Pedagogy Statement: Steps in Time®
Working toward an Ethic of Anti-Glamour
Ten Commandments and a Bingo Card
“I thought to myself, ‘I might as well be doing this someplace where it counts.’”
-Fred Astaire, on leaving the ballroom dance studio business…
and returning to the pictures.
In the spring of 2016, I began cold calling assisted living & memory care communities, offering free introductory ballroom dance lessons–to gauge potential future interest. This was a tactic I later realized I had appropriated from the Fred Astaire Dance Studios. Seven years doing anything will certainly affect the muscle memory, and placing a phone call of this sort felt somewhat embedded in mine at that time. These early phone calls marked the beginning of what would become the Steps in Time program, for which I obtained a trademark in 2019. Of course, Steps in Time is also the title of Fred Astaire’s autobiography. That the Steps in Time® in question is a class of dance instruction and not a book is how I was ever able to obtain the trademark in the first place. Now the summer of 2023, I have worked, almost exclusively, partner-dancing in elder care spaces for the past seven years. The longer I operate this somewhat niche operation, the better I understand it both methodologically and ideologically.
Following Juliet McMains’ Glamour Addiction, I am interested in exploring how Steps in Time® could constitute an “antidote to glamour,” as she describes it; and provide a more community-centered use for ballroom dance pedagogy. Following the work of Carmen Morgan, who interrogates community engagement practices in the performing arts, and advocates for community justice based approaches instead, I aim to ground and also account for my ballroom dance pedagogy through an ethic of anti-glamour. To this end, I offer the following list of guiding principles that have shaped and continue to inform the Steps in Time® practice. While my own application of these principles happens primarily in elder congregate care spaces, it is my hope that this ethical framework could be useful in other community-centered applications as well–and the dissemination of ballroom / partner dance practice more broadly.
1. Relationality & Mutuality: different but related ideas. Relating to people—being able to strike up a conversation while dancing, the fine art of schmoozing. Helpful questions: how’s it going? What are you up to today? Where'd you learn how to dance? Where did you like to go dancing? Mutuality—not infantilizing people. I realized that mutuality was part of the pedagogy when I realized I felt more comfortable ballroom dancing at a memory care community than I felt dancing at a ballroom dance competition. Trying to create the kind of environment that I would also want to live in—even if only for that hour. Creating the feeling of community.
2. Care over Competition: All the steps and techniques listed on the bingo card have been tried and tested through the Steps in Time practice, designed to be adaptable for dance partners using mobility aids and or experiencing the effects of dementia. The purpose of the pedagogy is care. Clinical care in general, elder care in particular. This is a social dance practice. It matters less how it looks and more how it feels. The point is not to prepare for competition or even performance, but to be a good dance partner. That said, the techniques listed below are also fundamental to exhibition dancing; executed with a thorough understanding, the steps can be a lot of fun to watch.
3. Culture of Community and Consent: what’s the difference between an “ assisted living facility” and an “assisted living community”? We believe that our job is to bring a feeling of community to every program. Steps in Time facilitators work to make all participants feel welcome and included; either through seated group stretching, dancing with a facilitator, or by observing others on the dance floor. We work to greet everyone at some point over the course or the program; we ask everyone if they would like to dance, and respect if the answer is no. While it feels exceedingly rare for facilitators and their dance partners to be asked if they’d like their picture taken while dancing, we always appreciate this level of courtesy, and imagine that some of our partners probably do too.
4. Leadership & Followership: Facilitators take a gender expansive approach to partner dancing, are trained to both lead and follow, and are prepared to assume either role at any time.
5. Dance Partner First: A facilitator’s primary goal is to be a good dance partner. While we view each dance as an opportunity for mutual co-learning, and while it can be lots of fun to watch, facilitators are neither there to “teach” nor “perform.” Our objective is to run an enjoyable social dance party.
6. Attentiveness to Access Needs: our own and also our dance partners. Making sure we feel safe, and that we have the agency to assert any boundaries we may need at any given time (especially with regard to inappropriate language or unwelcome touch). Working to make the dance accessible as best we are able, to any participant who chooses to take part. Using basic principles of connection to partner with people using wheelchairs. Being prepared to take the place of our dance partner’s walker or cane during our time dancing together. There are ways these practices / protocols could be construed as patronizing or saviorist. Rather than claim it’s not, we sit with the question.
7. No Fucking Country Clubs: We sometimes get inquiries to be dance hosts at country clubs. One reason we refuse this work is because there is more pressing demand and social need for us to focus our methodology: in service of people living in clinical care settings. Another reason is that Steps in Time® began as an act of resistance to ballroom dance studio culture, which ostensibly markets its product to “the country club set.” Therefore, it feels like a natural tenet to set down in the company handbook: #7. No Fucking Country Clubs.
8. System Questioning, System Building & System Change: Born as an act of resistance to the franchised studio system, we aim to reappropriate the benefits of ballroom dancing for elder care. All the steps and techniques listed in the Bingo card are listed because we know that they are adaptable for dancing with partners experiencing decreased mobility or cognitive decline due to advancing age. While this focuses our system building, we work to regularly reevaluate our systems and practices, to integrate new information and feedback from participants and facilitators. Resisting an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to system evolution.
9. Sustainability over Profit: The goal of Steps in Time labor practices is to provide independent dance artists a means of supporting themselves financially, either through part time or full time work. Aiming to flip the franchised ballroom studio financial model on its side, facilitators receive the majority of the fee charged to client communities, with a nominal amount reserved for taxes and administrative fees. We begin booking dance sessions each fall, by asking facilitators how much they need to earn the following year, in order to meet their basic expenses; then calculate the number of dance sessions that would allow them to meet that number, while honoring their energy level. While we are required to travel to different sites, the idea is to dance for no more than two or three hours on a given work day. Exact fees and facilitator pay structure is available upon request.
10. Unsettling Strategies: Resisting the “Dance Belongs to Everyone” Mindset: Rather than take a “dance generalist” approach, whereby facilitators claim expertise in all dance styles practiced within the American Ballroom Dancesport canon, Steps in Time® focuses its core dances with intention. Of the four core dance styles, Foxtrot, Swing, and Hustle have their roots in Black American vernacular music and dance traditions. The Waltz is the only dance that originates outside the so-called United States: in Germany and Austria. By focusing our methodology and practice toward community care, we hope that we honor the social origins of each of these dance styles: none of these styles were developed for the purposes of selling dance lessons, nor competition entries. Our goal is not to gain notoriety as dance performers–we are not out to become TikTok ballroom dance stars, for example. This is a social dance practice.
In our effort to be good dance partners, facilitators maintain a working knowledge of a wide variety of social dance styles (e.g. Kompa, Cumbia, Merengue, Bachata, Polka and others), and are prepared to partner in these dance styles upon request (keeping music for these styles downloaded in the playlists). If a dance comes from outside our socio-cultural lineage, the aim is to treat that dance and its people with the utmost respect, and not jump toward the fastest way to capitalize off knowing how to dance it. At this point, I, Michael, will jump from handbook-speak back to my own voice. This is my personal policy as the program founder. As I say about other areas of my creative practice as well: I am open to receiving feedback and I prioritize the perspectives of people who have been systematically marginalized as a result of white supremacy culture.
Steps in Time® core dances and techniques are organized to fit into the space of a Bingo card. Many of the figures (dance steps) can be mixed and matched across dance styles, and the techniques can be applied to all four dances (e.g. Swing Isolations can be applied to many of the Hustle patterns–all of which can be useful when dancing Merengue). This syllabus is meant to provide facilitators with a common “dance language” and points of reference. These systems and practices are not hard and fast, but ever-evolving.