- Take a workshop that is at your skill level.
Not doing this is a mistake most beginners and some intermediate dancers make. They take the most advanced workshops that are being offered. As cool as this might sound, it is actually very counterproductive. Think of it this way: if you’ve spent a whole month training to run a five-mile run you wouldn’t go and sign up to run a marathon, right? Exactly.
Take something that you can handle. Otherwise, you’ll leave the workshop irritated because you didn’t get the move, or just confused, because it felt like too much. Ideally, you should take something at your level that pushes you a bit more. Like, for example, a workshop that combines things you know how to do already in ways you hadn’t thought of.
- Take a workshop from someone who’s there to teach, not put on a show.
Not every sportsperson can be a coach. Some people are just really good dancers who get to teach workshops because of them being good dancers. Teaching is a craft, and it takes time to polish it and get good at it, no matter how good of a dancer you are. And some of these really good dancers don’t know how to teach well. What they do know how to do is amaze you with their dancing skills at every moment they get. In doing so, however, they will never come down to your level. They are not concerned about showing you what you can do with your own dancing, based on your needs. Instead, they want to show you what you could do if you ever were to become as skilled as they are. (A note: if you’re willingly taking a workshop that is clearly above your skill level, you cannot expect the instructor to come down to your level.) Also, be on the lookout for those who are trying to teach you a show routine; that is, something that cannot be replicated on the social dance floor. (I go into more detail about this in this piece.)
- If you have a question, ask it.
This is one of the things I do not see a lot of during workshops: people asking questions. I get it: you don’t want to look like the “dumb person” for asking a question which answer might seem obvious to the rest. Chances are, however, that same question is lingering in other people’s minds, too. Questions create learning opportunities not only for the student, but for the instructor as well. Instructors cannot think of everything. There have been times when I’ve been asked questions which have made me carefully consider my answer, because I had not thought of it before. The next time I taught the same workshop, I incorporated that answer to what I was teaching. So instructors benefit from questions, too.
- Learn the foot-work first.
It’s easy, with a new turn pattern, to get lost in what is happening with the arms. However, what is happening with your feet is as important. Most turn patterns are a combination of basic moves like enchufla and vacila. What makes them different most of the time is the arm coordination. Take, for instance, the turn pattern “Montaña.” “Montaña” is the exact same thing as “Dedo,” but done with two arms. When you attempt to learn a new turn pattern already knowing what your footwork is (and you will, because, again, the footwork comes from basic moves you already know how to do), you will have one less thing on which you’ll have to concentrate.
- Don’t learn the turn pattern as a “chunk.”
In language learning, there is a term called “chunking” used to describe learning a phrase but not really knowing which things stand for which. In Spanish, a very common example of chunking is when someone says Me llamo es Jon, which translates to “I am called is Jon.” Here they are combining two phrases: Me llamo (“I am called”) and Mi nombre es (“My name is”) into one (“I am called is”) because they haven’t yet acquired the tools to differentiate one from another. To speakers, it’s all one thing. Only once they learn how, grammatically and syntactically, one is different from the other, will they not make the same mistake again.
The same thing can happen in dancing. When you go to a workshop, if you are taught a turn pattern, many people will “chunk” it and store it in their minds as “that turn pattern” instead of dissecting it and realizing that “that turn pattern” is made out of smaller turn patterns which they already know, but that, in this case, have been put together in novel ways.
When taking a workshop, try to figure out what basic turn patterns are being used to create “that turn pattern.” That way, you’ll have an easier time remembering and later replicating it. For instance, it will be easier to remember—and replicate—Dedo if you remember that this move is nothing but a vacila, followed by an enchufla with a hook turn, followed by another enchufla, and finished with a dile que no. If, in your head, all you have is a combination of moves you’ve never done, you’ll forget the move you learned at the workshop very quickly.
- Make sure that you are switching partners.
Instructors will usually do this for you. But sometimes instructors get caught up in what they are teaching and forget. If that happens, make sure that you remind them. It is important that you practice the move(s) with as many people as you can because that will be closer to what will be happening once you go out to dance socially. Remember, one thing is the move in theory. A whole different thing is the move in practice. Not everybody is the same, feels the dance, dances the same. By practicing the same move with more than one person, you are, from the beginning, getting practice with how different leads or follows may alter the turn pattern that you’re learning, which will in turn force you to find ways to adjust to these changes.
- Don’t forget that you’re not dancing alone.
Sometimes we forget this. We just do. We do the turn pattern, just as the instructor has shown, and somehow the move does not come out. Sometimes, you think you’re doing it all right, and you are not. In others, you’re actually doing everything by the book, and it is your partner who messes up. Whichever the case, don’t forget that you’re dancing with someone else, which means that you cannot be in your own little bubble, just thinking about whether or not you are getting the turn pattern. It takes two people to make the move happen. In other words, you have to connect. That’s what dancing is all about, even at the learning-a-new-move level. Always work with your partner.
- Don’t talk while the instructor is talking.
This is just good social etiquette. Sometimes, as we switch partners, we start talking amongst ourselves and get so caught up in the conversation that we don’t notice that the instructor is saying something—and sometimes people do notice, but they keep talking, anyway. This is disruptive not only to you—because you’re missing out on important information or tips that the instructor is trying to give, based on what he/she is noticing the dancers are doing—but it is also disruptive to those around you who are trying to listen. A good rule of thumb is, you can talk with people as you practice or rotate partners, but should stop talking once you hear the instructor’s voice.
(And please, please, please: don’t be one of those people who goes to the side in the middle of the workshop and starts teaching the turn pattern to someone because they are “not getting it.” There is an instructor there for a reason. If your partner is not getting it, ask the instructor to explain things again. Don’t take it upon yourself to be the instructor.)
- Record the turn pattern.
We’re in the era of technology. You don’t need to carry around large cameras to film things now. Your cellphone does the trick just fine. Instructors usually allow recording once the workshop is over, so take this opportunity to record what you were taught so that you can watch it later and keep it fresh in your mind for the social dancing. Sometimes instructors forget that students want to record; so, if he/she doesn’t mention anything about recording, let him/her know that you’d like to. More often than not, instructors concede.
- Practice what you learned when you dance socially.
Practice makes better—and it also doesn’t let you forget. If you go to workshops and don’t practice what you have been taught, what’s the point? Indeed, you will forget it all. The social dancing that usually occurs after a whole day of workshops is a great time to practice what you learned. Don’t miss your chance to put it to the test. Don’t fall back on the regular moves that you know, the stuff that you’re comfortable with. Practice the new moves as much as you can!