Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Max's tips for West Coast Swing partnered practice

I find that partnered practice is one of the best ways to improve my dancing. Partnered practice has a bunch of advantages over social dancing: You can get video of your dancing; you get to dance with just your favorite partner; you can focus on any specific movement type that you want; and you can get feedback from your partner without shelling out for a private lesson. (Of course, partnered practice shouldn't replace social dancing; the two complement each other.)

Here are some tips I've learned from my partnered practices. Disclaimer: I'm not an expert, so your milage may vary. If you have any additional tips, post in the comments below!

Where to hold your practice

  • Dance studio: Many dance studios are available to rent at times when they are not offering classes.
  • Gym: Many gyms have all-purpose rooms with wooden floors that are used for Yoga classes and the like. They are sometimes available for members to use when they are not in use for classes. Wood-floor basketball courts can also work.
  • Your home: If your home has hardwood floors, just move the furniture out of the way and you're set. If it has carpet, you can buy dance floor tiles to go on top of the carpet. I put the SnapLock dance floor tiles that you sometimes see at events on top of my living room carpet—they cost only about $3 per square foot.
  • Your local dance venue: You can practice with your partner at a weekly dance. Be prepared to explain to people asking you to dance that you're there just to dance with your partner.

How to find a practice partner

Ask someone you like dancing with to practice with you. They should be someone at about your level—if they're much more experienced than you, you should be paying them for a private lesson instead! Practicing together is a great way to build a closer dance relationship. If you find that work well together, your practice partner will be a great person to compete, share private lessons, or do a routine with.

What to bring

  • Camera: Most decent phones have a sufficiently good camera for filming dancing.
  • Tripod: I use this octopus-style tripod with my phone. They cost about $10 on Amazon.
  • Fisheye lens: In a small dance space, it is often hard to place the camera far enough away from you to capture the full area. Using a fisheye lens greatly increases the field of view of your camera. It will distort the image slightly when you get close to the edge of the frame, but I find it is usually still easy to see my dancing. You can buy lens that works with your phone for about $5 on Amazon, like this one that clips onto your phone, or this one that fits snugly over the top of the phone.
  • A computer and connector cable so you can download the videos off your phone and watch them.
  • A means of transferring the videos to your partner. You can either upload them to Youtube after the practice, or transfer them to your partner's computer using a thumb drive.
  • Speakers: I use this portable speaker system.
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • A change of clothes for when you get sweaty
  • A list of things in your dancing that you want to work on.

What to practice

  • Basics practice: The leader just leads basic patterns. Both partners focus on their technique.
  • Pattern practice: Pick a particular pattern or movement to work on together. The pattern could be a basic pattern that you want to improve, a more advanced movement like a telemark, dip or one-footed spin. Make sure to pick a type of movement that is general enough to be useful to both the leader and follower. Run through the movement many times, and give feedback to your partner about what works and what doesn't.
  • Competition practice: Dance as though you were competing or social dancing and intending to have the best dance you can. Video these dances so you have an accurate idea of what your competition dancing will look like. It helps to limit these dances to around two minutes each (the length of a typical Jack and Jill dance) and 5-10 dances per practice. More than that, and you'll get too tired to have competition-caliber dances. Also, if you struggle with a particular type of music, you may want to focus your practice on dancing to that type of music.
  • Spotlight practice: Like competition practice, but keep in mind the extra considerations you have in a spotlight dance, like orienting your patterns and styling towards the audience and traveling across the dance floor. You can also use spotlight practice to prepare yourself mentally for the nerves that come with a spotlight: try to put yourself in the mindset that you're dancing in front of hundreds of your friends, then practice calming yourself down.
I find I can practice for about three hours before getting tired (with breaks for snacks, changing clothes, and to watch videos).

How to give and receive critique

You should always be careful when giving dance critique, because everyone is self-conscious about their own dancing and it is very easy for your partner to take it personally. It is never okay to give critique on the social dance floor. Also, neither of you are professional teachers, so you may be mistaken about the correct technique, what of your partner's mistakes are causing a particular symptom, or how to best communicate your suggestion. That said, you and your partner probably know each other's dancing better than anyone else, so your comments can be more relevant even than those from a teacher who only sees your dancing in brief snippets.
  • I find that I can give feedback most effectively in text (like in an email or Facebook message), so that I have time to think about how to communicate my suggestions and refer to videos.
  • Make sure that your partner is open to receiving critique.
  • Point out an identifiable symptom in your dances, such as a miscommunication or a momentary loss of balance or timing. Note several times where this symptom occurs in your practice dance videos.
  • Suggest what you think the cause of this symptom is in your partner's dancing, and a suggestion for how to fix it.
  • Remind them that (1) you are not a professional instructor so you might not know what you're talking about, and (2) you are almost certainly partly to blame for the symptom as well. Remind them that you think they are a great dancer (which you do, or you wouldn't be practicing with them), and that your goal is to help them improve.
  • When receiving critique, remember that your partner is only trying to help you, and that they are doing you a big favor by offering free advice that you would otherwise have to pay through a private lesson.
I hope you find these tips helpful! If you have any additional thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.

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