Follow the Bouncing Butt;
In Defense of a Teaching Method
I was appalled when I first heard it! "Yes, I think I know her!"exclaimed
the dance teacher to a student dancer. "She teaches by the 'Follow
the Bouncing Butt Method', doesn't she?" I disdain the inelegant
imagery, but worse, the statement contains proof of the misperceptions
concerning study with a "hands on"style of dance instructor. Some
of the "Follow Me" teachers should be more aptly described as "inspirationally
oriented". Many people study and attempt to learn on such a superficial
level that they cannot recognize the difference between the vehicle of
presentation and the destination of that subject which is being presented!
"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires." --William Arthur Ward (1921-)
Not all dance students know what is reasonable to expect from an instructor
of Danse Orientale. Few have experienced instruction that is both intuitive
and personal. Schools devoted to the teaching of Oriental dance do not
exist in the Middle East, where the dance mostly originated, except (maybe)
for the amusement and accommodation of a limited number of foreign tourists
interested in Middle Eastern dance. Most of us have been a product of
our public schools replete with their pedantic methodology. Seemingly,
those methods have rendered many students nearly incapable of appreciating
teachers who seek to inspire by example. If dance teachers were teaching
reading instead of the performing art such as dance, then memorization,
drilling, and repetitious practice of small increments of knowledge would
become the unanimous and obvious choice of teaching method. Teachers! If
you want your students attached to you forever, pedantry is a truly captivating
way to instruct!
"Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon
words when doing it is out of the question." --Rousseau (1712-1778)
If you were educated by teachers who are accustomed to breaking
down movements into their smallest components, reconstructing them,
bit by weary bit, you may find yourself automatically critical of the
unfamiliar instructor who dances along side her students in an apparently
free form dance-along However, please notice that this teacher is most
likely, talking and explaining, correcting and entertaining, encouraging
and laughing, and constantly assessing your technique as you move together. I
would encourage you to take a second look at the situation. Do not easily
dismiss it as less than another teaching method that may appear to be
more analytical on the surface. Teachers who have little feeling for
fledgling performers, and whose agenda may be more likened to massaging
their own egos, are often the instructors most likely to take the easy
road and "break
down the steps and movements"
into nasty little pills for you to swallow…
"He who wishes to teach us a truth should not tell it to
us, but simply suggest it with a brief gesture, a gesture, which
starts an ideal trajectory in the air along which we glide until
we find ourselves at the feet of the new truth."--Jose Ortega
y Gasset (1883-1955)
Please don't misunderstand me though: All teachers, even the "Dance-along
Cassidys", occasionally have to stop and disassemble steps and movements
into palatable chunks for those students who are having great difficulty
learning a specific concept about dance, but who are on firm ground with
other aspects of the dance study. For those students who seem to possess
innate talents for the moving arts, the "breaking down" process
is a tedious and most rigid way in which to learn. Though it is satisfying
to beginning students, it is rarely, if ever, that the said step or movement
is then carried out with any real ease, or with the casual quality of
the movements as they would be performed in the Middle East. Dance instruction
given by the "Break-down" method produces a "quick fix"
type of dancer who then believes that she knows the one exact way movements
must be done. A rigidly precise quality is ensconced in her dance from
a time early in her career that is difficult to rid from her repertoire
as she develops into a real Middle Eastern style performer. Often, I
find when coaching dancers from various teachers, that the dancer is
fine until she tries to innovate; then she is at a complete loss because
she lacks the understanding of what techniques of balance, line, and
body language have to do with the melding of movement and music.
"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative
expression and knowledge."
--Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
If a teacher chooses to teach primarily by the "Explanatory Method",
then she must also decide whether she will be teaching mostly "transitions", "limited
choreographies", or "full choreographies". These are the
easiest methods of instructing because one need only invent a series of
appropriate steps and/or movements that the students then practice repeatedly
during lesson time while the teacher moves about making suggestions and
corrections. The instructor has the distinct advantage of creating this
construction beforehand, privately, so that her own mistakes and dance
weaknesses do not appear when she is actually working with her students
in class. While preset limited choreographies and teaching complex series
of transitions does "work" for many students, the method is
a colossal waste of class time for any student who has access to a practice
space at home and who has any incentive or initiative toward improving
her dance. Yet, I have to admit that group lessons can hardly accommodate
such students anyway. Also, I would have to acknowledge that many "Belly
dance" students are more in search of social interaction than in
the art of performance.
"I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get
knowledge…..When I have presented one corner of a subject to anyone,
and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson." --Confucius
(551-479 B. C.)
Although we cannot, and should not, make the performing art of Danse
Orientale into a science, there are basic concepts in its content just
as there are related and basic concepts in other forms of performance
arts. A few of these are:
- Use of balance, line, and space.
- Audience management: projection, energy recycling, personality and
- Stagecraft: lighting, fitting movements to the area.
- Production: Choosing appropriate music, costuming, stage maquillage.
- Musical interpretation and movement technique.
- Dramatic sense, gestures, and body language.
- Cultural considerations.
This list is not meant to be all-inclusive but to illustrate what I
mean when I state that a great teacher highlights the concepts which form
and guide the movements rather than focusing on merely accomplishing and
repeating the actual individual folk steps involved. The truth of Middle
Eastern dance is that its movements and precise skills of rhythm are relatively
easy to convey. It is the detail and relaxed attitude that is difficult
For decades, My primary instructor, Bert Balladine, of Northern California,
has appeared to be a continuing master of the "transition" style
of teaching. However, while Bert showed us the series of transitions
that he casually laid out for us in each class, he was actually teaching
by an "Experience and Inspiration" method. While he taught,
he spoke incessantly of show business topics and told us stories and anecdotes
making us laugh and chuckle. In truth, he was more of a lecturer than
one might perceive in a brief class encounter, which appeared to be mastery
of simple transitions from one movement to another.
The true content of his lessons that I experienced was in his amusing
lectures and in the corrections that he made while the group pranced around
in circles repeating the series of dance steps he had set to music (often
played on a non-stop loop). While I learned in this method for the most
part, I also noticed that a majority of students did not listen very well. They
simply enjoyed the transitional series part of the dance lessons and did
not produce a very extraordinary dance when all the dust on the dance
floor had settled.
I realized, then, that some students could take lessons for a thousand
years and never become much more than skilled practitioners. However,
those who listened and were inspired to create and innovate, to express
passion and emotion, far surpassed their contemporaries taught by other
"Good teaching is one forth preparation and three-fourths
theater." --Gail Godwin (1937-)
Bert taught us to be theatrical and taught us that dance was a performance
art which could, by the way, be quite personal and therapeutic for those
who did not wish take it to the performance level.
"Follow the Way, not the teacher of the
instructor has to rely on those skills he has best mastered. I found that
I could not instruct in my teacher's method for several reasons. Mostly,
it was because I did not have the long dance/theater experience that he
had had. Instead, I brought to the table my teaching background and my
graphic arts training, along with my musical training from my childhood.
I have adopted the method of teaching dance concepts through introducing
a new step or movement while dancing simple steps and movements with
my students and interweaving the new addition. While we move together,
I explain how to access the new thing from a variety of the old, more
familiar movements. Often, I ask the student to dance sparely and I request
that she try introducing the new items on her own while I observe and
make corrections. It is most difficult for some students to dance solo
in front of me; however, soloing "separates the men from the boys"!
As I have written many times before, "One must be willing to chance
performing badly before it is possible become an outstanding and experienced
performer." In the process of dancing freely, yet in unison, in
"Follow Me" style the student learns on an intuitive level,
where and how to make changes, where to repeat patterns, when to expand
dance space and when to contract it, how to acknowledge the ornate details
within music rather than merely applying a simplistic response to the
percussion. In Arabic they say "Keeda ho!" meaning, "Do
it like this!" I insist that my students maintain a dance notebook,
and I provide class time for writing in it, and I help them to write
their notes accurately. My main reasons for doing this during class
time is that I believe that it is the strongest way that I can bring
students to recognize and record the basic concepts of dance and families
of movements that I have presented. Each person learns differently and
some are not able to retain ideas until they have committed them to the
"Within the tablets of thy mind write this that I have said
to thee." --Sophocles (496?-406 B. C.)
So, on the one hand, we dance along, side by side, incorporating New
steps, highlighting families of steps and movements. On the other, we
keep the ideas of choreographic sense simple by grouping them and recognizing
their characteristics and origins both similar and dissimilar. Also, the
notebooks help me to keep track of the many students who are moving along
their own individual developmental paths. A teacher can keep a more reasonable
idea of the exact status of her dance students while dancing along with
them because she can more often push them into more advanced subjects
or concepts than one might logically anticipate that they are ready to
address. Often the progress of a student is uneven, and even illogical,
because of personal life experiences,
former dance and musical experiences. A teacher who is bound and determined
to present dance subjects in a premeditated, orderly sequence is due
for some great frustrations, disappointments, and unwanted surprises. A
student learns what she is ready to learn and often does not perceive
that you have even presented the subject unless you specifically draw
her attention to it while recording it in the notebook. Sources of information
are readily forgotten though!
"Men must be taught as if you taught them not; And Things
unknown propos'd as Things forgot."--Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
Development of style is an illusive thing. The greatest gift you give
your dance students is insight into your own dance and the way in which
it comes together with the music.
From that point onward, it is hoped that new dancers will be enabled
to create their own dance by observing how you have created yours. You
have taught them to rank both movements and steps in families so that
dancers can access whatever the music or the moment needs from memory
and an underlying aesthetic of movement category. Rather than make a
dance choreography and hand it over, like so many eggs in a basket, you
must teach them a method for analyzing the music. You teach them to
apply various choices, and construct dance from a free thinking or emotional
point of view rather than limiting them with the rigors of logical exactitude.
"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery." -Mark
Van Doren (1894-1972)
Sometimes what seems so simple and even spontaneous is anything but! If
you have criticized instructors because they do not hand you pre-written
notes and choreographic notations that have been constructed in advance
of the class, you are barking up the wrong creative tree. Your process
for creativity will amount to nothing special if you have not addressed
the adventure with your own ideas and talents. A poetry teacher, for
example, teaches you a form. You supply the words and images, creating
your poem, by the teacher's inspiration. It is my hope then, that if in
the process of taking dance lessons from any workshop instructor, or a
new personal coach, that you will attempt to see beyond the obvious and
try to discover what values the teacher actually is attempting to deliver
by whatever her chosen means.
Ready for more?
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