In today’s world, everybody wants to be popular, well-known, appreciated. Maybe some of you find, subconsciously or not, that being a dance teacher is the way to go to find that precious peer-approval fix. And not any kind: an international dance teacher, because fuck those locally-teaching peasants, right? It’s not like they’re grinding and grinding week after week to bring more beginners in the scene.
Or maybe you just feel the passion of dancing in every fiber of your being and want to communicate it with as many people as possible – or anywhere in between.
Once you’ve achieved the necessary skill level, which will take you about two hundred years, there are a few things you should know about being an international instructor.
I want to give props to Nick Williams at SwingNick.com because he wrote a list first, and lists are obviously the best. I did my best to complement that list and not repeat stuff, because repeating stuff IS FOR THE WEAK.
…I also want to mention I did my best to not repeat stuff.
#6 – Bring your A-Game
Turn the clocks back a few years in the swing scene (or more in other scenes – I’m just speaking from what I know) and you could ride a decades-long career over an overly enthusiastic jazzy choreography on an Illinois Jacquet post-groove rendition of the Muppets Theme. The scene was just starting and basically anything short of wildly flailing your arms around while kicking anything in a ten-foot vicinity was impressive. That’s great, and congratulations: all your hard work and dedication as an instructor has paid off and today there’s a shitload more people dancing!
This also means that there’s suddenly a line of instructors behind you who are most probably younger, more in shape, more dynamic and, most importantly, eager to teach for the price of a loaf of bread. Or, in some teachers’ case, a six-pack of beer.
As a teacher, you have to think long and hard about what you bring to the table. What makes you unique? Is it your charming persona? Your technical prowess? Your dazzling choreographies? The way you can artistically weave a dick joke into any seemingly inoffensive conversation?
Whatever it is, work on it, treasure it, nurture it – this is your lifeline. Go on working on all the other stuff as well – because you can be sure as shit that all the up and coming teachers are devising new ways to be fucking awesome. Just because you got one or two gigs in Crokoshitt, Buttfoklandia doesn’t mean you’re going to stick around for long if you sit on your laurels-tattooed ass (because come on: who can get their hands on actual laurels these days?) waiting for work to magically come to you. You’re not entitled to anything, in a world where the next thing is often the best thing.
#5 – Make concessions, but know your limits
Let’s tell the honest truth: like lap dogs, most of use are just happy to be there. Teaching dance as our living, or part of our living, is an exceptional blessing. Especially at the beginning, you’ll probably be willing to teach for free – and you know what, in some instances, you totally should: some events are such big opportunities that it’s really hard to pass on them, especially if you’re trying to make a name for yourself. So I’m definitely not one of those people who are bitching about budding teachers undercutting the market at the secret annual meeting of the travelling dance teachers Dark Brotherhood.
Although a part of me really wishes that more organizers had the good sense to recognize that higher-paid teachers are higher-paid for a reason, this is a reality that will never change: financial incentives are really, really attractive to any businessperson who respects their line of work, and organizers are no different. It’s a numbers game, and you should understand that: if quality of the event goes from “fucking awesome” to “pretty fucking good”, but the organizers money income jumps from “mortgaging my home to organize an event” to “buy a yacht”, don’t be surprised if they go with the money-making.
So yes, making concessions is a key part of getting known as a teacher. Put in those hours: it’s a great and exciting place to be.
But also know your limits. Because there’s all sorts of vultures out there who will demand so much out of you that, by the end of the workshop, you’ll be so fucked up you won’t even know who you are anymore and your brother-in-law will find you folded up in a closet with an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s, sobbing about how there’s no more Jack Daniel’s, after not hearing from you for ten days. Nobody wants that, especially since that condescending asshole always thought her sister could do better than you.
It’s really simple, yet fucking no one seems to grasp the basic concept: from both sides of the equation, it’s okay to ask for something, and it’s okay to refuse it. It’s okay for the organizer to ask you to teach at 8am but perform at 2am the previous night – as long as there is space for you to say “Hahaha! No.” It’s okay for you to demand only roasted baby ostriches and fried white truffles for your meals.
But if the deal goes beyond what you’re humanly capable of, don’t take the fucking deal. Don’t make yourself miserable… For what? A fucking dance? Go pick some strawberries for the weekend and you’ll probably be better off both physically and mentally, and will have a thicker load of cash in your pocket.
#4 – Be prepared to fork out cash
Here’s a little-known fact: depending on where you’re travelling, with which airline, the alignment of the moon and the particular moods of the diverse people you’ll meet along the way, you should be prepared to spend actual money for your trip. I know, I know, it comes as a shock, you being a Lindy Hop rockstar and all, adulated by the masses. You can’t take two steps in the street without drowning in the excessive adoration of a crazed fanbase throwing panties at you, and that sucks.
But it’s still gonna happen. The worst culprit is the infamous airline checked baggage fee. Some airlines charge extra (up to $50) for every checked baggage you take with you, and those slithering butt pounders usually don’t go out of their way to tell you beforehand.
Because I like you – OK, because I don’t actively dislike you – here’s a nifty chart of all those baggage fees. Call beforehand to make sure which fees apply to you. If you get fidelity points (which you totally would be stupid not to do), you’ll often be able to waive those fees.
It doesn’t stop there though: most events will not extend the courtesy to pay for your transport to and from the airport. And while they will provide you with basic meals, rare are the events where you won’t have to pay for snacks or beverages, both of which are vital to most dancers.
When all is said and done, be prepared to teach one or two hours during the weekend basically as a hidden fee for just being there.
#3 – Some students are fucking crazy
It’s a hard truth: everyone, somewhere deep down, has some big, fucked up issue. And you can be sure as hell that, between all the teaching and dancing and casual talking, you’ll stumble your way into it like a baby bear in a, uh, a baby bear trap. Being kept hostage for an hour by a disgruntled student who’s not happy about their level after auditions should feel familiar to every instructor out there. And it’s fucking terrifying, awkward, and everything in between.
Whether they’re crippingly insecure and use dance to make themselves feel better, or they have some deep-down suppressed memory of their mother leading sailor kicks better than they do, at some point you will hit a nerve with some students. And they’re not gonna like it.
If you really screwed the pooch, the best and hardest thing to do is to apologize.
Otherwise, if you genuinely feel you were just doing your job, try to explain it to them. In the case of auditions, for example, a good blanket statement is “We’re doing our best to put people in the levels where they will best learn. I know you did level 64 at Beantown, but here students are different, hence, levels are different. I suggest you at least give your level a try, and then feel free to ask the organization for a re-audition.”
If all else fails, gently disengage by finding some business elsewhere. I’m serious: after a point, some folks creep out of the realm of your actual job right into Crazyland, and you don’t have to enable them in that.
#2 – The temptation to party is always there
Seriously, this might seem like a first world problem – and which of those isn’t? – , but imagine the wildest exchange or workshop or competition you attended. You know the one: you were pumped up, the band was awesome, friends old and new were there, alcohol flowed like water, you went to bed at 9am after doing many regrettable things with most parts of your body, gathered mere minutes of sleep here and there, recovered for roughly a month afterwards, and X-rays of your liver look like a hobo’s small-pox ridden bare ass.
Well now imagine you do that… Every. Goddamned. Weekend.
International instructors are human, for the most part, but over the years have developed an uncanny sixth sense for knowing when and where the party is gonna go down. In a society such as ours, where escapism is not only tolerated but celebrated, it’s deceptively easy to think that you’re just having some fun, when you’re actually slowly slipping out of reality, and important things such as, you know, your job, are distorted and fading out of focus. Couple that with the fact that, generally, artists are not known for their particularly well-developed sense of self-restraint, and you have a recipe for some pretty fucked up stuff.
So I know it sounds alarmist, but mark my words: one moment, you’ll be chilling with other teachers having a beer… Next thing you know, you’re face down in a stranger’s bathtub surrounded by dead chinchillas and empty vodka bottles, and you’re giving a spins and turns class in half an hour.
Remember, you’re there to share the sacred gift of dancing with the world. Having a jello shot competition with students is a nice side effect of that, as long as it doesn’t become the focus of the whole thing. And when you entertain the retarded notion that the dancing is getting in the way of the drinking, then you’ve got an even bigger problem.
#1- Contracts and cancellation clause
You should always have a contract.
“Even if the organizers are friends?”
Especially if the organizers are friends, you fucking lunatic.
Seriously, your wide-eyed innocence is very cute, and I’m sure when you’re old and grey someone will find you a nice farm where you’ll have lots of space to run and other dancers to play with. But teaching internationally is not that farm. Nor will it ever be. Nothing tests a friendship more than when shit hits the fan, and you’ll be surprised at how fast the aforementioned excrements will affirm their preponderance in case of fan-hitting.
You’ll be surprised at how people you think are friends act when confronted to a choice between you and the cold hard cash in their pocket. Contracts are not only the cool thing kids do these days, they are an absolute necessity – and one that is often neglected. A sweeping majority of teachers work in circumstances that make them very vulnerable to things such as cancellation, reduction of work hours, change of schedule, or downright slavery-lite.
Now be aware: a contract will not get you anywhere, legally, 98% of the time – in any case the legal fees could easily bury both your sorry asses. It’s simply an agreement between the organizer and you. If things go wrong, you can refer to it and determine with absolute certainty who is the asshole in a particular situation. Is it you because you won’t give the five classes you promised, or is it them for not picking you up at the bus terminal, where you had to spend an unforgettable night with a couple of Burlington transients?
Not only should anything from #5 be in the contract, but you should add some universal basic provisions as well. The most important is the cancellation clause, which basically states that in case of cancellation of your employment at the event (including cancellation of the event itself), you get some kind of compensation. I’ve been at the receiving end of an event cancellation, and it was just fucking sad, infuriating and distressing, especially from someone I considered a long-time friend. All this bullshit could have been avoided with a cancellation clause.
It sounds harsh, but you have to think that you booked four days or more of your time to head to that event – four days that you probably won’t be able to book elsewhere – and you can’t fall victim to the whims, insecurities and shortcomings of every organizer. It’s usually not your responsibility that an event has “less attendance than expected” or that “venue prices went up” or whatever bullshit they’re going to throw at you – nothing justifies cancellation without compensation, and those who pretend so can go suck a big, fat bag of dirty, diseased donkey dongs.
Unless we’re talking about epic disasters, of course. Dance teachers are not baby-eating ogres. Yet.
But most of all, a contract will free your mind and allow you to actually do your goddamn job: making people sweat and discover the orgasmic joy of dancing. Enjoying the privilege to be there and help people discover their true selves through the magic of moving around.
Everything else is noise.
When not writing about what is mostly past personal mistakes, Zack can be found making mistakes LIVE at Swing ConneXion.