Because it’s not a ballroom blog until you compare the two.
Like many people, I started learning through the group classes before beginning private lessons, and I would advise anyone looking to learn ballroom for the first time to do the same. It’s not that I find them superior to private lessons. Not at all. But I think them to be a very important stepping stone before making the commitment of private lessons. Of course there are exceptions, and we’ll get to that.
What first decided me to group classes were that they’re inexpensive. Depending on where you go, they can average as little $5-15 dollars a class, which are around an hour. Being the shy introvert that I am, the “group” part had its pros and cons. I was terrified of embarrassing myself in front of them (which I do anyway, on a regular basis). On the other hand, having the others with me took a lot of attention and stress off me, while seeing them learn and struggle in the same ways I was just helped me to feel I was not alone in this. Not enough to stop me from literally shaking with nerves my first class (which I was teased for), but enough that I didn’t back out.
It took a few weeks for the worst of the first time jitters to go away, and that was all thanks to my amazing classmates. Group classes are very social, and very soon I began to call my classmates my friends. They play a huge part in what makes dancing fun, whether I see them in class or at a social. We spend our time laughing and teasing at ourselves and each other, helping get that pointed toe and styled arm just right, or just goofing off when the teacher isn’t looking (a hard feat in a room surrounded by mirrors). Some days we’re all silent and focused, keeping each other focused. Other days we’re completely manic, so much so that our teacher throws up his arms and declares anarchy.
With group classes, you always have a circle of dancemates on the same page as you. When you go to a social, the first time someone asks you to dance is like a mystery game. Neither of you know what the other knows, so everything hinges on your skills as leads and follows. This is to varying success. Dancing with classmates there is a similar foundation to start on. You can help each other practice and there’s always someone you can go to ask “remember that step from last week? Was it rock step-turn, or turn-rock step?”
With group classes, you get the broad, general idea of what ballroom is and what a studio is like. Group classes rarely go into the fine details as there isn’t time. The goal is to have every student have a solid, general understanding of the dance and the step of the day. Feet go here, arms go here, and don’t ever put your hands there. For this, group classes are fast paced with a lot of stop-and-go dancing and repetition. Here’s the major con. If you’re a little more advanced than the other students, you might find this boring (and if you do, I’ll say the same things my teachers tell me and use this time to improve technique). If you’re less advanced, or just not clicking that day, you tend to be swept along by everyone else, whether you have it down or not.
Now onto private lessons. From my first group class, I knew I wanted to take them, but my main problem was cost. Private lessons, depending on where you go, can average between $70-100 a session. To make that sort of monetary commitment, I needed to be certain that this place was the right fit for me, and that I chose the private instructor best suited for me. It’s for these reasons, I recommend group classes first. While I saved, I continued to learn and observe. I danced with the other teachers and took some of their classes. After two months, when I had saved up enough to begin, I picked my group class teacher for my private teacher. By then, we had built up some sort of rapport with each other. I knew how he taught, he knew how I learned, and I had developed a trust a comfort with him. I had also taken enough group classes and learned enough basics to know which dances I wanted to take further. I went into my first private lesson nervous, but confident I was prepared for what was to come.
Laugh with me now. Ha.
Like a good teacher, after that first lesson he sat down with me and asked what I thought. As delicately as I could, I told him, “I thought there would be more dancing.”
It’s okay. You can keep laughing.
Even though we talked at length before going into my first private lesson, in my mind it would be something more like an intermediate one-on-one group class. In group class, we learned two or three beginner patterns each week. So I thought private lessons would be a string of progressively harder dance patterns.
Still laughing? I know you are.
That first lesson was mostly spent with my teacher posing and poking me, saying things “Shoulders. Good. Head. Nice. Lats. Lats! Lovely” while I stood more or less completely still, arms shaking, muscles burning, thinking “What the heck are lats?!” I don’t think we ever went any farther than a waltz box, the easiest of easies. Except it wasn’t. “Back. Lower. Feet together. Shoulders down. Rise. Lats! Heel first. Right foot. Frame! Feet together. Head. Shoulders down. Don’t move your head! Feet together. Give me frame. Lats!” Then we stop and I’m breathing hard and overwhelmed and convinced that was terrible until he nods once and says “All right, not bad.” Everything glossed over in a group class for the sake of keeping the class moving forward comes all crashing back at you in private lessons to tell you everything you know is wrong.
I’m not trying to scare you away from private lessons. I love them. I look forward to each one, especially the way we can break down all these things I’ve learned into their most basic elements to a place I can really understand them. Sometimes I’ll struggle with the group pace. When I have, my teacher has before whispered to me “don’t worry, we’ll cover this in private lesson.” Also in time, sooner than it feels, you do move on from the basics. Then before you know it you are getting into those complicated steps you could never really get to in group classes, and the moment you nail them is this great rush. Still, you never get away from the basics. They’re not something you learn once and move on from, but something you need to review over and over and over. This comes from different level of commitment between group and private. While each group class starts with a quick overview of the basics, if they spent as much time on them as in private, students expecting to know at least a few dance steps might become disappointed, lose interest, and not come back. In private lessons, there’s the general understanding that you’re prepared to slough through the hard, boring, basics over and over in order to become that better, polished dancer.
Of course, another and more obvious difference is the one-on-one attention. For the most part, this is a pro. I stay more focused. He teaches at my pace and best fitting to the way I learn instead of the general way everyone learns. For most people this also means learning faster, but the important part is that it means learning better. But there can be cons here too, especially if you’re the sort of person that freezes up the moment you know the teacher is watching. Because the teacher is always watching. For the most part, this doesn’t bother me, particularly when we’re doing the step together. Like I said before, I took the time to get to know my teacher and become comfortable with him before beginning my private lessons, so it wasn’t as nerve wracking as it could have been. Still, no mistake goes unnoticed, and it can turn into one of those days one mistake will lead to another and another until I’m snowballed and completely flustered. And I always find it on the awkward side when my teacher tells me to hold a position or run through a step by myself, and I have to do it knowing I’m being critically stared down. Double bonus points when it’s supposed to be sexy.
That above reason is why it’s so important to find a teacher suited to you. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in each other’s personal space, and you will find yourself in embarrassing and awkward situations. If you have a teacher you are uncomfortable with or don’t really trust, you might start saying things like “I can’t do that.” And you’ll believe it. I love my teacher. I think he’s great, even when he’s making fun of me. We mesh really well and when lessons start, I trust him implicitly. When he think I can do something, I believe him, and when learning something that scares me, he makes me feel safe enough to get through it. Had I not had the chance to get to know him before jumping into private lessons, I don’t think we could have built that trust as quickly and solidly as we did.
So I’ve spent a good deal preaching group-then-private, but I also promised there are some exceptions. The most famous exception being the wedding dance. When you have a specific song you want to dance to for a specific purpose, group classes aren’t going to help you. Not much. Especially if you’re on a time crunch. If you have intense social anxiety, and need the time to first learn something privately before integrating into the social circle, you might want private lessons first. Or if you have an unpredictable schedule and can only take lessons on your time. Or you just really, really don’t want to take a group class. Whatever the reason, if you want to dance, then get out there and dance.