WEST COAST SWINGThe Lesson Scramble

by Michael A. Harvey

As a young boy rising through the ranks of the highest levels of tennis my parents made it an imperative to seek out the finest instruction available. It paid off. My game advanced through all the stages with solid foundations without having to back track in order to fix self-taught bad habits. So as an adult it was a no-brainer for me to do the same thing when I embarked on the West Coast Swing trail. Little did I know it’s easier said than done.

Dance Instructors, like Tennis Pros, are wonderful people with their own particular set of personality quirks. In many ways the two are similar and in many ways they differ. Tennis Pros are notorious for not returning phone calls and although they rarely miss lessons they are known to be chronically late. When I became a Tennis Pro I made certain that I always returned calls and always showed up on time. That way I frustrated people less so that they would have more patience with my other numerous foibles. My experience with Dance Instructors has been that for the most part they do return phone calls, although that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll book into their schedule. And they are rarely late, they just often don’t show at all!

The two professions are similar in that you can’t reach them by phone at work because they can’t be taken off the floor (off the court) away from their student. So "booking" a lesson does take a bit of persistence. When you catch a Tennis Pro between lessons at the courts or when he happens to be home he usually has his "book" handy. So you book. Not so with Dance Instructors. Their "book" is ethereal and rarely accessible. Just because you have caught them and are standing right in front of them doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a lesson time. It’s very elusive even getting a "tentative" time to be "confirmed" later. So booking a dance lesson becomes the first, high hurdle, and "chasing ‘em down" is part of the process.

Many times I hear, "I don’t book my own lessons, my wife (husband, significant other, assistant, etc.) does all my booking." That’s usually followed by, "But I’m not sure of my schedule yet, I need to talk to the Event Director, so my lesson scheduler won’t know until after that." So that means to me that I have to track someone else down at some later, undisclosed time in order to schedule a specific time with the person I’m standing in front of and hope that the person I’m standing in front of has already spoken to the Event Director and translated his open times to the person who schedules his lessons. Makes sense to me!

What a joy and surprise it was to me when I stopped a great female instructor from Texas during evening ballroom dance time and she immediately grabbed my hand and said, "Come with me to the stage, my book is there." What delightful words. I thought I was dreaming! The bonus came when halfway there she pulled me onto the floor and said, "Let’s finish this one." Cool. Within four minutes I had a great dance and a lesson time set. How unorthodox!

Then there is the brilliant idea that Convention Staff will book all lessons. How many things can go wrong with that system? I’ve much experience with this one. First of all, as "available" as the Staff "claim" to be &ldots; they aren’t. If it’s one person booking the lessons and they aren’t on duty, forget it. If you happen to track them down they often don’t have the book. If it’s the entire staff booking the lessons it often becomes an Easter Egg hunt to find the last person who had the book. Keep your fingers crossed to hope that your Instructor will actually check the book to see that they are supposed to meet with you. And just because you are booked into a certain room doesn’t mean you’ll actually have a lesson there. Many times an instructor will tell me, "Didn’t they tell you I had to change the time (or place)?

So I’ve developed some tricks over the years that I’d like to share that have enabled me to "nail" some great Instructors. I’m getting quite good at it. Practice makes perfect. Make a list of which instructors you’d like to patronize. Look at the Convention flyers and plan your attack. Call the Event Director and get the phone number of your quarry. Call at least one month in advance to begin the process. Call twice per week and leave messages until you actually talk to the teacher. You don’t want to be a pain in the butt but you do want to non-verbally communicate your persistence level.

When you do talk to the teacher find out when they are arriving and tell them you would like to be their first lesson the following day. They will put you off as to a time but you will have already set up a tentative meeting. Let them know you’ll contact them the day of their arrival and do it. When you reach them they still may not know their schedule so remind them that even so it’s your desire to be their first lesson the next day and "suggest" a time. Usually Noon is a good starting point because you can easily adjust the time from there. Now you have a definite day and tentative time which only has to be confirmed. Whenever you see that instructor in the evening or the next morning ask if the time has been confirmed. Every communication you have with this person develops a relationship that makes it harder and harder for them to put you off.

Why should you ask to be the first lesson of the day? It puts you first in their mind. Each day always brings surprises in schedules. The later you are, the greater the chance is that you’ll be moved or deleted. Some may feel that many teachers are up late dancing and aren’t quite awake for their first lesson. Remember, just because you are their first lesson doesn’t mean it has to be at 8 am. Whatever energy they do have, you’ll get.

No matter what the time, be sure to bring two things for your teacher: Coffee (preferably a coffeehouse brand) and Bottled Water. Both are good whether the instructor is feeling bright and cheery or a little hung over. If they partake of one or both you’ve entered their good graces. If they leave the water, you can drink it later. If they leave the coffee all you’ve lost is $1.50 which is pretty inexpensive insurance on an expensive lesson!

And now some tips for actually taking the lesson. Never tell the teacher what you are doing wrong. That’s what you are paying them for. You can tell them where your areas of difficulty lie, but let them give you the answers. Always listen closely and try to do what they want you to do. After the lesson you can decide what to accept and what to reject. There is nothing wrong with rejecting information after you’ve tried it. I’ve had one Champion tell me one thing and another tell me the exact opposite thing. Since I’m not willing to jump from one style or theory to the next I’ve learned to adapt what seems to fit the mostly easily into my own style. However, if I continuously hear the same correction I’m a fool to not change it.

Know what you are after. There are some things better transmitted from man to man, woman to woman, man to woman, and woman to man. As a man I’d rather work on my whip technique with a male Champion who’s done 100,000 of them with 5,000 different women. Then I’ll take a lesson with a female Champion and ask her how I can improve the "feel" of my whip because she’s been "whipped" 100,000 times by 5,000 men. That’s not to say that a woman can’t teach a perfectly good whip or that a man can’t improve the feel of my whip. Just know what you are after and use the instructor in front of you for the best reasons. If I were a woman I’d be seeking females to teach me syncopations and males to evaluate the feel. All for the same reasons. Know what you are after.

There is one lady who I took a couple of lessons from who was excellent, but she was so technical that I realized that I just didn’t have the dancing skills to get my money’s worth out of her. In two or three years, maybe I’ll be ready for her. There is one guy I really like because not only is he so precise with his leads, but he is also able to warn me about how ladies are likely to miss the lead and how to appropriately protect myself. He fully understands the male experience in the "dance wars" and is able to transfer those experiences to me. And all the teachers, to their credit, seem to respect my choices. Often they will see me taking a lesson from another instructor, greet me amicably, and later on inquire as to how it went. There is plenty of business out there and ultimately I think they know that each of us has to find our own route through the learning process.

Through the years now I’ve developed some excellent relationships with many teachers and we have reached a common understanding about booking lessons. I know how much I can press some and how much I can’t press others. Some are "six-call maybe’s" and some are "two-call definites." Some I’ve discovered aren’t worth putting up with their schtick. Another took six months and three conventions, but it was well worth it. Getting better in West Coast Swing is an enormous task. There is only one shortcut: good private lessons and lots of practice. "Chasing ‘em down" is just a slight blip on the screen. Go for it!