Swing 101 — Which Workshop Should I Go To?
Ladies and gentlemen, occasionally we here at Swungover* give way too much information. This may be one of those articles. But, you can partially blame beginner dancer Doug Noel, who asked a fantastic question. (Sorry to bung you under the bus, Doug.)
“At Lindy Focus [a huge Lindy Hop New Year’s event with one stellar emcee], I picked up probably two dozen advertisements for events throughout the year, a fair number in the Feb-Mar time frame. A question I have is How do I decide what I should be going to, and what should I be passing up?
Certainly things that are closer are easier logistically, but… Do I want bigger events so I can experience dancing with people I don’t know? Do I want a smaller event so I can get more personalized attention from the instructors? Is there a point of diminishing returns, where you need a few weeks or a month between events?”
These are all fantastic questions.
A lot of factors go into the worth of an event, and on top of that, a lot of those factors are different based on what you want out of dancing, and where you are as a dancer.
You pointed out two things that might be of value to you as a beginner in the scene: experience dancing with people you don’t know and personalized attention from the instructors.
Assuming that cost and proximity are fairly obvious factors we don’t need to discuss, here is a list of other things people might value in an event. Let’s begin with “The Big Three” (which is a designation I just made up).
The Big Three
For a beginner dancer desiring to learn more, the teachers at an event will be one of the most important reasons for going to an event. Unfortunately, as a beginner dancer, chances are you don’t know much about the teaching style of an event’s instructors. And, as time will show you, just because some are incredible dancers does not mean they are good teachers. (Since teaching is itself an art form requiring a great deal of hard work and attention to perfect.)
If you are thinking of going to an event but don’t know a lot about the teachers, I recommend looking them up on YouTube — but not just for dancing. Look to see if they have any class review videos, or look to see if they have anything else that can tell you a little bit about who they are and what they teach like.
However, there is something to be said for: Going to an event and thinking of the classroom as only, let’s say, 50% of your educational experience. The rest of your learning is done through observation and action: watch people, think about what you’re seeing, and social dance a ton.
Combined with classes, I think this is a fantastic way to get a lot out of an event. Also, if you end up not liking your teachers, you still walk away from the event having learned a lot on your own.
Obviously, an important thing since we’re talking about dancing. The difference between beginners and more advanced dancers, though, is usually advanced dancers know what styles of music they like to swing dance to already, whereas most beginners are still finding this out.
When you’re debating going to an event, we recommend looking up the bands on the website and listening to samples of their music online. See if anyone you know can tell you what the DJs are like. If you like what you hear, that can be a big plus.
However, there is something to be said for: Going to events specifically to hear music you don’t know much about and don’t often dance to. This, of course, can be a risk. So if you only get to go to one event this year, go to one with music you know you like.
Are a lot of your friends going to the event? Is a small group of fellow beginners open to traveling there? Having a friendship base at an event may increase the value of that event quite a lot. Having friends at a workshop can give you a listening ear when you want to talk about the experience, give you the opportunity to meet new people through them, and just overall help process the event.
However, there is something to be said for: Going to a few events alone, which was how I did my first Camp Hollywood in 2002. Being alone made me very quickly try to meet new people and allowed me to have a very personal experience of my dancing growth.
Now then, those are probably what I would consider “the big three.” If an event has teachers you like, bands/DJs you like, and friends going to it, you’ve pretty much got a recipe for a great time. And each person may weigh those differently. To one, friends will be more important than teachers, and to another, vice versa, and so on.
As Doug mentioned in his original question, the size of classes can play a large role in the way an event feels. (Please note: Class size is not necessarily proportional to event size. Big events can have small class sizes, and small events can have big class sizes.)
Education-wise, small events with small class sizes tend to offer more personal attention from your teachers. They also tend to offer fewer sets of instructors, which can be a big benefit if you like them, as you really get immersed in their style. Big events have more teachers, which allows a buffet-style of learning that allows for beginners to get a taste of a lot of different dance styles and philosophies. So, if the event website doesn’t mention it, and class size is very important for you, then shoot an email to the organizer asking for more information.
Do you prefer to hang out with people in small and intimate groups or in big parties pulsing with people? Do you like your social dance floor relaxed and spacious or energetic and a little crowded? No matter which, there are plenty of events for you.
However, there is something to be said for: Trying to make every event the size you wish it to be. Here’s what I mean: Event sizes range roughly from 40 people to 1000. However, the chances of you knowing all 40 people at a small event are small. So, in that sense, every event probably has new people you don’t know yet. If meeting new people is something you want out of the experience, then you can make that happen at either a small event or a big event. And every event probably has a group of people that would enjoy an invite to a room party.
And, even though a big event has a lot more people, it doesn’t mean you have to experience all of those people at once. (For instance, when I’m at big events, I prefer to spend my time in lots of small, intimate groups — lunch one day with just a group of four or so, dinner that evening with one friend to catch up, etc.) So, if hanging out with a small group of friends and getting personal attention from instructors is something you want out of the experience, then you can make that happen by looking for small friend groups to be a part of and the least crowded parts of the dance floor at an event of any size.
Although many dance events focus on Lindy Hop, some events specialize in certain aspects of the swing scene. You might attend an event that offers classes in a variety of swing dance styles, such as Hot Rhythm Holiday (which offers Lindy, Collegiate Shag, Balboa, and Charleston, along with jazz music lessons).
Or you might attend an event that focuses exclusively on a less common dance style, such as Solo Jazz (such as Stompology). Almost every weekend of the year there are Balboa & Bal-Swing events (such as the All-Balboa Weekend and many others), and Blues events (such as Enter the Blues and many others). Still other events look at Lindy Hop from a different perspective, such as those specializing in Vintage Southern California Lindy Hop (Like Nashville’s Dean & Jewel Weekend and occasionally there are even entire weekends dedicated to followers, like the Southern Belle Swing Bash (currently on hiatus, we believe.)
So, if you’re interested in something specific, chances are there’s a workshop somewhere that focuses on it.
Events often offer tons of extra stuff, like contests, performances, yoga classes, etc. In my personal opinion, these are not AS important as teachers, music, or company, if only because extras only take up an hour or two of your life at events, whereas classes and social dancing make up the bulk of your experience.
However, they can add quite a lot to the feel of an event. For instance, theme nights can be fun, and contests and performances can be inspiring, entertaining, and educational. (In small doses. In larger doses, they can make beginners feel like they are more at a show than a dance.)
However, there is something to be said for: Events that don’t have a lot of extra stuff. A lot of extras take time away from the social dancing and the friends. I very much long for events that have at least one evening dance with absolutely nothing but social dancing for four hours straight. They are very rare these days.
Ease of Getting Around.
This might have more worth at an event than you would suspect. For instance, if you go to an event that takes place at a hotel, then the dance floor is always only a short walk and elevator ride away from your bed. Usually too are dining options, all your classes, etc. If you don’t mind seeing the interior of a hotel for most of your weekend, a hotel event can give you a very low-stress experience and, on top of that, all that time you would have spent driving to and from venues can now be spent relaxing or dancing more.
Other events occur in a city’s local venues, which may or may not be conveniently located near to one another or easy to access by public transportation if you haven’t brought a car. Still, events held at local venues will allow you to experience more of the city you are visiting in addition to dancing in it.
However, there is something to be said for: The friendships you make when staying at a host’s house, or shoved in a sedan with six other people driving to the late night dance.
You might have always wanted to visit, let’s say, San Francisco, and combining it with a swing event might be a fantastic vacation. One of the most overlooked greatest perks of the swing dance community is that when you travel to a place for a swing dance event, you get the opportunity to meet and become friends with people from that place.
So, if you want to go to Italy, going to an Italian swing dance event will allow you to easily meet Italian people in the class rotation, go out to eat with them after the dance, learn the proper way to say “bruschetta,” and laugh along with them when it takes you twelve times to get it right.
So that’s a basic list of values to consider when planning out what workshops to attend. There’s no one answer for everyone; it just takes some thinking and experiencing. And that’s a big part of it: finding out what you like, first by thinking about it, and then by trying out a few different kinds of events.
How Often Should I Go To Workshops?
Once again, it depends. For instance, when I was a beginner I needed a couple months to digest the stuff I learned at one workshop before I was ready to add new things to it by going to another. (I’m still that way, I’m just a teacher now and so I don’t get to take many workshops.) However, some people are different; they can go to workshops once a month or to several in a row and be happy.
And all of that assumes learning is your primary goal — if friendship or social dancing with new people is your primary goal, then you can probably hit workshops as often as you can afford to and fulfill those goals. Or, who says you only have to have one goal? Perhaps you go to one workshop, learn a lot, and then think, “I can go to that other workshop next week and concentrate more on social dancing and having fun — that’ll also give me a chance to practice what I learned in the workshop I just attended.”
In conclusion, almost every workshop has something you can get out of it. Some will be a perfect fit for what you want and need, and if you can plan for those, that’s fantastic.
Others you may have to make into what you want and need, but it shouldn’t be too hard. Like swing dancing, it just takes a little practice. And, might we recommend, just jumping right in.
Also, any workshop with that Bobby White guy is pretty fantastic. (Don’t worry, the things he says in class are a lot shorter than his articles.)
Readers take over now…
Those with additional advice, please feel free to add it to the comments.