Gilded Serpent presents...

Letting Go of the Towline:

Boat full O students

Surviving Dance Conflict!

by Najia Marlyz
posted August 25, 2010

Repeatedly, I have seen instructors and troupe leaders become involved in the worst of in-house arguments and social battles that would be, for the most part, easily avoidable if the instructors would just learn to let go of the notion that they are in control when, in fact, it is the chemistry between students that is pulling them off course. 

It is terribly seductive to become entangled in the vortex of hear-say and innuendo between dance students who many times have come into the world of dance—not so much for its artistic expression but for its therapeutic effects. 

If you assemble into a class or a troupe, an assortment of dancers who have come to the dance world for diverse reasons—many of them dysfunctional personal reasons—you (as an instructor) are destined to deal with emotions and reasoning that is far outside of your limited personal and dance oriented understanding.  What a frightening thought!

In the teaching role, wise instructors try to “set the dancer free” to create on her own merits, but conflict among your students can feel like you (as instructor and leader) are being towed like a water skier behind a wild speedboat commandeered by members of your battling student clientele.  You need to learn when to let go of that towline and get back in control of the boat!

In my role as a dance instructor, I have had to learn that sometimes you have to know not only when to let go of the towline but how to let of it go without guilt in order to cut your losses (or maintain your personal reputation and dignity). It is easy; just let go of the tow-rope! You already know you must resist being involved in studio or troupe squabbles—but there are times in your teaching career when you become inadvertently a party to a student drama because you are kind, you believe you are responsible and that your intervention can avert further trouble.  Even a kind word of sympathy can sometimes seal your doom; it would be so much simpler to not listen to the tale of discontent in the first place, but that is not always possible.

However, as soon as you realize you are water skiing rather than steering the boat, let go! Sure, you will fall and everyone may laugh, but you will be able to recover with more dignity than a long session of out-of-control balancing maneuvers.

Najia says stop!My own mentor and friend, the late Bert Balladine, often laughingly accused me of doing stand-up therapy while I thought I was simply teaching dance.  “Stand-up Therapist” is a title that I might even accept (in some circumstances) because I believe in the self-healing powers of dance and because I know that the healing is by and for the self.  However, obviously, I am not a qualified therapist for anyone but myself, and sometimes I wonder about that! 

Still, even though our dance puts us into contact with beloved friends and creative people who bring us continual joy and renewal, Belly dance is also a powerful magnet for some people with serious mental and emotional problems beyond the scope of dance. 

The looming pitfall occurs when dance instructors and troupe directors, some of whom are natural healers and self-help facilitators, bite off more than they can politely chew, and start to think that they are responsible to support and accept every disruptive, rude dance student who happens along.  I came close to being swept in to some of those situations from time to time during my long teaching career in Belly dance.  During the decade when my first dance studio in Albany, California, was open to the public in the ‘70s, initially I felt responsible to encourage and accept all comers.  I accepted even the truly manic/depressive person, who had to be accompanied everywhere by her younger sister to keep her out of serious trouble, as well as a couple of suicide-prone ladies who silently screamed for help to anyone who would take the time to listen on the street corner after class.

The seduction is that the manifestations of emotional disturbances are complex as well as interesting, and those who, at first, may seem to be a merely intriguing (yet overzealous) student, begins to emerge as a nagging problem in a weekly or biweekly assembly of students. The phenomenon is known to teachers as “the chemistry between the students”.  Placement of blame or guilt on others who are perceived to be blocking one’s own recognition for progress, or accusations of jealousy on the part of those who are attempting to help, are an important tipoff to the existence of serious problems. If a student is motivated enough to enter the world of dance, learn and perform it, then it only stands to reason that when not receiving the expected recognition, he or she may become fiercely competitive and disruptive in order to make something happen. Furthermore, emotional problems may exist in one or perhaps, several of the people involved. 

Additionally, unwarranted but forceful claims of being gifted in dance or having unrecognized special qualities can be a warning flag, and the instructor should be wary of the many manipulative ways that students may struggle for personal recognition.

Even small amounts of personal recognition can be a driving and compelling force to students who have something missing in their lives at home! It behooves the dance teacher to infuse her classes with many small moments of quiet, personal (but public!) recognition for as many students as possible—even to the detriment of not making it through her lesson-plan agenda. These moments may be as simple as dancing alongside a student or a pat on the shoulder or eye contact accompanied by a facial expression. It is easy, costs the teacher nothing, and can stave off many potential interpersonal problems in the dance studio.

Those who have that "something special" or "a charismatic personality" generally don’t have to point it out to others—as long as they actually have it and know how to build their friendships from it.  Therefore, the teacher must embrace her leadership and inspiration; she must rely upon her own charisma to manifest itself at some appropriate time.  Then, by the mysterious process of even-handed leadership, she can inspire others to trust that their own “special little light” will be recognized by its own merit without unnecessary struggle between personalities. Even those dancers who are buoyed up by the drama of conflict will generally become more stable in the studio or workshop classroom.

Somehow, the Universe has protected me from anything except favorable encounters with a few unfortunate people who became involved with the world of dance mainly to search for solace or healing. My mentor and dance partner during the 1970s, Bert Balladine, eased my conscience by just placing it all into perspective for me with a few words: 

He said, "Your responsibility is only to show your support by accepting your student’s behavior, but you must let go of that situation if it begins to interfere with your ability to be sensitive to the needs of your other students or your fellow dancers and teachers."

What a release his words were for me!  I realized in an instant, what the implications of his statement were for me.  It meant that I would recognize exactly when to let go of my towline. Any connection in dance can be severed at will; I do not have to sacrifice my own well-being nor that of my students in order to provide the disturbed or dysfunctional dancer with an arena in which to display negative behavior at the expense of others–no matter how "mature and grounded" those others may seem at the time! We dancers are not bound by the edict, “The customer is always right.” Our clients should not be considered customers in the way that merchants have customers. I prefer to see them as clients (rather than apprentices or pupils) and want to give them the respect that they deserve for having chosen me as a role model, mentor, or coach.

We dance instructors can believe in the lovely magical healing qualities of music, dance, and related arts without anointing ourselves with the title "Therapist in Residence”.  Think about it: do you know when and how to let go of your towline?


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