The Importance of Class Nights

Last Month I was at the World Modern Jive Championships in Blackpool.  I watched as hundreds of people competed in a whole range of categories, and even more packed the floor during the late-night freestyle sessions.  It soon got me thinking about the importance of Class nights.  Here’s what I wrote in my review:

When you go to an event like Blackpool and see a large dance floor packed with people and even more standing and sitting around the edge, you can’t help thinking that this dance scene is in very good health.

But what we mustn’t forget is that every person on the floor at Blackpool – the competitors and the non-competitors, the winners and the runners up – every single one has been taught to dance by a teacher in a class somewhere.

I’ve long thought that the health of this wonderful dance scene is in direct proportion to the number of dance classes that are held around the country.  For that reason I thought it was about time that I visited and reviewed another dance class.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I moved to Milton Keynes to open a whole new area of venues to review.  Since moving there I’ve become a regular at the Ceroc Beds & Bucks classes at Buckingham (on Mondays) Wolverton (Wednesdays) and Kempston (Thursdays).  I’ve been so impressed with these classes that I’ve often mentioned them in The Quick Steps section of my blog.  There was however one Ceroc Beds & Bucks class night I hadn’t visited – the one at Stoke Mandeville, just south of Aylesbury.

The Beginners Refresher Classes are so important

I was soon in touch with Louise one of the Taxi team to ask if it would be alright to come along and also join in with the Beginner’s Refresher Class.  I’ve written a few reviews of Class nights and always appreciate when I’m allowed in to the refresher class, as it’s here that you really see how the beginners are given that extra little help and encouragement that is so important if they are to stay the course.  Louise had a word with teacher Joe Collins, and I was duly invited along.

The week before, I was at the Ceroc Beds & Bucks Kempston class where I spoke with franchise owner Rachel Pears, and explained that I was off to Stoke Mandeville the following week.  Rachel was quick to show her pride in the class night that Joe and his team ran at Stoke Mandeville:

Oh, you’ll love it there Paul.  There is such a wonderful community at Stoke Mandeville.  It’s like Buckingham just on a smaller scale.

Since becoming a regular at Buckingham I’d been really impressed with the lovely friendly atmosphere at this Monday night class.  I’d also seen first-hand just how well the taxi team looked after the beginners.  Rachel’s glowing appreciation of what her team had done at Stoke Mandeville was obvious, and I looked forward to witnessing it for myself.

A sense of Community is important too

As I did a bit of mental preparation for my visit to Stoke Mandeville, I couldn’t help think about what Rachel had said to me about this class night:

There is such a wonderful community at Stoke Mandeville, Paul.

It’s fair to say that there is a sense of community at many of the class nights I’ve been to, but it’s not a given.  Some classes can be a little cliquey and you get a sense that not everybody dances with everybody.  One measure of a community spirit is the number of experienced dancers that make up the classes.  Sometimes when dancers become regulars at freestyle they move on from their class nights.  This is a pity because they are such a help to the less experienced dancers.

I couldn’t help thinking about how you go about creating this sense of community, and if Rachel was right about Stoke Mandeville,  how had the team succeeded in doing just that.  It wasn’t long before I got an insight in to how the team went about creating the community vibe.

A vibrant Facebook Page works wonders

On the morning of my trip to Stoke Mandeville I got a message from Louise to check I was still coming.  Louise went on to say that she would always write a Facebook post on the morning of the class night, just to say ‘Hi’ to everyone and to give some details of the forthcoming class:

If you search for Stoke Mandeville Ceroc Paul, you’ll see what a lovely bunch of people they are.

I’m a great fan of Facebook and the fact it provides a platform for likeminded people to keep in touch and interact with each other.    I duly confirmed that I would be at the class and a little later I searched Facebook as Louise had suggested.  I’m always impressed when I see Group Facebook Pages based around class nights.  When used properly group pages can create a great sense of belonging and are an easy way for people to get involved by posting their own comments.  As I came across Louise’s post.  I couldn’t help but smile.

So is Tim Sant coming Louise?

I felt quite honoured that Louise had mentioned my forthcoming visit.  Of course, no one knew who the visitor was, and I couldn’t help smile as various suggestions were made including Tim Sant -Turner the Head of Dance at Ceroc, The Easter Bunny and Joe Collin’s mum!  To know it was just a blogger and not The Easter Bunny laden with chocolate eggs would have been a little disappointing.  Thankfully my identity was not revealed.

Here was a conversation involving twenty-four comments.  That’s some involvement, add that the post was seen by 131 people, and it just proves how vibrant this Facebook Group Page is – one sure way to develop that sense of community.  In the intervening weeks between my visit and writing this review I’ve kept an eye on this Facebook page.  Louise never fails to get everybody excited about the forthcoming class, but what’s even more pleasing to see is the comments people put on the day after the class.  Here’s just one of these comments.

An opportunity to make some general comments

So many fabulous comments about this class night have been posted on Facebook, that I’m tempted to just copy and paste them, and that’s my job’s done, but the class provided me with a lot of material that I think is worthy of reporting.  Not only does it say wonderful things about this class but it gives me an opportunity to comment on aspects of class nights in general.

I was accompanied on my trip to Stoke Mandeville by my dance friend Anastasia.  I sometimes give Anastasia a lift to dance venues as she doesn’t drive herself and I’ve included some of her feedback to compliment my own perspective.  But first let me set the scene.  When Anastasia and I entered the hall we were immediately greeted by Louise.

We are given a very warm welcome

Now I know that Taxi’s and Crew members are there to spot any newbie’s, but Louise was seemingly greeting everyone.  Add to that another warm greeting on the desk from Bev Robinson and myself and Anastasia were made to feel very welcome.  Bev has just started on the door here and alternates her duties with her daughter Ani.  Louise tells me that Ani has played a big role in delevoping the community spirit of the class.

Remember this was our first visit to Stoke Mandeville and as it turned out I knew no-one other than Louise.  Anastasia later told me that she knew a couple of the guys from the other Ceoc Beds & Bucks classes, but we were very much out of our comfort zone, and we both appreciated this warm welcome from Bev.  Going to a dance class for the first few times can lead to anxiety even in the most confident people but being made to feel part of the group is so important.  This is what Rachel was eluding to:

There is such a wonderful community at Stoke Mandeville, Paul.

It’s the same at all the Ceroc Beds & Bucks venues were people are greeted by Rachel herself or the equally caring Tracey.  There is one other thing about the greeting at all Ceroc Beds & Bucks class nights.  There are the usually mouth refreshing mints on the front desk, but there is also a well stocked bowl of Jelly Babies.  Small things that make a big difference.   The greeting at the front desk is an opportunity to make a great first impression.  Sadly, not all venues seem to recognise all the opportunities the welcome desk offers them.

This class nicely filled the hall

The Stoke Mandeville Community Centre is not a large venue, but this modern facility is the perfect size for this class of between fifty and sixty people.  As the beginner class progressed and more people joined the lines, the hall soon felt nicely full.  The class was run by Joe Collins ablely assisted by his demo Jane.   I’ve quickly become a great fan of Joe’s teaching, as he’s been covering for Marc Forster at a few of the other Beds & Bucks class nights.  Joe has a wonderful way of teaching and he is a great asset to Rachel and Marc’s teaching team.

Like all good teachers Joe breaks the moves down in to easily do-able chunks, but what I like is that Joe gives plenty of extra technique tips.  On this night Joe spoke in some detail about the hand hold, and the way the ladies need to drape it over the guys fingers so they can push against the ladies palm to signal for them to move backwards.

Even experienced dancers need reminding about the basic techniques

Joe also talked about the compression and tension of the hand connection and how it creates the energy for the dance.  A bit technical perhaps for beginners on their first night, but essential for us all to be reminded about, no matter how long we’ve been dancing.  And here’s a point.  I think all experienced dancers should regularly go to these beginners’ lessons.  We all get in to bad habits and lessons like Joe’s are a great place to revisit the basic techniques again.

Later in the evening I would be reminded of a bad habit I and many experienced dancers have, but we’ll wait a little to hear just how I was reminded about it.

The three-move routine that night included what I think are the two most difficult Beginners’ Moves – The Short Neck Break and The Comb Mambo.  Well I think so, and because they are quite difficult to lead I rarely use them in my freestyle routine.  Now I love the Shoulder Sway, which is of course an Intermediate move.  I’m tempted to start a campaign to have the complicated Short Neck Break replaced with the simpler Shoulder Sway.  While I’m at it can I ask for my favourite move The Yo-Yo to replace The Comb Mambo.  Just saying.

The class nicely fills this small hall

Even the best of us forgot the Beginners’ moves

The test of any class is whether everyone gets the moves at the end.  It must have been a joy for Joe to look down on the class and see all twenty or so couples performing the routine perfectly synchronised.  One of the reasons I think everyone showed a proficiency with the routine was because of the number of Intermediate Level dancers in the class.  More experienced dancers are a great help to beginners and I think it’s a shame that many only turn up after the Beginners’ class has ended.

But not here.  As I got each new partner I asked them how long they had been dancing.  I was surprised just how many were at the Intermediate level.  Anastasia tells me that it was the same for the men she met in the class.  Here was the community spirit that Rachel had spoken of in action.

Being able to do the three-move routine twice though at the end of the class is one thing – the trick is for you to be able to remember the moves the following week.  I remember I got The Octopus the first night I was taught it, but could I remember it the next week?  No!  Thankfully The Octopus came around in the lessons a few weeks later, and with a bit of help from the Taxi dancers I finally remembered it.  Isn’t that how we all learn and isn’t that why all beginners shouldn’t worry if they keep forgetting the moves.  It happens to the best of us, but if you stick at it, the moves do eventually get in to your muscle memory.

The music is as important as the teaching

But enough of this technical stuff let’s hear some music.  The music played at Beginners’ Classes is just as important as the way the moves are taught.  The DJ needs to get the balance right between providing tracks with a steady beat that are easy to connect with for the beginners, and some slightly more challenging music for the Intermediate level dancers.

Not every DJ gets this right every time.  The most important track of the night is the one that ends the Beginners lesson itself.  It’s here when the guy, who has only done a few lessons has to lead his partner through three minutes of dancing.  It’s equally difficult for the lady, who now has to recognise the signals to moves she may well be unfamiliar with.  It needs an easy track.  In fact, that first freestyle session needs every track to be selected from a beginners point of view.  Joe is an experienced DJ as well as teacher and the music in that first session was perfectly pitched.

Over recent years two tracks were staples of Beginners’ Class nights.  DNCE’s Cake by the ocean and Years and Years King.  They had the perfect tempo, but sadly they got over played and thankfully we hear less of them now.  However, in the first freestyle session Joe breathed new life in to King by playing a Gryffin remix that I really loved and had a lovely dance with one of the less experienced dancers.

The Refresher lesson is a great comfort

One of the reasons that Ceroc is a great way in to partner dancing is that new people are given every chance to get to grips with some moves in their first class.  The Refresher lesson is a key part of the class night format and a place where beginners can really make progress.  Louise was happy for me to join the class and see how the beginners were looked after.

Louise was joined in the class by fellow Taxi dancer Gary, and I duly joined in the lines to dance with the ladies.  Gary has only just joined the Taxi Team at Stoke Mandeville which also includes Jenny, Fred, David and Mandy.  That’s an impressive number for any venue and ensures that there are always a man and a woman on duty.

I’m a great believer that the Taxi Team is as important as the teachers.  I can still remember the two taxis that helped me get started.  In fact, I enjoyed the comfort of the refresher class so much that I stayed as long as I could.  I know that it’s suggested that you move on to the Intermediate class after six weeks, but I’d like to think you can stay a little longer.  Having said that, I remember I was forcibly removed from the refresher class – but I had been there for ten weeks!

I get a reminder about a basic technique

Louise started the refresher class, as you would expect with some instruction about the hand hold.

Now guys when you offer your hands insure that they are at the lady’s hip level.

I looked at the height of my own hand hold.  It was way too high.  I quickly lowered it before Louise noticed – not good for the writer of this review to be seen to have this basic technique wrong.  The height of the hand hold is important for several reasons, one being that if too high, the man is in danger of going in to what is politely called The Danger Zone.

I said earlier that it’s good for all experienced dancers to get a reminder about some of the basics techniques and realising that my hands were a little too high I’ve been trying to correct it ever since.  The trouble is my hand hold is something I’m never really conscious of, and it’s been hard trying to remember to get this just right.  In the meantime, I hope I haven’t been straying too much in to The Danger Zone.

Louise and Gary offer plenty of help

As I said earlier two of the moves in the routine were two of the most difficult, but Louise patiently gave plenty of help where it was required, and I have no doubt that everyone in the class benefited from the extra help that Louise and Gary were able to give them.  Of course, Louise and Gary’s input doesn’t finish there, for they continue to be on duty to help the beginners in the final freestyle session.

It is the fact that Taxis give up so much of their dance time that impresses me about the commitment they give this dance scene.  Louise and Gary were only free to dance with the regulars for the last forty-five minutes of the night.  Thank goodness that people are prepared to do this, and that many of these Taxis are some of the most experienced dancers at a venue.

We all owe a lot to the people who helped us

I hope I won’t embarrass Louise by saying that she is a fabulous dancer.  Since moving to Milton Keynes I’ve bumped in to her several times on the dance floor and every time it has been a joy to dance with her.  I asked Louise just how long she’s been dancing:

I’ve been dancing about twelve years.  I first learnt with Joe in Chesham and I’ve been taxi-ing for about five years.

That’s some experience and five years taxi-ing is some commitment.  Indeed, that Joe has been teaching for over twelve yearse is another great example of the commitment I find as I travel around different venues.  This wonderful dance community only works because it is under pinned by organisers, teachers and crew members who are passionate about sharing their love of dancing.

I do wonder if I would have continued my own dance journey if I had not been helped as much at the beginning.  I suspect many of us owe a great debt to the likes of Louise and Gary and the hundreds of Taxi and Crew members around the country.

Jayne gets the step back technique

I was anxious to dance with one of the ladies, from the refresher class, who I now know as Jayne.  She had only been to four classes and I wanted to see just how much progress she had made.  It wasn’t easy getting a dance with her as she was doing exactly what Joe had said:

Remember ladies you can ask the men to dance, so don’t sit around waiting to be asked – just do the asking.

That a newcomer was on the floor so much was another testament to the friendliness of this venue and its community spirit.  I watched as Taxi Gary danced with her too, but finally I got my chance.  Jayne did very well considering the few lessons she’d had.  At the end of the dance I complimented her:

You did very well.  You kept to the beat and you’ve also got the idea of stepping back. You created a lovely tension I could use to lead you, and you followed really well,

I think getting the idea of the step back and the tension it creates is the most important thing for new ladies to get.  This is one of the techniques that Joe was at pains to explain in his Beginners’ lesson.  When the ladies step back fully, and create a tension in the hand hold, it enables the man to lead a lot easier.  If there is no or little tension it makes leading a lot more difficult.  So well done Jayne.

It was good to see the beginners out on the floor during the later freestyle session

Joe keeps it smooth and slotted

I’ll have a little more to say about Jayne’s experiences as a beginner at Stoke Mandeville later, but it’s time to talk a little more about Joe’s teaching.  While I was in the Beginners’ Refresher Class Anastasia was doing Joe’s Intermediate lesson.  I asked her how it went:

He did a lovely routine.  Nice and smooth.  I really liked it.

While Joe’s been covering at the other Ceroc Beds & Bucks class nights, I’ve had the opportunity to experience his Intermediate lessons for myself and they are fabulous.  But before I go any further I want to explain something I’ve noticed since I’ve moved to Milton Keynes from my original dance base in Nottingham.

What strikes me more than anything is the way that people dance differently in The South compared to The East Midlands.  Here in Buckinghamshire a lot more people dance in a slotted style.  I’d often wondered why this was.  Now I know – it’s the teaching.  Here the teachers put a lot of emphasis on the three-track linear style of dancing, where the lady moves up and down the middle track and the man uses the two outside tracks.  People still dance in a rotational style but less so.

Not a lesson goes by without Joe mentioning the slot, and Anastasia confirmed this once again in her report of Joe’s Intermediate lesson.

There is another difference between Buckinghamshire and The East Midlands.  There is more slower contemporary music played in this area compared to back home.  Again, it is linked to the teaching.  Joe’s style of smooth slotted dancing works particularly well with slower music.  He uses a lot of this more chill-out music in his lessons and mixes more of it in to his playlist, particularly towards the end of the class nights, when the beginners have drifted away.  One of Joe’s current favourite tracks is Dancing with a stranger by Sam Smith and Normani.

Joe is held in high regard

Joe’s teaching was held in high regard by all the people I spoke to.  One of the dancers told me that she had chosen this Wednesdays class simply on the basis that Joe was the teacher, and she knew she would benefit from his style of teaching.  Katie is another fan.  Here’s the comment from her Facebook posting I featured above:

. . . and awesome moves Joe Collins. You’ve surpassed yourself in your teachings again . . . keep those moves coming.

I’d actually come across Joe’s fabulous teaching some time ago when I reviewed a Smooth Moves workshop at Te Amo in 2018 (see link below).  That workshop in many ways helped kick start my own journey to dance in a more smoother slotted style.   I know that Joe will be doing other workshopsvat Te Amo in the future, so please keep your eye on the Beds & Bucks Facebook Page.

A fabulous endorsement from Jayne

I’ll finish my review with some more words from my chat with Jayne, the beginner who I’d met in Louise’s refresher class.  I had asked Jayne who had introduced her to Ceroc:

A friend, who had done it before, brought me the first time.  I loved it from the word go, and really liked the fact that I didn’t need to come with a partner.

Do you still come with your friend?

No, she only came that one time.  I come on the bus now.

Coming on the bus is some endorsement.  I can’t remember the last time I went anywhere on the bus.  I couldn’t help thinking about Jayne’s statement that she loved it from the word go.  Was that from the greeting at the door from Bev or Ani, or the Jelly Babies perhaps?  Maybe it was the first experience of Joe’s teaching and dancing those first three moves after just thirty minutes? Perhaps the first freestyle session where she was kept busy on the floor by the Taxi Team.

There are so many things about this dance class that impressed me and no doubt impressed Jayne too.  Something tells me that she will be a great advocate for Ceroc and this class in particular.

There’s more than just Jelly Babies

Mentioning the Jelly Babies made me think of one more big plus for this, and all the Ceroc Beds & Bucks class nights – complimentary hot and cold drinks and a big choice of biscuits.  When you see the refreshment table and all it’s choice, you realise that it must take the crew quite a time to set up and pack everything away.   Nor surprisingly Louise asked me to also give a mention to the team of Cliff, Chris and Sue who help with these duties.

As I realised just how many crew support this venue I got another sense of what Rachel had told me the previous week:

There is such a wonderful community at Stoke Mandeville, Paul.

There certainly is Rachel.  You have a great team and this feeds in to the dancers.  As I danced in the final freestyle session I was made very aware of how friendly everybody was.  Anastasia confirmed taht the men she danced with were just as friendly.  So much so as we got in to my car she asked me:

Paul, can we come here again.

Sadly Wednesday nights have turned in to a writing night, but I’d love to go back.  It would be interesting to see the progress the beginners I met in the class have made.

Okay Anastasia, we’ll get back soon.

I’ll finish with another Facebook post from Louise thanking Joe for another fabulous class.   Look at the comment that Caroline posted.  Enough said.

Related Link

Te Amo Smooth Moves Workshop run by Joe Collins