November 17, 2010

Top Ten Characteristics of an Excellent Belly Dance Teacher (Part 1)

Recently I griped wrote a post on what qualifies as an experienced belly dance teacher.  I think there is a natural inclination and curiosity from many dancers to move into the role of teaching.  And, depending upon the area in which you live, there may not be many instructors so teaching may be a lucrative move.  In other areas, some dancers feel that to help make a name for themselves (and make some money) teaching is a necessary part of that process.  Now I love teaching, and would do it even if I didn’t get paid a single penny, but I’ll readily admit it is not for everyone.  So, here’s a not-so-short list of the ten questions you should ask yourself before making that transition from dancer to teacher

This isn’t set up as a pass/fail, but rather a list of things you should consider before taking the teaching plunge.  Dancers who live in smaller towns with fewer resources will have different challenges than those in larger cities with vibrant dance communities, but I’ve tried to touch on the most common issues, as I see them.  I’ll be posting the list in three parts, because yes…I have that much to say on the subject.  I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks, and what you would add (or take away) from the list!  So today, we’ll start with some logistics:

1. Are you are organized, dedicated, timely and persistent? 
Will your classes start and finish on time?  Can you keep up with class schedules, rosters, emails and contact information?  Can you keep up with music, props, costumes, and other things you’ll need for class or are you they type of person who misplaces most everything?  Are you good at communicating with studio owners, students and the belly dance community?  I heard a story of a teacher who was consistently late to class or just didn’t show up.  She had another teacher come sub for her one week who was shocked to find out that everyone showed up about 20 minutes into the class.  As it turns out, the students never came on time because they didn’t want to wait around.  It made me think that if the teacher cannot take the class seriously, how can she expect the same of her students?  I always try to show up 15-20 minutes before each class to set up my things, and settle in, and many of my students show up early just to spend a few extra minutes talking to me.  It doesn’t always happen that way, but I make that a goal…just so I’m not feeling rushed when everyone arrives.  I also require any new students to show up early so they can get a feel for the place before class starts.  So, ask yourself if you can be dependable for the long haul, and are you a good role model and show respect for your student’s time and energy?

2. Are you willing to put in the time?
It seems like the longer you teach, the less time you would need to spend on planning and organizing classes.  Not true!  As you grow as an instructor, hopefully your students grow along with you.  I started out teaching 6-week beginner classes for about six years before branching about beyond that.  Trust me, I can teach a six week beginner class in my sleep, but nowadays I spend more and more time working on the longer classes for more advanced dancers.  So, are you willing to put in extra time for lesson planning, or choosing music playlists, or developing drills or warm-ups, or designing choreographies?  I just spent an entire week planning one class because I was going to combine three levels of dancers into one session.  I can’t do that much prep each week, but I also know that I cannot wait until 30 minutes before class (or at the beginning of class) to decide what we’ll study.  Now I’ll admit, sometimes the best laid plans change once class begins; having a game plan going in makes all the difference in the world!

Do you have the time to spend on advertising and marketing or other community outreach?  And, in the midst of all of this, do you have time for your individual practice and training as a dancer?  It’s rare to find dancers who can afford to do this full-time, so can you juggle your other life…work, family, friends, relationships…along with dancing and teaching?  If you are still taking classes from someone on a weekly basis, will your teaching schedule interfere with this? If you take regular workshops, have you thought about what you will do with classes while you’re off training?  Do you cancel or do you find substitutes?   And, if you’re thinking that once you start teaching you don’t need additional training…how do you expect to grow as a dancer?  What about having room in your schedule for coaching, mentoring and developing relationships with students?  All of these things take time, and if you’re already short on free time…will teaching really help you out, or hurt you?

3. Do you understand the logistics of teaching?
At some point in time every teacher sits down and does the math just to find out how much they can make while teaching.  Usually the hypothetical calculations are based upon the maximum number of students the class can hold, under the assumption those students will be there every week, without fail.  (Yes I’m smirking while writing this.) Even skilled dancers and teachers know it takes time and energy to build a student clientele. Experienced teachers know there is an ebb and flow of students, days of high attendance and days of low attendance.  So, are you willing to accept the financial risks associated with teaching?  This goes beyond the cost of a classroom rental; it includes the cost of teaching insurance, supplies, materials, marketing and publicity.  Are you in the position to pay deposits or rentals up front, or if your class attendance is erratic, can you deal with a less-than-steady cash flow?

Beyond fiscal matters, have you had a CPR or first-aid class recently?  Do you know what to do if someone injures themselves, or what to do if they show in class with an injury or other physical limitations?  Can you revise or adapt your teaching to help those students who struggle with the moves because of different body types or levels of physical skill, strength and flexibility?  What about personality types?  Can you work with really outgoing, shy or ‘know-it-all-already’ students?  Remember that strong belly dance technique doesn’t necessarily transfer to strong teaching skills. 

What about location?  Have you thought about how to create an environment in which students can learn and develop their skills?  If you find a studio, are there any potential conflicts with other teachers or classes?  Will you have keys to the studio or do you have to rely on the owner to open and close for you?  What kind of sound system, dance floor, parking, and other amenities are available?  Can the owner guarantee your scheduled slot?  Will you have to sign contracts, liability waivers, pay deposits or follow specific studio rules?  My first experiences with studio rental were fraught with anxiety and missteps.  I had problems getting keys, having other classes scheduled on top of mine, bad acoustics and carpeting that was a tad suspect for dancing barefoot.  At the time, I was grateful to have the space, but I cannot imagine dealing with all of that again.  Now I have a studio in a great location that is well-kept and well organized (with my own key) with dedicated parking and all I have to do is show up and turn on the lights!

If you are thinking about teaching out of your home, do you have a separate, dedicated space for classes?  Or, would students have to walk through your kitchen, living room, bedroom, garage, patio, etc. to get to class.  Could your classes operate uninterrupted or would family members (or pets) be interrupting?  Are there any restrictions in your homeowners association or neighborhood regarding home businesses?  Is there readily available parking or restrooms?  Would your neighbors have any issues with people coming and going for classes?  What happens if your student is allergic to pets, or even worse…injures themselves in class?  Are you okay with inviting strangers into your home, or advertising your house as a studio location for prospective students?  Can you keep the studio and house (if students have to walk through it) clean and organized? 

I’ve seen good and bad examples of in-home studios.  And, I’ve heard dancers say that they’ll start teaching out of their home just to earn a few extra bucks (I know…yowza!)  So, before you invite people in, ask yourself if you can create an environment that is conducive to dance, and whether you are ready to shoulder the personal, property and financial risks involved with teaching at home.

Next:  Part two!


  1. Well done, Najla! I wrote an article on the same topic a couple of years ago (and I think it was published in the OPA!) due to the frustrations of being pushed in overt and not-so-overt ways to teach when I barely knew the steps. Everyone says I'm a good instructor, but I wonder. I'm organized, well-planned and know the ups and downs, but I'm not a particularly flexible warm and fuzzy kind of person, so translating what I know seems difficult and not effortless at all. I have to work at it. I think confidence and taking it slow is key and jumping the gun can really set a person up for failure.

    Honestly, in order to teach well, one must learn the art of teaching, regardless of the topic. That takes dedication, time, energy and money. And bellydance isn't super lucrative, as you say. Heck, teaching in any form isn't super lucrative. ;)

    You've nailed every single thing I've been harping on... I mean -- preaching... whoops! saying for the past 4 or 5 years. You have a much more optimistically realistic delivery system here. Fantastic! I hope folks can hear what you are saying. Huzzah!

  2. Thanks darling! I remember the post you wrote and at the time, it really made me think about what I was doing as a teacher. Technique, skill and personality are great skills but I agree that learning the art of teaching is a process unto itself. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, that means a lot to me!

  3. It's quite brilliant. And eloquent, full of grace, and rational. We need that. Thank you for offering more of it to the world. <3

  4. excellent points all, i think even if students read it they will have a better appreciation for their teachers. there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes just to make a class happen, so thanks for getting the word out there.

  5. Thanks ladies, I agree that even students should think about these things. I had a student who interrupted me in class to explain how to do a rib lift...of course she was completely wrong...but it didn't occur to her that there is a right way and a wrong way to explain things!