The Gilded Serpent

ad 4 Najia

Why Take Private Lessons and Coaching?

by Najia El Mouzayen

Changing the teaching format to Private Lessons
Twenty years ago I abruptly changed my teaching format to private lessons only. I have been conducting daily private lessons in my home studio almost exclusively ever since. The change in my teaching format that year was a very difficult adjustment for me to make because I had spent, literally, the previous decade developing my studio geared toward group dance instruction and my clientele likewise.

Loosing my base group clientele and closing my "main street" dance studio seemed such a frightening loss for my ego!

Time often changes our circumstances, and I found that the relatively poor financial rewards involved in studio ownership sobered my burgeoning ego. Owning one's own studio, having access to the "perfect" class time slots, and having control over conditions in the dance space are such seductive goals! However, reality had me by the pockets, and I was forced into a position of making my dance efforts profit in actual "fahlooz" (money in Egyptian Arabic) without compromising my clientele. I had barely hit my stride as a dancer and dance teacher and to leave the field and step back into teaching Readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic was too much of a personal affront to my dance achievements. (I was---too glamorous for my good! …tra-la-la-la… Too glamorous for an abortive career!) So I set about creating a home-based studio, rebuilding my dance clientele, and learning my new method of private (one-on-one) instruction.

New Students
For ten years, I had sold prospective students on the idea of how "fun" it was to get together with like-minded people and study dancing in a group. Group lessons are inexpensive, competition between students could "light one's fire", and group lessons are almost devoid of any personal responsibility for the dance student.

Conversely, private lessons are a "hard sell!" At first sight, private lessons seem extravagant, self-important, and a bit scary.

New students are reluctant to commit substantial money to a new and unfamiliar undertaking when they know they may soon find that they have no talent for it or that it might not be as fun or meaningful as they had imagined. In my own defense, however, one may more quickly discover this in one or two private lessons than completing a full six, eight, or ten week recreational group course in which non-refundable advance payment has been required. In addition, there are obstacles that must be overcome before enrolling in private lessons that are the same as exist for group lessons: namely, easy access, a convenient time, and cost.

The Interview
I have found that if I can quickly help the prospective student to focus on values other than those three daunting obstacles of access, convenience, and cost, I can very often win them as a student. It has become so easy for me to accomplish this first hurdle that I have found, to my great relief, that I may now conduct a screening interview of the phone caller.

I ruthlessly but politely eliminate any voice that is "whiny," any caller who inquires if "belly dance is good for getting a flat stomach," or who mentions that she has been told to "get a good exercise work-out" (unless she adds that she has always wanted to learn to dance).

Even though exercise is a notorious excuse for taking dance lessons when one's reasons are, in reality, quite different, there are actually some inquirers who actually just want to expend calories and who would be a waste of my time, efforts, and talents.

Honoring my own Goals
I have learned that it is better, in the long run, to keep my own career goals in mind when phone inquirers sound like nice people, even knowing full well that their money may be spent as well as anyone else's! It is a matter of personal choice and defense of reputation for me to decide with whom I may want to share my knowledge of dance and the culture of the Middle East.

My experience has been hard won, and I have paid fees for it in many currencies. No amount of money would persuade me (ever again) to teach a "time waster" who is in dire need of a therapist.

In times past, when my circumstances were different, I spent many hours in the role of substitute therapist, and though I am certain that "therapist" could be an admirable and worthwhile career for others, it is not the career to which I aspire. The exclusivity of private lessons appeals to some prospective students, in lieu of therapy, more often than one might hope. I have found that it is better to steer these students into a group situation where they are controlled by the greater good of the many, and where it would be more difficult for them to personalize their contact with the dance instructor.

The Teacher/Student Relationship
With my comments in mind concerning choosing those students with whom one would like to work, it is imperative that the instructor make a personal commitment to herself to care about them without internalizing their worries and personal hardships; this is difficult to do on an ongoing basis.

Many times, students confuse personal attention with a personal friendship.

Sadly, I have been told occasionally, "You are my best friend!" when what I actually am is an advisor and mentor in dance which has become such a large and important part of the student's life that she confuses our teacher-student relationship with her personal friendships.

What are the differences between coaching and a private lesson?
At this point, I would like to explain the significant difference between private lessons and coaching. These two very different functions of a one-on-one instructor are often confused with one another.

I define private lessons as one teacher teaching one student at a time on an ongoing basis at regular intervals, while coaching, which is often intermittent or periodic, is an advanced form of instruction focusing on improvement of already existing technique.

Acting in the role of coach, some instructors are unable to divorce themselves from forcing their own particular technique upon the student, rather than concentration upon enhancing that technique which the student already possesses.

To be a good private lesson teacher, one walks a very fine line between personality, ability, advice, talent, and encouragement

. Each of these five elements is very personal, but the most personal of all is the way in which criticism is given and received. It is not until a few lessons have gone down the pike before one can really assess the probable outcome of allowing a particular student to continue in this personal situation. Private lessons are truly "studying with or studying under" somebody's tutelage. There is no "hiding" available such as darting about in the back row of a large class, just out of the instructor's line of vision so that criticism may be avoided. (So some students would like to believe.)

Closing the "circle"

Often the most exciting and rewarding of the teaching adventure, coaching is a thrill to me because it is a situation in which the "circle of learning is complete".

The circle is one in which the student often must "teach the teacher" in order to make use of the special point of view to which the teacher is privy. We cannot "see ourselves as others see us." We cannot see missed opportunity in ourselves. Coaching concentrates on individual circumstances and needs a student who is an active participant, one who is a self-starter, a self-directed and driven (motivated) individual. Most likely, students present themselves to private lesson teachers for coaching when they are "gearing up" for something special, perhaps a competition, an audition, or an important gig. At this time, students are so concentrated and dedicated that they often soak in more concepts of dance than they do at any other time in their learning process!

Advantages of Private Lessons
As important and wonderful as coaching is, I find that it is almost more important to take private lessons (even while enjoying more sociable group lessons) when one is a beginner. This is the time in which basic bad habits of movement are easily prevented, when postural corrections are still easy and when details of technique are still flexible. In a private lesson, I can explain a dance concept in several different ways until I see that I have been understood, while in a group class, repeated personal corrections are both time-consuming and often are perceived as teacher's-pet situations or worse, personal attacks.

I do not care how carefully one embroiders a criticism, when it is given in front of others; it is not the same as a criticism offered privately.

Group teachers know this instinctively and tend to say, "If you are doing thus, then the other will not be correct." However, it has been my observation, when watching inexperienced teachers instruct group classes, that indirect criticisms deflect from the offending students like laser beams bounce against the cloaking shields of intergalactic vessels. The wrong students receive the message and ruin what they had been doing correctly in the first place. Additionally, private lesson teachers can modify movement in order to accommodate physical limitations of students who do not possess perfect bodies or optimum physical abilities. There is no dance movement in Oriental dance that is so sacrosanct that it cannot be modified or interpreted.

The most compelling argument for studying with a teacher privately, however, is that in Oriental dance, the most beautiful of all techniques is in the giving and receiving of personal energy and individual essence while dancing.

Dance energy is very difficult to emote beautifully when it is applied equally or indiscriminately to all personalities and to all movements. It is so individualistic that it sets one dancer above all the rest when she is able to employ it with skill and definition. When studying dance privately, these special dance techniques involving energy can be internalized so much that the use of them becomes second nature. Though the great stars of the Middle Eastern Dance employ the same movements as each other, the stars vary widely in the manner in which they use movement to convey energy and emotion. In a private lesson, with personal comments and encouragement from a perceptive coach, a dancer is more likely to develop a dance personality of importance. Remember, though, results are never guaranteed unless there is mutual give and take beyond monetary remuneration between the teacher and pupil.

Suggestions for You
If you have been afraid to take private lessons until now, I would urge you, if a suitable teacher is available, to take the opportunity to indulge yourself in the luxuriant feeling of dance in a private lessons setting. You will enhance your presentation beyond your wildest dreams!

If you have an important dance gig ominously looming ahead, arrange for private coaching. Your audience will see and feel the difference, and you will feel yourself becoming more powerful in your presentations almost immediately.

Do not let feelings of possible disloyalty to your primary instructor hold you back from this important type of learning; it will not detract from your other instructor(s). Any instructor worth her salt will welcome enhancement of your dance ability from whatever sources. Only an unworthy instructor would censure you for wanting to add to your personal resources!

If you are an instructor of group lessons and do not have time to give private lessons and coaching to your students yourself, recommend supplementary teachers to those who do. You will be among the teachers who are known for openness and helpfulness and will find yourself as a continuing part of a loyal new dancer's beginning career.