “get” the twirls immediately. Don’t push the issue. Sliding is perfectly acceptable, twirling is an embellishment.
Petronella spins: (Refer to the Rory O’More slides versus twirls. Slides are acceptable here as well, but for most dancers the twirl is more satisfying.) Look at the person in your right hand. They’re not looking at you. You will be moving your body to the spot they currently occupy – don’t worry, they’re going to move out of your way. Balance the ring. To help the person to your right you can push off gently with your right hand. This should encourage the correct direction of rotation. Handclaps are optional but very fun for many dancers.
Star Promenade: Let’s say you’ve just swung your partner on the gent’s side. Now, gents allemande left 1 ½ and pick up your neighbor for a star promenade. The gent’s hand is lower, across the woman’s back with the hand near her waist. She can offer her right hand as for a courtesy turn if she wishes. Her left hand does NOT go around his waist, but rather on his shoulder. I think it’s more comfortable if she places her hand on his nearest (right) shoulder; it’s easier to get to the next move in most cases. In this formation, promenade halfway and then back out with a butterfly whirl (if there is time). This consists of the gentleman (the one on the inside of the promenade) dropping hands with the other gent but keeping the connection with the lady, then stepping backward as she walks forward to rotate around themselves.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Contact Jerome Grisanti via email:
jerome (dot) grisanti (at) gmail.com