How to Have an Uncommonly Good Collaboration

Kiz Talks, April 10, 2015

This isn’t the first time I’ve been moved to write by my appreciation for a great collaboration. Let me start this one differently, though – watch this video and try to guess how long we’ve been dancing together:

Believe it or not, this was only the third time Charles and I had ever seen each other in person. Prior to our morning practice that day, we had danced only three songs together. We had two hours to put our online planning into practice and get ready to co-teach a 4-hour workshop. And it worked! We received so many positive comments from our students, particularly about how well we worked together.

Why?
1. Focusing on the students

The whole point of doing this collaboration was to contribute to the budding community of kizomba dancers in Colorado. When Charles and I first realized that we were planning trips to Denver within a week of each other, we both realized that setting up independent events would cause most students to have to choose between us. Instead, we pooled our skills to offer the best of what we had, together.

2. Setting aside ego
Charles and I are both professional kizomba teachers, with our own systems and ideas about what the most effective ways of teaching might be. We pride ourselves on our pedagogy. On top of that, I’ve been used to leading my classes in all the relevant ways. So, we had to be willing to compromise!

3. Communicating honestly
Although we had set a general agenda for the classes well in advance, it was important for us to decide on the breakdown – talk through the material we would cover, decide the exercises and moves we would give the students. As we shared ideas, we had to express what our priorities were, and be sure we wouldn’t step on each others’ toes. We made room for each of us to be able to share what we felt most passionate about.

4. Trusting each other
During the workshop, Charles and I looked frequently to each other, ensuring that we were each given a voice. We traded off leading the class through exercises or giving feedback. Most of the time, eye contact was enough, but occasionally we checked in verbally while the students practiced together. We also were comfortable joking with and about each other, creating a light atmosphere our students enjoyed.

5. A little bit of chemistry
I’ll be honest – while I completely believe that this kind of collaboration offers a huge advantage for students and for teachers (more on that below), I don’t think that every teacher can work with anybody. Particularly with so little time to prepare, Charles and I benefited from that ineffable idea of “dance chemistry.” Our respective skills as leader and follower, and as teachers, could only take us so far.

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So what’s the takeaway?

I know that many people hold tightly to the idea of professional teaching couples. I’m not here to say those kinds of partnerships aren’t awesome. Working with someone for hours on end, building up a method of teaching as well as gorgeous performances, getting totally in sync with another dancer – nothing will replace that.

The reality, however, is that many people do not find their “other half” in the dance world. And while we fully respect male teachers working with an ever-rotating cast of ladies, no such validation is available for women. I refuse to accept this status quo in the kizomba scene, not only because I don’t like how it casts me, but because I have seen an alternative model work brilliantly.

Have you heard about blues dancing? A modern movement based on the roots of a variety of dances done to blues music in America, blues dancing has become internationally loved. For me, much as I love the movement, I love the community offered by the blues scene even more. Part of that is the respect given to teachers as individuals.

As in kizomba, or any of the Latin dances, the blues scene a number of established teaching couples, some of them romantically involved and others not. There are also male teachers who have no regular partner – and female teachers as well. Teachers may team up for a time, or organizers may invite them to work together to create a combination of talent well-suited to their event. Teachers within an established couple also may work on occasion, or even regularly, with independent teachers or others’ partners. It may not be quite a utopia of selfless pedagogy, but at least in the USA there is a nationwide spirit of cooperation and encouragement. Currently in Boston there are some 8 professional blues teachers that work at the national level – and yet also cooperate locally, instead of fighting over pieces of the pie. Teachers in isolated cities swap invitations, and a wealth of instruction is brought to scenes all over the country. Not only do students get to experience a range of teaching styles, teachers exchange ideas and learn from each other.

In my opinion, what makes this work is a culture of respect and community, and it’s one we can build for kizomba in the USA. Whether it’s local teachers in one area getting together to offer a social for all their students together, or organizers treating female teaching partners as equally essential, or teachers being bold enough to try working with another professional…we can enrich our community through collaboration.

In conclusion, let me express my gratitude to Charles Ogar: for being willing to collaborate with me, for being so great at compromising with me and valuing my voice, and for encouraging my belief in collaboration as a real possibility here in the USA.

P.S. Here’s our other demo from Colorado: