WEST COAST SWINGKelly Buckwalter's Assorted Topics

© 1997

Lessons: Private or Group

People often ask me that if they are going to invest time, energy, and money, would they be better off to take private lessons or group classes. And the answer is that everyone is different. If you enjoy the social company of a lot of people, want to make more friends, broaden your dance family, and are on a limited budget, a group class might be right for you. If you have a learning disability, low self esteem, desire to compete, get easily frustrated, or have more money than you have time, a private lesson might be a better place to start.

Whichever route you choose, don't just try it once, with just one instructor. Each instructor teaches a little differently. Some are informal, some formal; some are funny, some are serious; some like to chat, some only want to teach; some are technical, some are more creative (some are men, some are women!). Each group class also has its own personality tooóespecially the ongoing ones. You're more likely to learn best where you feel the most comfortable, so shop around.


I'm also often asked if people need a partner and if so how do you find one. Whether you decide to remain strictly a social dancer, or become a competitor, finding a dance partner is a good idea. Some clubs, studios, or newsletters have bulletin boards or personal columns that are designed for people who are looking for a dance partner. If you opt for such a vehicle, ask your instructor to help you word a description about your dancing abilities so that you do not over or under estimate yourself. An accurate self description is essential to finding a good match.

Personally, I think the best way is just to dance a lot and when you find someone you seem to work well with, ask them if they are interested. Even if they are not, the grapevine will take over and word will get out that you are looking for a partner. Don't let others make a match for you! Once you find a prospective partner, check out personality differences and discuss how both of you deal with criticism, frustration, and stress. Discuss who you both would like as a coach (it usually works best to have the same instructor), and make sure practice schedules and locations are feasible for both of you.

Make sure that your prospective partner is either at your same dance level, or you are both clear as to who is the "expert" when it comes to disagreements. Also, be candid about what you both expect from one another, and exactly what kind of relationship you want. (Are you or your partner really looking for a girl/boyfriend? If so, it might be a good idea to eliminate all the married people who seem interested in practicing with you!!!)

Once you have a partner, then it is time to talk to your instructor/coach about the feasibility of doing a routine. Your coach will know whether you should work on your basics for awhile, or whether you should start working on a routine. Routines can be helpful in improving your dancing because they give you a specific goal and usually provide you with a specific time frame with which to complete that goal. If you cannot find a partner, you might consider joining a dance team, if available.


How can you tell if you are really improving? As far as improving your current skills are concerned, I think there are many ways to do so. One way is to take a basic west coast swing class. This may sound funny to someone who has been dancing for a couple of years, but it has been my experience that most people can not assimilate all the information given in a beginning class the first time through. After you have been dancing a couple of years, and have a more experienced viewpoint, you can get much more out of a beginning class than if you are a true beginner. The experience will also make it very clear to you just how much you have learned since you started, and what areas you still need to work on.

Another approach is to take a beginning class learning the opposite part. This will give you a much more complete picture of the dance and increase your appreciation and understanding for your partners. Another option is to videotape yourself dancing at regular intervals. Sometimes a dancer thinks s/he is not improving when in fact they really are improving quiet a bit. A videotape of yourself every six months or so will give you a lot of objective feedback. It is simultaneously humiliating and encouraging to look back on your first videosóhumiliating because you will be super critical of your every flaw, and encouraging because you know you no longer look the way you used to!

Dance Shoes or Not

Buy them NOW. Everyone should get a pair of dance shoes as soon as possible (unless of course you have feet problems that prohibit you from wearing them!). When I first started dancing, the shoes really made a difference. Now it doesn't matter so much what I wear, or what condition the floor is in. But when you're just starting out, every little bit of help makes a big difference. PS: Some judges will reduce scores for women not wearing high heels!

Improving Your Dancing

Iím often asked, "How do I get to be a good dancer?" First of all, you must define what you mean by the phrase, "good dancer." For some people, being "good" means winning a lot of contests, or just winning a particular contest. For others, it simply means being a popular social dancer. So decide what your current idea of "good" means. At first you mav decide to work for a competition, and then decide later that what you really want is to be a good social dancer. Thatís fine, goals change. But you should formulate a specific idea of what you want right now, and give yourself specific benchmarks to mark your progress.

Let's start with the example of someone wanting to be a "good" social dancer. If thatís your current goal, you might have as a specific benchmark that at any given dance youíre so busy dancing with the people who asked YOU to dance that you donít have a chance to ask THEM. Or maybe you have as a goal that certain dancers that you consider to be accomplished ask you to dance more often.

If you are interested in competition, thatís an entirely different ball game. First you might start with entering Jack and Jill contests. If you are new to contesting, enter small local contests first, even if you think you are an "advanced" dancer. Local dance clubs and studios often offer these events. Win a few of the smaller contests (or at least place!), get some experience, and then move on to the larger contests such as Newcomers or Novice divisions at conventions. Although it is usually best to enter the lowest category available if you are a new competitor, most contests have rules about who can enter what category. So make sure you check on each contestís policy as well as getting a written copy of that contest's rules (remember, the rules often change, even in the same competition, from year to year!).

If you are really serious about competing, it is essential that you take private lessons. Not only will your coach help you clean up your basic technique, and better prepare you for a positive experience, but he or she will be able to help you deal with all the stress and trauma that goes with competing, not to mention deciphering the judges scores for you!

Whether you desire to be a social or competitive dancer, there are many options to choose from: workshops, dance teams, private lessons, and even videotapes (here I will shamelessly plug mine!). Keep in mind too, that you need to be informed about your strengths and weaknesses. If you donít feel confident in knowing what they are, schedule a private lesson with an instructor you respect. Fixing problems doesn't have to be painful. For example, if you know you have really bad posture perhaps you might try a ballroom class to work on your frame. Or if you feel especially uncoordinated with your footwork, you might want to learn a country line dance so you can just focus on your own feet without the "distraction" of a partner. Sometimes just shifting from one dance to another breaks a bad habit or two.

Kelly Buckwalter, from the San Francisco area, is US Open Classic and Jack & Jill Champion. You can purchase her popular and extremely instructive video tapes by calling (707) 544-8184.