Dance Troupes – What I’ve Learned Teaching Them

First thing – ahhh Montréal Bagel and Blues is over. Wow what an event! If you missed it this year… well I can’t really describe how awesome it was in words but I know this year’s iteration will be very hard to top. Well done, Javiera, well done *golf clap*! My liver is hurtin’ right now but all in all, it’s worth it.

Now to what this blog post is about – dance troupes. Even though you wouldn’t know it from the blues community, this city really is the city of dance troupes. It’s overwhelming thinking about the number of dance troupes there are in the city (or if you were like me before you moved to Montréal, extremely jealous), but it ‘s why the scene is so strong and consistently growing year after year. What makes it work well is that each of these troupes has their own personality, each one has that little spark that makes them special. There are troupes for all types of interest levels – from competitive to performance-based and all the way down to a “for funsies” group. So you can join a super gung-ho performance based group and join a more casual one to fill your quotas for both technique and silly fun-times.

I dunno how I really got myself in this but I’ve tossed my hat in the craziness of being a troupe organizer (along with the talented Myriam Baril of course). I’ve always been in a troupe myself as soon as I moved to Montréal but this is the first time I’ve really tried to do my own thing here. When I started, I honestly didn’t realize just how much of a commitment it would take just to get things off the ground. Finding members, keeping members, interpersonal balancing, finances (or lack thereof), booking studio space, answering  inquiries, resolving quarrels within potential dance members, were just a few of the issues that I found that I had to deal with at the start. And this is all before even doing any of the actual dance part. With the steep learning curve in getting things on the right foot, I think I’ve learned a few things that might be beneficial for anyone wanting to start one themselves in the city. Obviously your mileage may vary but here are some things I’ve found quite useful to write about…

It is worth it in the end. It really is

When you are hustlin’ and grindin’ every week practicing with the troupe, making formation changes, dealing with personnel changes (read: people dropping out or not showing up to practices), and fine tuning movements, it’s very easy to lost in the purpose of the project. There were times Myriam and I would come home from rehearsals and wonder if the team would ever make it for the performance. If we were able to make it to the performance.

There was always a movement or pattern that could be more grounded or transition here and there that could be tighter. Watching our practice videos, it’s very tempting to just keep changing ideas or movements to try to get it “just right”.

For our blues troupes, Myriam and I were always experimenting with different coaching techniques, from teaching technique to teaching formations, and all with an ever present deadline. Some would work, others, we would throw away the week after trying it. The quest to find the most effective format was our oasis – seemingly so close yet never quite within reach. However, there was a certain fun factor that only the very best (or worst) trial and error can bring. 😉

As soon as the performances are over though and we are all high-fiving or taking shots, the past couple of months of practices and rehearsals were almost all but forgotten. The overwhelming feeling of pride and team spirit is how we knew it was worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. Well not really blood, sweat or tears but lots of hours brainstorming and practicing.


Dancing isn’t “just dancing” to most people, but the focus should still be on dancing

One of the most surprising lessons that I learned early on was that even though the idea of joining a troupe is to get better in dancing, it’s not actually the only motivator factor. Dancers join troupes for various reasons outside of dance improvement – social, personal challenge, to perform, because they like this guy or girl in the troupe, or a combination of various reasons.

From what I’ve seen, it’s very easy for members to get lost in all the different aspects of being in a dance troupe during the course of a project. As coaches, Myriam and I had to keep reminding ourselves that our role (and what we are getting paid for ultimately in the end) is to always shine the light towards dancing and hard work. Even if our members were dragging their heels due a multitude of different reasons (over-tiredness from their non-dancing life, real-life distractions, laziness), we made the work the main priority. There were evenings where I really felt like the overbearing hockey parent and I have questioned whether this is the best way to lead a group of dancers. The last thing Myriam and I wanted was to make going to troupe practices seem like a chore.

At the end of the day, becoming good at dancing (just like anything else in life) is a lot of hard work. As soon as we performed, not one member mentioned the tough practices or extra evenings at the studio. So all in all it worked out.

Even though it’s all about dancing, don’t get in the way of the group experience

There is a funny saying we have in one of our teams,

“my drinking team has a dance problem”

This is actually not far from the truth. Every week, I would say we spend two hours at the studio as a group and four hours at the bar. Haha right? Needless to say, we are getting really good at drinking.

Again not everybody in the troupe is there for the same reasons and that is okay. These projects are really great opportunities to make life-long friends for students as well as for coaches. I’ve seen troupe past troupe members who have not seen each other in many months (due to life circumstances) instantly pick up where they left off in their conversations/debates/inside jokes at the dances or bars as if they just saw them a week ago. As if the last practice just happened.

Letting people just be themselves is something I have learned a lot from being in Swing Connexion and Myriam, for which I’m very grateful for. Outside the studio is where these friendships are formed and these bonds are what ultimately makes teams really great and the whole experience amazing for everybody.

Always remind myself about my journey

Achieving a certain level of skill in partnered or solo dancing is such a long journey that it really ends up leaving you humbled at your own progression as a dancer. Each and every improvement is the product of so much sweat (and sometimes tears) that you grow to appreciate even the smallest correct placement of weight or execution of a basic technique.

Reminding myself all the time of my own journey keeps me down to earth. Sometimes I forget that the majority of our students are still fairly new to the dance and performing. Sometimes I forget to actually teach.

Keeping my own journey in my mind forces me to realize what the students are going through, where their own dance journey is at that point of their lives. At the same time, telling students the stories of my own journey helps them understand what kind of energy and work it takes to achieve competence at a certain skill set. This means getting them to sometimes buckle up and get grinding in practicing.

Take care of your troupe; they will be your biggest advocates

I feel really blessed because non-troupe dancers always tell me that they heard that the troupes are a lot of fun and hard. Those are the best compliments I can receive because that means we are pushing them the right amount.

Dancers come and go

This is the suckiest part of having a troupe – when your students leave. It took me a long time to really just accept this as being part of the process and to this day I still feel a certain personal failure when a student moves on. Just like the many reasons people join a troupe however, there are also many reason why they leave. Learning to not take it personally has been the toughest lesson so far. The best I can do is leave the door open for them to return and hope they at least got something out of the experience.

There are times when there are bad fruits in the bunch however and that’s another monster to tackle all together. In order for Myriam and me to stay true to our vision, we have had to make really hard decisions. This also blows a lot and it has on occasion or two blown up in our face. We know however that if we have happy dancers however, it will show in their performances and that’s why strive now to have respect be a very big part of our troupe culture.

The famous Frankie Martinez said it the best I think – no one will respect us if we are too busy trying to pull each other apart within our own dance groups. Respect reflects the way people see us. Ultimately, every dance project should have some part that is meant to change people’s ideas about the dance. Before we can get there however, we need to respect each other. Dancers come and go in these projects and there are things we cannot control. What we can control however is making that experience as positive is it can be for all parties involved, even if they are not part of our journey.

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