Dance Teachers (The Good and The Bad)

Dance teachers play a crucial role in preparing their students for a lifelong future in dance – be it professional or recreational.

A dance teacher not only has to be proficient in the style they teach, but proficient in how they teach – it takes one bad experience for a beginning student to decide to never give dance a chance again or an inexperienced teacher pushing students to execute movements that may lead to injury.

How does one become proficient? You have to start somewhere and it is always at the bottom – Every great teacher was a novice. This means that there has to be a place for the novice teacher to practice and grow to some day become proficient at teaching if it is his/her wish. Where do we put them and how do we monitor their progress?

Well managed, local dance studios are a good place for aspiring dance teachers and here’s why. A local dance studio that has at least one highly proficient dance teacher on staff has the opportunity to cultivate future dance teachers through mentorship. It’s a win, win – providing students with teaching experience as well as preserving the longevity of the studio due to high teacher turnover rates. Student teachers will also learn how to teach in a safe, systematic way in order to continue to peak a child’s interest as well as ensure that learning is being scaffolded for those that are ready for something a bit more challenging.

The sad news is that not all local dance studios are well managed – hiring teachers with very little experience. This leaves aspiring dancers and their parents with very few options. For this posting, I’ll focus on teachers and what constitutes a good dance teacher.

Classifying a dance teacher as good or bad, is subjective – A student that is always getting corrected on execution or posture might think that his/her teacher is bad. On the other hand, the student that is standing right next to him might think that the teacher is good. The parent of the child getting the correction may agree or disagree with the correction, deeming the teacher as good or bad. Maybe the way in which the teacher is giving the correction may give the impression that he/she is a good or bad teacher. You could see where I’m going with this.

What constitutes a highly proficient dance teacher? It is my opinion that a highly proficient dance teacher is a person that has a desire to learn as much as a desire to teach – a person that is always in contact with his/her students and parents so that they understand the overall class trajectory as well as individual student progress – a person that is always researching how to teach his or her students in the most effective way – a person that is open to learning other forms of dance – a person that has a professional dance history and a person that is willing to make mistakes and laugh.

Twyla never believed in mistakes, just opportunities.

On the other hand, some dance teachers are taught by other dance teachers that were taught by other dance teachers that were taught by other dance teachers and so on. The bad news is that not all were taught how to be good dance teachers so the bad habits and techniques get passed on from one bad teacher to the next.

These days, teachers receive degrees in Dance Performance, Dance Education or “certified” such as the certifications offered through ABT’s National Training Curriculum. These are all well and good…they’re lookers. When you apply for a job these are the bells and whistles that employers look for. However, it does not measure how a teacher teaches.

In the end, as a new or seasoned dancer, its up to you to decide who is a good teacher and who is a bad teacher. You may live in a town with just a couple of dance studios. If this is the case, go to each one and ask to observe the teachers…do not observe the students, that’s not what you are there for. Listen for the teacher’s tone…does it sound positive or negative. Does the teacher make an attempt to always address the entire class or does the teacher play favorites. Does the teacher demonstrate the movement systematically the way it should be done or does the teacher call on one or two favorites to do the movement. Does the teacher find time to laugh…even at his/her own mistakes. Does the teacher learn from his/her students. Does the teacher check for understanding to make sure that each student understands the exercise.

Here is an example, sometimes I get a hankering for a Three Musketeers. I stop into a store, pick one up and head out the door. When I open up the bar, I notice that the chocolate isn’t brown how chocolate is supposed to look like…it’s the color of chalk – YUK! Do I settle for this nasty old Three Musketeers bar or do I return the old one and go to a different store…yeah, I’m going to a different store.

Don’t settle to take dance with a bad teacher. If you are able, ask mom or dad if you could check out some of the other studios and look at some other teachers and make a decision. Be honest with your parents. Let them know the reasons why you don’t like the teacher.

The sad news is that if you live in a rural part of the country, you may not have that much of a choice so if you love dance, you might just have to chose between the lesser of two evils. This means that you are going to have to have an iron mental constitution. I’ll talk about the mental game in my next post.

Good luck and Dance On!

A Ballet Education

All schools are not created equally. There are different schools for different purposes, different schools have different resources. Resources can include everything from financial aid to connections to community programs to performing opportunities. These schools around the world are sometimes overwhelming to navigate or there is a very large amount of pressure to make it…
— Read on

Twyla Tharp Wants You to Move

Take up space. Stretch. Move your body.

“God gives you one gift: You get to be born,” the choreographer Twyla Tharp said. “Thereafter, you’ve got to take care of it yourself.”

Her new book, “Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life,” doesn’t have anything to do with chasing youth. No, no, no — to Ms. Tharp, 78, that is a losing proposition. But it’s not over until it’s over. “The figures are still shocking in terms of people who don’t exercise or who are not aware of the reality that diet is actually extremely important,” she said. “If you want to have a future, you’ve got to provide for that now.”

And Ms. Tharp, a dance pioneer and Tony-Award-winning choreographer, is ready to assist. She has already written two books about how to better yourself using the tools of an artist: “The Creative Habit” (2003), a best seller, and “The Collaborative Habit” (2009). “Keep It Moving,” a follow-up, applies those tools to finding purpose and growth as you age, no matter what age you are.

Taking Class Part One (The Beginner)

Taking Class Part One (The Beginner)

I started formal dance training at 14 years of age at The Inner City Ensemble Theatre and Dance Company in Paterson NJ. ICE was known for providing opportunities for teenagers in the neighborhood an outlet for expression instead of the alternative which was a life in the streets. I knew about the company because I would attend some of their public performances and was in awe of the dancing – I used to go home after watching a performance and try to recreate some of the choreography.

At 12 years of age I auditioned for ICE but was not chosen however, my sister was and whenever she would go to rehearsals I would tag along. Eventually, one of the choreographers found out that I could dance and asked me to become a member of the 1st company – the performing company.

It didn’t last long. I was too young and after my sister decided to drop out, I wasn’t going to go without her. So, I dropped out as well.

Two years later, ICE was having auditions and at that time I was a freshman attending Eastside High School in Paterson. I was also heavy into soccer and wanted to play for Eastside’s soccer team. When I went to the coach and asked if  I could try out he said that he already had his team assembled. The next day, posted on a door at school, there was a notice about auditions for ICE – I went and this time I was accepted.

At ICE, they provided several forms of dance – Ballet, Jazz and Modern. Each class requiring a different set of dress requirements that I did not have – for my audition/Ballet class I wore a Karate uniform (so embarrassing).

Never taking a formal dance class, there were a few things that I needed to learn, mainly learning what and how to dress for the various classes that I was required to take. For Ballet class, white leotard, black tights, ballet shoes and the dreaded dance belt – Jazz, black leotard, black Jazz pants and Jazz shoes, Modern, black leotard, Jazz pants/sweatpants and bare feet.

Dance belts are torturous! I have never worn a dance belt that I could say was comfortable and even after purchasing all forms of dance belts later in my career, never have I worn one that I could say, “hmm…this actually feels ok.”  On the other hand, any guy starting out, you have to wear it – it’s better to be safe than sorry even though there will be times when you are going to feel sorry for being safe.

Shoes were a problem for me as well. I didn’t have much money at first, so I basically purchased a pair of ballet shoes on sale from Capezio. They were black and made of leather. The sole of the shoe was not very supple so my feet looked terrible when I pointed and I didn’t have a good point to begin with so imagine a pair of golf clubs that were slightly bent more than usual at the bottom and you have my feet.

Rule of thumb when taking your first dance classes…focus 110% on your teachers. They are providing you with the information you need to progress, not your friends. If you have a question, always ask your teacher. There are going to be other dancers in the class that think they may know better and are going to tell you what to do because they have a false sense that they are the best in the class. As a result, they are going to find opportunities to tell you what to do – don’t let them, trust your teacher. Many times, these students that are endowed with this false sense of themselves decide to strike out into the world when they are older only to discover that compared to the rest of the real dance world, they are a very tiny plankton in the great sea of dance. If you continue to listen to your teachers, your will eventually begin to work with choreographers and if you did your job well with teachers, choreographers will love you.

On the other hand, you may encounter teachers

On the other hand, not all dance teachers are great. At ICE, I was fortunate to have been taught by teachers that have either taught at Juilliard or have danced with professional dance companies. They weren’t high school students that have gone through the studios that they were or continue to take class from. To put it more bluntly, children cannot teach children to dance in order to get to the next level of a career in dance. A dance teacher needs to have experience in years as well as a career in the profession of dance.

I hate to also say this but, you have to love taking class. If you don’t, then going to the next level most likely is not an option. Dance class has to be more than just moving around to waste time, show offing, doing it because your parents are forcing you, hanging with friends, increase your chances of getting a part in the Nutcracker, or anything else other than you can’t go a day without it  – you take dance class because you want to dance…period. This means that there is no difference between taking class and performing at the Met – it’s all dance and you just can’t live without it. My audition for ICE was a ballet class. I never took ballet before, but I knew that I was hooked after the second class. The reason was that there was a methodology to ballet that I found made sense to me. Also, in a chaotic world, ballet class was the only place where I knew what was going to happen from plie to gran allegro…it was my rock in a raging river.

Did I want to be a ballet dancer…HELL NO! For me, dance is language and how can you relate or communicate with others if you only know one language. Ballet was my foundation. If a dancer has been studying with a ballet master that understands how to teach ballet, that dancer can go on to learn and master other forms of dance.

Does this mean that Ballet dancers can dance any form of dance…emphatically NO. If you rely on one form, you will look like a dancer that is trying to dance another form, badly. If you get a chance, watch Baryshnikov on Broadway. Really look at the difference between the way Liza and Misha are moving. I could go on forever with the differences, but I am only going to talk about one – the back. Liza moves through her back – she allows it to twist and bend naturally in response to her movement. Misha’s back is straight and high – this is the trait of a dancer that has been doing ballet his/her entire life and only exposed to other forms many years later. Reason is, if you are going to be able to perform 11 rubles (pirouettes…see White Nights clip), you need to call upon your center at a moment’s notice – center becomes and unconscious act.

All in all, as a beginning dancer, don’t get discouraged. If you are doing it because you want to do it, there is no right or wrong – a teacher that tells you that you are doing something wrong does not mean that you are wrong.

See every correction as an opportunity for you to be a better dancer – I’m pretty sure that when one is learning a new language, they are going to make a few mistakes.

Lastly, if you don’t feel a desire to dance – if it doesn’t feel like food, a source of life, don’t think that you are not worthy of dance. People dance for many reasons and if you just find dance fun, then by all means, keep dancing!