Gilded Serpent presents...

The Dance Teacher

many arms doing many things

By Divine Design or Default?

by Najia Marlyz
posted June 19, 2008

No doubt you have heard the old saying; perhaps you have even spoken or written some version of it yourself:
"Those who can dance, do, and those who can’t, teach!"

Facing Reality
Usually old proverbs contain trite but indisputable wisdom, but in the case of dance, especially Bellydance, it seems that the old adage isn’t always true.  Dancers need a certain charismatic personality and those dancers who teach need charisma too, perhaps even more of it! Personal charisma is elemental to the teaching process, but all teachers do not fit all students just because they are charismatic and need to earn a living. Hobby dancers who have seldom soloed or never performed professionally need to disclose that information to their would-be dance students before accepting their new enrollments, simply because student dancers mirrorhave a wide variety of goals; they have no success in creating a good learning relationship with a particular teacher who is not oriented to that same specific goal.  We all have perceptions that differ from reality and the way in which the world sees us. The dance teacher needs to “fit” the goal expectations of the prospective student and the realities possible for each student.

Aging:The Inevitable Problem
Occasionally, by whatever miracle, the most beautiful dancers also turn out to be good teachers! However, just like everyone else—including the incredible and fit movie stars in Hollywood—we humans age—eventually becoming elderly (but only if fortunate in health issues).  An aged dancer finds the stage, as well as those memorable performances that once seemed a breeze and delight to dance upon it, are no longer a joy but become a struggle of personal willpower, trying only to stay within reasonable range of her own top form. In a very real sense, sadly, the older dancer often finds that the youthful version of herself becomes her most difficult competitor…  However relentless rehearsals may be, time is even more relentless, and none of us is able, in the end, to deny the clock its due toll.

It often seems to me that just as the dancer attains all that she needs (and aspires to be) as a performer, the time clock easily and inevitably punches her out!

Then, what can she do about her “aging dilemma”—teach? Is the close of one’s active stage career in dance, naturally to become a dance teacher by default? Where’s the proper motivation?

Pretty Is As Pretty Does
Additionally, the most talented dancer, even though she may have costumed herself in a sparkling designer bedlah straight from the Internet and may appear to have been naturally blessed with a finely sculptured face and figure, even the addition of many hours of Pilates might only turn her into a most ordinary, uninspired, and wrongly motivated teacher. Like some dancers who appear to be dancing for all the wrong reasons, (i.e. competition to show someone else a thing or two, upstage others, or perhaps looking sexy to one’s “old man”) some dancers have become dance teachers for all the wrong reasons.

“What would be a “wrong motive” for a beginning teacher?” one might wonder. Motives that might seems dubious span the distance between:

  • Needing to earn more money,
  • Indulging in one’s own self-importance,
  • Discovering that there is no other dancer available to teach anywhere in the nearby area,
  • Needing to create a bloated resume by adding “instructor” to one’s list of accomplishments, or perhaps,
  • Gaining power over others by the authority of becoming their leader and teacher.

It is not enough to know how to do something well yourself to be able to teach it with joy, creativity, and dedication.

Letting Go
letting goIn most performance fields, accomplished artisans wait to teach until they, for whatever reason, are no longer stage-worthy for one reason or another. However, that may also carry with it an additional problem: an aged dancer may find it difficult or nearly impossible (due to ill health or general bodily decline) to demonstrate where and how the student has made an error and/or how to correct it. That instructor had better have a firm grip on the descriptive language of imagery to carry on with her job!  Yet, a gorgeous, youthful and accomplished dancer filled with energy may prove to be a poor verbal communicator, and she may be unreliable toward her teaching responsibilities without an agent or coach to prod her into action on behalf of her students.  Often young teachers find themselves torn between the need to travel, to be available for performances, and the need to be both present and available to groom her students.  Sometimes the life of a professional performer may be deficient in a fundamental understanding of how go about the magical process of teaching; she may not have the type of personality required to relinquish the reins of control over a dancer who has been her student for many years—once that dancer is ready to proceed on her own.

Doling Out the Information
Occasionally, one can listen to dance teachers discuss the rigors of juggling their teaching schedules and responsibilities for their students, and everyone who is listening becomes aware that the instructor who is speaking has been withholding important information from students or only from certain students. Of course, the motive behind withholding complete information is to ensure that the instructor will not create personal competitors in either dancing or teaching, which is privately referred to as “creating one’s own monsters”. Instructors who are still aggressively engaged in performing are sometimes tempted to keep just a few of their little secrets of success hidden in the back pocket of their vanity cases.

However, performers who feel compelled by circumstances to become instructors (as well as performers at the same time) should fear more than our newly created, competitive, self-produced monsters!  Fear the innate shortness of the viable dance career—as you shorten it even further by teaching many students, clamoring for the few gigs available. Then begin teaching too soon because there just aren’t that many dance gigs around that can support all the newly created dancers in their own dance careers. Competition can be quite fierce and ruthless.

What an extraordinary teacher must have (above everything else, including youthful health) is a certain "joie de vivre", as well as confidence, belief, and an unbounded joy in the subject he or she is passing along to others. Additionally, it wouldn’t hurt to have a sublime sense of the ridiculous! There is a certain mystique in training the physical body, while at the same time one strives to understand the human spirit through dance. Beyond all our ideals, a teacher must possess a willing heart for the sharing of his most cherished knowledge in his field of expertise.

Doing It All: the Renaissance Career
Other factors may also enter into the career choice for today’s Oriental dancers: nearly everywhere, dancers in this particular form seem to have found it necessary to “do it all” in order to earn a living by dance career alone.  “Doing it all” appears to mean becoming the consumate Renaissance dancer, whether woman or man; it implies:

  • Dancing,
  • Teaching,
  • Choreographing dances for herself,
  • Choreographing for other dancers,
  • Costuming,
  • Vending,
  • Leading a troupe,
  • Writing books and articles,
  • Self-promotion and designing advertisements, —as well as
  • Operating a talent agency that farms out dancers for hire, and
  • Becoming an organizer/producer of events and festivals.

Lately, it appears that many newer dancers who have grown up using computer skills, also engage in forums and websites as a further means to earn a living through anything associated with Belly dance—even fusing it with gymnastics, calling it something like “Belly Gym” or other catchy and clever titles.  Some may even aggressively push themselves into opening a restaurant with a Middle Eastern name or theme in order to star her troupe dancers and students (or even herself) in order to stretch her waning career. I can think of no other field of performance that lends itself so well to this sort of “Renaissance person”.

Understanding How Others Learn
In addition to openness and inner joy, an extraordinary and outstanding teacher must be aware that most students are capable of learning by a number of different methods. Perhaps one method or another will work more successfully than another for a specific student; so a teacher needs to understand each learning style (at least a little) so he can redirect a student who has not yet located the teacher best suited to his style of learning.

  • Many dancers learn best by verbal analysis, counting the number of movements to the beat, repetition, or trial and error with short, or sometimes complex, transitions from one movement to another.
  • A few dance students request that movements be dismantled (“broken down”), and excruciatingly analyzed—both mechanically and verbally.
  • Some learners fear any sort of improvisational dance, preferring the relative safety of choreography and being told exactly what to do as well as how (and when) to do it by an expert.
  • Other students learn more easily using the instruction method that is often maligned by simply dubbing it "Please Follow my Lead" (minimal description with maximum demonstration while both students and teacher dance consecutively or in unison). Contrary to what that image might conjure, it is not easy to prepare for this type of teaching, nor is it easy to repeat it lesson after repetitive lesson. However, learning dance beside a moving example can be one of the most potent forms of instruction!  (Please note that this method induces kinesthetic memory, which involves the sensation and memory of the feeling of movements.)
  • Most students gain understanding of movement if they are guided by abstract concepts of dance that group them into families. Students and teachers can discuss them, then demonstrate and try them in the classroom setting.

Choreography vs. Spontaneous Interpretive Dance
Modern day dancers sometimes feel unskilled at relating one dance movement to another on their own, and they would prefer to learn their teacher’s choreographies so that they may perform them flawlessly (if detached from the music and the moment), insuring a constant quality (even if somewhat mediocre). However skillful, all this can produce is a poor and second-rate copy of the original. Unfortunately for the proponents of spontaneity and dancing in the moment, there are some students who do not recognize just how beautifully demanding the art of dancing in the moment is! This type of dancing is far from freeform and demands a tight rein on technique. Therefore, newly sprouted spontaneous dancers might imagine themselves free to cavort aimlessly in a swill of self-indulgence and self-discovery, expecting that hungry audiences will automatically become as enthralled as they are with their egotistical convulsions.  Audiences, out of politeness will applaud them none-the-less, and they will believe they are a grand success at improvisation even though, backstage, their disappointed teachers may cringe with embarrassment.

Well, “You can lead a horse to water…” No matter what a highly talented dance teacher one becomes, a teacher has very little control concerning those who may enroll and who may earnestly attempt to learn, and she has even less control over the career choices made by her students and former students.

Not everyone who wants to dance can be (or ought to be) trained to become a professional performer.

Avoiding The Road to Failure
pylonIn my opinion, it is not sufficient to rely solely on any one of the possible teaching approaches that I have listed here.  To be accomplished at teaching by only one instructional method may create the impression that there is "something wrong" with the student rather than the teacher.  It is quite possible that an instructor will not be aware of any deficiency on his/her part because there will always be some percentage of students with whom he may be successful, creating the erroneous self-impression that he is actually a competent instructor when he/she is not.  Needlessly, too many students become failures through not matching their proclivities in method of best and easiest learning to those of the teacher’s preferred instructional method.  They simply have chosen the wrong teacher!

Unfortunately, too often the student will take difficulties in learning to heart, and subsequently, she believes that she has no talent or that she is somehow a dunderhead when it comes to learning to dance.  This student, rather than searching for a new teacher with a different teaching method or “style”, simply falls by the wayside, not only for Oriental dance, but also for all other forms of dance, too, because she wrongly concludes that she has no talent for this sort of activity.

Making It “Your Own”
Once new dancers have “made the dance their own” by personalizing it (not merely copying the style of their teacher or the style and quirks of some other dance star they adore) they will embark on a fantasy filled adventure in dance. We performers who now teach can only hope that they will still remember the teacher who showed them that it was possible to stretch beyond the ordinary.

Blessedly, there are some dance instructors everywhere who understand and mix all the methods of teaching I have mentioned here.  Additionally, many go out of their way to encourage their students to utilize their own private resources, study what other teachers have to offer, filter, choose, and incorporate into their dance all of the steps, movements, and technique attributes that make personal sense to them. These are the teachers with a calling, not merely teachers by default, in need of the Renaissance dance career.

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