As I was putting on my shoes after class, a student from the next class walks in and asks, ‘how’s it going?’ I tell her of all the new things I’m learning, when my teacher walks in and interjects, ‘well you really haven’t learned anything yet’. My heart sank. I had been studying with this teacher for well over a year on and off. I felt so discouraged, but stubbornness kept me going. Until one day I was chatting with some dance friends and they were surprised by how little I knew after being under this teacher for a few years. They made me realize that I had been kept in a knowledge vacuum. They said, “You need to find a new teacher right away”! Since then I’ve realized that not all teachers are meant for everyone and if you’re new to dance, it’s sometimes hard to realize if you’ve found the right fit.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to study with many teachers in many forms of dance. I’ve studied on a continuous basis ballet, lyrical jazz, contemporary, hip hop, African, flamenco, raks sharki, and bollywood and countless other styles in a workshop or two. Aside from the basics of being able to give instruction, break down moves clearly, and offer meaningful corrective feedback, a good teacher also has other vital qualities one should look for. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list, it includes the qualities one should look for that don’t always come first to mind:
A good teacher encourages you to seek out more knowledge and training. I’ve had teachers that have discouraged students from studying with others. The excuse I heard as a student was that I would receive conflicting information and that it could confuse me. However, I completely disagree. Especially when starting something new, the more often you perform a new movement pattern the easier it is to develop “muscle memory”. The muscles used in performing a particular movement adapt and respond faster the more often you practice a movement pattern. Also, be wary of a teacher that can’t recommend a peer instructor.
A dance teacher won’t tell you this, but the reason they are reluctant to recommend a peer is the fear that the student will be “poached” by another teacher. A very real concern, as students are often hard to come by and some people lack good ethical standards. However, a good teacher should be willing to let their students go to whomever they feel they can learn most comfortably from. As a student I can attest there are some people I had a hard time understanding their explanations or they had a personality that just didn’t blend well with mine. Not every teacher is the right fit for everyone, and a good teacher is aware of this.
A good teacher provides a safe learning environment. It seems like this shouldn’t even have to be said. However, I once had a teacher who would yell at the class if someone was off beat! It made me reticent to try anything on my own for fear of being reprimanded. I’ve also had teachers make me cry, not because of what they said but because of how frustrated they made me feel.
I remember a time when we had this move in class that I just couldn’t get right. My teacher stopped class and made me do it over and over until I executed it correctly. This is never the right approach! I was embarrassed and flustered having been put on the spot in front of the class like that. No one should feel singled out, embarrassed or less than in a class.
A good teacher knows when to push and when to pull back. Part of a teacher’s job is to observe and adapt. They should be watching you and gauging based on how well you move during warm up, stretching and drills whether or not you are ready to do something on your own. Pushing you before you’re ready can be both physically and emotionally damaging. Being able to properly gauge how far to push someone comes with teaching experience, being able to read a student’s body language and taking feedback from the student when a student expresses frustration, confusion or asks for more explanation.
Few teachers I’ve had are good at receiving feedback. I’ve had experiences where I tell the teacher, “I don’t get it”, and they look at me, turn around and then say, “just do it like this”! That doesn’t help at all. The good teachers take the feedback they are given and don’t offer excuses for why they teach things a certain way, instead they listen and observe and then provide alternative approaches at teaching the material.
A good teacher will be a forever student. A good teacher seeks new knowledge, takes master classes, or cross trains in other disciplines outside their specialty. I’ve observed in my years as a student that a teacher that stops learning and thinks they have nothing to learn from someone else is a good indicator of someone who isn’t going to take feedback well. If they are students themselves, then they don’t lose the connection with that feeling of struggling to master something new. A teacher that isn’t continually seeking growth and new knowledge forgets what it’s like to be new at something and suck at it! Teachers often forget how much we need to hear words of encouragement when we’re new to something and are struggling.
A good teacher provides individual encouragement and builds an environment where everyone is rooting for the success of everyone else. One of my favorite teachers often has us go across the floor where she can see where we’re at in our stage of progress. She never pushes us beyond what we’re capable of, and always offers meaningful words of encouragement. She’ll tell us to extend forward, lift up, and reach for the corners! She’ll clap and cheer and encourage others to do so as we go across the floor even if the move isn’t coming out perfectly!
Being a dance teacher doesn’t always require having a certificate or a degree. Many forms of dance are learned through communal knowledge, for example hip hop, flamenco and raks sharki come first to mind. And yes, there may be places that will offer a “certificate” in these disciplines, but that doesn’t really mean a person is competent to teach it. Teaching requires more than just knowledge in a particular dance discipline. It also requires basic understanding of human anatomy and mechanics to ensure injuries are avoided. Also be wary of the teacher that claims to be a winner of multiple “awards”. Many dance competitions are quite small and a first place winner out of 3 may not mean much, much less qualify anyone to teach.
My experience has been to be cautious of online reviews as often those come from friends of teachers more so than actual students. Instead, I’ve found the best way to find the right teacher is to ask my friends or my teachers for a recommendation. If no one knows anyone, then I research online. I look a videos, website, Instagram and Facebook for the teachers skill and personality. Then, I call or email before I show up in class to see if I’m at the right level for their class. I also use that as an opportunity to see if they are welcoming or if they are standoffish. Finding the right teacher is a very personal decision and for something that we do as a treat to ourselves we should take the time to ensure it’s something we’re enjoying and growing from.
5 Overlooked Qualities of a Good Dance Teacher:
A good teacher encourages you to seek more knowledge and more training
A good teacher provides a safe learning environment
A good teacher knows when to push and when to pull back
A good teacher will be a forever student
A good teacher builds an environment where everyone is rooting for the success of everyone else.
Upper left: Nesma: I've travelled half way a cross the globe to study with Nesma twice. She is extremely generous in sharing her experiences and knowledge. I've never studied with someone who is so passionate about sharing as much as they know and encouraging her students to seek even more knowledge!
Upper right: Nada Chouaib: I met Nada on a whim while wandering the streets in Spain. I saw her school and decided to contact her. She was so kind! She welcomed me, a complete stranger into her school and provided a safe, welcoming learning space free of judgement. I'm forever grateful to have met her!
Lower left: Nalini: Provided me with structure and discipline that I was in such desperate need of. She's always observing and aware of what the individual needs are. She pushed me to go beyond my self perceived limits and want to work harder for myself.
Lower middle bottom: Roxy: In addition to being a cheerleader for her her students, she's also a forever student herself! She's continually working on expanding her knowledge, connecting with world renowned dancers and sharing that learning experience with her students and others. It's humanizing and humbling to see your teachers learning in the same class as you.
Bottom right: Nadira: One of my first bellydance teachers where I felt part of the whole class. Sometimes teachers put their best students up front, or you get a sense of a pecking order in a class. But not in her class, she treated everyone with respect and kindness. She created a supportive environment where we all were rooting for each other as we moved across the floor.