The common denominator

[As usual, I’m late to Circle Time over at Dance Advantage, but I did want to write my thoughts on September’s topic: qualities of a great dance teacher.]

No great dancer was ever born… there’s some fabulous natural talent out there, but every dancer has had at least one, and more likely many, teachers who have taken that talent and given it direction, technique, and a venue for display.

Happily I’ve never had the experience of having a horribly bad teacher… some were more effective than others, but all had their positives. Here, in no particular order, are the themes of greatness I’ve witnessed among them:

1. They know their dance form inside and out — Whether it be ballet, modern, hip-hop, whatever, these teachers are a wealth of knowledge not just in terms of knowing the steps, but also in knowing the history and kinesiology. This is essential! The first time I took hip-hop it was fun, but I didn’t think much more of it than a stylized form of aerobic dance. Then I took a master class with someone from a For Real hip-hop company. Before the class started the teacher gave a short lecture on the history of breaking, how it led to hip-hop, where the influences came from. To me that gave me a better understanding of the dance form and inspired me to want to know more. It took it from a workout to a true art form and led me to respect it far more than I had previously.

2. They come prepared — They keep the class moving. Too much idle time and I start to get antsy, the corrections I received earlier in class get forgotten, and I start thinking about things like hunger, chores I need to do at home, what’s on my agenda for tomorrow at work, etc. The great teacher has everything mapped out before class (maybe not on paper, but at least mentally) and ensures everything flows seamlessly.

3. They have an agenda — Kind of like being prepared, but more long term, i.e.: here are the skills my students have today; these are the skills I want them to have [by the end of class, by the end of the year, to proceed to the next level]; and this is how I will lead them from where they are to where they need to be. Of course I often wonder if this is even possible in “open” classes where the teacher doesn’t have the benefit of a dedicated, regular attendance. But it’s great when it happens!

4. They give constant feedback — Whether in the form of correction or praise, whether directed towards an individual or the group at large, it is ever-present and always specific. Critiques are constructive and praise is specific (“good job” is always nice to hear, but it’s better  to know exactly what you did right so you can try to replicate it in the future!).

5. They use different styles of feedback — I found a link on the Pointe ‘Til You Drop page on Facebook to a video about Joy Womack, a ballet student from Texas currently studying at the Bolshoi. Johanna noted that Womack was surprised by the amount of hands-on correction she’s received at the Bolshoi, apparently something she hadn’t experienced in earlier training. The subsequent comments seemed to indicate that many European teachers favor physical correction while American instructors seem to avoid it preferring verbal correction. As a child I had fairly hands-on teachers (keep in mind that I’m referring to a time two decades ago). Sometimes you need a teacher to put you in a position so you can see in the mirror what you’re supposed to look like and simultaneously feel the muscles and bones in that position and start to integrate it into your muscle memory. I’ve found this helpful even when I’m not the student being corrected. Watching the correction process helps me to think about my own alignment and how I might improve. I think that aspect is largely avoided in adult classes and I certainly understand that adults might be less amenable to physical touch, but sometimes I miss that aspect of instruction. Similarly, though, a great teacher is also able to give concise verbal instruction as well as provide imagery that helps students understand a movement. You never know what feedback — physical, verbal, or kinesthetic — will be the one that clicks with a particular student.

6. They push students to reach higher — No matter whether the student is the star pupil, the newbie, or decidedly average, the teacher finds a way to point out the positive, but never allows the student to rest on his or her laurels. Of course, the art is in the conveyance of that push. The great teacher knows how to push in a way that gives the student confidence that they are capable of more rather than making the student feel “picked on.” Not an easy thing to do!

7. They have an in-class persona that demands respect – As a student you tend to spend a lot of time in the studio with your instructors and as a result the lines between regular life and dance life tend to blur. This “studio family” is part of why I love dance! But class is time for the switch to flip to a professional interaction. Outside relationships fall to the wayside and each student is an individual with his or her own merits worthy of attention.

Finally, I just have to throw in a word of thanks to all of my great teachers, past and present: EA, PM, LN, EH, BW, AF, MB, AC, MS. The world is a better place for all you have done as artists, teachers, and scholars.


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