Private lessons are one of the pillars in building the foundation of your West Coast Swing. Did you know that, along with the various workshops and classes offered at events, many pros offer private lessons during the convention weekend? This means that dancers have the opportunity to learn from some of the top-rated West Coast Swing dancers in the field. However, a private lesson at an event is COMPLETELY different from taking a private lesson at your local studio/swing dance club. As a competing dancer who regularly takes private lessons at events, I’d like to help you maximize your private lesson time by offering some of my own tips as well as tips from Champion dancer, multiple US Open finalist, and Swingtacular event director Ben McHenry.
My First Private Lesson: My very first private lesson at an event was at Wild Wild Westie 2014. I contacted Event Director, Tracy Wang, via email and she booked my lesson with Michael Kielbasa. The first thing I had to adjust to was the fact that the lesson wasn’t even at the hotel (due to space… the event has grown since then and moved to a much bigger hotel). My event roomie and I (who I split the lesson with), Ubered to the nearby studio and met with Michael. I was EXTREMELY nervous. I’ve never met any of the pros on the circuit before, and I had no idea what to expect. I honestly thought he was going to view me as a baby westie; which if I’m honest I was. After we paid our floor fee, Michael asked my roommate and I what we wanted the lesson to be on. Of course, I had no clue… so we were UBER vague. All we said was “we want to work on technique.” Thankfully, Michael was super patient with us. As far as sharing the floor, there was only one other student/teacher pair on the floor and it didn’t really interfere with our lesson. A lot was learned from that first lesson, and I’m really glad I took the jump to learn from an established professional of WCS.
Onto the tips!
1. Put Me on the Schedule!
Scheduling a private lesson at an event requires a fair bit of clear communication. First, find out how private lessons are being scheduled. Usually, the Event Director will post on the event page or website if private lessons are being scheduled by event staff or by the pro themselves. If the Event director is handling the scheduling, message the Event Director and let them know who you are interested in taking a lesson with. Don’t be anxious if they don’t set up a time right away for you. Event Directors are handling about 1,000 things all at one time and sometimes they don’t know the availability of the pros until the judging schedules are set. If the pro is scheduling their own lessons, they can usually be tracked down via Facebook Messenger or their personal website.
McHenry says, “I have experimented with a few different systems, including youcanbook.me which is an appointment-scheduling app. You set the times you are available or unavailable, and students can select from the available times. The trouble with that is … you may end up with lessons very awkwardly spaced out, too many back to back, etc. I have found that it’s best just to manually schedule, so I ask students to reach out via text, email, or FB message (my preference is FB because it’s nice having a name and a face to attach to)… And then schedule in from there once I have something resembling my full weekend schedule.”
Remember, even if the event director schedules the lesson for you, follow up! Pros process one event at a time. Send either a text or Facebook message a week before the event to make sure you both have the lesson down on your calendar.
2. Come Up With a Game Plan!
My first private lesson in West Coast Swing was at my very first event. Being so new, I didn’t really know what I wanted out of the lesson. Now having trained under several coaches I understand the importance of communicating clearly what your specific goals are in dance. Do you want to level up? Do you want to have better social dances? Are you needing stronger anchors? Let your instructor know at the beginning of the lesson so they know how to formulate the lesson to you. P.S. this is a great time to tell them if you have a specific learning style (i.e. kinetic learner, visual learner, etc.)
“There are cases that this can be reversed, but usually lessons at a local studio or swing club are with someone I have the chance to work with regularly, “ McHenry says. “Lessons at events are usually with someone I only see here and there on the road, which generally changes my focus. With someone I work with regularly, I can guide their progress through each step, and I know that if there is something else I know they will need, I will be there to suggest it the next time I see them. With the less regular (on the road) student, I may not see them again for a few months, so I make sure that I provide them with drills/exercises that they can work on without me. The next time I see them (whenever it may be), I can usually tell how much of their homework they did, and adjust from there.”
3. Keep an Eye on the Clock:
With a private lesson, you’re not only paying a teacher for their knowledge, you’re paying for their time. Be courteous and arrive at your lesson on time. If you’re running a little late, be sure to send a quick message and let them know you’re on your way. Very recently at Summer Hummer, Champion Robert Royston was MCing, and jokingly called out a dancer in finals for sleeping through the private lesson he was supposed to have with him. Even though everyone got a laugh, it’s a good reminder that throughout the busyness of the weekend, everyone’s time is incredibly valuable.
4. Share the Love, Share the Space:
A majority of the time, there will be one ballroom reserved for private lessons. Unlike having a private practice room at studios, you are sharing that space with several other teachers and students. Try not to get distracted, and make sure you are devoting your attention to your teacher. Also be considerate of others, and try not to invade their space during their lesson.
“From an event director’s perspective, I just attempt to create space both physically and within the schedule so that people have the opportunity to teach and take lessons. Hotels are always one of the more complicated components of running an event, but we do our best to have some space available at all times… And then making sure that people have time in the schedule to take lessons as well while that space is available,” says McHenry.
Sometimes you and your teacher may have to get creative with where your lesson takes place. It could be in the hotel lobby, in the foyer outside the ballroom or under a stairwell. Wherever it is, be adaptable and patient. Still put 100% of the focus on learning, and make sure that no matter where you are you can still invest in a productive and awesome lesson!
5. Ask Away: This is the time to expand on questions you might’ve had during workshops or something you might have been trying to work out during a practice session with a friend. Having a pro’s expertise for 30 minutes to an hour is invaluable. Make the most of your time, and don’t be shy about getting those quandaries and questions answered. 🙂
6. Video Notebooks: Video notebooks (aka video lesson recaps, typically filmed on your phone) are pretty common for workshops. Instructors also encourage their students to film video recaps after private lessons.
“Most of my students will video me reviewing what we had gone over at the end of the lesson. I usually add in what I want their homework to be on the video as well,” says McHenry. Videos can also act as helpful reference points when you have solo or partner practice sessions. I would also advise to not post your private lesson video online. If you find that the video would be beneficial to a group you’re a part of or you want to share it with a partner, consult your instructor if they’re ok with it first and limit the visibility.
7. Paying for Private Lessons:
Most instructors only accept cash or check. However, with the popularity of outlets like Paypal, you can pay for your lesson online if your instructor accepts that method of payment. I usually ask for the rate when I message the coach for a lesson. We westies can be a little forgetful sometimes, but if you forget your checkbook/wallet at your lesson make sure you settle your lesson payment before the end of the weekend. Like a restaurant you don’t want to dine and dash, you don’t want to dance and dash either. Respect the professional for the service they are providing you, and provide timely payment.
8. Earn Free Private Lessons: Ben McHenry is one of the Event Directors, alongside Cameo Cross [Dance Geek Productions], for one of the westie favorite events, Swingtacular. The pair has found ways to make private lessons act as incentives for registering early and attending the event.
“The Swingtacular Staff Lesson Raffle was an idea that came to me while I was brainstorming how to get people to register early,” McHenry says. “WCS dancers are by nature last-minute creatures… I know because I am as well. As a young event director that doesn’t have a tree that grows money, it is very reassuring to see people pre-registering. I wanted to create an incentive program to encourage people to register as early as possible and provide them with educational opportunities they may not have realized that they needed. Thus, the Staff Lesson Raffle idea was born… Luckily, we have some of the most generous instructors on the planet working Swingtacular, so nearly the entire staff has been willing to donate 30 minutes of their time which we could not be more grateful for…”
“Another very related idea that doesn’t get talked about much *outside* of the event is “Insta-Lessons”. This was actually Allen Ulbricht’s idea that Swingtacular has taken and incorporated. We offer 10-minute, on-the-spot lessons with our staff. Attendees can purchase $15 tokens at registration. Our staff is instructed to put on their signal that they are available (usually a green sweatband) when they would like to be available. The instructor receives the token after the 10 minutes, and they turn in the token at registration for the full $15. This usually takes place during social dancing at night, so that people can ask questions as they arise throughout the night,” explains McHenry.
9. Find the Coach that Works for You: We might admire someone’s styling, or desire to have a pro’s movement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be the best coach for you. Find an instructor with a teaching style that matches your learning style. I have thick skin, but that doesn’t mean I want a drill sergeant for the whole hour. Someone who has a great balance of giving me constructive and practical criticism while at the same time being encouraging works wonderfully for me.
10. Bring along a Dance Dummy: Dance dummies (aka a friend who serves as the leader or follower, if we don’t have a regular friend/mate we practice with) are great for the instructors to get a different perspective on your dancing. Considering asking around for someone to assist you or bring in a friend. This is something that McHenry strongly recommends in order to “have the ability to work on any and all components of your dancing. If you just bring yourself, there are some aesthetic components that are difficult to assess and work on while we are dancing with you, “ he says.
Thanks, Ben for all your wonderful tips!
We hope those tips will help you utilize your full potential with private lessons at events. Join us next week for more Welcome Wagon tips! For Wandering Westie blog, I’m Stephanie Pham. Keep dancing!