Words Don’t Help Beginners

Tags: beginners, teaching

I’ve been contradancing for over eight years, and can jump into even the most complex and falling-apart of contras and still have some idea of what’s going on. But last summer at English-Scottish-Contra Week at Pinewoods, I tried Scottish Country Dance for the first time and I had an experience I haven’t had for quite a while: I was completely at sea in a set dance.

Scottish isn’t too different from contra and English, and I got along okay when I had a walkthrough. (Not great, mind you, but I made it through.) But I made a somewhat questionable choice and jumped in for the Pinewoods Reel having never danced or walked it through before, with only a talkthrough1 to go on. And oh man, I did not do so good the first few times through. My partner and the rest of our set were heroic, and we all muddled through and got a pretty fun dance out of it. But more significantly, it was fascinating to be a beginner again, and it gave me some useful insights that I can bring to calling and dancing contra.

Namely: almost universally, prompting me with the name of a figure was useless. And that’s me, an experienced dancer. Given a moment to think, I know exactly what you mean when you say “turn over your right shoulder”; however, in the thick of the dance, that moment is a moment too many.

If you’re an experienced contradancer, you probably respond automatically to move names at this point. When someone calls a “ladies’ chain”, you probably stick out your right hand without a second thought. However, a newer dancer, even if they intellectually know what a “ladies’ chain” is, doesn’t have that automatic response; they’re still translating move names to actions in their head, and in the middle of a dance, that translation is just not fast enough yet.

So how to help that poor new dancer who doesn’t know what move is coming next, if you can’t just tell them “chain across”? You can use simpler words that are more descriptive than jargony–for instance, “right hand” or “that way!” accompanied by frantic pointing.

Or better yet: don’t say anything. As I floundered through Pinewoods Reel, a gentle push or an inviting right hand were infinitely more helpful to me than any words, jargon or otherwise. A new friend at ESC was telling me about someone who spent years observing how beginners danced, and discovered that the thing that helped a beginner most was to just say their name and nothing else. Once you have their attention, you can guide them with gestures and touch. But words, this person found, would more often than not just get in the way.

This was certainly my experience with Pinewoods Reel. Scottish terminology was still unfamiliar and went in one ear and out the other; but “that way” or a smile-and-point worked wonders. Armed with this educational (and humbling!) experience, I think I have a better idea of how to help beginners on the dance floor. And hey, by the end, I finally (mostly) learned the Pinewoods Reel!

Thanks to Clara Stefanov-Wagner for edits and insights!

  1. Scottish, like contra or ECD, has a set vocabulary of moves, but unlike contra or ECD, these moves aren’t prompted during the dance, and you very seldom get a walkthrough beforehand. Instead, you get a talkthrough (“do X, then look to your left and do Y, and find your partner and Z”), in which the teacher explains the sequence of moves, and you just need to visualize and internalize them.

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