Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Teaching bellydance, part 1

I've been getting my thoughts together for some private lessons on teaching. I thought I'd post about it, since I'm trying to organize my mind over it anyway and the easiest way for me to do that is to write.
I've been teaching since 2004, which is not that long. I'm not the final authority on anything. Everything in this article is just my opinion, nothing more.

That being said, let's start at the beginning: making the decision to start teaching bellydance.

Good Reasons to Start Teaching
While there are a million other great reasons to teach, I think if you don't fit into at least two or three of the statements on this list, you might want to reconsider the idea of teaching, at least for now. Continue your training and continue growing as a dancer, then come back to the idea further on down the line.
Some good reasons to start teaching include:
- You have something unique to teach in your local market.
- You have the blessing of your own teacher.
- You have a good amount of experience being a teacher's assistant.
- You have a background in exercise science and/or you have experience teaching other forms of movement.
- You are genuinely excited about the idea of helping other people learn how to dance, even if that means they might take what you've taught them and do it better than you.

Bad Reasons to Start Teaching
There are just as many bad reasons to start teaching. Here are a few.

#1: To make money. Unless you are already well-known in your area and have a fan club of people that are dying to study under you, or you are in an area with no bellydance instructors where people are dying to study under anyone, you will most likely not make money off your classes at first. If you rent space for your classes, you'll probably start off making a loss. If you teach at a fitness center, you'll get paid, but most likely not much. $25/hour sounds pretty good until you realize as a new teacher you should be doing at least 2 hours of prep work outside of class for every class you teach. And you have to pay for gas. And fliers to promote your new classes. And a website. And et cetera. During lean months (August and December come to mind), even established teachers with a solid student base have trouble making money.

#2: To increase your cache in your community. If you have a dance community in your area, you will be competing against established teachers for students. If people don't already respect you as a dancer and a human being, this will not make them feel any better about you. It will not make them take you seriously. In fact, it may make them respect you less. ("Did you hear so-and-so started teaching? But she's only been taking classes for six months!")

#3: To bolster your sense of self-worth as a dancer. What happens when one of your students decides to switch over to someone else's classes (and they will)? Do you want to become one of those psycho bitches who gets all possessive? No. You don't. But if you don't have a strong sense of your own worth that isn't predicated on the number of students you have in any given session, you just might.

#4: Because you've learned all you can from your current teacher. Yeah, that seems like it should be reason enough, but it's really not. In fact, I believe that people who have only studied with one teacher have no business teaching, except to teach as that dancer's assistant. Why? Because without multiple points of reference, when you start teaching, you will be parroting what your teacher taught you. In essence, you'll be putting yourself on the market as a watered-down knockoff of your teacher.
If you've learned all you can from your current teacher, go take lessons with someone else. If there's no one in the area, look up your favorite workshop instructor (you have taken some workshops, haven't you?) and see if they'll do lessons over Skype.

What You Need to Start Teaching
It's a long list.

A lesson plan helps, but it's only a start.
You also need to be able to cultivate a warm, inviting, and respectful classroom atmosphere.
You need to know how to lead a safe warm-up and cool-down.
You need to know how to accommodate students with a history of chronic pain and/or injury.
You need to know how to explain safe posture AND how to recognize when students are in unsafe postures.
You need to be able to recognize when students are executing movements in a potentially harmful way.
You need to feel comfortable giving corrections to students regarding their posture or technique.
You need to be able to explain each movement you plan to teach at least two ways-- the way that makes the most sense to you, and an alternate way in case your students don't understand the first way. (Not everyone learns the same way, so the descriptions and metaphors that worked for you might not work for other people.)
You need to be able to gracefully acknowledge questions you can't answer. ("Well, I'm not sure, but let me get back to you about that next week.") In other words, don't make shit up just to look smart.
Similarly, you need to have the humility to acknowledge the things you aren't ready to teach. For example, I don't teach backbends, because I'm not sure that the way I execute my backbends is entirely safe.

Note how a lot of those requirements have to do with safety. Well, I'm obsessed with safety, partially because I've injured myself doing things that my teachers told me were safe. I never want that to be the experience my students have in my classes.
You may not really care whether or not your students get injured, but remember... people can sue.

It's Not All About You
Your classes should be about your students and your students' experience. Sounds great, right? Well, it is, mostly. The vast majority of bellydance students, just like the vast majority of people in general, are awesome.
And then there are some that are not.
Be prepared to handle the following:
-Occasional psychotic episodes from students; students who are inappropriately confrontational, either with their peers or with you.
-Students who ask questions constantly and, in essence, demand private lesson levels of attention during group classes.
-Students who are vastly more experienced than you showing up to your classes for reasons you can't surmise.
-Students who think they are vastly more experienced than you and attempt to correct or augment your instruction during class.
-Painfully shy students; students who seem totally disinterested; groups of friends who chatter with each other while you're trying to talk to the class.
-Students who take six weeks of classes with you and then try to teach. (Thankfully, this has yet to happen to me, but it's happened to some of my teachers!)
-Students who ask questions such as "How many classes do I need to take before I'll be a professional bellydancer?"
-Students who will do anything not to pay you; students who always have some excuse as to why they can't pay you today; students who steal class supplies such as hip scarves, either accidentally or on purpose.
-Students who talk shit about other students in the middle of class.

As much as it might seem lame and stupid, it helps to have print-outs of class rules and policies on hand at all times. Decide what you think acceptable behavior is for your classes and write it down, then give it to each new student as they arrive. It's much easier to say "you're in violation of the rules so I need to ask you to leave" than "you're acting like a psycho bitch so please go away".

The bottom line is, being a good teacher is hard. You can't ever be prepared for every eventuality, but you should do your best to prepare for things you know will happen.

Students will be self-conscious; you need to be friendly and draw them out of their shell.
Students will do things incorrectly; you need to be able to correct them without making them feel bad.
Students will ask questions you can't answer; when that happens, you need to be able to be humble and tell them "I don't know".

It might sound from what I've said that teaching is just a huge pain in the ass, but if you put the right kind of energy into it, it's extremely rewarding. Seeing your students grow into confident, body-aware, self-possessed dancers is magical. I always tear up when I see my students perform!

I will leave you on that happy note.

In Part 2 of this article, I plan to talk about resources for new teachers, and how to integrate what you're learning into what you're teaching.
In Part 3 of this article, I plan to talk about creating a niche for yourself, understanding the teacher you want to be, and identifying the kinds of students who will mesh with you as a teacher.


  1. I love the idea of this series of posts. I look forward to reading Parts 2 and 3.

  2. Thanks for writing this up Sara...I did a ton of research before I started teaching and this is pretty much in line with everything else out there. One thing I will mention that this article is missing is that there are at least three types of teachers out there: 1) People who are both great dancers and great teachers (rarest and most desired); 2) People who are great dancers, but horrible teachers; and 3) People who are moderate to bad dancers, but are great teachers. (Of course there is a 4 (bad teachers and dancers), but we don't need to go there). :|

    Teaching is an entirely different skill set than dancing and it uses a different part of the brain. Sure, you can learn how to be an effective teacher, but not everyone can master that.

    I know that personally, I consider myself to be more of a 3. I know my dancing still requires a lot of growth and improvement, but I also know that I am a really strong teacher and I can offer students really enriching dance experiences.

  3. I disagree, Andalee, I think you are a lovely dancer. You must be a great teacher too, because your students are fantastic.
    I agree that some great dancers are bad teachers. Teaching requires almost a completely different skill set than dancing does.
    I guess my point in writing this article is that it's okay to learn as you go-- because I think that's what everyone does. As long as you do your best to prepare yourself to teach, and aren't teaching things that put your students at risk, that is.
    As long as you are open about your qualifications (or lack thereof), and your experience (or lack thereof), each student can make their own decision about whether you're a good teacher or not.
    Just like some people are born dancers, some people are natural teachers. But the rest of us (myself included) need experience in the field, in order to become decent teachers, IMO. If you can get some experience as an assistant first, that's awesome, but not everyone has that opportunity.
    You won't know whether you're any good at it until you try.
    Does that make sense?

  4. Thank you Sara. :) I know I am not a terrible dancer, just not the bestest ever!

    We all learn as we go, picking up new things to suit us and dropping old things that don't work for us anymore. I know I was a TA and sub before I started the road to going full time. It was invaluable experience, and I definitely recommend it to aspiring teachers.

    Thank you for all of the thought and time you put into this article. I think this is a great series and I'm excited about picking up some of those books that you mentioned in Part 2.

  5. Funny. A lot of this applies to teaching as a profession in general, even (or, perhaps, especially) the fact that some people get into instruction for the wrong reasons.

    You're right to point out (in your comments here) that teachers are always learning as they go. Anyone who tells you any different is either lying or selling you something. Or, they just aren't very good teachers because they don't understand that to be a teacher is--always-- to be a student.

    I'm really glad you're doing these posts!