Blend ‘21 the Reboot
A White Paper by Alastair Sadler
Back in 2017 I published a blog post about a new evening format I’d created called Blend. Blog Link
To put it simply it’s a blend of class and free-dance that offers a different approach to the typical UK class/club format that’s been dominant in the UK since the late 1980’s. I use this comparison, not as a challenge, but rather to highlight the difference and present an alternative format that I believe could offer many benefits to many forms of social dance.
I originally developed Blend for the Mambalsa Project. Mambalsa is a new partner dance that works to any 4:4 time music. Blend could work for any subject as it is a format rather than content / presentation which I would refer to as the teaching method e.g. Salsa Rapido method.
This October ‘21 I’m launching a new night in Central London’s Kings Cross that will be based on the Blend format.
Check out salsakingscross.co.uk for details.
What’s a Blend event like?
The evening starts with a short 40min ‘Welcome Session’
This is aimed at absolute beginners and others new to the blend format.
Welcome, is a meet and greet combined with a core skills class aimed at a clearly defined entry level for the blend. It’s easy to skip over the meet and greet element but that’s where we disarm the fears, answer any niggles and welcome new people into our community.
Imagine the typical classes and free dance chopped up into small chunks and rearranged so that in one chunk you’re learning and in the next you’re free-dancing or practising what we’ve just done or taking a well earned break.
A blend format venue would feel different from the get go:
Pre booked and prepaid only (A QR code at the door for any walk ins)
Pre published curriculums so participants can see their own progress
A greater emphasis on building a positive social space, friendly, supportive and confident.
Sections known as Chunks are typically 15mins long with a five minute buffer, therefore there are three chunks per hour and Welcome + 5/6 chunks per evening.
Because everyone will know that chunks are 15mins long. Creativity and expression can be workshopped taking the class content far beyond ‘the move’.
Sessions might include:
The Event Microscope
Classic Combo Show ‘n Tell
I’m not expecting the above names to mean anything, but the above list already appears more diverse and interesting than the typical format of: Footwork, move, more moves, Too many moves to remember!
This means atypical teaching methods (for salsa) can be employed with less resistance to change. For new dances like Mambalsa it can simply be the way Mambalsa is done!
An example of this would be: Jigsaw breakout groups which can be set a challenge e.g. “Using tonight's Classic Combo as a staring point, add expression to show the core emotion of Anger within the mambo section.” (b.t.w. If I ever sound like I'm setting an essay question in a class, shoot me!)
The above example would build the bonds within small groups as students work towards the goal of demonstrating to the wider class.
Drama / Buzz
A second advantage of the 15 min. chunks is that pace and drama can be added to the class simply by saying “I’ve only got 15 minutes for you to master xyz!” (Any relation to US cop shows of the 1970's is purely intensional! And yes I know it shows my age!!) Pace is an essential factor within a class. Too slow and students leave through boredom. Too fast and the class becomes too hard.
Preparation (not something salsa teachers are noted for!) is easy. Not only is it easier to create a chunk rather than a whole class, a chunk can be kept and reintroduced within a different lesson plan. The typical (to salsa) 'never ending sequence’ where instructors keep adding to a sequence of moves until the end of the class or the dancers head explodes, regardless of whether anyone can remember the beginning, would be avoided. In fairness to the never ending sequence it’s highly experiential and the fact that it’s difficult to remember forces the leader to develop their own sequence from the bits they can remember. (For the record, this is me being nice!)
Perhaps an unintended effect of greater preparation is that it would be easier to create and post online content online of the class.
When I trialled the Blend format in Camden, I noticed some significant differences in my beginners salsa group. First was the effect of constant music. The music as it was at a medium tempo and sometimes we needed to go slower but the majority of the time the group danced to music. Their connection to the music in terms of timing and interpretation were significantly improved. It also seemed as if a barrier was removed, that prevented them from free-dancing. Free-dancing had become part of the class. I think it's fair to say that typically beginners bolt after their class. This often empties the room making the evening less successful. The beginners were also interacting with the intermediate group far more than usual. A chat at the bar and a quick dance before the next chunk started gave everyone a thrill.
Not on a school night!
No one has to wait until the classes are over for the ‘social’ side of the evening to begin, it’s social throughout with space to dance and chat and relax.
Often career minded people want to get home at a reasonable time because they have to be fresh the following morning. They want a fun class but they want some free dance as well before it’s time to catch the train home. This group is increasing year on year as are the amount of younger people who drink less.
It's not a church hall!
Venues aren't expected to be well lit church halls during the classes. From the bar/club’s perspective it's often two hours of no bar trade and no atmosphere, often with no music and the lights up, which alienates non dancers). Venues absolutely hate this, almost as much as they hate a class load of people all trying to get served at the bar straight after the class! Here lies a massive opportunity for Blend to offer constant (but no loud) music with an exciting buzzy atmosphere that entertains the non dancers as much as the participants. In short venues with a quiet night and no separate function room can be sold on Blend!
It's different, and therefore confusing and possibly uncomfortable to anyone expecting something different. There's a lot of security in an evening's format. All I can say is try it, and let chat about what's different afterwards.
Progress comes for listening as much as leadership.
This unfamiliarity throws the pressure onto the Welcome Session where things are explained, people are made to feel comfortable and an alliance is formed between the group and the teacher to help each other to stay on track. I believe this alliance is the antidote to the cliques and snobbery that damage feelings and make people not return.
Blend arguably requires more discipline than traditional classes. People aren't the best time keepers so the teachers have to set the boundaries and stick to them. The old fashioned word for this is professionalism.
Notice the shift away from absolute beginners towards improver and intermediate levels who receive the majority of the content within the evening. This is significant as it recognises a trend in salsa away from absolute beginners towards a group that have some experience, possibly one or two classes or those who have learnt some related content e.g. salsa footwork within Zumba. There is also a significant trend towards beginners having studied online prior to their first offline class. Post covid, I can only see this trend increasing. The time is coming where there is no such thing as a beginners class. The message will become 'Don't come unless you can do this much first.' Hopefully it will combined with 'And here's a video to get you there'. We're not there yet, but soon. First will see the demise of the 'Absolute Beginners Class'. Along with its passing will be the passing of huge amounts of unintended humiliation and embarrassment.
Blend is new, exciting and potentially highly beneficial to the dance teaching industry. It could open up new venue opportunities and offer choice to dancers.
This paper is unfinished! Perhaps it always will be as every time I revisit it there's some new aspect to Blend to write about. I look forward to the time when there's a group of us developing this. Perhaps it would span across many genres of dance and many locations. If this idea excites you, please get in touch.