November 19, 2010

Top Ten Characteristics of an Excellent Belly Dance Teacher (Part 2)

So, I recently started some posts talking about the characteristics of a good belly dance instructor.  Here is part two (of three) in that series.  Last time we talked logistics, today we’ll talk about technique and movement.  Feel free to chime in and add your thoughts to the conversation!

4.       Do you know your stuff?
I could write multiple posts on this one point alone, but it boils down to whether or not you understand this dance, the music, the culture, and the history?  Can you articulate the differences in the various dance styles or the evolution of belly dance in this country and in the Middle East?  Can you work with both choreography and improvisation?  Have you performed in a variety of venues, to a variety of music, more than just a handful of times?  Do you understand how to break down different moves, to different music, for different body types and levels of dancers?  Do you understand when, where and how to use props…appropriately?  Have you invested more money in your dance training than your costumes?  Do you understand the dance community in which you live and know what type of performance opportunities are available for students?  Have you performed in most of those venues?  If you attend a workshop or read a blog post or a belly dance history/music/culture article and don’t understand the majority of what is being discussed or taught, then get thee to more workshops and classes, buy some books and do more research to increase your knowledge.  

And, if you don’t know what is happening in the community around you…you need to meet other teachers, support other venues and do more networking.  Here in Austin we have a strong dance community, and I was at a show once where someone who performed (and supposedly taught as well) didn’t have any idea who the show’s headliner was.  That same headliner is a major name here in town and beyond, so I was surprised.  That one tidbit showed me that this new dancer really didn’t know her stuff, and did more posturing than studying.  If you want to be a reputable teacher, you should know the big dance names and venues in your community.

Knowing your stuff goes beyond dance technique and teaching styles (which could be hundreds of posts right there).  Do you know how to costume yourself…and your students in an appropriate manner?  (Again, I could write volumes on this one!!!!)  I just heard a story of a dancer (and teacher) that performed at an event and well…let’s just say the audience learned more information about the dancer’s private anatomy than necessary.  And no, this wasn’t a costume malfunction!  So, the event coordinator decided (without telling the dancer/teacher) that she would never invite that teacher back again…all because the costume (and certain dance moves) were inappropriate.  I’ve give more details…but I don’t want to call anyone out directly, all I can say is that the dancer/instructor doesn’t see any issue with the costuming…but wonders why it is so hard to get booked in various venues. 

When I first started dancing (back in the day!), there were limited costume choices.  You didn’t really even consider a professional level cabaret costume until…you had been dancing for a while professionally.  Now, beginner dancers can buy costumes with a click of the mouse but it doesn’t mean they are ready to perform at that level.  I’ve had students ask me if they are ready to buy a true cabaret costume…if their dancing is up to that level yet…just because they recognize that just like there are levels of dance, there are levels of performance and presentation.  So, if you’re in doubt about appropriate (or tasteful) costume choices, find the most respected teacher/dancer in your area and see how they dress, how their students dress, and have a chat with them.

(Photo copied from What Were They Thinking?)

Beyond appropriate costumes is the subject of appropriate fitting costumes.  Can you help your students dress in a respectful manner, and in a way that their body type is best showcased?  Around here I’m known as the “bra whisperer” because I can help fit bras on all body types.  Once I did a bra-making workshop for my students and I literally spent the evening in a bathroom with a parade of topless students getting fitted for bra tops.  Not only did they learn how to make the most of their own shape, but also how to take costumes and alter them successfully, which is a win-win in my book.  So, if you don’t have the skills to help students yourself are you willing to seek out other dancers to help teach them alterations, sewing and costuming skills?

I personally saw a group of dancers perform in new costumes which simply left me speechless.  I can understand the desire for lost-cost costumes for a student troupe but I have never seen so many ill-fitting outfits in one place.  There were muffin tops, butt-cracks and cleavage showing, skirts way too short and others way too long.  There were breasts hanging 2-3 inches well below normal placement and dancers wearing colors that looked horrible on stage, and with their coloring.  Then, after seeing the instructor I could tell that the teacher had no idea on how to fit or alter a costume for a woman’s body properly.  It was sad, uncomfortable and really distressing as an audience member.  There’s a possibility that the students were good dancers, but I have no memory of the event…and I what I do remember I wish I could wipe from my memory forever!  So, can you make sure your students shine not only in technique but also style when they hit the stage?

5.       Are you continually learning?
A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a student recital night with Bahaia and Stacey-Lizette, two of Austin’s premier dancers…and I’m fortunate to say friends of mine as well.  I was so flattered and honored to be included, and although I knew it would mean more work as a dancer and teacher, I was excited about the prospect.  After the first show (which we dubbed the Hip Circle Hafla), Stacey-Lizette and I talked about what a successful evening it was.  She commented that since she is still a student, it was a wonderful opportunity for her to practice as well.  Yes, I did fall in love with her all over again for that remark because it really sets an example to have such a strong dancer admit she still needs to study.  I’m hoping that I will always feel that there is so much more to learn, study and practice.

So, are you willing to empty your cup and be open to new ideas?  Do you read, study, watch and grow?  Are you respectful and curious about all aspects of this dance?  Are you are willing to evaluate what works and doesn’t work, and then change it?  This next spring I’m completely revising my class format, which means much more work for me, but I hope many new and exciting challenges and opportunities to grow for my students.  It’s not the first time I’ve changed my teaching strategy, but each time I make the change I feel that I’m refining my style more which allow myself and my students to grow as well.  Think about where you are as a dancer now versus when you first started, and where do you see your dancer career going?  Is your goal to travel and tour professionally?  Is it just to explore the dance from a recreational aspect?  Is it to provide a creative outlet…or a financial one?  Will teaching help you with your goals, or sidetrack you?
I know of a dancer who started in the 80’s and is still going (and no, she's not 80...).  At a dance workshop that she and I both attended, I noticed a couple of things.  First, she either spent all of her time talking with vendors and other dancers or making comments to the side about how she already knew the subject being taught.  Or, if she did occasionally participate in the class, she immediately took whatever the instructor was teaching and just did it her own way…not willing to see if there was merit to a different style or breakdown of movement.  The most striking part of the weekend was one night when she said this dance form does not respect the teachers who have been teaching the longest.  That belly dancers only want to learn from the newest kid on the street.  What she failed to tell people is that she never advertises or makes any effort to recruit or retain students or help them grow.  Her approach is that of entitlement.  She put in the time; therefore she should have the most students.  Unfortunately she doesn’t see the correlation between her inability to grow as a dancer and her inability to attract students.   Students may initially flock to the “new” kids on the block, but the good ones, the dedicated ones will seek out the strong, experienced teachers.

So, How much time (and money) do you spend on your personal dance training?  Do you know who the “big” names in your dance style are…and do you seek them out for classes and workshops?  Belly dancers are fortunate because the majority of the great names of this dance are still alive, and teaching.  So, if you are serious about the dance are you serious about seeking out training from the best?  Do you cross training in other dance forms, or other styles of movement like yoga, Pilates, Nia…even martial arts?   Continual training is the key to growing as a dancer and artist, so make sure you are in position to put in that time.

6.       Do you understand basic movement principles?
Although you may know belly dance, do you really understand how our bodies move?  Do you know what causes different limitations or issues with a student’s form or how to ensure dancers don’t injure themselves?  What about basic anatomy…can you name the major muscle groups used for each movement? I like to describe movement in terms of what is happening from a skeletal points (i.e. knees bending) and then from a muscular point (i.e. glutes contracting) so students can start developing a relationship between the movement and their own bodies.   So, do you understand how movement is generated and how little things like posture, stance and feet position can alter or change a move?  Can you explain why to do or not do certain moves to help prevent injury (i.e. tucking your pelvis so you don’t hyperextend your lower back)?  Consider investing in some good anatomy books, or take some basic movement or yoga classes, or consult Dr. Google.  But, above all else you should increase your knowledge of the body.

Introducing my office mate, Mr. Muscles

Next:  Part three!

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