Recently, dance educator Sheena Jeffers wrote the blog post, “Teaching Dancers: Non-serious v. Serious” to which I contributed a few brief thoughts as did our highly esteemed friends, Nichelle at Dance Advantage and Dance_Reader. Sheena is an inspired teacher with a clear perspective and serious motivation. Her post was started as a conversation on Twitter that has had my wheels turning for some time. Here’s where I am right now.

Confession Number 1

I don’t think we necessarily need a million more professional dancers but we do need smarter people and an arts literate culture. Dance can do both.

Dance training takes on many different looks and often there is a primary focus: to produce professional dancers.  Anyone else encountered on the road is met with polite interest and tolerance if they manage to hold their own. If they don’t, or they decide to follow a different path, then they simply didn’t have “what it takes”. In this sense, the objective becomes subjective; the business becomes personal. The person that left is dismissed; the one that remained is lauded.

The hierarchy in dance education somehow remains- those that “do” are often more valued than those that “practiced” as if somehow those that watch, fund, discuss, teach, and advocate are lesser than those that perform and create.

Confession Number 2

Once upon a time, that was my view. I felt my “success” was mainly due not necessarily to talent or skill, but desire and passion. I suppose I still do, but in very different terms than when I started teaching.

When I was a student in a college dance pedagogy course, we were instructed to write a paper “teaching” something that we felt we did better than others- something that we felt set us apart from the rest. Expecting turns, leaps, or petite allegro, I suspect my professor was taken aback when I submitted my paper topic as “passion”. After a brief conversation, she directed to another professor (the grand lioness of the department) to talk over my point of view.

We eventually agreed that passion could be inspired but not taught.

That said, I still felt if one was majoring in dance, or pursuing a life as a professional dancer, one needed to “put up or shut up”, “go big or go home”, “go balls to the walls” …you get the idea.  When it came to being cast in a piece or dancing in technique class, it wasn’t that I was competitive with my peers. I was competitive with myself.

But I imagined the life of a dancer to be one of privilege due to sacrifice. I didn’t feel everyone deserved to be a dancer simply because they wanted to be, but because they earned the right to be. I suppose I still do, but in very different terms than when I started teaching.

When I set out to finally accomplish what I’d been dreaming about for years, I was stunned to find it wasn’t my dance experiences that shaped my happiness- it was the rest of me that had gone unacknowledged, unnoticed, undeveloped in the years I focused so sharply on preparing for professional dance. I remembered that I liked to read books, write, spend time with friends, watch movies, take walks in parks, learn, teach, laugh,…..  And it didn’t all have to be connected to dance in order for me to still be a dancer (even professional), and for me to be serious about my craft.

It took years, but I finally understand that I am not a lesser dancer. I am a better person.

These experiences have made me a better teacher. Teaching has made me a better parent and vice versa.

Confession Number 3

Here’s the thing: I hope there comes a time, a turning point in a dancer/dance educator’s life, when that view changes- not just intellectually, but sincerely. When it shifts from being something that we acknowledge could be true (in a very politically correct way) to something we believe. When we truly and honestly push forward with an understanding that each of us wears many different hats, and we each have a role to play in the enhancement of our aesthetics and our communities. When we put aside what separates us from them as a category and instead use it as a tool to push dialogue, boundaries, and forge collaboration.

Confession Number 4

I used to think I wanted to only teach “serious” dancers. For me, this meant dancers that were as dedicated and committed as I was. This meant dancers that saw themselves dancing professionally and would not stop until they “made it”.

Now, I want to teach.

I used to think that I needed to bring students to my level of commitment, understanding, and eventually mastery.

Now, I meet them where they are.

I used to think my favorite students would be the “best”. That probably meant technically/artistically/behaviorally.

Now, they are sometimes the ones that learned the most, those that make me laugh the most, or those that I’ve spent the most time with (which may include detention!). They are always the ones that trust me enough- or will risk enough- to share a meaningful moment, idea, or laugh.

A Concern

I hope this post doesn’t seem critical of the views Sheena and others shared in her original post. My intention is quite the opposite- to highlight that teaching is just as much of a journey as learning. We each have our individual styles, needs, motivations, and goals.

The important thing is that there is thought, care, and a willingness to discuss. Thanks to Sheena, Nichelle, Dance_Readers and others for these three things and so many more.

3 thoughts on “Four Confessions and a Concern

  1. You’ve made some great points here… For myself, when I stepped out of the traditional role of the ballet teacher to explore my role as teacher (outside of dance) I became a much stronger teacher as a whole. A renewed passion and interest for teaching dance was found, along with a new perspective and appreciation for all that dance can bring to us. ‘Now I meet them where they are’ is such an important moment for teachers. Over the years I too have come to know that teaching (for me) isn’t about creating dancers, its about meeting every student where they are and helping them to find/explore/nurture their unique performance – whether it be in studio, in recital, in training to be a professional dancer, or in becoming a teacher, or for that matter their ‘performance’ through life.
    Thank you for this post!

    1. Well said, Jacqui!!
      I found that I eventually recognized a similar boredom in teaching straight technique to that I found when I was pursuing dance performance professionally. In too many contexts, I found it repetitive and starting to become stagnate instead of creative. Teaching from other perspectives renewed my passion for dance, including technique, and now I am most satisfied when able to dabble from multiple view-points in the creation of a single dance course.

      I still want to produce professional dancers, if that is what my students desire but I treat this as the exception rather than the norm and am able to provide a more thoughtful and productive approach which is student centered and specific as a result. Win, win!

      Thanks for reading and sharing!

  2. Heather, this is a great response to Sheena’s post. To be honest, training professional dancers is never on my mind. It doesn’t even sound fun to me. I know, sounds crazy. My dance teacher growing up was strict and mean and not because she wanted me to become a professional dancer, but because “that’s the way dance is supposed to be taught.” I hate that mentality and I set on a mission to change it.

    When parents ask me how in the world I have so much patience or how I can get 2 year olds to engage for 45 minutes I usually say, it’s the way dance should be taught. It’s the opposite of what I had and I believe in that to my core.

    I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, I went to school for dance but knew I wouldn’t be a professional dancer. I performed of course, but it wasn’t what I was best at or what I loved to do! I believe that I teach to give my young students the joy and love of dance. That’s the point I teach from everyday. Of course, I teach them steps and vocabulary, but if they can come away from dance class saying they love it and want to come back, that’s what’s important to ME as a teacher.

    When I went to graduate school I had a plan and passion of teaching children in public school. It didn’t work out how I hoped but that’s what I really wanted to do. Children in public schools will not become professional dancers. Dance enhances the curriculum, educates the whole child and that’s why I believe it in so much. I know so many people don’t believe that but I have seen it first hand.

    I want to educate the whole child through dance. I give credit to those who teach and train dancers who want to become professional. I just know this person is not me, never was, and never will be.

    I didn’t get my thoughts in an e-mail in time to contribute to Sheena’s post, but I still wanted to contribute! xoxo

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