Swingin' for Cash: Making $$ Teaching & Dancing!?
(Prequel to “Gigs from Hell”)
Copyright 1999 Bob Thomas. No reprinting without permission. Send email
Bob Thomas -- 43 Houston Ave, Milton, MA 02186 -- (617) 696-5463

Lately with the swing craze in full force, I’ve been getting lots of calls from swing dancers asking for advice on work they’re interested in doing or have already accepted. For those of you interested in Swinging for Cash, what follows is some pratical advice regarding arranging, pricing, and performing work for schools, organizations and corporations.

Who the heck is Bob Thomas?
 Swingin’ for Cash, Part 1: Teaching  Swingin’ for Cash, Part 2: Performing
 What Kind of Experience Do I Need?  Minimal qualifications
 Charting Your Teaching Progress Questions to ask the client
 What Do I Charge? What do I Charge?
Corporate Teaching Gigs   Other Considerations

Who the heck is...?

I’m Bob Thomas, who dances with and is married to Idy Codington, performing as The Kamikaze Jitterbugs, a company I formed in 1989 or so. We’ve been doing shows and dance-related work for organizations, schools and corporate clients for over twenty years, and I have a ton of advice, most of which you probably don’t need and aren’t interested in. But, for those of you determined or foolish enough to go out into the public marketplace to teach and perform swing, I thought it might be helpful to write down some advice and suggestions to help you on your way. For fun and horrifying accounts of our most interesting gigs, read my piece “Swinging in the Dark: Gigs from Hell.”

Until 1996 Idy and I performed backed up by several dedicated amateur swing dancers. In 1996 we posted auditions and hired six working professional dancers with extensive jazz, modern and ballet backgrounds. Finally, in December 1998, tired of too many Gigs From Hell (even I have my limits), I laid off the other dancers. And since that time The Kamikaze Jitterbugs are just two, Idy and me. With the swing craze Idy and I often do shows supported by "back-up" dancers in fancy 40's regalia. The back-up dancers work the dance floor and provide additional excitment and color at our gigs. (see "Swinging for Cash, Performing" below).

Idy and I average about seventy or eighty shows a year, a majority of them historical dance shows in schools ("Roots of American Dance, 1850-1940"). Of the eighty shows, perhaps twenty or thirty are for private and corporate functions and events. (Note: I also do solo monologue and storytelling/dance shows, adding perhaps another eighty to a hundred shows a year, but that’s another story.)

Swingin’ for Cash, Part 1: Teaching

Someone asks you--out dancing or over the telepone: “Would you be interested in teaching a series of classes for my school/office/etc?” If what they want are straight-ahead social swing dance classes, you can say “yes” if you’re ready (see "Experience" notes at the end of this section). Of course, you should have a syllabus, a plan on what you intend to teach each week. I suggest preparing to teach two steps or moves per week, plus at least one stylistic or technical point that you intend to drill from at least two points of view.

If you're teaching everything you planned on teaching, you're probably going too fast. Make sure you spend the first fifteen minutes of each class reviewing the previous week's material. And by the fourth week or so spend the better part of an entire class going over and over and re-arranging in various ways the material you've covered so far.

What Kind of Experience Do You Need?

If you’ve never taught swing before, you have to learn both the leader’s and follower’s parts for every step you want to teach. Then do some free classes for friends or a local school to get experience. You have to be adept at two tasks. The first is explaining what you know and communicating that through movement (talk does little to teach dancing) exercises to your students. The second is learning how to quickly analyze and solve students’ swing dance difficulties. Do all of the above before charging money.

Another important factor is your level of skill. A good teacher has extensive dance experience. Completing ten or twenty weeks of classes essentially only makes you an advanced-beginner amateur. In addition to lots of classes and many, many nights out on the dance floor dancing the night away, you’ll want to take several months of private lessons. Private lessons are best done with a known professional swing dancer, someone with at least five or six years of experience teaching and dancing. Please note that ballroom dance has several types of highly-stylized "swing," many of which are done almost exclusively in competition--know what the difference is and which style you want to learn. I suggest good old generic East Coast Swing or 1930's-40's Lindy Hop. Note that Jive and West Coast are different styles and are more recent evolutions of Swing and Lindy Hop. [Don’t call me. This article is not an ad--I don’t teach anymore.]

Private study usually costs from $40-70 per hour, which may seem like a lot, but it’s money well-invested if you intend to teach. Also, it would be very worthwhile to take some jazz and/or ballet classes. Twice a week for six months or so would be best. The dance classes will develop your physical skills, your eye for analyzing movement, and your overall knowledge of what dance “is.”

A wonderful goal is to take class with and then apprentice with an experienced teacher. They usually won’t pay you much for you teachint assistance (if anything), but it’s the best experience money can’t buy.

Charting Your Teaching Progress

As you teach you need to check on how well the students are mastering the material. My favorite approach is to sidle up to the students during class and engage them in conversation about their work, their hobbies or anything that might require thought. If they can answer you and continue dancing the material without a hesitation or break, then they're soon ready for the next step or even for something extra: styling, movement, or rhythm concepts or variations.

If many of your students are having trouble learning the material, you should examine your syllabus and perhaps even your approach to what you’re teaching. Perhaps the order or type of material in your syllabus is wrong and needs to be adjusted. Or perhaps your teaching method needs polishing (not enough interesting repetition for the students), or your manner with the students should be improved (knowing how to put anxious students at ease so they feel safe and ready to learn is an acquired skill). All good teachers have had days where they realized they were on the track in their teaching. It's just that good teachers recognized it and changed how they taught in response.

Also, your students can be very helpful with improving your teaching. Ask one or two students who are especially enthusiastic and who seem perceptive to stay after class and ask them for observations and suggestions about the class. Once you’ve asked them to tell you what they think, LISTEN!

What Do I Charge?

Rates. Well, that’s a tough one. Basically, you want to charge enough that when you’re teaching you’re making enough money that you don’t regret it. That could be ten dollars an hour, or it could be seventy-five dollars an hour. One rule of thumb: for a series of classes, try and imagine how much you’ll need to make to teach once, and then how much you’ll need to show up for the last class when the thrill is gone. Add the two numbers together and divide by two. That’s your per class rate for that series.

Generally, part-time dance teachers (with a day job) make $20-40 an hour working for someone else, and $35-75 an hour working for themselves. But hey, I charge $125-200 an hour (this IS my day job) and that works for me. So you decide.

Corporate Teaching Gigs

If someone says, “Would you teach a lesson for my school/organization/corporation’s party?” Think about it twice.

First, keep in mind that the person you’re talking to may have almost no idea what they want, or, more importantly, what will work. Your potential client has probably decided after reading a news article or talking with a friend, that it would be “fun” to have “swing” at an event or function at their school, organization or corporation. The client will tell you what they envision, and it may sound very fun and exciting. Just remember that it’s just as easy to say, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have swing at our corporate event for five hundred people?” as it is to say, “Wouldn’t it be great to get in a rocket and walk on the moon?” Both statements are true and both ignore a slew of potential problems, expenses and other deadly traps.

Second, find out some information. You have no idea if the person calling you is the only person at the organization who is enthusiastic about swing. It’s entirely possible that a large number of people in the organization is dance-phobic, and that the only person at the organization enthusiastic about dance is the person on the other end of the phone. Imagine walking into a function with several hundred people, taking the microphone (ever used a microphone?), announcing “Hi, everyone. We’re going to have some fun. Let’s all come up onto the dance floor and learn a little bit of swing!” And as you stand there, you feel everyone’s eyes on you, glaring with various mixtures of terror, horror, malice, and contempt. It’s going to be a long hour...

One special note: avoid taking a gig teaching partner dance at a function where people are without their spouses. Why? Think about it.

Swingin’ for Cash, Part 2: Performing

If someone says, “Would you dance swing at my school/organization/corporation’s party?” Think about it three times (at least).

Minimal qualifications before considering a paid performing gig:

-- You've been dancing swing seriously--classes twice a week, going out dancing twice a week--for at least a year.

-- You've performed successfully on four or more occasions where people were asked to stop and watch you and your partner perform a dance. And it went well.

-- At your "successful" performances you should have felt good about what you did (and didn't argue too much with your partner), and people told you--without seeming to feel sorry for you--that you were "great."

Questions to ask the client

1) Is it a formal performance or will you just dance to the music and show off? The best gig for a swing dancer is as “window dressing.” You go to the gig and dance the night away. No formal shows, no teaching to surly anxious people, just a pleasant evening hanging with the band. Amazingly enough, people will pay you for this. Do it as often as you can. My only caveat: don’t discuss your day job. When people ask, “What do you really do?” it’s often best to simply say, “I like to dance. How about you?” Because, honestly, do they need to know you’re a lawyer?

2) When will you perform during the event? Informally demo-ing by clearing a space around you on the dance floor mid-way through a song with everyone standing around watching is ideal. You don’t need to be announced and yet you have the full attention of everyone attending. You can do this a couple of times an evening and everyone will love it.

3) Do they want a sit-down show? A sit-down show requires that you have good costumes, good music and good lighting. A sit down show works best with live music. Recorded music seems flat in a room that just had a live band playing. But live music has it’s own problems, including how to describe to the band what type of tune, how long it should be, and setting a tempo that works for you. Also, for a sit down show, have someone raise the lights for your show. It’s awkward dancing in near-darkness. For more on this read my article “Gigs from Hell”

If they want a sit-down show, keep it short, one or two numbers (see my article “A Guide to Using Dancers for Events and Functions”). Also, sit-down shows work well done while everyone finishes their dessert--they’re content and comfortable and, when you’re done, they’ll be eager and ready to get on the dance floor.

What do I Charge?

One-off teaching? Dance shows? Probably a good basic rate is $25-50 per person for window dressing or an informal show, more like $75 to $100 per person for a package of teaching and a formal two or three number show. Right now we charge $200 to $300 per person, but then we’ve spent a lot of money on press packets, photos, custom videos and all the hoo-ha that corporate clients need to sleep well at night when they’re hiring you. For us, when you take away our expenses we’re making about $75-100 per person.

Other Considerations

Costumes: Generally clients will be as impressed with a good costume as good dancing. In fact, if choosing between costumes and dance skill, many clients will easily choose costumes. So when you go out, take the time to dress up. Bright colors (avoid white and black) are best. If what you’re wearing is glaringly attention grabbing, all the better. You’re being hired to stand out from the crowd, not to blend in.

Improvisation: You can improvise your dances, but it’s helpful to have pre-choreographed bits you can use as a beginning, middle and end of the dance.

Routines: For routines, use live music if you can. It helps if you choreograph to standard 32-bar choruses. Recorded music is not half as exciting as live music. We have found that an improvised dance to live music is usually more satisfying to an audience than an exciting routine to canned music.

Live Music: For live music, you must know how to talk to musicians. Musicians describe everything in measures or bars of music, almost always with four beats to the bar (except waltz). The body of the music is usually in groups of eight bars or twelve bars. Eight bars is sometimes called a verse; and four verses often go together to make a 32-bar chorus. Twelve bars of music is usually called 12-bar blues, although there is also eight bar and sixteen bar blues. Someday soon I’ll write a comprehensive guide to talking with musicians, but unfortunately this ain’t the time.

That’s all for now. Hoped this was helpful. Go get ‘em and good luck.