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Teaching Dance; what it takes, where each teacher is from & what teacher is ‘best’ for each student?

- Information for dance teachers, dance students and dance parents -

Author: Teagan Lowe

FOR MY DANCE TEACHERS: The journey for most dance teachers typically begins with two very familiar stories; either a childhood love of dance that developed into wanting to teach others the skills and happiness you can learn through dance. Or, the professional dancer who, beyond their own professional career, has cultivated a wealth of knowledge (an encyclopaedia if you will) of precious information that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

Regardless of a dancer’s past, the path travelled by most dance teachers begins with the either of the above, or very familiar stories. However, to be a long-lasting, successful, dedicated and informative dance teacher it takes a passion of two things: dance (duh!) and also a real want to educate others.

The dancer who has nurtured the pathway of ‘dancing teaching’ as direct career choice usually comes from a place of wanting to educate their students. They wish to give their students the tools and lessons needed to flourish from a pure dance education and developmental perspective. However, the latter pathway of a teacher (one who has come from being a ‘professional dancer’), can educate through these means and further give their students the tools to flourish from a deeply personal, ‘lived-experienced’ perspective.

Not to say that either pathway is better, or worse than the other, quite the contrary! It actually depends on the student; how each student personally learns, listens and adapts to these vastly different teaching styles that will ultimately see the teacher/student relationship work best for that dancer.

Teaching, especially dance, involves giving a lot of oneself to your students. As such, a great dance teacher genuinely cares about the progress of each students; physically, emotionally and mentally.

Students who have been handed a disadvantage from a previous teacher need a lot more assistance than students who have had great teachers in the past. This extra need from certain students can make time in the studio more disruptive and difficult for everyone involved.

As a dance teacher, you have to also maintain a level of physical competency and exertion. Without this physical enthusiasm all of these previous points make you less effective as a teacher, demonstrator and mentor to your students. This does not mean as a student that you should expect your teacher to demonstrate every exercise to the fullest of their abilities. However, a well rounded teacher can use students, student teachers, their own bodies and their words to effectively and seamlessly communicate exercises, choreography and corrections.

Sadly, in some cases, it is the lack of commitment or dedication from the teacher. This may be due to some form of resentment for not having made it as a professional dancer. Some teachers may also be somewhat jealous of not being “as talented” as upcoming students. Others may find that they’re simply too physically exhausted and have mentally checked out to giving their best as an educator. Being a dance teacher, although incredibly rewarding, is a difficult job. Some dance teachers, given their own experiences in the past, find that the stresses of everyday life combined with the high demands of the arts industry takes a serious toll on their ability to be effective in the studio.

FOR MY DANCE STUDENTS: As students, we only really recall the extremes of the bell curve; from the most wonderful teacher, who may have showered you with praise, kindness and accolades - to the most horrific teacher who made our dance lives a living hell both in and out of the studio. Again, ask a variety of students and you may find that although there would be a lot of commonalities with these teachers, you may be surprised to find that some had actually interpreted the more harsh teachers to be more productive, more challenging and therefore any type of positive praise meant more than it did coming from the “nice” teacher.

What students don’t see from a teachers perspective - as I wasn’t privy to being a student also - is the strict curriculum and syllabus guidelines, budgetary issues, and other challenging students which teachers are bound and restricted by. These varying issues are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad of problems and restrictions teachers deal with, both in and out of the studio.

After spending 18 years as a professional dancer and now being a dance educator, mentor and mental health consultant myself, I can safely say that being a dance teacher can be an incredibly demanding job. It is just as much about managing differing learning styles, personalities and dynamics as it is about teaching dance technique, artistry and style. For some, it is easy to slip into bad habits which can potentially affect students negatively as well as the institution one teaches in.

When students are placed in with a dance teacher that they don’t necessarily gel with, it can have detrimental effects on that student’s progress, not only as a dancer but on their overall development and confidence. On the flip side, some students simply lack the interest in being in certain dance classes. This becomes more apparent, for example, when you are a jazz teacher trying to teach ballerinas how to get funky, or a ballet teacher trying to teach the importance of poise and posture to a musical theatre student who just wants to stand and belt out incredible tunes.

From a student perspective you have to take all of the tools that are given to you to build your own future. As much as we wish as teachers that we could help raise your legs to greater heights, turn your legs out further or spin you round a few more times in your pirouettes - you have to understand that we physically cannot put in these efforts for you.

However, what your teacher can do, and should do, is give you all of the information, knowledge and tools that you need to succeed - it is then up to you, and only you, to apply yourself, both in and out of the studio, to get the most out of your dance training.

Be an intelligent dancer; apply yourself, develop your skills via practice, ask questions that you need answers to and always be willing to learn and grow on a daily goal basis that you have set for yourself.

FOR MY DANCE PARENTS: DO YOUR RESEARCH & ASK QUESTIONS - ask me at the end of this blog!!!

There is quite a lot of research which found that students begin their dance year with a mind set that is relatively at the same level and can end with vastly different results based on the teacher's effectiveness. The research shows the effects of both “good” and “bad” dance teachers proved to be additive and cumulative.

In some cases, students may begin to believe that the failure is caused by their own lack of physical range or talent. Further to this, there is a wide range of research which shows that ineffective dance teachers could disproportionately effect students who are already performing poorly in this department.

The affect of a “bad” dance teacher could potentially put a student off a specific dance pathway for the rest of their life. It is not uncommon to meet grown adults who used to dance when they were younger who still wholeheartedly believe they were always incapable of making it as a dancer.

It begs the question; what if that student had a dance teacher or mentor who could have given them the tools, information and support they needed (this is all very subjective and different for each individual dancer) to push them forward into a career in dance. Would things have been different for them and their dance journey?

Sometimes dance teachers see their own students failing, or fall behind, because of their own teaching or communication issues. Some teachers are simply trying to play catch-up with students who have had previous “bad” teachers or “poor training”. Dance students who are suffering (could be mentally or physically) are, of course, the most important and devastating problem caused by “bad” teachers, but there are several other issues that arise from it.

Being a “bad” teacher does not necessarily mean that someone is a “bad” person. It may be a culmination of factors; another big one being that they may not be able to teach that specific level. It is important to ensure that each dance teacher is placed in the with the aligned age group, experience level and training requirements - some dance teachers may not be qualified or experienced enough to teach certain classes or students.

Understand which teacher is best for the level that your child is at…..

It takes a special set of skills to be a dance teacher for the younger generations (ages 2 to 13 years). It takes a lot more patience and understanding - as well as the ability to have a lot of fun with the students whilst keeping them engaged in physical learning.

Dance teachers of this age group and skill level are teaching a lot of physical and developmental skills important to this stage of life. Teaching dance to this age bracket requires an understanding of younger children, how they learn and how they grow. It is then essential to use this knowledge of early childhood development and engagement to base your lessons off to ensure they get the most out of their dance classes.

When you are a dance teacher to full-time dancers (usually 13 years of age and beyond) - the teaching skills, qualifications and discipline rules are vastly different to the younger groups. Once a dancer reaches full-time training they have already put in a lot of effort into their dance practice and as such need a teacher/mentor to be able to take them to that next level of training and professionalism.

At this point in a dancer’s training, regardless of whether they interpret a teacher as “good”, “bad” or otherwise, isn’t as important as how the dancer applies themselves, takes personal responsibility for their progress and makes the most of every opportunity that is presented by each teacher whom crosses their path.

A PERSONAL NOTE: One thing that we cannot argue against, the best teachers inspire the best students. They can fill them with hope and confidence, and get them excited about learning. Unfortunately, most students can say, myself included, that we have come across a “bad teacher” or two in our day.

To call someone a “bad teacher” in my view, is also completely subjective and can easily have more to do with how the student interprets the teacher, their personality, their teaching style and their personal form of discipline.

I have had a huge range of teachers and mentors for both my amateur and professional career. Each and every one of them has brought something to my dancing and my approach to dance life.

Some taught me greater technique, others to explore my artistry, some pushed me beyond my limits, whilst some nurtured who I was both as a human and dancer.

At the end of the day, I know a lot of colleagues of mine wouldn’t agree that our teachers were always beneficial, however I think they were, and for all their own reasons. I took something from teacher and every teacher that I have had and I am eternally grateful for their education skills, knowledge, perseverance, patience, quirks, laughs, friendship and mentorship along the way - of which I personally interpreted as I needed to for that particular phase of my dance and real life.

Teagan Lowe Classical Coach Associate Director B.Soc.Sci. (Psych) B.Dance ADC.Dip. Dance

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