You know the scene: hip scarves jingling, catchy music playing; a roomful of excited women laughing and having fun as they follow the beautiful belly dancer in front of them. She dances, shakes, and shimmies, a fabulous vision of what they all want to be.
The students watch and follow the dancer but few – if any – come close to matching her graceful moves. The combinations come fast, one after the other. The teacher turns as she dances, and her students turn too, losing the beat as they try to watch her while facing the other direction. The beautiful teacher’s transitions are smooth and well-timed, but the students shuffle through steps trying to catch up, and miss the count, start on the wrong foot, stumbling after her.
When the song ends the teacher turns and chats with a few students (the ones who are always in front); while around the room people talk with their friends, or ask each other how to do the steps they missed.
Have you ever been in a class like this? Maybe it was enough – maybe you just wanted to move to belly dance music in a fun atmosphere. Maybe you enjoyed the camaraderie and exercise, the exotic music and pretty hip scarves, and maybe you were satisfied with the dance steps you happened to pick up.
Or did you feel frustrated with yourself for not catching on better? You knew you weren’t keeping up but didn’t know why, you couldn’t figure out the steps and transitions. You may even have felt you weren’t very good at bellydancing.
What breaks my heart about the “follow me” style of teaching is that students often do blame themselves for failing when it was the lack of actual “teaching” that failed them.
Teachers: you have a responsibility to help students learn, and not just surround yourself with a roomful of would-be dancers trying to keep up with you. Be kind and patient; try different approaches to get your corrections across; and above all, take some time to learn about the craft of teaching. Research how people learn; find out how to manage classroom tension levels and student motivations.
Correcting mistakes when teaching belly dance is not only difficult because you have to know what’s wrong and how to fix it; but it can also impact your students’ feelings about you as a teacher. I think this is a big hurdle some teachers can’t get past. Students don’t always react well to corrections; if they are struggling with self-image issues then any mention of mistakes seems to wound them deeply and they might blame you somehow and maybe leave class.
Even so, your first duty to your students is to be honest and above all, bring your instruction down to their level. Yes, it’s slow and boring for you, but take the time your students need to learn well – that is your job.
Be courageous enough to offer corrections to them, even if it tarnishes their happy glow. Don’t be afraid to stop their mistakes and have them try again. They may feel temporarily unhappy, but point out how beautiful they are when they do the move correctly! SHOW them the difference between drooping elbows and lifted elbows – DEMONSTRATE the difference between slinging your hips around versus using muscle engagement to drive the movements. Help them see WHY they should put effort into their dancing. You may lose some students who can’t take the critical attention, who “just want to have fun”, but stringing them along without corrections is unethical.
So yes, you can stay in the front of the room, play loud music and run through your bellydance routine, and you’ll have a room full of students high on endorphins. But please make sure you spend some class time teaching them to dance, because if they ever perform, you’ll want your students to shine.
BIO: Anthea (Kawakib) Poole of Fredericksburg VA, a featured dancer at Middle Eastern restaurants for 20 years, draws on her experience as a full-time performer and certified teacher for her articles and classes. She promotes belly dance as a family-friendly activity for everyone. Visit Kawakib.com to learn about her online class options, booklets, and DVDs. Find her on Youtube at DanceEternal, and on Twitter: @TribeO