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So... You Want to Be a Salsa Instructor…

 

By Stephanie Palmeri, salsa_queen_25@yahoo.com

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There's an old saying: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Whoever said that obviously never was a teacher. Teaching anything requires a deep understanding of what you teach, along with many other skills. I am a school teacher by day (middle school language arts) and a salsera by night, so it seemed only natural that I would some day become a salsa teacher, but I actually fell into teaching salsa by accident. The director of my daughter's dance school knew I danced salsa and asked me to start a salsa class over four years ago. I agreed and luckily I didn't do too much damage before I figured out what I was doing. Here's a list of suggestions I wish I would've had for those of you who consider teaching, or who already teach and just want to improve.

 

1) Know your salsa. You need to have strong technique, a wide repertoire of footwork and patterns, and an understanding of timing (whether you dance on the "1" or the "2"). You should also know styling. You must know enough to be able to give your students information on the basics of salsa as well as specifics about the nuances of leading and following. You should be an experienced dancer before you attempt to teach. I had considered myself a good dancer when I first started to teach, but I had to go back and re-learn things that I had picked up incorrectly because I mostly learned to dance from going to the clubs and not from taking classes. I like using the analogy of typing: You may type quickly with two-finger "pecking," but you wouldn't want to be a keyboarding instructor until you learned proper "home row" technique.

 

2) Know how to break it down. Just because you know something, doesn't mean you'll be very good at explaining it. Learn how to do everything in slow motion and to understand where you should be at each count. You must pay close attention to everything you do and figure out how to explain it in steps. You must have the patience to move slowly and repeat yourself a lot, especially if you plan on teaching beginners. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching salsa is instructing students on how to find the beat in the music and stay on beat as they dance. You must learn how to teach students to hear and stay on the beat.

 

3) Become a student again yourself. The best way to learn how to teach, in my opinion, is to observe excellent instructors. Go back to beginning classes and watch how instructors break down the steps and explain the basics. Notice which instructors you learn the most from and try to figure out what they do that helps you. Keep taking intermediate and advanced classes and workshops to expand your repertoire of patterns and styling.

 

4) If you're a follower, learn to lead; if you're a leader, learn to follow. This will help you in many ways. First of all, you will know what it's like to be a beginner again and be able to relate to your students. Also, you must know what both partners have to do in a pattern to help your students without constantly being accompanied by your partner. Finally, this will up your credibility as a teacher.

 

5) Get a good partner. It is possible to teach without a partner, but not recommended, especially in group classes. Having a strong partner allows you to better demonstrate patterns and gives both perspectives on a move. It also allows you to emphasize the differences in styling. Two different styles in teaching and personality also make the classes more interesting and dynamic. In addition, when it's time to go around to help students, the two of you can cover more ground. Just make sure that you can work together with your partner. While it is not necessary to have a partner who is a perfect fit, you must be professional and decide on how you will teach together. There is nothing worse than watching teachers who argue in class or contradict each other. You should decide who will do the explaining of which parts. Usually one instructor does more of the explaining, but it's nice to divide up the teaching, especially when it comes to the specifics of leading and following.

 

6) Be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of teaching. This will be different for each individual, so think about it. For me the advantages were: 1) I could make some money to support my salsa habit and at least try to break even, 2) I could have a legitimate excuse to spend more time doing something I love, 3) I could improve my dancing by focusing more on technique and learning new patterns, 4) I could immerse myself more in the salsa community, and 5) I could have the satisfaction of seeing my students improve and get more excited about salsa. Here are some disadvantages you may want to consider: 1) Teaching is difficult - you must know what you are doing and have a lot of patience, 2) There is a huge time commitment, not only for weekly classes, but to keep on top of what's going on in the salsa world, 3) Expect to invest money in more CDs, classes and workshops for yourself, extra shoes and outfits (especially if you teach at a club), business cards, travel, etc., 4) Understand that it is difficult to balance teaching with a regular day job and you may also find your other responsibilities and hobbies are affected, and 5) You are putting yourself more into the public eye and opening yourself up to judgment by others.

 

7) Self reflect. Good teachers constantly reflect on what they're doing and pay attention to what works and what doesn't. Ask for feedback from people you know and trust. Be brave and have someone record your lesson so you can watch how you teach and see your students' perspective. Don't be too hard on yourself, but notice your weaknesses and improve upon them. Listen to constructive criticism even if you decide not to take it. Don't worry if your not loved by everyone. Build on your strengths. When someone gives you a compliment on your teaching, remember to keep doing whatever it is that helped him/her.

 

8) Be humble. Don't let it go to your head. Get down off the stage and interact with your students. Continue to dance with people at all levels. People will appreciate you for being friendly and down-to-earth. Don't be afraid to teach ALL of what you know. I once knew an instructor who wouldn't teach his "best" moves because he didn't want people "stealing" them. First of all, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Second of all, I don't know anyone who holds the copyright to any moves. Finally, you should be secure enough in your ability as a dancer and teacher to know that teaching others "your moves" does not take away from your own ability and success.

 

9) Differentiate and be flexible. Differentiation is an educational term that means adjusting instruction to all the different levels of students in your class. Just because the class is titled "beginning" or "intermediate" doesn't mean that everyone is at the same level. Give your students options. Show a simplified and more advanced version of the same move. Showing styling options is a way to challenge the more advanced students in each class, but be sure to encourage students to only try what they're ready for. Be flexible with what you're teaching. If you realize that what you've planned is too difficult for the group, modify the move. If it's too easy, show advanced options with more styling or change to a more complicated combination. Pay attention to the group and pace yourself accordingly.

 

10) Find your own style. Different students have different learning styles and what works for some students doesn't work for others. Find your own style - the one that works for you. While you may not be the perfect fit for some students, those who prefer your style will stick with you. Most teachers start by copying the technique and teaching style of those they most admire. This is fine to begin with, but as you get more comfortable teaching, adapt what you do to what fits with your personality and what works for you and your students. Find a style that goes with who you are. If you have a sense of humor, don't be afraid to joke around a bit with your students. If you connect well with people, take time in class to go around and interact one-on-one with your students.

 

Many salsa instructors go into teaching because they see it as a logical next-step in their professional growth as dancers. But a great dancer does not a great teacher make. It takes a certain type of personality, a lot of dedication and plenty of training and practice to be an admired and successful salsa instructor. But if you feel like you have what it takes, consider the above recommendations and go for it! The rewards of teaching something you love and sharing it with others make it all worth it.

About the author:  Stephanie Palmeri has been dancing, performing, competing and teaching as a salsera for over four years.  She and her partner, Danny Zepeda, won third place at Alberto’s professional salsa competition last year and performed for two years with RicaSalsa.  They currently teach salsa lessons to all levels at the Mexican Heritage Plaza and at Club Miami, both in San José. 

Stephanie will be co-directing the Bay Area branch of Salsa Brava Productions.  You can contact her at (408)806-0787 or e-mail her at  salsa_queen_25@yahoo.com .

 

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