by Damon Stone
A lot people ask me what level they belong in when it comes to taking classes. I do enjoy people respecting my opinion enough to ask me, but the answer I want to give is never what they want to hear, is not at all satisfying, and the only people who are willing to believe it are the people who don't matter...but more on that part later.
The answer I don't give is, it doesn't matter what level you take. There are two main reasons for this:
- You are not good enough to get everything in class, no matter WHAT level it is.
- Dancing with someone worse makes us better.
Lets look at number one, "every level has something to teach you." This may sound like some sort of populist, granola, "we're all equal" kind of BS answer, but the truth is when a teacher tells you this it isn't a platitude meant to soften the blow to your ego about not getting placed where you thought you would, it is because of the simple fact you aren't good enough to get all the stuff correctly in the beginner class. Soak that in, but while you do think about this, neither is the teacher telling you that, and neither am I. I've been doing these dances partnered and solo longer than 80% of the scene has been alive. Now I say this not to brag (how long you've been doing something is a poor indication of how good someone is at a thing) but to help you realize that after all of this time, My posture, connection, pulse, and lag all still need work. The day that everything is utterly perfect with a beginning dancer as well as a master dancer is the day I die from shock. A beginning class focuses on these four basic elements of the blues aesthetic and helps you practice them in the context of simple vocabulary and at best a small handful of blues idiom dances.
Beginning classes are specifically structured to give you time to work on the most fundamental, the hardest, and most important thing in blues idiom dance, the overarching aesthetic. Intermediate classes give you more variety in which to explore the aesthetic, introducing new dances, and some of the more difficult elements of the blues aesthetic like polyphonic movement and call and response, but it is still primarily focused (though frequently hidden) on the blues aesthetic elements of posture, relaxed connection, a maintained physical expression of the baseline rhythm of the music, and lag. Essentially Intermediate is beginners continued. Advanced classes get gritty breaking down the elements and getting you to focus on how the exceptions you think you've discovered are not exceptions, they simply require you to do the things correctly, which you thought you had been doing for years but are starting to suspect you are not even in the ballpark of correct (you aren't). Advanced classes are for those masochists who want to get beyond the "good enough" stage. That is to say, they understand that once you have achieved intermediate level you are good enough to generally dance to any given blues song and pretty much any given tempo with just about any partner and have fun. The dance will be recognizable as blues and you'll both walk away smiling and uninjured. Advanced dancers realize there is more to the dance than having fun, they want to find those transcendent moments where social dancing becomes a form of artistic expression. Seriously, don't take Advanced classes, the time it takes to absorb and apply what you get in a single class and the level of improvement it gives you is all out of whack. If you don't think repeatedly throwing yourself at a brick wall sounds like fun on the off chance you'll be the exception and somehow magically or through a twist of quantum physics pass through the wall, then Advanced classes aren't really for you. I'd say 75% of people in every advanced class I've taught or participated in were there for reasons of their ego, and as such missed most of what was being taught in the class. IF you walk out of class frustrated and tired more often than not, but can't wait to do it again, well congrats, you might be an advanced dancer. IF you find the material fun and not too difficult, you are probably deluding yourself and should give serious consideration to going back to beginner classes. No joke. This either means you are one of the most rare of dancers who absorbs information wholly and can put all the parts together in their head or you spent the entire class entirely focused on the wrong thing and missed all the important bits (oh, did you think that Advanced tricks class was about getting and performing the moves? Nope.).So what are Master classes for? The best Master classes are for people who understand they are weird dance nerds and geeks whose need to know and get it right far outstrips any ability to realize the stuff they are working on will go almost completely unrealized by their dance partners, people in the audience, and most judges. And they are okay with that. It is this consuming passion and need to GET IT ALL even if no one will ever know but them that has them practicing blues dancing at quarter time to improve their balance, with no arms or tied to their partner to remove the need for arms entirely and therefore focus purely on body lead/follow. These are people who are willing in an hour long class to sit and listen to fifteen minutes of theory and then spend five minutes practicing it before being told they are doing it all wrong, and want to spend the next 40 minutes trying to get it right.
And this is where we come to number two, the better your partner is the better they can compensate for you. If you are a beginner and you dance with an intermediate dancer they will recognize your mistakes and mitigate them. When you dance with an advanced dancer they will compensate for them so you might not even know you made a mistake. When you dance with a master they turn your mistake into something brilliant making you think you are a much better dancer than you are. The truth is, if you cannot do it with someone who just stepped off the street, you aren't doing it right. I'll probably get some push back on this, but I believe this wholly and completely. IF you need a dancer as good or better than you to do a thing it is because on some fundamental level you are just not doing it well enough. Blues idiom dance is based on "natural" body movement and reactions, that is to say, it uses the way we move our bodies when we are healthy and moving with unguided purpose, and this means we all, those who take classes and those who do not, should be able to dance blues with someone who is relaxed and paying attention to the music. Now of course the better your partner the easier it is, but a beginner (not a novice) should be familiar with the basics of lead follow, and that is all they should need to be familiar with. IF you didn't make the level you want in an audition, or you are in a class with people you don't think are good enough to do the material and techniques you are working on, you are blaming the wrong person. You are the problem you need to fix. Sure they may be doing things to mess you up and make it harder, but someone significantly better than you would have no problems with it, so instead of worrying about them, concentrate on doing your own things better. So how does all of this have bearing in telling what level you should be in, how do you check your ego, and what is this mindset business? So glad you asked.
What is your purpose for taking classes? If you want to figure out what you are supposed to be doing and have more fun on the dance floor, take beginning classes. If you want your partner to have more fun on the dance floor take intermediate classes. If you want to be the best dancer you can be and your concept of a fun time is melting your brain and beating up your body then take advanced classes. If you must push yourself beyond the reasonable into the absurd where the teacher shows you a step two or three times and has you teach it to yourself because you understand the process and journey IS what is being taught and not the move, and you LOVE THIS then take Master classes. And this why ego holds us back. We put ourselves in classes based on who is in that level and where we think we compare, am I better or worse than those people? How important is it for me to have people know I'm in a higher level than them? If there is always something to learn, something to improve upon, and dancing with people worse than us actually better sharpens our skill and technique, why take classes that are not beginner other than ego? Because sometimes having a teacher who will check our ego for us is the kindest thing possible. Because the esoteric and exotic classes tend to be upper level. Because we have developed a rapport with one or two teachers and we want to take all of their classes regardless of the level. These are ego-less reasons to take things beyond beginning, and I hope you'll consider this shift of mindset. Getting better is about learning more about yourself without the walls, without the masks, and sharing it with other people.