November 29, 2010

Top Ten Characteristics of an Excellent Belly Dance Teacher (Part 3)

Okay, here’s the last of my three-part series on the characteristics of a good belly dance teacher.  As I’ve been writing them, I’ve also been evaluating myself against the list.  Although I’ve been teaching for a decade now, I can see so many areas in which I need more practice, and dedication.  So it seems that I have work to do, especially since some of these last ones are really tough questions to ponder.  So, if you’re a teacher reading this, how do you rate compared to the list?  And, if you’re considering teaching or just started…what are your thoughts now?

7.  Can you can graciously accept and give criticism and feedback?
As performers, we are all eager for feedback - the lovely, fluffy, upbeat and feel-good comments that just make your day.  If you have been dancing for a while, you probably have also had the not-so-kind comments, back handed compliments or withering criticism that people with the best intentions (or not-so-good intentions) seem to offer.  It can be tough to differentiate between the beneficial feedback and the “I’m-jealous/insecure/always negative/know-it-all/crazy” rounds that come your way.  However, if you really want to grow as a performer, artist, dancer and teacher can you deal with the not-so-fluffy comments?  And are you open to hearing something more meaty and meaningful?  Let’s start with you as a dancer and teacher:

Do you regularly seek feedback from other respected dancers on your performances, technique or style?  Do you take classes and workshops that keep you challenged or do you stick to the safe ones that you can easily master?  Have you ever considered taking private lessons for the sole purpose of getting a dance critique?  Seeking feedback can be a scary, humbling experience especially if you consider yourself to be a more advanced dancer or teacher but it can also be invaluable.  Think of it as the spinach in your teeth scenario.  Would you like someone to be honest with you and tell you there’s green gook in your teeth, or would you prefer to walk around thinking you’re looking lovely (because everyone is staring…right?) and then find out later on the stares had nothing to do with your fabulousness?

I have a good friend and fellow dancer, named Jamie Lynne who has spent a great deal of time and energy in the past couple of years actively seeking critiques from other dancers to help her grow.  I admire her ability to put her own ego aside and ask the tough questions.  She even recently entered and competed in a belly dance competition for the sole purpose of getting detailed feedback from a group of judges!  Where other dancers may have been there to prove how good they were, her approach was to gain more knowledge about her dance style.  So, when you take classes or workshops is your plan to show everyone how quickly you can pick up the moves and how talented you are as a dancer…or do you walk into those sessions comfortable with just learning?

I had the opportunity to share a private lesson with Jamie Lynne this last October with Ranya Renee who was teaching at Bahaia’s dance camp.  We both decided we wanted feedback on our dance skills and we each did an improvisational dance (with a random song) for Ranya’s critique.  If you think about it, the possibility of humiliation increases if you’re sitting there with another dancer who gets to hear every comment.  But we thought the benefits were more enticing because we had a second pair of ears, a fellow dancer to take notes while Ranya spoke and a trusted dance friend to help evaluate and break down the comments later on.  It was a humbling experience, and I’m still processing parts of it…but it was a valuable experience.  So, how comfortable are you with receiving feedback and how willing would you be to share that experience?

In addition to commentary on your dancing, do you seek feedback from your students on your teaching style?  When students quit your classes do you have a clear idea of why they didn’t come back?  Was it schedules, finances, lack of interest…or could it be you teaching style, organization or class structure that sent them off?  Are you willing to find out the answers to those questions?  A couple years ago I was asked to do a quick belly dance demonstration and as preparation for that, I needed to describe my teaching style and philosophy.  Frankly, I was a little stumped because I had not thought about that…at…all.  So, in my next class, I asked some of my long-term students to tell me what they thought it was.  And then I held my breath!  I was really impressed by their comments and very enlightened by what they took away from my classes.  So, how do your students describe you and your style?  Do they recommend you to friends and why?  If they had to post public feedback on you as a dancer…what would they say?

So, onto the harder part of this topic:  What about feedback for your students?  Are you able to offer constructive feedback that helps your students perform better?  Or are you afraid to say anything because you don’t want them to leave the class?  I think there are so many teachers out there that either feel their role is to be the best friend/party organizer or on the opposite side - the constant critic.  Can you strike a balance between the two and not only offer positive feedback, but help correct students in gracious way?  I had experience with a teacher who felt that giving students positive feedback only made the student get too much of an ego.  So I had to wait until she would occasionally parcel out something for me to grab onto.  Now, she didn’t give much negative feedback either- so, I spent a great deal of time feeing clueless while dancing. 

On the flip side, I’ve also seen cases where the teacher just doesn’t want to say anything bad…ever…and then keeps telling her students how fabulous they are…even if they aren’t.  For example, I know a teacher who had students perform at an annual event.  In her mind, her group was the best of the best…and when they did not get the acclaim she felt they needed, she stopped having them participate.  The truth is, they worked hard, but they weren’t the head of the pack in terms of performances.  And instead of evaluating their skills and their performance, and then working to improve them, her response to was just walk away from it.  So, what would happen if one of your students (or a group of them) performed in public and the outcome was less than successful?  Could you have the tough conversations to help them do the work to improve…or would these setbacks stop you and your students?

And finally, do you understand how to deliver criticism in a supportive and encouraging manner?  This isn’t just about telling someone what they did wrong, but about understanding the timing and approach based upon individual personalities.  Can you read your students well enough to determine who is ready for more feedback, and who may need more time to develop their confidence?  Can you assess your own mood and temperament so that you don’t lash out at students just because you’re having a bad day/week/month?  How comfortable are you with students who rate their skills much higher than their technical ability, or those students who have strong technique, but needs more practice or challenges?  What about students who are just in class for fun but don’t have plans to perform or solo?

I frequently have my students perform for each other in class and then provide feedback.  My rule is that the students can only point out the good things the dancer and/or group did…and I am the only one who can offer constructive feedback.  I think this teaches students to focus on what went right, and for the dancer to learn her own strengths.  Then, they get to hear me deliver feedback that will help them grow.   I also keep my feedback to only one or two things at a time so no one feels overwhelmed.  So how would you feel about coaching others in the art of giving feedback?  And, can you create a culture in your classroom that encourages and appreciates comments from fellow classmates and the instructor?

8.   Do you have a healthy ego?
How does that saying go…if you love something, set it free, and if it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and shoot it…right?  For most of us, our dancing is a way to define ourselves, to present an alternative side of our personality or explore a creative outlet in our lives.  It is more than just a hobby; it is a fundamental part of our identity.  But, do you take too many things personally as a dancer?  In my experience, students will travel great distances just to study with a particular teacher.  So, what if they choose not to take from you?  Can you deal with that type of rejection without being angry or bitter?  What happens if a student of yours chooses to take from someone else?  Or what happens when a student grows beyond your class and skills?  Will you try to trap them…or can you let them move on without you?

I heard a story about a teacher who, after one of her new students didn’t come back to class, began calling the student constantly, trying to convince her to come back.  I know this story, because when the same student asked me about classes, her first question was whether or not I was crazy!  It is one thing to be concerned if a student doesn’t come back…you can send an email checking on them…but stalking can be a little too much.  How do you feel about students taking from other teachers?  Do you encourage them to try other classes and attend workshops, or do you keep them isolated from other dancers and styles?

What about those students who want to learn a style or technique that is beyond your skill level?  Do you send them out to another teacher, or do you try to fake your way into it?  Can you admit to your class that you don’t know it all?  My ultimate goal is to have students who succeed well beyond what I can teach.  So, can your ego take the success of someone who was once your student?

9.  Do you have a unique point of view, or something different to offer the dance community?
I sometimes shake my head when I hear stories of new dancers offering classes (probably before they should), and then complaining they don’t have enough students to make it profitable…and at the same time really qualified, experienced teachers struggle to get more students into their classrooms.  I think there are many individuals who rush into performing too soon, becoming a “professional” too soon, and teaching too soon.  So, if you are considering teaching, what do have to offer in terms of style, technique and movement that is different than other teachers in town?  In other words, why would someone take from you versus another instructor?

Do you have a clear vision of what you want to offer your students?  Do you understand your own dance strengths and weaknesses?  What can you give students that they cannot get anywhere else?  If you are doing a knock-off of another dancer’s teaching methods…why would the student come to you versus going to the source?  Think of this in marketing terms…what is your brand and how can you differentiate yourself from other instructors (besides the fact you have room/time at a local studio)?  If you don’t know the easy answer to that question, you may need to do some more work!

10.       Are you passionate about teaching?
It seems like the standard formula for making a living as a belly dancer is 1 part performances (restaurants, shows, workshops); 1 part private gigs (belly grams, weddings and parties) and 1 part teaching.  Some dancers are fortunate to add 1 part DVD or CD sales to this list but for the majority of dancers, financial incentives for belly dancing are slim.  So, is your sole interest in teaching financial or do you really feel passionate about teaching?  If you did not receive any money, fame or attention for teaching…would you still do it?  I know so many dancers that would dance even if there wasn’t an audience…or a stage…but how many of you would still teach for the pure joy of sharing your knowledge?

Don’t get me wrong, I think teachers can make money in this dance form and the dedicated, talented and persistent ones will always find a way to do this.  However, I think the ones that are the most resilient are the dancers who are passionate about teaching.  Teaching takes an enormous amount of work, effort and time.  I’ll admit that there are days when it is hard to get up the energy to go teach.  However, I know once I step into the studio and the first student arrives; my mood and spirits will immediately improve!  For me teaching is not about getting credit for students learning new skills, but rather seeing those students learn and understand more about themselves as strong, beautiful, graceful women.  

So if you are thinking about teaching, or currently teach…do your eyes light up at the idea of teaching?  Does the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you see your students perform?  Do you get all misty-eyed when they dance?  And, most of all, do you teach because you know how to translate all your skills, experience and knowledge into a productive, fulfilling experience for everyone?  Think about it…and then get back to me!

No comments:

Post a Comment