Gilded Serpent presents...

Thoughts on Teaching Belly Dance

Responsibility, Flexibility, Experience, Knowledge, Leadership and More


by Princess Farhana
posted April 19, 2013

Teaching belly dance can be extremely fulfilling and enjoyable. It’s lots of fun, and rewarding for the instructor and students alike.  There’s nothing quite like the joy that comes from helping women to discover themselves through a creative art that encourages self-expression.  Watching your students starting out as awkward newbies and blossoming into beautiful, self-assured dancers is incredible.  By the very act of teaching, you’ll be enhancing the artistic development of your students, and will become a better dancer yourself, because you’ll have to consider movement and technique breakdowns such as isolations and shimmy mechanics.  You’ll be forced to drill along with your students, keep track of posture and body alignment, and invent combinations- all of which can only lead to cleaner technique for you.  Teaching will also supplement your income…or as the case may be, feed your belly dance addiction!

Unfortunately, in the belly dance community, perhaps more than in any other dance form, there will always be instructors who have absolutely no business teaching…at all.  The  “six week wonders”- women who’ve taken an introductory course and then set up shop as a qualified instructor – have been a problem for decades.  The saddest part of this phenomenon is that beginning students will not know the difference and may be taking classes from someone who knows nothing about safe posture and basic technique, let alone the cultural aspects of the dance.

Teaching is a huge responsibility.

In order to be a competent instructor, it’s imperative that you have experience, the ability to break down movements verbally as well as physically, and to have at least a basic working knowledge of what muscle groups are being used and how to describe where each specific movement is originating from.  You need to have more than just a passing familiarity with whatever style of belly dance you are teaching; you’ve got to know the signature moves of the style, where it came from, and so on.  In laymans terms, you need to know your stuff.

There are many ways to start a teaching career and each one is as valid as any of the rest.  Every so often, it just sort of happens, the way it did to me. Many years ago, I hadn’t even considered teaching, but I kept getting requests from friends and other dancers.  I started holding informal Saturday morning classes – in my sister’s living room!  My classes were getting crowded, and, with other interferences such as my four-year-old niece running in and out of the room and wrapping herself up in everyone’s veils; it quickly became apparent that I needed to move to a real studio!

Often a local teacher will move or retire, and designate a star student to take her place as the instructor; some dancers start off substitute teachers at their dance studio, or apprenticing themselves to an instructor there before beginning their own classes.  Many prospective teachers decide to get certified by master teacher or a dance school in a unique format or style of belly dance, while others come to teaching in a more organic way, developing on their own.  Any way is fine, it just depends on what you’re teaching and where.  Whether you choose to be certified or not, it goes without question you’ll need a broad understanding of the dance in it’s myriad forms and knowledge of your local scene as well as the world-wide belly dance community.  You should have been learning from a variety of teachers and workshop instructors, and broadened your horizons by attending several festivals and events.

An experienced performer might be a superlative dancer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll be a good teacher.

Performing skills and a flourishing career can be a definite plus for a dance instructor but they don’t guarantee that she will have what it takes to be a good coach.  Teaching is an art form and some people are blessed with a natural gift for teaching.  Several dancers teach but prefer performing, some do both equally well and enjoy it all, and there are also those who don’t care for it and don’t have the patience or personality needed to become a great instructor.

As a teacher, you’ll be facing a myriad of students, all with different needs, a wide range of physical abilities and talent, and a bunch of reasons for even considering the study of belly dancing.  Some women decide to take classes for amusement; others are seriously trained dancers who want to develop their skills.  You need to be able to discern the needs of your students and treat them as individuals.

After I was teaching for a while, I noticed that it seemed like I had an awful lot of students who were coming to me from some sort of traumatic situation such as a divorce, a mastectomy, an eating disorder, miscarriage, or just a plain old midlife crisis.  I wondered what was up with that but when I discussed this phenomenon with other teachers, I found that it wasn’t uncommon.  My friend Suhaila Salimpour told me something to the effect of  “When I see women coming into my classes, I know it means they are ready for a major change or transition.” This is not to say that you’ll be holding classes in The Land Of The Broken Toys, but you’ll probably find that many of your students do have a back-story that isn’t necessarily all about fun or experiencing a new adventure.  That means that in addition to technical skills, as a teacher you’ll need to hone your emotional intelligence, and be able to zero in with the skill of trained psychologist to ascertain what makes your students “tick”.

There is no one type of student.

Some work diligently, progress quickly and start performing, while others are just taking the class to lose weight or have fun.  Certain students desire corrections, critique and brutally honest assessment, but to others, this may seem humiliating.  Then there are students who will chatter incessantly, question every word you say, and act out in other ways disturbing to the class as a whole.  You’ll need to be able to command a class without seeming like a tyrant, keeping the atmosphere light and fun, but educational.  This takes a lot of finesse and sensitivity.

Whether you’re teaching already or just thinking about it, here are some points to consider:

  • Student Safety Comes First
    It’s crucial that you practice and teach safe posture and thorough warm-ups and cool downs.  You can never be too careful about this anyway, but once you throw students into the mix, you are now responsible for the well being of others.  Ask your students point blank if they are currently dealing with any injuries or infirmities that you should be aware of.  Let them know that it’s all right to speak up if they have health issues or if a movement feels strange or is hurting them, and that it’s fine for them to take a breather if they feel the need to.  Remind them to stay well hydrated.

    If you think you may be lacking in the area of health and safety, general anatomy and biomechanics, then by all means, before you start teaching you must familiarize yourself (at the very least in a broader sense) through taking fitness classes and adjunct course, and also by reading as much as you can on these subjects.  While you are teaching, pay strict attention to the body alignment and posture of your pupils, focusing on areas that are prone to injury, especially the spine, hip joints and knees.  Correct your students and remind them often.

    Begin your warm up with large, soft movements that articulate every area of the body, before continuing into some lightly aerobic dancing, lifting the arms above chest level before beginning to stretch. Stretching cold muscles can cause injury. It was once believed that stretching was the way to warm up, but that theory is outdated…and dangerous.  Once your students are warmed up, they can begin to stretch.  Have them hold a comfortable stretch without straining, and do not allow them to bounce.  A class cool down is important for injury prevention as well.  Always allow a few minutes for a thorough cool-down at the end of class.

    Be sure that the studio where you are teaching has insurance and a first aid kit.  You may also want to look into taking first aid or CPR classes and obtain teaching insurance as well.  There are many companies that offer insurance specifically for dance and fitness instructors.

  • The Responsibility Of Knowledge-
    As a teacher, it’s your job to shape your students into well-rounded dancers.  This is a responsibility that should never be taken lightly. Not only will your students reflect upon you, but also you’re assuring the future of our beautiful art form!  It doesn’t matter what style you’re teaching – you have to know fundamental belly dance history.  Students are curious and will have many questions; they’ll wonder about rhythms, costuming, cultural traditions and the countries they came from, when to play finger cymbals, song titles, famous dancers of the past and present- and you need to know the answers. If a question stumps you, admit you don’t know the answer, but do have research materials on hand or refer the student to someone who does know.

  • Focused Teaching Means Better Learning-
    Write out your lesson plans well in advance so you can have your students work towards goals.  Plot out exactly what topics you’ll be going over in each class, so your sessions will have a good flow.  Make notes on any combinations or choreographies you’ll be using and refer to them in class if you need to.  Create class CDs or an iPod play list so you don’t have to waste time fumbling through your music to find the appropriate track.

    Know that even if you’re teaching a beginning class, your students will have a wide array of abilities. In any class, there are those with natural talent or prior training, and those who will need to work harder to get up to speed. It’s absolutely vital that you be prepared for this.

    It’s important to know that there are three basic types of dance students. Auditory learners need to hear the movements, rhythms and counts described verbally.  Visual learners must have sight references and like to see the technique before absorbing it.  Kinesthetic learners absorb the movements physically, benefiting from a literal hand-on approach.  Be sure to ask a student if it’s OK to touch them before you do.

    Many students are a combination of all three types, so it’s wise to integrate your teaching with visual, auditory and kinetic techniques.

    Don’t be afraid of boring the class with drilling; repetition helps students retain what they’re learning by engaging muscle memory.  Make sure to demonstrate any movements or combinations by facing towards the class, away from the class and offering a side view.  Keep an eye on your pupils, checking frequently for posture, body alignment, weight placement, and incorrect or unsafe technique.  Don’t single anyone out but offer corrections in a generalized way.  Have the class perform technique and combinations facing towards and away from the mirrors.  Experiment with spatial orientation and add variety to your classes by forming lines, making a circle, dividing the class into groups and having them perform for each other.

  • Foster A Structured Learning Environment-
    Having a set pattern for your classes will aid your students in efficient learning. Creating a learning environment that is fun, challenging and informative will keep your students interested and encourage them to strive for their personal best. It will also help them retain what they’re learning, because they’ll grow familiar with your methodology and know what to expect from you-and what is expected from them. How you create this framework is your decision. I like to structure my classes this way: A few minutes of gentle, full-body activity followed by stretching; technique drills, then either new movements, short combinations, a specialty or choreography, and finishing up with a cool down.

  • Teacher-Student Relationships
    Keep your interactions with students relaxed and pleasant; building a learning environment that is fun, challenging and informative.  Create an atmosphere of respect, for the dance itself, from student-to-student, and for you as their leader. Sometimes students get excited and like to chat with each other, ask questions and make comments; allowing for a little of this is fine, just don’t let the class run away with itself!  Through compliments and positive reinforcement, encourage your pupils to focus on the curriculum instead of socializing.  Provide positive feedback and keep your critique constructive and gentle.  Notice the personal qualities students have to offer, help them feel good about their unique development and progress.  Have them strive for excellence without creating an atmosphere of competition.  Try not to play favorites; there will always be a few star students, but those who don’t shine as brightly or who are more reticent need your love, too.  While some of your students may be your personal friends outside of the studio, during class, maintain a slightly removed but open and friendly professional distance…you are, after all, the educator. Cultivate your leadership by being a role model.

    Every so often, you might be faced with a problem student.  This can take many faces, including (but not limited to) know-it-alls who’ll always have a “better” explanation than you do and take it upon themselves to offer correction to other class members; the ultra-needy types who constantly hog your attention, extremely competitive or aggressive pupils, or those who use precious class time for gossiping, joking and fooling around.  Don’t let anyone usurp your authority; nip these behaviors in the bud as soon as they starts, or it will be a continuing problem.  In some cases, a light admonishment in class will do the trick; otherwise a private talk before or after class is in order.  If the problem child continues to turn your classroom dysfunctional, sadly, sometimes the only option will be to ban the student and offer her a refund.

  • Establish Goals and Create Opportunities
    There are many ways to get students enthused about learning to dance and becoming a member of the local dance community.  Establishing goals early on will give your students something to strive for.  Students always respond well to this and delight in measuring their personal successes and accomplishments. Compile a class mailing list and send out newsletters letting your students know about belly dance performances and events happening in your area.  Have a video night where students can watch clips of famous dancers or dance-related movies; hold a halfla or dance party in your studio where everyone can dance and mingle.  If your students are ready, you might want to form a student troupe that also holds rehearsals outside of class, with the goal being to perform.

    Don’t be jealous or a separatist – know that your students will only benefit from learning from a variety of teachers.  A great teacher is a generous teacher.  Invite guest instructors or lecturers to teach workshops or talk about specialized styles. Network with other studios, dance schools or instructors within your community or recommend that your students explore taking classes from others, whether belly dance or some other form of dancing.

  • The Teacher Needs Homework, Too
    The most important thing you can offer your students is knowledge. It’s your duty to keep abreast of what’s going on in the Middle Eastern dance community, whether locally, nationally or globallyContinued study and research on your end will only make you a better teacher so don’t be afraid to attend workshops side-by-side with your students.  Subscribe to belly dance trade publications, join Internet forums, seek out other instructors with specialties and learn from them, do research on line or at the library.

    Set an example for your students by showing them that learning is a never-ending process!

This is an excerpt from Princess Farhana’s forthcoming book, “The Belly Dance Handbook”. Look for it in Summer of 2013

Princess Farhana's workshop where?
Majma Festival in Glastonbury , UK March 2013
Event producer- Raheesha
Help with names is always appreciated!
back row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
front row sitting: 1, 2, 3-Princess Farhana, 4, 5

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  1. Amy Harway

    Apr 19, 2013 - 09:04:22

    When I put my hands to my forehead for my teachers, I think of you, o mighty Princess. Thanks for the kick in the butt. I needed this so much. I loves you!

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