Knowing what level class to do, especially when not in your usual dance scene, is tricky. And when someone who’s danced with you in the social encourages you to do a class that would normally be above your level, it’s a tempting option.
After all, we’ve all heard someone tell us “You can definitely do this level! You’re an amazing dancer.” or “You won’t improve if you don’t challenge yourself.”
But the only time you should listen to this advice is if it’s from the teacher. (And sometimes not even then, if you feel that the teacher has a laissez-faire attitude towards technique or safety, or is just hoping to get extra money from you.)
Doing a class that’s above your level is a bad idea – for everyone involved. Because only one of two things can happen:
Salsa Bonita, Cornwall, UK. Credit: Peter Micek Photography
1. You Do A Class That’s Too Challenging
This is bad for you.
You won’t learn the skills the class is designed to teach – and, in fact, you could even cement bad habits.
If you’re not able to follow the routine, you might find yourself doing it by rote. In turn, this will damage your following ability and encourage anticipating. Alternatively, if you’re not able to lead the routine, you might find yourself using more force than is necessary to compensate for poor technique. This will potentially injure your partner, in addition to hurting your leading ability and encouraging less controlled dancing.
If you can’t get the footwork or are forced to skip steps in order to complete the move in time (and if you’re doing this, you’re having a negative impact on your partner), then you are also building a bad muscle memory.
If you can just about do the footwork but aren’t able to do it with good technique, or are so focused on the footwork that you can’t think about how you can improve your technique, then you are also creating bad habits. (In the case of dips, tricks, and moves that involve neck movement, you can also put yourself and your partner in serious risk.)
Remember, muscle memory is key for dancing. We practise something again and again until we can do it without thinking. We need to reach this level so that we can do it quickly and while thinking about other elements, such as musicality, our next move, styling, or simply smiling at our partner and making sure they know that we’re enjoying ourselves.
So, if we practise something that is wrong, we then create a muscle memory that we’ll later need to fix – and this is much harder than creating a good muscle memory the first time round.
This is also bad for everyone else.
If you’re unable to execute the moves with the technique the teacher is demonstrating, you’re putting everyone else’s safety at risk. Attempting moves above your level is, frankly, dangerous, whether you’re the lead or the follower.
You’re also slowing down the class’ learning pace, especially when there’s a lead-follower imbalance. If there are two to three followers for every lead, and you’re a lead who’s doing it wrong, that means the followers have to wait four to six rotations to do the move correctly. At this point, it’s harder to catch up.
In the worst of cases, you’re also forcing your partners to create poor muscle memories, in the form of defensive dancing. If they find themselves stepping through the moves a half-beat too soon so as to not give you time to force them through it, or if they have the wrong amount of tension to try to prevent you from hurting them, then they’re also practising this move wrong.
But this is what happens when the class level is too high for you. What about when the teacher adjusts the class level for you instead?
2. The Teacher Brings Down The Class Level
You see this most often when there are lots of people whose level is too low. Essentially, the class is labelled advanced but is actually intermediate, intermediate but is actually improver, or improver but is actually beginner.
Unfortunately, this then encourages even more people to do classes that are above their level and so it becomes an issue with the local dance culture. You see people going to congresses and doing an intermediate class in a dance they’d never done before that weekend.
This is bad for everyone else.
They get bored or disappointed. And then they go into a higher-level class. But if the improvers are doing the intermediate class, and the intermediates are doing the advanced class, where are the advanced dancers supposed to go?
This is also bad for you.
If the more advanced dancers feel like there aren’t classes suitable for them, they’ll stop coming to particular venues or events. This means that you won’t get the fun of dancing with them – or the challenge.
Remember, when there stop being better dancers than you at events, you plateau.
And when an event starts losing the advanced dancers, it’s hard to get them back. The dance world is a small place; the experienced dancers know each other, talk to each other, and often share recommendations about where to go (and where not to). They’ll sometimes attend events just because they know that certain other dancers will be there.
Salsa Bonita, Cornwall, UK. Credit: Peter Micek Photography
But What If You Don’t Actually Know Your Level?
As I said earlier, knowing which level class you should be in is challenging. If you really don’t know your level, here are some things you can do:
- Ask your regular teacher.
- If it’s a new teacher (say, for example, that it’s at a congress or you’ve recently moved), try to take a lower-level class with the teacher beforehand so you can both gauge the general level and ask them their opinion of your level.
- If it’s a regular class, try just watching the first time round so you can understand the level.
- Attend a social and, if you have a chance, dance with the teacher and ask them. (Note: be respectful about this; understand that they’re in the social to dance, not to teach, and evaluating your level is part of teaching. Pick the right moment and just say something like “By the way, I’d like to come to your classes but I’m not sure about the level. What would you recommend I start with?”)
And if you’re still not sure? If you’re in any doubt, go into the easier class.
The only exception to this is if there are different levels at simultaneous times, and you’re mostly sure that you can do the higher-level one. In this case, you could try it but be prepared to drop down straight away if you find yourself struggling. The only reason I’m saying this is because you should never jump up a level mid-class. If you find that your class is easy, just stick with it.
You Can Always Learn Something From An Easier Class
We never master something the first time we study it. This is why advanced dancers are often happy to help out in the lower-level classes; they know that any opportunity to polish their technique will have a dramatic impact on their overall dancing.
After all, nearly every technically difficult move has a simpler one as its base. Refining that simpler move will allow you to then better execute the more challenging one.
Going over simpler moves will allow you to focus on the things that make a dance great: tension, weight transfer, turn technique, frame, connection, rhythm… It’ll also correct any bad or lazy habits you may have picked up.
So, don’t allow yourself to switch off because you “know” the move. Pay attention to everything the teacher is saying. Push yourself to execute the move perfectly.
Attending a class that’s “too easy” is never a waste of your time or money. The only one that is a waste? The one that’s too challenging.