Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Teaching bellydance, part 3

This is Part 3 of a 4(?) part series on teaching bellydance. Part 1 (why to teach, and what to expect when you start teaching) and Part 2 (resources for new teachers) are available at the links.

Part 3: Cultivating Uniqueness

So you've started teaching, or you're considering it. How are you going to distinguish yourself from the other teachers in your area and create a niche for yourself? In other words, how are you going to avoid needlessly duplicating someone else's instruction, especially someone else with more teaching and dancing experience than you? These questions are important-- maybe even crucial-- to your success in the long term, but they're not always easy to answer. Here are some steps to help you cultivate your own unique teaching style and vocabulary.

For the Love of God Don't Plagiarize
What follows is the truth, not my personal opinion. Choreographies, including combinations, are the choreographer's intellectual property. If you are teaching another dancer's combinations or choreography without their consent, you are plagiarizing from that teacher! This is wrong! It's basically stealing.
ASK before you teach someone else's stuff. If you can't ask, or don't want to, don't teach it. If you desperately want to teach someone else's stuff and can't get permission, it's your responsibility to make major changes to it before you teach it. You should still say that your version of the combo or choreo is inspired by the person you learned it from.

Everyone gets their inspiration from somewhere. Most of us get it from other dancers. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other people, but if your dance gene pool (so to speak) is too shallow, it will show. To avoid looking like a weak imitation of another dancer, open your eyes, mind, and heart to new sources of inspiration.
Investigate other dancers. Never stick with one teacher; at the very least, take workshops from different people. It's best if you can take classes long-term with more than one person whose work you respect.
Investigate other styles. Don't assume that classes or workshops with a dancer whose style is not what you're interested in will be worthless! Instead, use them as an opportunity to broaden your knowledge base and your skills. What can you learn from someone whose style is totally different than yours? How could you adapt their moves and combinations to look more at home in your own style?
Investigate other dance forms, at least over YouTube. You might not want to use moves or combinations from other forms of dance, but it helps to watch videos with a critical eye. Some elements of dance are universal. What makes a dance interesting? What poses and lines could you adapt for your own dance? What about traveling patterns and group formations?

Teach what you've Learned
In other words, don't teach what you don't understand.
If something doesn't make sense to you, even if it comes from the mouth of someone you deeply respect, don't teach it. Maybe it will make sense to you in time, but until then, don't just parrot the words to your students. What if someone asks you a question? How can you elaborate on something you don't comprehend?

Give It Time
I usually "sit on" new info from teachers for a while (say six months), integrating it into my home practice over that time, before I teach it to my students. This way I can teach from my own experience. Sometimes I come home from workshops or intensives with stuff that's too exciting not to share right away, but in most cases I think it's best to let things stew for a while before you give them to your students.

Adapt and Integrate
There is no one perfect way to teach each move. It's a calculus; you approach 'perfect' for each person by adapting and refining your teaching strategies over time. Part of this is integrating what you hear from other people.
Don't get complacent. Don't keep teaching basic moves the exact same way each time, and for the love of God, don't just teach what your teacher taught verbatim. Meditate on basic moves on a regular basis. Think about how and why they work.
Read books about anatomy. Understanding body mechanics can help you dig in to your ideas of how to explain both basic and advanced movements.
Take lots of workshops and classes. Look at lots of videos. Listen to how the moves are being taught, don't just learn how to do them. What aspects of each dancer's instruction work for you? What tips and metaphors are really helpful? What parts DON'T work? Make notes, go home and think about what you learned. Think a lot.

Learn from Your Students
Observe your students. Their ability to understand your instruction is the bottom line. Whether or not your techniques are effective will be pretty obvious if you really watch what's going on with each class.
What questions come up again and again? What problems do most students have? Does this reflect on your teaching strategies? How can you adapt to make progress easier for your students? What issues are outside your control?
Encourage your students to give you feedback and to ask as many questions as they need (unless they get way out of control and start asking questions every fifteen seconds, which happens very occasionally).
Don't obsess over the progress of individual students-- sometimes one student or another will face obstacles to improvement that you simply can't control. If most of your students are improving, that's the best you can ask of yourself. If most of your students are not, ask yourself why.

I hope these tips help. Please feel free to leave questions or further advice in the comments!

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