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Teaching dance and running a dance club
What you can learn from your dancers.
One thing you may have noticed about dancers is they just love to talk about dance and can do so for hours!! They'll bleat about irritations but they'll gush with enthusiasm over what they like best. So one way to make improvements to your club is to listen to them!
For over 20 years I have attended and taught at or run dance clubs in the UK, Germany and France. I must have talked to many hundreds of dancers (usually over a beer during the freestyle dancing). What follows are ideas based on what dancers have said they want.
The ideal format for a dance evening
The runaway success of certain clubs suggests an ideal formula for a LeRoc modern jive evening. These popular clubs start with a beginners' class of 45 minutes (ending with a few minutes of music in which the newly learned routine of moves is tried out).
There follows a class for the more advanced (who have attended several lessons). Again, the class ends with people dancing the routine they have just learned to music. The end of class practice starts with music of fairly slow tempo, gradually changing tracks for more speed and energy. While music goes upbeat, the lighting is adjusted for a nightclub ambiance. This way the evening slips seamlessly from a class into a 'party' for enjoyable freestyle dancing.
If your class or club is in a city centre, and your crowd is a metropolitan, straight-from-work set, then start early. Your pupils will arrive straight from work and can have to commute home afterwards. - these tend to be singles. If your class or club is suburban or rural, then start later as they will go home after work and often want to eat and change before going out again in the evening.
Dancers mostly agree that they like to change partners frequently throughout the class. They prefer teachers with good class management skills who do not leave them stuck with the same partner for too long. This is how they get to meet other class members. Even couples benefit - by not helping each other form bad habits! Some couples are reluctant to split up and, if they are adamant, you may need to allocate a separate patch of dance floor for them.
The importance of 'Freestyle'
Schoolchildren get a thorough grammar grounding in foreign languages yet often leave school unable to converse with native speakers of the language because they lack practice. Dance is a language too. Even though pupils gain 'technique' in class, they may be unable to dance with a stranger because they lack freestyle practice. Like pilots clocking up flying hours, dancers need to clock up those hours of 'freestyle'.
Some teachers prefer to teach in a studio and have no desire to run a club. For others the social interaction of the after-class 'party' is the 'raison d'être' of being a teacher. From the dancers point of view though - why learn if you cannot dance at every opportunity - and the best time is straight after class so as not to forget it all. Dancers tend to complain if the 'freestyle' is not at least as long as the lesson - and many prefer it to be about double the length of the class.
Dancers are prepared to travel out of their way to attend the class of a valued teacher. This is what they say they look for:
- Punctuality & being prepared for the class
- A warm welcome - especially for newcomers and beginners
- A clear, audible voice (aided by radio microphone if the class is large)
- Authority - they do not expect the teacher to be a great dancer - just a very good teacher, who gives clear, concise instructions without too much pedantry.
- A good mix of instruction with action. Some teachers make their pupils stand around while they 'sound forth' for ages. Dancers complain about this most of all because it is boring. They prefer to pick up a tip - then dance - pick up another tip - then dance again.
- Good cueing of the moves. Dancers are not content with "&1 &2 &3 &4 all the time. They appreciate cues that describe the action as well as keeping time (especially when doing a long routine). Directions like (for example) "and - spring - pull - in - push - out - and - turn - and - down" - are more helpful.
- View of the teacher - they like to be able to see the teacher's feet. Up on stage is best if it is a big class.
- Good class management - they like the class to be paced just right - not too repetitive (too boring) and not too sketchy and fast (too difficult). This is the biggest challenge for teachers - especially those with large classes of mixed ability.
- Humour/ pleasant manner - they like a teacher to quip the odd joke or at least keep a light hearted approach.
- Good presentation - they like a teacher to be well presented (even though in casual dress).
- No undue possessiveness. Much as we like to think our pupils are our own, in reality they like to try out a variety of teachers and dance styles. Some teachers treat their pupils like traitors for attending another class. In worst cases they pour scorn on the other teacher's work. Such behaviour does little to enhance the image of the dance industry. This 'proprietorial' attitude makes pupils feel uncomfortable and is usually met with the contempt it deserves.
- Encouragement - pupils like to be told how good they are getting - not how useless they are. Worst of all - they HATE to be ridiculed in front of others! It is surprising how many teachers make this 'faux pas'.
- Inspiration - this is more than just encouragement and motivation. Some teachers have a rare ability to make people feel good about themselves. Everyone has an innate ability to experience pure joy through dance. Good teachers help people to unlock their inhibitions and experience this joy. Dancers gravitate to these empowering teachers.
These are what dancers say they value
- A large, high quality dance floor
- Good DJ, sound quality and lighting
- A bar that does not overprice the soft drinks. Alcohol is generally less important but this should not be overpriced either.
- Good directions to get there - a map on the leaflet or web page is best.
- Good signposting at entrances - to remove the stress of finding the way into an unfamiliar venue.
- A car park or easy street parking/ good access to public transport.
- A warm welcome at the reception desk - especially when new to a venue.
- A friendly crowd - dancers are discouraged by cliquey groups of regulars who all seem to know each other. It is up to the teacher/organiser and staff to prompt regulars into welcoming newcomers (happily this is seldom necessary). Dance clubs are microcosms of 'life' and any bad-apple gossip can turn an atmosphere sour - bringing an otherwise good club down. The teacher/organiser and staff should nip any unpleasant gossip in the bud and certainly NEVER join in!
- Adequate seating, tables for drinks and 'non-dance' areas for chatting.
- Cloakrooms with clean toilets (very important).
- Safety - avoidance of personal injury.
Music & DJ skills
"Chaque a son gout" say the French - each to his taste. It is the music mix that governs everything about the club and decides the clientele.
Experienced dancers enjoy dancing modern jive to a huge variety of music. Beginners need a more restricted range of tempos and styles. Mid tempo to medium fast are simpler to dance to. Beginners find slow music very challenging.
A song that will pack the floor in one club may clear it in the next so stay receptive to your pupils' tastes (not just your own). The Jive Magic website operates an ongoing style survey. Dancers tend to be conservative, preferring to dance to familiar songs. New tunes may need to be 'introduced', possibly as a class track. In this way it is familiar by the time the freestyle disco starts and is less likely to clear the dance floor.
Lighting and sound quality
Dancers are buying not just tuition but also a fun night out and ambiance is important to them. They are very judgmental about halls with harsh neon strip lighting. Dancers are often music buffs and hate to hear favourite songs mangled by poor acoustics. They appreciate a dance club that takes effort and investment to create a good atmosphere with high quality light and sound. So it is worth bringing in the necessary equipment when these are not provided by the venue. This is less important when the lesson is not followed with freestyle dancing.
Live bands need careful thought. If they play covers of known songs differently from the familiar versions they may be seen as less good than the recording. If they play original music it must be up to standard. Bands short of material tend to play extra verses and choruses to fill time and this makes for very long dances.
Jive Magic disco services offer some useful advice when booking a live band. They suggest you take particular care to ensure the music played is what is wanted by taking the following steps:-
- Obtain a full play list of numbers and recordings of the bands' performances.
- Explain what modern jive is all about
- Agree a tempo range of 120 - 160 beats per minute (bpm)
- Select the numbers and specify the preferred tempo for each
- Order the play list to ensure that no more that 1 or 2 fast numbers are played back to back
Some bands may be more flexible and accommodating than others. But remember, you are the client and have a right to specify your requirements (or choose a more suitable alternative). If the band fail to provide a sound that suits modern jive this will reduce the pleasure of your dancers and could even ruin your event.
If you supply your own disco system it must be safe, suitable for the job and time efficient to carry in and out. Professional equipment designed for easy use and easy transport is recommended. If you need speaker stands use proper ones. Typically, an available power of about one watt per person should be adequate. Teacher's radio microphones should be the aerobic head-band type.
The best lighting for jiving is pretty changing colour from above. This is only possible in a nightclub but is fantastic both for dancing and watching. More possible in a mobile situation is a stand and cross-bar with lighting units that put moving, changing colours over the dancers. Make certain it is safe, structurally and electrically.
Avoid strobe lights as they can be a health risk and are very difficult to modern jive to.
Plan all equipment to be safe to use and transport. Several venues now demand PAT testing so get it done anyway. Keep all kit in good, safe-looking condition. Use strong cases for everything - they keep the kit much longer and look better.
Useful technical contacts
PLASA run the biggest and best DJ's trade show in the UK in early September. See www.plasa.org/show.
DJ associations offer the following: hold meetings; demand PAT testing; offer bulk purchase bargains; offer DJ's public liability insurance (though not for dance teaching). The insurance covers against claims relating to disco and equipment and are usually £1/2/5 million. At least £2M is now preferred.
Safety and Legal Issues
I have seldom heard dancers talk about safety issues. However, they like to swap stories about injuries! UK citizens are less litigious than their US counterparts. It would be fascinating to hear how these conversations translate across the Atlantic!
The most common injuries occur when people attempt a challenging move in spite of having a pre-existing chronic back or knee problem. Teachers cannot give all their pupils a medical prior to the class, but it is astute to prelude more challenging moves with a comment like: "For anyone with a back problem please take good care with your technique - or leave this move out if you're unsure".
Training in anatomy and kinesiology (study of mechanics and movement of the muscles) greatly benefits dance teachers. Even if you are a dance teacher with formal studio training it is highly advisable to take a course.
- is this adequate and valid?
- are all fire exits free of obstacles?
- are you First Aid trained?
- are you licensed?
- are your sound systems compliant with noise
- is the bar fully licensed?
- are women safe in the vicinity of your club at night?
- are customers' parked vehicles well lit?
- do you provide adequate theft prevention? e.g. manned entrance and Cloakroom
Membership of the LeRoc Modern Jive Federation includes insurance cover under the UKA's public liability insurance.
Safe and effective teaching of exercise to music
The YMCA developed for The Sports Council an excellent training programme for aerobics teachers (leading to a Royal Society of Arts qualification). The Central London YMCA co-ordinates courses nationwide in the UK. The YMCA also does good books and videos if you haven't time or resources for a course.
The English Guide to Exercise to Music by Rodney Cullum and Lesley Mowbray.
Getting It Right - video for exercise professionals. Do's and don'ts of exercise.
Alternatively, Dance Books Ltd has a wide selection on health and safety for dancers.
Playing music in public - legal issues
For information contact Phonographic Performance Ltd. (for the UK - or equivalent elsewhere). This is the organisation which licenses music to be played at dance classes and other public events.