5 tips to get the most out of dance class

No no, this is not a  post about how to dance FASTER, though with the speed of music you get at some salsa events, I wouldn't be too shocked if there were requests for a post of that nature! Many students ask me how they can improve their dancing. Some tell me they do many classes a week to no avail, others tell me about how they practice all the time, and yet others tell me they want maximum results with minimal classes or practice.

Of course, as with anything, there ARE methods to improve your dancing dramatically, by re-focussing your energies and getting the most benefit out of the classes you do attend. Don't expect me to tell you that you can do less classes though - as with any sport, maximum exposure and practice is the only guarantee to speedy improvement.

So here we go, 5 things you can do NOW to improve your dancing dramatically.

1. "SHADOW" YOUR INSTRUCTOR

This is the biggest point I emphasise all the time - the mirrors are your instant point of feedback in any dance class, and can tell you the most about what you're doing wrong. Many students look in the mirror at their instructor, and then at themselves, unsure how to navigate the gap between the disparities in how they look. If this is you, then the art of shadowing is what you want.

Try to watch your instructor's silhouette in its entirety rather than their individual limbs, and then try to match your silhouette to theirs. That is, if your bodies were shadows in the mirror, those shadows would match. Don't focus on the intricacies for now, but try to get your overall form to be identical. This is the fastest way you can ensure you're doing the move and getting your lines right.

sharon pakir teaching in korea salsa congress

It's very difficult to watch yourself in the mirror and work out what's wrong without feedback, however individual attention is rare in a group class. With shadowing, you can attain feedback yourself. Using your instructor as a "template", work your body until it's the shape and movement that you want to achieve. If you stand behind or diagonally behind your instructor, you should work until you look almost like dancing twins.

2. SEEK FEEDBACK

Often, instructors are faced with a mish mash of students - some are there to be coached and enjoy strict mentoring, and others are just there for fun and do not desire any form of feedback or real instruction for that matter. For this reason, most instructors will give some feedback but not over do it in a group setting. In order to distinguish yourself, it can be extremely helpful to your instructor if you identify yourself to them before a class (or in an email/conversation) as someone who wants feedback.

Tell them what kind of feedback you want - I have some students who have told me in no uncertain terms that IN the moment they are making a mistake, they want me to call it out, even if it's in front of the whole class. These are the students who will improve the most rapidly, because instant feedback means you can alter your mistake instantly.

sharon pakir teaching ladies styling at new zealand salsa congress
teaching ladies styling at new zealand salsa congress 2009

Additionally, ask for feedback not just in your dancing, but in your attitude and learning style. An instructor who is exacting in their coaching style would be able to provide insights into your improvement with this feedback - you may be the nicest person in the world, but the most difficult kind of student who is blocking your own dance improvement without realising it. Feedback can go a long way to enabling you to get over emotional/mental blocks in class to clear your head and let you just dance.

If getting feedback, don't be the student that says "but that can't be right". There is nothing more frustrating for the instructor, since evidently, many dancers have done it before you, including the instructor. If you are finding trouble moving fast enough/getting the placement right/executing  that technique easily, it is not usually a problem with the technique you are being taught, but a problem of lack of practice on the student's part.

Take all feedback on, and remember - it's not supposed to come easily. If it were, then everyone would be an incredible dancer and no one would bother with classes. The fact is, dance is a difficult sport even for the professionals who do it, and even professionals ask each other for peer review and feedback.

3. PRACTICE IN A SOCIAL SETTING

Salsa is a social dance, which means that it doesn't matter how many turn patterns, styling techniques, or solo spins you can execute in a controlled environment such as your living room - it's what you do on the social floor that counts. After each class, try to practice what you learnt with as many partners as you can. I often counsel my students not to practice with just one dance partner - this can hamper your dancing as you get used to doing those flashy new moves only with them.

Additionally, many students prefer now to learn off dvds, youtube, and more. Salsa is a social dance, which means many of the intricacies and nuances in the dance cannot be watched to learn - it must be felt. Even if you've learnt something from watching, you need to try it on at least 10 different people of varying levels before you are able to ascertain if your technique is right or not.

When I was a student, I used to hit up the local dance clubs with a group of like-minded salsa friends, and we used to just dance in a corner, trying out different moves all night. We would cheer each other on, and all try the same moves on different partners, and push each other to improve, helping each other break down techniques as needed. It was fantastic, and is still one of my happiest salsa memories as a student.

In my travels, the cities with the best salsa scenes will often have a few people in the corner of their clubs doing just this - doing learning in a social setting. If you like a move that someone has done, if you want to learn something, ask each other on the spot - you're more likely to learn it quickly!

Standing in a club alone and not dancing for a song or two? Do something to help your dancing - either practice your shines to the music, or find someone to watch and be inspired. I find so few people WATCH others dance, especially with the advent of youtube where you can sit on your couch and plug into watching the salsa greats social dance.

Try watching, the next time you're out. There's nothing like watching someone live dance well, even if it's someone whom you don't regard as amazing, or a fellow student - it is only through observation that you can learn to identify mistakes, triumphs, and inspired movement.

4. DO YOUR DRILLS & SOLO STUDY

In any kind of dance, doing drills is imperative to becoming a better dancer. I am surprised when I hear students complain to me that they just find it hard to become a good spinner, and just can't do it, despite having danced for many years. Often, when I ask them how often they do drills, they cite "never" or "seldom" or "just in class". Like I said above, dance is not an easy sport, and even the world's best batsmen, ball players and sportsmen do drills every day to hone their skill.

You can drill anytime and anywhere. I used to spin down the corridors at work, in elevators, in my living room, down laneways, in salsa clubs, in regular clubs, waiting for the microwave to cook my food... Even drilling the basic salsa step is imperative to becoming a good dancer. Watch some of the greatest salsa dancers in the world - they have amazing basic steps. Often, it is how I can easily gauge the level of a dancer immediately.

malaysia salsa festival 2010 workshop with sharon pakir

If you do drills, ensure you're doing them with commitment. I know students who tell me they drill all the time - with no results. Often when I watch their drills, they're doing the same wrong thing over and over again. And although they know something is wrong, they don't change it. CHANGE IT. If you spin once and fall over, something isn't right. Change your prep, your head position, your arms, pull your core in. There is always something you can do better, and it won't change unless you are conscious of it!

5. LEAVE IT AT THE DOOR

This is one of the most important factors to becoming a good dancer. Good dancers, professional dancers, leave their emotions out of it. The thing is, dancing is an extremely emotional sport - often, our self-definition is tied up in "being a dancer", our heart and soul are poured into this passion, and the love you have for the community, music, and sport, means it becomes part of your psyche.

Leave it at the door.

Had a bad day? Feel like no one wants to dance with you? Frustrated with your progress? Don't like someone in your team? Had a fight with someone? Don't like where you've been placed in a formation? Hate the shoes you're wearing?

LEAVE IT AT THE DOOR, OR ELSE DON'T DO THE CLASS.

As soon as you walk into the studio, roll your shoulders back, give yourself a shake, and leave your emotions out of it. They aren't going to help your development or your ability to learn. Treat it professionally, and like any other kind of study, the onus is on you to create a good environment for it.

sharon pakir practising before performance

Those students that allow their fears, insecurities, emotion and issues to cloud their head whilst dancing, are the ones who will not progress even if they have the best intention, and the most innate talent. Dancing requires that you are able to commit your body AND your mind, and if you can't do this, it will result in injury at worst, and no progress (which is more frustrating) at best.

Dance is also a healing hobby - it's one of those passions that if you give yourself to it, at the end of the session you'll feel refreshed, better about most things, and head cleared. When I see a dancer walk out of a session looking clouded with thought and doubt, no matter what it's about, I know that they haven't given their all into the class.

Erase those thoughts, just for the duration of the class/session, and focus on dance, becoming a better dancer, and commit all of your headspace to directing your body's movement. It'll work, I promise.

So there you have it, 5 tips I have for utilising the classes you're ALREADY doing, to shake up your dancing and dramatically improving. I hope it has been helpful, and that they will assist with keeping your development conscious and on the constant rise. Focus, commitment and dedication are its main points throughout all the tips - passion and zeal count for nothing without those!

These tips can be applied pretty universally to most things you're trying to learn, so I hope you can use them in various ways to improve your learning capability - becoming a life long learner is a valuable skill and ensures you stay agile mentally forever!

And lastly - these are not my ONLY 5 tips - there are many methods for becoming a better dancer, but I thought I'd touch on those relating to attitude and focus for now. There's more to come, I promise!

If you've found this post helpful, please let me know - I'd love to hear from you in the comments!