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A Competent Teacher

By Ne-Kajira Jannan


"One of the hardest areas for enforcing ethics is in the teaching field because we have, to date, no standardized foundation vocabulary, no established professional standard, and no standard categorization of the various styles and forms of this art form, complete with a certification program.

This is a double-edged sword: on one hand, this ensures that no single group can monopolize the dance or control the creative process, but on the other hand, it also means that students can often fall into the hands of ill-trained, unscrupulous people posing as teachers. I suspect it will take many years yet until the situation is resolved.

In the meantime, the dance community must police itself; we must take on the responsibility of offering incoming and current students a variety of "signposts" with which to identify qualified, competent teachers from bad. This is difficult because the various styles take different approaches to performance and training, to execution of a movement... however, there are standard areas of knowledge a teacher should have, and standard practices. If you are looking for a qualified instructor, I suggest the following:

1. Inquire as to the teacher's dance education background. Who were her/his instructors? How long have they been dancing? Have they interned under another instructor? Have they continued to take classes and workshops in more advanced dance training? Have they taken time to study another discipline?

There is no program certifying a person is qualified to teach this dance form, though there have been small programs offered in the past. Often, a person will take a few months of classes and then begin teaching her/himself, with too little knowledge and experience. Intern programs are unusual, but some have been used in the past and I recommend this in some far future when we have standardized vocabulary! And the best teacher's know they never know enough and are always learning from others. Dance truly is the art of the eternal student. Asking about a teacher's background is the first step.

A teacher does not have to study another discipline to be a good teacher, but you will usually find that the best have explored several areas of dance, movement training or performance arts. On the average, the best teachers will have some experience in both stage and folkloric dances; many have studied ballet, modern dance or other movement disciplines. It's just part of a package of interest, hunger for knowing and a drive to keep improving that is found in most good teachers. Also, the foundations of movement study given in these disciplines aids the teacher in understanding how to communicate movement to her/his students.

2. What is her/his philosophy of dance?

If your teacher feels dance is for good times and erotic play, you may not receive the best instruction, since it is likely this teacher either has not been trained well, or hasn't given much thought to the dance. Dance is fun, but just as important, dance is a craft and mastering a craft includes learning as much about its background as possible. I don't mean a person needs to immerse themselves in dance as a lifelong pursuit, but basic knowledge is important!

Also, a philosophy of respecting the self, respecting others, respecting those who have come before and those who are of our tomorrows is important. Whatch out for the teacher who denigrates others- I repeat- I am not speaking of those who express a genuine concern for something happening in the dance community- I am speaking of those who with malice and aforethought attack other dancers, for the express purpose of creating excitement. Watch out for the instructor who teaches dance as something done to tease and titillate! Observe how she instructs students in presentation- learning from someone who stresses leaning forward and shaking your breasts in a customer's face is questionable, at best!

3. What, if any, goals does your teacher have? Does she provide growth opportunities for students in the form of haflas, events, workshops, educational materials?

Good teachers want to give students a place to dance, to explore the ideas of performance, a place to express themselves. They generally seek out safe venues for performance or create them. Haflas, student nights, women's gatherings and other such informal events are necessary, they help students explore their performance skills and develop stage presence. A good teacher seeks out these venues and attends them with students, or creates these venues.

4. Does she encourage students to learn the various styles and study the various options in dance? Does she notify students of upcoming events? Encourage them to attend events sponsored by other instructors? Encourage them to take lessons from other teachers?

Good teachers are secure in their skills and don't worry about students seeing other performers. A good teacher understands that her style of dance or teaching may or may not be the best for each individual in her class. She's willing to send students elsewhere if she feels the student would do better under another instructor. A good teacher gives the basic foundations of dance, then allows her students to explore options.

5. Does she care whether a student learns well? Does she explain body mechanics when teaching? Does she emphasize proper body placement and posture in classes?

A good teacher has an understanding of body mechanics- how a body moves, the planes of motion, the way the body works to create a movement - and can explain these to the student. A good teacher understands that posture is important in dance because it affects both breathing and presentation - and is quick to stress this to her students and follow through during a class.

6. Does she also understand some of the cultures represented by this art form? Does she take time to correct attitudes or information that could be potentially harmful to the student or offensive to others?

I'm not saying a teacher must immerse herself in all the cultures that have created bellydance. But a good teacher has an awareness of culturally appropriate factors in the presentation of dance, understands the musical rhythms and is able to help her students learn to hear them in the music. A good teacher also emphasizes the feelings or emotional aspects of the dance.

7. Does your teacher seem to have a firm grasp of simple business concepts? Are her classes organized and well-planned? Does she offer lectures and programs to educate the public, such as at museums, libraries, art centers?

Again, not every teacher needs to be a business diva, but simple business practices indicate an organized, professional mind. Classes should have a definite beginning, middle and end; should flow from one subject area to another. And if your teacher is out in the community lecturing, it's one more indication that she is truly serious about this craft, and confident of her knowledge. Of course, anyone can go out and lecture erroneously, so this is not a perfect indication- but it adds credibility.

8. Is she unafraid to admit there are things she doesn't know, and can she point out good resources for the information?

A good teacher is secure enough to admit she can't know everything. She is also secure enough to help her students seek out better information! She's done her research, too, so can probably point you to reference materials and other information that would be helpful.

While these are not guarantees of a good teacher, you will usually find that quality teachers see the art as a whole picture, understand there are many areas to explore, insist on a proper approach of study and discipline, and really care about whether or not students are learning well.

Selecting a teacher is not a simple task. Many women will take a few months of classes, then begin teaching in their local area. They enjoy dancing, enjoy dressing up, enjoy the music- but they are not yet prepared to teach, nor are they aware of many of the factors they need to know to teach properly. One of the best ways to select a teacher is to attend an event, and pay close attention to the dancers, talk to people who seem to be familiar with the event. In most cases, if you inquire, dancers will be willing to give you a list of names of instructors. Ask the instructor if you can come observe a class. Pay close attention to the class structure and the material presented, and talk to some of the students. Also, talk to the instructor and find out a little about her background. A confident, qualified instructor will not hesitate to answer your questions- and do be courteous and polite!

Having ethics in teaching means that you have examined your own skill level and decided whether or not you are really ready to teach. You have also decided to make a commitment to your students, to yourself and to the dance community to teach, act, and perform at your best".