November 10, 2010

Gloats and Gripes

Last week while heading out to the parking garage in my office, three women in the lobby of a nearby building caught my eye. Or rather, their hip scarves did. It looked like an impromptu belly dance class, but much to my dismay the woman leading the other two clearly did not know how to move. Her movements reminded me of an awkward jazzercise class, with lots of stomping and erratic, frantic steps. I can’t verify that it was a belly dance class; however the addition of hip scarves seemed to lead me that direction. I had to stifle my urge to break into their group, much like the belly dance police or mafia, and instead walked away shaking my head over what qualifies as “teaching” in belly dance.

It wasn’t so much the location, but the quality of movement that bothered me. As a belly dancer I have practiced and trained in a variety of locations from home studios, garages, hotel ballrooms, living rooms and traditional dance studios. I’ve been teaching for about a decade now (yikes!) and I’ve taught in some crazy places under really odd conditions. So, I could imagine a time when I would have jumped on the bandwagon to have a clear dance space and room to teach, regardless of the location. Luckily, I’m past that stage which makes me gloat a bit, along with the griping about who teaches this dance form.

This spring will mark the third anniversary of teaching out of a traditional dance studio. And as an early Christmas present, the studio just moved into a new and larger location. Words cannot express my gratitude for having a dance space, a location whose sole purpose is to teach and train dancers as my home base for belly dance classes. There is something so much more legitimate and dare I say, grown-up about paying rent on a REAL dance studio, scheduling classes and managing what and how I teach. The studio makes me want to be a better dancer and instructor and I know that my students training in this location will benefit from the environment as well…so I gloat, and perhaps giggle a bit as well.

Which now brings me to my big gripe. I normally try to be supportive and encouraging to all women involved in this dance form. But over the last few years I have soooo much less tolerance for those individuals who think that just because they have room in their garage/living room/den/spare bedroom/office they should start a belly dance class…especially just to earn a few bucks on the side. Although I think this dance form is for ALL women, and should be accessible to anyone who chooses to come take classes and participate I do not think teaching is for everyone. Not all dancers should teach. Period.

In all honesty, I started teaching long before I should have. Luckily I taught other subjects and topics so I don’t think I left anyone scarred by the experience. And I learned, and grew as a teacher. But in hindsight I wished I hadn’t started so soon. I think in the rush to feel competent as a dancer so many women try to push past the beginner and intermediate labels too early. And teaching seems like such an easy way to claim expertise, right?

Wrong. Over the years I have seen the results of poor teaching skills, lack of discipline and really bad technique manifested in students who think they can perform at a level beyond their skill set. I’ve spent time with students trying to correct their posture and technique being taught really bad dance habits. I’ve met students who were devastated to learn that they have bad technique because their instructor didn’t want to say anything bad about their dancing. I’ve seen new dancers (really, really new dancers) advertise on web sites that they have classes and are available for private lessons. I’ve had people tell me that they informally showed their friend some belly dance moves and without any formal classes, maybe their “friend” could just move into my intermediate level class. And I can’t tell you how many times I have watched someone dance and thought to myself…she’s got real talent…I hope and pray she finds her way to a qualified teacher…and soon.

So secretly (and today publicly), I gripe about those teachers who don’t seem to appreciate and understand the hard work, dedication and skill necessary for teaching this dance form. And those same teachers then wonder why this dance form isn’t respected…or treated as legitimate as other dance forms. Think about it, if you can show people how to belly dance while standing at the coffee machine in your office, or in some bar while out drinking…why would anyone believe that you have to pay to take classes at a studio with *ahem* a teacher? I know we want this dance to be accessible, but at the same time we should encourage and set the example that belly dancing requires work and dedication and training under a qualified instructor (not just watching DVDs).

I think that every time we tell people, “it’s easy to dance…let me show you”, we belittle our dance training. Really, have you ever seen a ballet teacher jump into first, second or third position just because someone asked them about the dance? I think that when people ask you to show them how to belly dance you should politely decline and either refer them to good teachers in your area, or if you are a teacher invite them to come take a class. I also think we need to tell people that yes, they can learn this dance form, but it requires hard work, dedication and training. And above all else, we should educate people on the difference between a legitimate belly dance teacher and those who are just are just looking for some extra cash.

*climbing down from my soapbox now*


  1. thank you, Najla, for sharing your thoughts on this subject. i couldn't agree more. students too quickly seek to become teachers. if teaching truly is your passion, ask your instructor about becoming an apprentice.

  2. :) I griped about this a lot when I was pregnant because a girl I know started teaching pregnant belly dancing at a local birth center!! She had terrible posture among other things, and I was so worried she was going to hurt someone! All the joints are looser, your center of gravity is screwy, ...

  3. No, no, please stay on the soapbox. I'll join you, many of us will join you, you'll need a bigger soapbox!