To Teach Or Not To Teach

A teacher is one who makes himself progressively           unnecessary – Thomas Carruthers

What qualities and attributes make for a good dance teacher?

It’s widely acknowledged by many teachers that years of professional dance experience do not necessarily equate to being a good teacher of dance. Years of conscientious practice as a professional dancer make for excellence as a professional dancer. Likewise, it takes years of conscientious practice to make for excellence as a teacher of dance.

Many professional dancers might be great teachers in time, but most start off only being within a narrow frame;  teaching dancers that are already highly trained and/or highly motivated. Many former professional dancers find they can be successful teaching their own masterclasses or workshops where they come in for short, intense periods of time, usually teaching students that have made a special effort to attend and are therefore deeply engaged and receptive.

But this is not the definition of the typical dance class.

A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others – Author Unknown

More typically a class is diverse. Some students are accomplished technically and/or artistically, while many might flounder in one or more areas. Some passionately want to be there, others are there simply to have fun and enjoy the culture of the studio, while still others attend because their parents think it’s a good idea. The latter students are unlikely to be fully engaged and might even be bored and utterly unenthusiastic about the time spent in the dance class.

Add to this that often students have a lot going on inside their teenage hormonal bodies and outside of class; extra studies, other extra curricular activities, relationship issues with friends and/ or family and it’s soon obvious that teaching well becomes a highly complex task requiring nuance, subtlety and often masses of patience and empathy.

Often former professional dancers fall into the trap – and yes, I’m speaking from experience here – of wanting everyone to care as passionately as they do. As such they might take it too seriously or to be more accurate, they might exude a feeling of seriousness over the class which puts as many young people off as those it might inspire.

Developing the balance between being light and making it enjoyable yet also being able to instruct and motivate on the complexities and sometimes seriousness of understanding the craft can take years of sustained practice. No-one is likely to walk in and do that straight away and it’s probably arrogance and naivety to think its possible. Again, I’m speaking from experience.

Often it’s not the best of the best, but dancers that have suffered through severe injuries, struggled with their technique, have been tormented by self-doubt or have started late that often make for good teachers. The reason being that a lot of dancers start their training very early in life and so often they’re unable to articulate their craft well as it’s become ‘natural’ and a wholistic feeling. Ironically, it is this very ‘naturalness’ and ease that makes them great performers, yet might hamper their progress in becoming a great teacher.

Such dancers are able to demonstrate well, but good teaching is as much about, indeed often more about, being able to clearly articulate how to do something. This is made more complicated because that articulation often needs to be able to speak to the many diverse types and modes of learning in a classroom. Some students learn best by watching, others need words to help make sense of what they’re seeing, some need visual metaphor while others might require some kind of sensory stimulus.

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge – Albert Einstein

Understanding these diverse and complicated needs and how to keep children engaged, not merely for a class or a weekend, but over weeks, months and years is a hard won skill and requires the same level of commitment and a similar approach of consistent, dedicated practice as does being a professional dancer.

And so while newly retired professional dancers or young, highly enthusiastic, energetic teaching can be wonderful and is necessary at times, it can not replace and should not undermine nor de- value our appreciation for years of persistent practice.

From Teacher to Entrepreneur

And just as the transition from being a professional dancer to teacher can be fraught with surprising hurdles, challenges and learning curves, so too is the transition from teacher to Studio Principal.

Again, running a studio well also takes years of conscientious practice to be good at. And again, while some will have a more natural capacity for it; a love of structure, systems, good time management and person to person skills, typically these things must be learned, practiced and honed to achieve optimum results.

None of this should be surprising. Indeed it should be obvious. Yet again and again I hear of professional dancers assuming that moving into teaching will be a ‘natural’ progression and relatively easy, which is to undervalue the nuances of good teaching. And likewise I’ve heard of teachers – particularly young ones – who mistakenly assume running a studio will be easy and a ‘natural’ progression, yet soon find out how difficult that can be, as that is actually the step of becoming a small business owner. Something quite different again.

Part of MDM’s Value of Dance campaign is to more clearly articulate, not only the value of dance in and of itself, but to better understand the value all those whose lives have been touched by the muse of dance and whose energy and passion continue to nourish the spirit of dance.

Dedicated in loving memory to Bryan Lawrence who passed away on July 8th, 2017 – a dancer and then a teacher of great passion, technique and artistry whose presence will long be felt and cherished. 

Article written by MDM Business Development Manager

    Josef Brown

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