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Ask Yasmina #13

Finding a Good Teacher, First Workshop, Non-Arab Dancers

Shark Teacher

by Yasmina Ramzy
posted July 1, 2010

Question #1: My friends and I are Belly dance students taking classes at the same school for the last few years. After some research, we’ve come to realize that we have invested much money and wasted precious time learning nothing of value while being emotionally abused during these last few years. As well, in order to learn real Belly dance, we now have to work very hard to unlearn our bad movement habits. When looking for a Belly dance teacher, how does one differentiate good teachers from bad?

Answer: I am so sorry to learn this has happened to you. Unfortunately, your story is not unique. What is most discouraging about this situation is that often the students who come to this realization end up walking away from Belly dance altogether, out of sheer disappointment. Please don’t! There are amazing teachers out there who will eventually renew your love of the dance, as well as to help boost your self-esteem. I am going to give you a list of red and green lights that will offer possible scenarios to look out for.

Red light points are indications that you should be wary, while green light points are indications that possibly your new teacher is the right one.

First and foremost, take a class or two from many teachers in your area so you can make a better informed decision. Please note that slick advertising and a good website indicate good organization and good marketing skills, not necessarily good Belly dance skills, knowledge, or even teaching skills.

The best teachers who really have something of value to offer are sometimes those that you need to chase. A good teacher does not chase you for your business.

Red LightRed Lights

  • Strong sales pitch and pressure to sign up for a full session before trying a class or two
  • Pressure to buy CDs, DVDs, hip scarves or other accessories or props
  • Compliments and promises that are somewhat unrealistic if you are honest with yourself
  • After you are signed up for a session, you start to receive more criticism than compliments
  • Teacher makes a point in class to put down other known teachers’ skills and methods
  • There is no encouragement to participate in community Belly dance events
  • Teacher does not offer comprehensive technique breakdown, nor historical and cultural context
  • Much emphasis on props and gimmicks

Green LightGreen Lights

  • Minimal sales pitch
  • Option to pay per class or very short session or try a free class
  • Honest feedback and realistic expectations offered
  • Teacher has generally positive comments concerning other Belly dance teachers
  • Teacher can answer the who, what, when, where and why for everything that is taught or at least admits that he/she does not know and thus offers avenues of research for the student to find out on their own
  • Certain standards are met before encouraging students to perform in public outside of a student event.

General Note: If a teacher tries to discourage students from studying with other teachers or attending performances outside of their own, it means they are trying to hide their students from the fact that they themselves have little to offer. This practice is criminal. There is no excuse, or forgiveness, for someone who labels himself a teacher and then deprives students of learning.

Snake Question

Sahra teaches at IBCC 2007Question #2: I have been asked to teach my first workshop event in another city. What is the best way to structure the workshop, and how do you come up with an interesting or unique or fresh workshop topic?

Answer: A unique / fresh workshop topic may be good, but also the tried and true is valuable as well. It is always good to learn the basics over again from a different teacher who has a different take and expression, maybe with a twist that is particular to your style. Each gathering of students has different needs and different desires.

The host that invited you must have an idea of why they invited you or what you offer that is unique. There is a reason why the host asked you in the first place – this is what you need to teach.

Some hosts may ask you to teach skills which are not your forte because the local students of that area are interested in those skills (often based on last workshop taught by last instructor or the latest performance fad). Sometimes students don’t know what to ask for because they are not aware of what is really out there to learn or what some teachers have to offer. You may have observed a lack of certain skills or knowledge in the particular community of students you have been asked to teach, so you may decide to teach them this gap in their learning. They may have never known they need this but are very appreciative once you have opened a new door for them.

In the end, stick to what you know best and what you ENJOY most. Your enjoyment will be contagious.

Structure will depend upon subject and timing. I am sure the host would not have asked you to teach a workshop if he/she did not know you were an experienced teacher already. As a new workshop teacher, try not to undercut as per my column #12, just as you would not want another dance artist to do to you.

Snake Question

contortionistQuestion #3: Want to hear your views on the issue of "non-Arabs" versus "Arabs" in this dance – will the Arab dancer always be viewed as better because of heritage, and can non-Arabs be just as good or better?

Answer: That is a great question and the answer is very subjective. In truth, there is no answer because it is like comparing apples and oranges. Moreover, these are two different breeds of dance artists that need to be judged by different yardsticks and within their own context. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, artists are inspired by other artists and athletes inspired by other athletes. This last point is also a general metaphor for the different approaches to Belly dance by the Arab and non-Arab Belly dancers. Farida Fahme offers a great instruction; “When you are dancing, you are telling a story. You need to decide what the artistic message is that you are conveying to your audience. Are you telling them that you are “beautiful” or that you are “clever”? (Arabs don’t have much interest in “clever.”)"

We could say that an Arab audience may be able to appreciate what the Arab dance artist has to offer more than a non-Arab audience and vice versa. However, many non-Arabs relate to the Beledi essence and love any Arab dancer more than the best non-Arab dance artist. Likewise, many Arabs can appreciate the training and effort that goes into achieving technical prowess, showbiz pizzazz and even a new innovative or Western vision of the dance form itself in which the non-Arab dance artist often excels.

Most non-Arabs who have traveled to Egypt and witnessed masters like Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, Sahar Hamdy or Dina performing live, in the flesh and blood, would be hard-pressed to think of one non-Arab dancer they would prefer to watch.

My Arab musicians and Arab friends are constantly commenting on my students and the Arabesque Dance Company dancers as to which ones have the “Arab soul” or “correct taste*”. Interestingly, it is sometimes not the students with the actual Arab blood in their veins who have it. Likewise, I have lots of Irish blood in my veins but apparently no “Irish soul”.

The illusive “Arab soul” or “correct taste” is a particular nuance. Being able to recognize it is a skill learned by observing and studying the art in the same way those who are familiar with Jazz music can recognize a good Jazz musician. Not all great Jazz musicians were born in the birthplace of Jazz but all good Jazz musicians can recognize another good Jazz musician.

If a Westerner has never been to Egypt or had the opportunity to experience the “Arab soul” or “correct taste” elsewhere, then the fascination of physical feats may be the thing that rocks their boat.

A good traditional Belly dance artist must have both the technique and the “correct taste”. One without the other is an amateur or incomplete Belly dancer, Arab or non-Arab. For me, there is nothing greater than a salt-of-the-earth Arab dance artist with technical and creative genius. But equally fascinating, is a technically adept and creative dance artist of non-Arab descent who can express the “Arab soul” or “correct taste”.

”Correct Taste” is a term usually used to describe a quality found in Middle Eastern music. When it is applied to a dance artist, it usually refers to how the dancer expresses the music they are dancing to.

“Correct Taste” is the art of knowing how to embellish the basics with an infinite variety of ways but never straying from the original feeling or taste.

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