Of the thousands of individuals that enroll in salsa classes every year, how many of them will ever graduate from being just “students” to being actual “dancers?”. If it were 7 out of 10, the social dance scene would have exploded already. I find it odd that every season, dance schools all around the New York City are able to fill their studios with countless new bodies and yet produce so few capable dancers. Why are we as a community failing to teach salsa to so many people despite the tremendous number of classes now available. As a dance instructor myself I started to reflect on these questions and this ultimately lead me build this site.
TURNING DANCE EDUCATION TO A BUSINESS
Today, teaching salsa has become a big business. While the aim of a good teacher is to provide their students with a good education, the goal of every successful business is inevitably to turn a profit. A studio/dance school is always under pressure to make the green stuff. It’s what allows them to pay the rent, keep the lights on, pay their instructors and expand the business. The market of dance classes is a extremely competitive arena with little to no barriers of entry. The businesses that make the most money tend to put everyone else out of the game. It’s not necessarily the school that offers the best instruction that wins this highly competitive game, but rather whoever can keep costs down and maximize profits. Compromises are often made to the quality of instruction in order to increase revenue; from overcrowded classes to low paid inexperienced instructors. As someone who has taught and taken classes extensively, let me just share a few ways I’ve seen this occur.
1. Rent is the biggest expense of any studio owner, and if you’re in an area like New York, the prices are insane. Every square foot where a person is not standing is a piece of real estate that is losing money. These incentives are exactly what leads to overcrowded beginner classes of 20 to 30 couples becoming the new normal. While this may be a fun social atmosphere, it sure isn’t an optimal learning environment. While many instructors prefer a smaller intimate class setting, commercial rents simply make it impossible to do so.
2. To keep customers coming back, business owners need to make sure students feel that they are progressing. Students are automatically moved to the intermediate level after completing 6 to 8 beginner classes regardless of whether or not they have truly learned the basics. This fills the intermediate class with dancers who have a poor foundation and bad technique. It’s amazing how many people who take “intermediate” to “advanced” classes and even perform have no ability to dance socially. This has happened already in the martial arts world where many earn their black belts but are utterly unable to defend themselves in a real fight.
3. Big dance schools have an incentive for you not to show up. Whenever somebody sells you a multi-class punch card or a monthly membership, they are making money off the classes you don’t attend, not the ones you do. Many dance schools are modeling themselves after gyms by offering cheap monthly memberships to make money from all the no-shows that continue to pay their membership fees. It’s a key part of keeping the business profitable. Here again we see the goal of educating students conflicting with the incentives of business. While on one hand an educational goal would be to minimize truancy to ensure students do not fall behind, on the other hand, the markets offers a substantial financial reward for widespread absenteeism.
4. Even though most instructors do follow a curriculum, a lot of classes are focused on teaching turn patterns. The way that many places teach is that every class is a new turn pattern. This results in poor information retention. Rarely, if ever, are classes taught in a cumulative fashion. Even cycle classes suffer from this compulsion in order to accommodate no-shows and students who miss a week or fall behind. As a result the cycle class begins to become almost indistinguishable from a drop-in turn pattern class. Instructors are wary of telling students to repeat the cycle. Students are treated as “customers” rather than disciples. The last thing any school/studio owner wants is a request for a refund or a bad Yelp review.
5. There is ancient Chinese saying that goes like this: “The master who successfully trains his student will later starve”. Well trained students can become a dance company’s’ biggest competitor as they may eventually open their own school. A dance school owner has every reason to protect his or her own business and prevent that happening. Every director wants to produce talented dancers but the unspoken truth is none of them wants to be out shined by their students and many instructors withhold knowledge to prevent their prodigies from becoming a threat to their livelihood.
The for-profit dance school/studio dance school model has many shortcomings and perhaps the biggest one is price. Learning to dance has become a expensive endeavor. Group classes can run for $12 to $20 per class depending on the city with private lessons ranging from 80 to $100+. During my trip to China I spoke with a salsero who told me it’s mostly upper middle class and the wealthy who can afford learn salsa. This dance shouldn’t be something that only people of a certain social standing can participate in. Ironic, considering the music and culture of salsa was something that originated from among slaves and was danced on the streets in poor neighborhoods of New York City.
My biggest reason for creating this site is to make this dance accessible to all. That is what the internet has always done, make information accessible and available for all for free. Money should not be a barrier for learning and experiencing culture of salsa. By removing this barrier I hope to make it possible for many more individuals all around the world to discover the joys of this beautiful dance.
Additionally, I’ve created these videos in order help solve some of the aforementioned problems above that many modern paid group classes have.
– Trouble seeing the instructor because you were in the back of the room? Online videos put you at the front of the class. Missed that step and felt to shy to ask your instructor to demonstrate it again? That’s easy, just rewind the video. Couldn’t make it to class for the past month because something came up? Catch up with what you missed online before going back to the studio.
– How many times have you attended classes that ended up being way too hard/fast paced for you to learn anything? Online instruction lets everyone learn at your pace.
– My online instruction also provides you with a structured curriculum. I’ve ordered the lessons numerically so you know exactly what sequence to learn in. We start with the easier skills and gradually build upon them to the more advanced ones. It’s a structured systematic progression.
– Most importantly, it allows you to take control of your learning. No instructor will care about your own personal growth as a dancer as much as you do. By providing you with resources and information, I hope to empower you to educate yourself rather than depend completely on a for profit dance school whose goals may not be completely aligned with yours. Sadly, in our consumer-based culture, many people buy dance lessons subconsciously believing that they can pay their way to becoming a better dancer.
– Finally, I want to share with you my vision of what I believe quality dance instruction should look like. It’s really quite simple and we all intuitively know what it is. The class size should be small and limited to 10 to 12 couples. The class should be progressive, taught in a systematic manner, where each class builds upon what came before. When the cycle for a particular level is completed, students must demonstrate a certain level of comprehension before you can move to the next level. Each student should either receive a copy of the syllabus or be able to find it online. If a student were to miss a number of classes they must repeat the cycle from the beginning.
Ideally if time permits, these classes should be followed by a period of open practice where students can ask questions and review the moves. Finally the beginner class should be taught by an experienced instructor not somebody who just joined the performance team.
My desire for creating this site is to simply share and teach so that everyone can experience the joys social dancing. My goal has never been to be a professional dancer or a famous performer nor do I care if I make any money. To help somebody discover this beautiful dance is to me a reward in itself.