Liza May

ESS 2014 Update #4 – Parker and Jessica

I’ve received a flurry of alarmed emails from around the world asking “What IS this event? What is ‘ESS’?!?

Ooops. I forgot that because this is not on the wsdc listing of events (obviously, because it’s not a competition) that many people wouldn’t have heard about it or know what it is.

So “ESS” is short for Endless Summer Swing Camp, which is a study camp, a four-day-long “school,” comprised of levelled workshops. Levelled meaning that you attend classes based on your wsdc points division, or, if you feel you should be in a level higher you may audition to move up.

I love the audition process at ESS because – come on! – you’ve got Jordan, Tatiana, Parker, Jessica, Kyle, Sarah, Ben, and Melissa all studying your dancing, and then giving you their trained-eye opinion on where they believe you need to be, to improve in the way that’s best for you.

So even before classes START you’ve already received supremely useful feedback.

Personally I’d be happy if auditions were required for everybody because, as we know, there are people with points in divisions who perhaps might not actually belong in those divisions.


I don’t see how they could audition 300 people, though. That would take, like, three days? Also, they’d infuriate a couple of people.

Speaking of that, I learned a very funny thing last night. There’s a thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect which I can’t believe I haven’t heard about till now. It’s very funny, very trustworthy research-wise, and very true. Here’s the brief description but I encourage you to go read the link, you’ll smile.

“The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias manifesting in unskilled individuals suffering from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” (hahahahaha I love the word “ineptitude” just that word alone makes me laugh) “Conversely, people with true ability tend to underestimate their relative competence based on the erroneous or exaggerated claims made by unskilled people.”

I’m not sure what made me think of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Oh yes I remember – thinking about the people who wouldn’t be happy with auditioning and then being moved down a level. hahahaha

Anyway. On to more substantive topics.

I wanted to tell you more about the three 2.5-hour long Teachers Training sessions, where I took copious notes.

Obviously I can’t convey the wealth of information we heard in Thursday’s pre-workshop sessions, but here is a small taste of what was covered in the first session offered by Parker and Jessica. Discussions, questions, elaborations, and many more topics were addressed, but I thought you’d enjoy hearing at least some of it. These should be TED Talks. (More about Jordan and Tatiana’s, and Kyle and Sarah’s sessions in a later update.)

Parker and Jess on Teaching


Teaching is an art form.

And takes time to get good at it. I SUCKED at the beginning.

Timing and delivery is critical.

You give a critique, feedback, and you’re like “Hey guys, you need to take this … (pause) … PERSONALLY.”

In other words, timing. Good teaching takes learning timing.

It’s very difficult to do a workshop at a national convention and get 200 students, all of them, to listen. There are people on the sides, at the tables, friends walking in and out. So you must learn how to engage the room.

You don’t necessarily have to be funny. Don’t try to be something that you’re not. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t think that you have to try to be funny. What you have to learn is who YOU are – ask yourself, and ask other people to describe you – learn who you are and then go be that.

You will have your own style. Being yourself will help you as a teacher.


The delivery is so much, but then you must be able to back it up with knowledge. Because you are ALWAYS going to have a heckler. Always. Always. Somebody saying “That’s not how I did it 20 years ago. That’s not what so-and-so teaches. That’s WRONG.” And you should always be able to reply to that, to say WHY you’re teaching what you teach.


How to deal with Hecklers:

Number One: Know your material

Number Two: Know your How-To’s so you can give five reasons, without thinking, explaining why you do it the way you do it. Be prepared.

Number Three: My strategy with hecklers is Crush Them To A Fine Powder. And you do this in the kindest way, with your How To’s. You rattle off the reasons you teach what you teach, and then say “Does that answer your question?” and then you say “OKAY MOVING ON ….”


And you need to have multiple ways of explaining things both in private lessons and in workshops.

There are times when, if you’d walk into one of my private lessons, you’d think I was high on something because I’d doing everything in imagery “Let’s pretend you’re a tree waving in the wind” etc

Other times I’ve got an Economics major who needs everything separated into their own bento boxes. They’re like, “Tell me where it goes precisely. And why.”

So you need to have diversity in how you explain, how you teach. Do they like to be moved? Do they like to be touched? Or will touching freak this person out? I don’t touch everybody.


It’s okay to say “Because I said so.” I say that all the time. Because you need to move on. You’ve got a class of people who are waiting for you to continue. It’s your job to move the class on, to have control of your workshop.


Always recommend other teachers. My style of dancing, and of teaching, doesn’t work for everybody. I want people to be comfortable, happy, on the dance floor, and many times that means that I’m not the right teacher for somebody.


“What do you do in a private lesson when you have a student who seems to want only to challenge you?”


If it gets to be a debate, if they’re challenging everything I say, “Wait a minute. WHY ARE YOU HERE? Because I’m here to work with you, to help you.”

The main thing is don’t get into a debate. Because listen, Jordan, Jess, Kyle and Sarah, and I could sit FOREVER and argue over the smallest technical detail, how to do it, how to teach it. And we do, we spent hours just last night arguing, hair-splitting, over one small, minute, difference in technique.

You might hear Sarah say, for instance, be bent on one leg in order to do such and such, while Jess might say she wants a straight leg. The point is – do what’s best for you, teach what YOU do, and know why you do it.


And with the person that challenges or wants to get into a debate, usually when a person gets really defensive like that it comes from insecurity. And personally I have a really open heart for insecurity. They may just feel embarrassed about themselves in front of you who they see on such a different level as them, such a better dancer. Or I may get, say, an older gentleman, really crotchety, and here he is in front of me, a young woman, and he’s embarrassed. So most of that defensiveness you can’t take personally. It’s because they feel insecure. Reminding yourself of this might soften your response a little bit, give you more compassion and feeling for a student who seems bent on challenging you on every little thing.

And so many differences in teaching have to do with differences in body type. I could never dance like Sarah. I have long legs. I can’t do what she does. I have long legs and long arms, which stick out like a sore thumb, and if they do something wrong they look rotten. I am so envious of what Sarah, Tat, Melissa can do – but look at me (she demonstrates) when I do what they do I LOOK LIKE A PRAYING MANTIS. SO ugly on me! So I have to figure out how to get that groove in a different way. And you will have to do that for your students.


Remind students that movement which is new, that they don’t do on a daily basis, does not feel comfortable. It feels ALIEN. So yeah, they won’t like it, won’t want to do it. So you encourage them to try it, help that student to see that it’s good to feel uncomfortable. It pushes them in a new, different direction. Say, “It’s not supposed to feel good. If it feels alien, that’s a sign you’re doing something right.“


It’s tempting to become a dictator, “Do this!” But with many people it works better to ask “Can we just try this out and see how it looks on you?” A softer approach, more like a team effort. And I have no problem saying “You know what, that actually doesn’t look good on you. Let’s try this instead.”


Of course you want to motivate your students, and encourage them.

But for me the biggest thing is inspiration. I want every person I come in contact with to be inspired. In teaching, and coaching, and dancing.

In teaching I want to inspire them in a workshop, whether they’re taking it, or watching it later.

In coaching I want to inspire them to do better as dancers when they do a routine.

In my dancing I want to inspire my partner. Or someone watching to feel like “I like what that was. I want to be able to do that.”

Or someone who’s never seen west coast, you’re out in a tiny bar somewhere, and people see you and think “I gotta learn that. I want to be able to do THAT.” I want to inspire people to go find what west coast swing is and learn how to do it and then do it for the rest of their life.

For me inspiration is the thing.


In my opinion it’s good that there are teachers everywhere, I think that’s a good thing. I can’t go everywhere, to the small towns and communities around the world. If you’re the only person in your area who knows west coast swing and someone asks you how to do something, then you’re a teacher, and in my opinion that’s a good thing. Those of us who have been around a long time teaching, we are recognized for our experience, rewarded, hired. But new teachers who may not have the knowledge or long time experience yet, I think it’s fine that they’re teaching people how to do this dance, spreading the dance.

The level of a dancer does not make you a good teacher, and vice versa.

And also, you’re allowed to evolve, to change your opinions on things. There are things that I taught that I now do not teach anymore.

For instance: framing. I was always about frame, maintaining frame no matter what. But things have changed in the dance, there’s so much breath, expansion and collapsing of frame, through the side, through the chest. So I’ve changed the way I teach about frame.

Some of it has to do with the speed of music. When I learned this dance we were dancing much faster, so what we taught was based on fast music. As the music gets slower a stiff, rigid frame looks absolutely awful, it doesn’t make sense.

So I’m teaching differently now with regard to frame. Maybe not with beginners, where I’m just trying to get them to stand up straight. I wouldn’t teach a beginner, for instance, to round their shoulders because they wouldn’t know how to come back to “home base” where they do have a correct frame. They haven’t mastered the foundations yet, so I wouldn’t confuse them by teaching things beyond their current understanding and ability.

Or straight legs, for instance. Obviously, with my body, I’m a straight legs fanatic. But even this has changed, where I’m now teaching a softer, softly bent knee, not a locked knee like you would see in ballet. Because a slightly bent knee allows more wiggle room to roll through triples.

One thing that’s trendy right now is emotion, expression, we want our audience and judges to feel something (Parker: Not me. I wanna just dance) Using shoulders and changes in frame can be used for expression – rather than the mouth-open, overly done facial expressions, too much angst. I like expression, but I don’t like expression that’s fake. So I’m teaching a trend, and teaching frame in a new way to help my students learn how to do something in a way that I like.

So I like to be aware of trends, and break them down, and know how to teach them in a way that I myself like. So when somebody comes to me and they want drama I can teach it.

You have to stay with the trends because students will be asking you for them.


Talent versus skill.

Talent is what you have naturally. Skill is what you develop over hours and hours of working, beating yourself up, beating your partner up. There’s a big difference between talent and skill, and talent will fail every time. Kobe Bryant has talent, but he’s so good because he has skill, which he acquired over thousands of hours of practice.


You may be asked to judge, so a few words about judging.

How to say this as correctly as I can.

Laurie Schwimmer. Goddess. I grew up with her, and she’s phenomenol.

So there was this routine on the circuit, pretty obscure, really weird, really different, some people loved it, some people hated it.

And I remember talking to Laurie about it and she said “You know, that routine is never going to get judged well. Because you have too many people who aren’t willing to learn how to be different. And they don’t want their students coming to them and asking for that. So they should consider it a compliment that the routine is getting judged a certain way.”

And I was like wow! That made me so sad. But it’s true! And in that moment I thought, I’m never going to be THAT judge. I’m never going to be afraid of what’s different. As much as I may not like something I’m going to dive in and learn about it. Her comments really resonated with me as far as the type of judge I want to be, and the type of teacher I want to be. I want to be like “I think that is HORRIBLE, but tell me why you think it’s so great. Convince me. I want to know what it is you see that I don’t see.”

I want to be open-minded. I want to be inspired by what’s different.

Like for me, hip hop scares the sh#& out of me. I am not a hip hop dancer, I am not cool. At all. I try to be, but I’m realllllly not. But when a hip hop song comes on I have to know how to work it. And I have to know how to teach it to my students. So it’s all about diving into the discomfort and learning, making it work.


I have a question about judging and teaching. Do you think there’s a relationship between them, that if you’re a good teacher you’re a good judge, or vice versa?


I think being a judge requires a certain amount of knowledge which you also need as a teacher, a sturdy foundation in technique, movement, connection.

But I think also that being a good judge requires that you are open-minded, creatively.

So no, I don’t think every good teacher makes a good judge.


I agree because I feel if you cannot sit there and judge somebody’s style that you don’t care for, and give them first place because the dancing deserved it, if you can’t do that then you shouldn’t be a judge.


Jack Carey said once to a competitor, “God I hated your music. But I put you in first place because it was the best dancing.” That is a judge. “I HATED it but it was the best dancing that night.”


A judge has to have experience. Not necessarily teaching experience. But experience. The qualities that make a good judge are hard to find, all of them, in one person, which is what makes finding good judges for NASDE Classic and Showcase very, very difficult. For me, both as a competitor and as an event director, my criteria is that the dancers on the floor RESPECT the judge’s opinion. I don’t want to give a clipboard to someone who doesn’t hold the respect of the dancers on the floor. That they can give a score, and have a reason for it. That it’s an educated score.

So! You see? This is just a tiny taste - of only ONE of the three Teachers’ Training seminars! And you can imagine the discussion, questions, and all the other subjects touched on in just this one section alone.

It was fantastic!

Speaking of teaching, do you recognize these?

Filed Under: ESS

Get the news, stories and awards as it happens!