Look for a Dance Coach Instead of a Dance Teacher

As September rolls on by, I have been getting a few inquiries about private lessons and classes here in Montreal and Toronto. Most of the times these are one-off privates about a particular technique that someone wants to work on. Those are always really fun for me because I can geek out about something hyper specific. Recently however, I have been getting inquiries about longer periods of training and I honestly couldn’t be more elated.

Having students approach me about training and teaching them dance has really got me reflecting on my own dance growth over the years. After some introspective analysis, what I found interesting was that it really wasn’t going to workshops, exchanges, group classes, or even privates that had the greatest impact on my dance technique and enjoyment of social dancing. Sure those helped me refine and expand my skill-sets but what I’m talking about are really fundamental events that shaped me to find my own dance identity. It really was having mentors and coaches – individuals who were genuinely interested in helping me become a better dancer. People who were there to drill me in technique, answer dance-related questions without being “on the clock”, and in general give me real honest feedback when I really needed it. They were the game changers in my dance life.

Having a coach is like having someone who always has your back. They are there to help you grow and reach your potential because they want to see you succeed and in turn you want to succeed for them. Coaches care about your journey because in a way, them coaching you is part of their journey as well.

Teachers, in our current social dance world setting, really are there to teach you what they have planned for that lesson (in group classes) or to impart their own way of doing things onto you (private lessons). This isn’t to say that all teachers are like that and I know very many teachers who do more outside of the class time for their students than they get credit for. I have nothing but mad respect for these people. However, I believe our way of thinking in terms of social dancing and growth is fundamentally flawed. We go out of our way to far off exchanges and seek private lessons with our international jet-setting dance heroes in the hopes that we might, just a little bit, be able to emulate them. We spend a lot of our energy trying to learn and grow a lot in a short amount of time instead of trying to grow consistently over the long-term. How many dancers have you met in your lifetime who were able to get to a very proficient level in a short amount of time by going balls-out on lessons and workshops then just suddenly stop learning.

One of my favourite descriptions about the difference between a coaching and a teaching is that “teaching is about the teacher and coaching is about the student”.

Think about that for a second and let it sink it.

Have you ever sought private lessons from an instructor because of their “name” or because you have seen them on youtube? Did you go blindly paying for lessons without even knowing if they would be a great match for you? Be honest ;-). I think we can all attest to the fact that the not all the best dancers are great instructors. However, all the best teachers are also coaches.

When you think about other activities such as sports – coaches are not necessarily the current best in their chosen craft because they are focused on skill-sets that are about helping other people succeed. Coaching means spending more time with the students on working on specific techniques or movement ideas and having them pinpoint their weaknesses. Coaches plan on correcting these mistakes and those plans might take a long time but that’s okay – they are there for the long-haul and they are there for you, not just for the time you have paid them for.

If coaching works for sports (even Tiger Woods has a coach) and most other physical activities, why don’t we don’t we have more dance coaches in our own dance communities?

Just like anything worthwhile spending your time on, being a dancer is a life-long process. There really are no short-cuts and it’s all about the repetition of doing your chosen craft day in and day out.

So the next time you are out shopping for instructors to improve your dancing, ask yourself a few questions before making a purchasing decision:

  • Is the instructor genuinely interested in helping me grow as a dancer?
  • Is the instructor committed in the skills required in being a great teacher, mentor and coach?
  • Does the instructor embody the type of dancer that I want to be, not just from a technique stand-point but also from a social dance perspective (we are after all a social dance community)?
  • Will this teacher form a conducive teacher-student relationship that will allow for continual feedback from both parties?

I think by seeking out dance coaches and mentors instead of short-term dance instructors, dancers will not only grow more in the long term, but they’ll also enjoy the process of learning on a weekly basis. Hopefully in the future, these dancers too will get asked by newer dancers to help them in their own dance journey. Wouldn’t that be a great dance world to live in?

In another blog post, I’ll type up some of my own personal dance mentors and how they have really helped me throughout the years. Until next time!

– Randy


  1. Good read, Randy! Although, as an educator, I disagree strongly with the expression “teaching is about the teacher and coaching is about the student”. This could not have come from someone with any background in education. Teaching is always about the student. Period. Anything else is just ego.

  2. Teaching INCLUDES coaching. Teaching is Motivating, Providing Insight, Coaching, and Enabling Independence. This piece has some points, but is mainly making its distinctions for the sake of marketing first and truth 2nd.

  3. nah im not marketing, it’s just my blog.

  4. Fair Enough. I apologize for making that assumption. I was wrong and a bit of an asshole for saying that and regret it. Its just that I see this paradigm used for selfish marketing reasons all the time. I like the mentoring principle, but mentoring can only take place / is effective after several other steps have taken place. Whether its in dancing or in any other human endeavor. I agree with you that we can under utilize this step in the process (which is circular) and applaud you for pointing it out, but don’t underestimate the ability of a teacher to provide insight and contextualize. If those are done 1st, mentoring is even more effective.

  5. Hey no worries 🙂 You’re not an asshole for pointing out your point of view and actually reading what you Sylwia had to write is why I like these types of topics in the first place – it helps me contextualize the randomness of thoughts I have stewing in my brain.

  6. I’m probably going to bug Sylwia a lot the next time I see her about these topics 😀 She led a very inspiring workshop on teaching reflection a couple of weeks ago.

  7. Nice post Randy. It seems like the discussion we had in Vancouver about private lessons sparked some ideas 🙂
    It’s interesting to see you put these words down ‘on paper’ because it’s something that you have always naturally done, is to mentor others rather than just to teach. In fact it’s interesting to see the people whom you have taken under your wing in the past still continue to dance with the same energy and enthusiasm as when they first started.

    You’ve always seemed to mentor others and only taught when you were needed, but always found someone to mentor after teaching. You’re one of the rare few who don’t do it for ego. Good thing too, I wouldn’t be able to breathe if your ego grew any bigger ;).

  8. *force choke from across the continent*

  9. Sorry guy… I really just ment to say FIRST!

  10. Well said. I endeavor to be a coach to anyone who seeks my help and seek out coaches to enrich my dancing and my life. A lot of my drive comes from wanting to make them proud.

  11. You’ve done good so far Tim. I’ve gained so much since we have first met, one day you’ll be judging a comp with a tear in your eye. Hopefully I’ll be throwing down against Mr. @[116203975:2048:Panté] 🙂

  12. Really, I think there are no real teachers. Just coaches that guide us, with our own will as a rudder, to a place of understanding.

  13. Everyone should read this. I think encouraging mentor-ship is a terrific way to embrace the values of our social dance culture. Nurturing dancers of any level can only improve everyone’s enjoyment of the thing we love so much. As Laney Beal has said, it is one of the supreme driving forces that make the SLO dance scene so good at what it does. I cannot believe that I would be the dancer (or even the person) that I am today without the numerous coaches in my life: for their guidance, for their support, and for their enthusiasm that is just so contagious. If more dancers embraced this philosophy I believe we would have a “dance world” that is more inclusive, more skilled, and more enthusiastic.

    My suggestion to dancers looking for a coach is this:
    Find a dancer whom dances the way that you want to dance, whom strive to make others feel welcomed and valued, and whom wholeheartedly loves the dance.

  14. True. So many dance teachers are all about themselves.

  15. Just because someone is an amazing dancer, doesn’t mean they will be a good teacher.

    I think most ppl are teachers instead of coaches most likely because they never went through a teacher training program and teach the way they were taught.

    As you said we really need to have a deeper relationship where we encourage and coach as dancing has so much to do with your mind, getting out of it, being present and getting over the self consciousness.


  16. I love it Randy… for me… there is some leaders I would pay only to dance with them during an hour, even if they don’t give me any comments. They are that good… hahaha. But this is me now…. I agree with your reflexion… people who coach you (teachers that you see often) can help you to grow a lot in your dancing. But, I also think that all your experiences built you as a dancer the coaches, the random classes, the private, the workshops, the competition, etc. One of my best two privates was a student were with: 1- Peter Strom, even if he don’t know my dance that much… I felt he really point out what I needed to work on. It completly change my dance. And another good private that I had was with Andy Reid… I felt on a cloud after it… like it was so fun and I enjoy the fact that he dance with me a lot during the private, to give me feedback. I had tones of other good privates since I dance… I think as well that the students have a roll to play: What question you ask; what you really want to improve; what kind of dancers they want to be (they should know- and it should help them to choose a teacher) and what they do after the private; how they use the informations they got. 🙂 Thanks for charing this awesome reflexion of yours… I feel concern about it and there is some part that I approve. But like I said… I feel more that all your experiences built you as a dancers.

  17. I feel like some people are so talented at giving instruction and are so knowledgable in what they are teaching you, that even if you can’t build a “coaching” relationship with them (usually because they live far away from you), they can still give you the same benefits that a coach would offer – even in a one hour private. At least, that was my experience taking private lessons from @[755737533:2048:Peter], @[1130915859:2048:Ramona] or @[511774626:2048:Evita]. I think a lot of it has to do with how you approach teaching.

  18. Sorry my english is horrible!!! The point is, I took a lot of privates with International teacher and they help me to grow a lot. Like all my other experiences. And as Sylwia said: teaching should always be about the students.The formula will be of course different if you are in a workshop or if you take a weekly class. But honnestly, I think there is a lot of awesome dancers out there that everybody should take private with. Like @[755737533:2048:Peter Strom] and @[552277468:2048:Andy Reid]. As much as I recommand to Montreal dancers to take privates with their teachers like: @[559467422:2048:Zack Richard]; @[1605190:2048:Davis Thurber]; @[723458267:2048:Claudia Joyal Laplante]; @[828865477:2048:Sylwia Bielec]; @[798802563:2048:Aleix Prats Ferrer]; @[711200068:2048:Alain Fragman]; @[121300046:2048:Alain Wong]; @[570793112:2048:Gen St-Lo], etc. Lucky city… I have to say. 🙂

  19. I agree that the local resources shouldn’t be undervalued, even for people who are not as fortunate as we are in Montreal. I really believe that part of the process of improving as a dancer (or at anything really), is both to find people who can help you and coach you through, but also to take control over your own learning process and learn what questions you need answered. And only once you know what questions you need answered, can you start to think about who you would like to answer them. And on top of that, sometimes you have to realize that YOU are the best person to answer your own question, it just may take a while to do so.

  20. Heyo Lunou, you’re the best! Each person has their own experience and journey and that is what is so great about this hobby of ours. I’m merely providing my own reflection of what I felt really helped me in my own journey. My goal was not to have one of my favourite follows in Montreal be concerned hehe… 🙂

  21. Hahaha… Actually I LOVE your reflexion and your text-discussion. 😉 I LOVE that you share this. I added my point of view… I love that you talk about this, cause I think we actualy need to talk about the local teachers and leaders of the swing scenes… I think most of the time, those dancers are the coaches, the teachers. Those people make a HUGE difference in the Swing World. The work they do is not always as much recognize… and I really think you do have to choose people who inspired you in your scene and teachers who could follow you and see you grow as a dancer. I think you are absolutly right with that point. 🙂 I love you a lot… and as I said… thanks for charing this…. it is awesome to read you.

  22. Sharing… (sorry not charing) …. I feel concerned ( I just realise it means something different in english)…. it touch me …I should say.

  23. I agree with Timothy O’Neill, and also with Nathan – of the 300+ students I work with every term, I see incredible differences in student achievement and learning outcomes despite very similar experiences in the teaching environment (two students cannot have the exact same experience, but over the hundreds and hundreds of hours spent with me I would hazard a guess that the external side of the experiences tend to be less influential than personal drive and motivation). And yes, teachers/instructors/coaches/mentors affect personal drive and motivation, but as I tell my students, I have to teach you to dance! I don’t have enough time with you to address your personal drive and motivation in any substantial depth. A therapist/psychologist/life coach/parent would be far more useful (and qualified!) for that.

    Randy, I imagine you’re speaking from your personal experience, and I like that you’re redefining “teacher” and “coach” and applying them as general terms for the types of people you’ve encountered in the social dance scene (academics use similar strategies all the time to expedite coherent argumentation). I think, in fact, that you’re observations are very strong on their own, and don’t need to be supported by a redefinition of “teacher” and “coach” (in fact I think this redefinition detracts from you’re very strong points and confuses the reader as to what you’re actually trying to say). If I could summarize and only slightly extrapolate/rephrase, I might say the following:

    – Everyone has a conscious or unconscious agenda – people in instructing roles are no different. It can be psychological (you have to think this way), physical (you have to act/move this way), or emotional (you have to feel this way).
    – Instructing roles have many different facets – social dance instructors can be trying to shape a community, create a community, set a social precedent, push the art form, motivate students, encourage students, inform students, have fun, push students, make money, elevate themselves, sell a product, etc.
    – All these facets and more tend to be weighted differently for each instructor and produce a different learning environment for the student.
    – Students should try and determine what they want to get out of an experience (or be open to guidance in this area), and assert themselves in pursuing those goals.

    There’s actually fair amount of literature in this area, for dance, sports (Sports Psychology), and also business/career. For committed high level dancers looking for guidance on optimum long term training literature, one suggestion is Dance to Your Maximum – http://www.amazon.com/Dance-To-Your-Maximum-Competitive/dp/B000I842SU/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top – it’s out of print and rather hard to find (turns out that the number of dancers in the world that want to read an intense and fairly long book on how to train successfully is rather small!), but most professional dancers I’ve met (at least in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, England, and Italy) have a heavily annotated copy hidden away in their bookshelves if you’re looking to check it out.

    Keep up the awesomeness, and keep giving people the chance to dance! The world needs more dancers 🙂

  24. Oh dear, I definitely put “you’re” instead of “your” in the second paragraph. Wrote this a bit too quickly apparently!

  25. Thanks Paul – I enjoyed reading your post and will have some thoughts to ponder about for my next café.

  26. Thanks, @[116203975:2048:Randy Panté], that’s very kind.

  27. That’s just a random shot from the Cat’s Corner open practice studio time. 🙂

Submit a comment