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Gilded Serpent presents...
Enduring Open Criticism:
A Student’s Question about Feeling Humiliated
by Najia Marlyz

One morning recently, there was a question in my email from dance student that revealed both her insight and her confused emotions about a classroom incident that may have been similar to humiliating incidents that other students have experienced with varying degrees of embarrassment in dance classrooms everywhere. Our exchange went roughly as follows (although I have taken some writer’s liberties for clarity):

From: Shylah (not her real stage-name)
To: Najia Marlyz
Subject: Open criticism from my teacher

Hi Najia,
I've been taking Belly dance lessons for six months now, and I feel that I've improved.  I am studying with two well-known dance teachers in the Los Angeles area and am grateful to be learning from them.  However, just recently, one of my teachers pointed out that I walked like a “certain animal” while I’m trying to do the Hagala in front of the other students!

This is a very difficult move for me, and I felt embarrassed when she said that.  We had to do the Hagalla across the room a couple of times—and were required to make light of the situation.

After complying, I asked her if I still look like that “certain animal”.  Then, everyone started laughing.  After class, my instructor admitted that she shouldn't have made that comment and apologized for picking on me.  This exchange makes me not want to take lessons from her anymore, but I do learn a lot from her.  I know that she didn't mean to be hurtful, but now I'm afraid she will criticize me again.

Dance can be a very vulnerable thing.  It's risky to a non-dancer because you're putting yourself “out there”.  My goal is to continue to improve because I love this dance so much! Have you experienced anything like this when you were learning to dance?  If so, what did you do?

My Advice for Shylah:
Dear Shylah,

I believe I was exceptionally lucky because my teacher had a personal style of constant and unrelenting positive feedback, and I never witnessed him characterize any student in negative terms in class—or even after class. (Although, now that I think about it—he did tell me once, privately, that I looked like a marshmallow, dancing in my white dance costume, and I never felt comfortable in it again!)

However, you can see, I never had to deal with the particular embarrassment that you felt—although my first attempts to dance had to have been fairly laughable.  I remember that my teacher once recommended that I “get a glass of Sangria from the bar, sit down and watch for awhile and relax” --because I was so intent on being perfect. However, he gave me that suggestion quietly, not openly in front of the other students while class was in session.

Perhaps your real question is: What should you do now that the incident has already happened? My answer is: you should learn to laugh at yourself more and try to image the characteristics of that certain animal that your teacher mentioned.  It may well be the case that the students were laughing at the mental dancing image of whatever animal she had mentioned rather than laughing at you, specifically.

It sounds to me as if your teacher was trying to make you understand, through word imagery, what it was that made your movements appear strange or peculiar. Also, a dancer—or any performer—has to have a fairly broad sense of humor and this most probably was her attempt to be funny and lighthearted. 

A dancer with delicate feelings, who cannot find humor in her first dance attempts, will probably never survive in a performance art where one has to grow a rather tough skin!

My own teacher once commented to me when we were discussing performance requirements that he might look soft and lovable when dancing but in reality, he told me, “I actually have the skin of a 100 year old alligator!”

Once, I recall, when I was coaching a young and pretty dancer for her upcoming gig, I told her that she had the most beautiful cool blue eyes and that she should make her audience swim in them.  She burst into tears, but they were not tears of joy! When I asked why she was crying she answered, “…because you are ‘thing-ing’ me! I am not my blue eyes!”  I was completely baffled.  I thought that had pointed out a positive physical asset and suggested that she should exploit that asset in her dance technique but she chose to misinterpret my comment as demeaning her, simply turning her into a sexual object, and that her dance was so unworthy that she would have to rely on a physical attribute (an albeit remarkable).  Well, perhaps in a fantasy or some parallel universe somewhere, one might dance without a physical being, and therefore, without one’s physical attributes, but we are here and now; we must face our current reality in this universe.

Additionally, Shylah, you must forget about characterizing yourself as a non-dancer; if you are learning to dance, you are not a "non-dancer"! Maybe you are a new dancer or a dance student. (Personally, the term “Newbie” makes me wretch.)

As a dancer and especially a dance student, you have to put yourself "out there" and not be afraid of judgment, scorn, admiration, derision, laughter, mimicry, etc. Didn’t your Mama tell you that all life's really good stuff comes with a price? 

What is wrong with our form of dance today is a direct result of the current trend for treating dance students as if they were in therapy or grade school (or both).

Toughen up, girl, and become a dance-woman!  Laugh at your dance along with everyone else.  Don't even attempt to forgive your teacher for picking on you (which I doubt she had intended).  Most probably, she was trying to image the movement for your deeper or more accessible understanding, and evidently, you went all “feeling-flavored Jell-O” on her.

I recommend that you invite her out. Treat her to lunch or a cup of coffee at Starbuck's, and get to know her in a more relaxed and personal way. Thank her for challenging you, and tell her that you intend to meet her challenge; you will learn that step or movement, and you will do it better than everyone else in the class

My plan will take real effort on your part: You should first book your teacher for a formal half hour private lesson on the step you wanted to perfect and anything else she thinks is related.  Secondly, book another teacher across town for another half hour private lesson on it and similar movements, and don't tell anyone, especially the second teacher, why you are doing it! (Explaining exactly “why” will result in making you appear to be a whiny complainer.) 

After you put yourself through this difficult and face-to-face procedure for learning, you will feel accomplishment, and amazingly, you will feel that you have grown in spirit!

Please get back to me in six weeks and let me know what you have accomplished. I would like to know that you are woman enough to conquer delicate personal feelings that prevent you from dancing as you envision. Audiences full of critics await you with bated breath!

Shortly thereafter, however, Shylah sent me a follow-up question:
In your e-mail answer to me, you wrote: What is wrong with our form of dance today is a direct result of the current trend for treating dance students as if they were in therapy or grade school (or both).”  What did you mean by that? 

Although I did not save the exact answer I sent, I recall that it went somewhat as follows:

Dear Shylah,
Maybe sometime I will write an article explaining exactly what that sentence means to me. However, for now, in order to answer your question quickly, I will say that my comment is against the current trend for political correctness in all things.

Our society, and hence, our dance instructors, have become accustomed to mollycoddling grade school children and others who do not "get it" in class (whatever the subject) and is concerned with protecting the feelings of those adults who ought to be in therapy if they cannot "take it like a man" rather than demanding that they meet the required and inevitable challenges they will face in their very real lives.  The result can be a weak, unhappy, grown-up human being, but still an immature person, who is confused about what is owed him and what he dutifully owes back to others. 

By supporting students with feint praise for every little pathetically positive effort, and while ignoring the both gross and minor negatives, teachers can destroy the Yin/Yang of the learning/teaching situation.  They enable that learner to "carry on," in spite of obvious flaws in technique or understanding. 

By holding one’s tongue, when, in fact, a teacher should speak up with constructive criticism, she/he does nobody any favors and perpetuates the student’s errors. 

In the old days, they used to say, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."  Oh! Doesn't that sound mean spirited and old fashioned? Well, fundamentally, the saying meant that without correction, one does not produce a good result—not that they advocated running around, beating children with sticks. The saying is about teachers and parents challenging the learner and then, the learner, closing the circle by accepting and meeting each challenge—however, crudely it may have been delivered inadvertently or purposefully.

I hope you "get it" and will meet all of your teachers’ challenges with bravery and happiness rather than summarily dumping one teacher who might, just maybe, be the exact one that Fate has sent for you! I am hoping that you will become buoyed up by the experience you recently believed humiliated you—rather than caving in to the tender child who is always alive within each of us!

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