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Teaching dancers ethics and responsibility…

This topic has come out of a discussion that is being bandied about on one of our local discussion groups here in Washington. One of the many micro-topics within it had to do with the idea that dance need not be specifically a performance art. That it is in fact many things to many people, and not all of these people are interested in performing. I agree with that, and elaborated…

I remember from when I first started teaching, it was really really important to me to make sure my students understood that this dance could be just for them if they wanted, and that no one was pushed or expected to perform it. I know for me, while I have always been a performer (lifetime background in theater, music, gymnastics, and Western dance forms), there were non-performance facets to this dance that were so important to me! Particularly being a tribal group improvisational dancer, this dance is so fun as a modern folk dance, which can be a social group dance at any gathering where the other dancers know the movements and cues. I have always loved dancing by the fire among fellow dancers, just jamming, not putting on a show for anyone! When I host open dance parties, I am trying to foster that free spirit of joy and sharing among other dancers, which has nothing to do with performance in the least.

I would add this food for thought, and would love to hear other teachers’ take on it:

While I am always telling my students that they need not have a goal to perform this dance, as I myself grew as a teacher I learned that I must teach them AS IF THEY WERE. Why? Because you don’t know where a student is going to take what you teach them and what they will want to do with it. By teaching them the skills of performance, they can take that *anywhere*–they can choose to perform, or they can choose use their dance skills as a ritual or meditation, or they can use it just for exercise, or they can do it in their living room for their pets.

The fact is, as a teacher, I have no true control over where they choose to go with their dance–I can advise and encourage, but beyond that, they will do what they will. 

So if I teach them nothing of performance skills and strong technique, about ethics and their responsibility to the community at large; and then later some of them start to perform at haflas and then later want to go pro, with my having taught them none of the appropriate skills or passed on the vital knowledge, I have done them and this community a disservice. Once the box is opened, you can’t put the djinn back in! You can’t say “Wait wait! I didn’t teach you how to *perform*. I was just teaching you how to *dance*!” That will never work.

The classroom is the place for the highest of standards–it is why we should encourage articulate and thoughtful teachers with a wide swath of knowledge not only with regard to “just dancing”, but also deeper technique and physiology of movement, choice of appropriate venues, assembling flattering and appropriate costuming, musical choice and interpretation, staging and presentation, etc. To me, in a classroom , there is no such thing as “just dance”.(<—note I am saying in the classroom, not at the party, around the fire, at the party, etc) Dance as a skill is a much larger entity which includes all of the above and more. What a student chooses to do with it may or may not rely on each of these elements in the end–if they dance in their living room, they can do it naked to Quiet Riot and nobody need worry a whit about what that will do to the perception of bellydance/bellydancers in the eye of the GP. ­čśë But as soon as you take it to the stage and name it, and other eyes are on it, your responsibility to how it is presented is much greater, and encompasses these elements and more. And if your teacher never passed on all this valuable information, and more than that never encouraged it and required it of you in ongoing practice in anticipation that you *might* one day want to perform, then what happens…? Discussions like these happen, that’s what!

So I strongly feel that the dance need not and should not ONLY be for performing/entertaining. It is so many things to so many people, and all are equally valuable and beautiful! But as a teacher, just like my Algebra teacher kept droning “You need to learn this because some day you will want to use it…” (dammit she was right!!), I will continue to teach strong performance skills and ethics to my students “just in case”…:)

If you are a teacher, what is your philosophy behind teaching performance ethics and skills? If you are a student, what have you run into in your classes with regard to learning about the responsibilities of taking your dance to the stage?

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

2 Responses

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    I agree!

    Furthermore, I think we have a responsibility as teachers to teach foundations so that students don’t hurt themselves. (Whether it is trying to do a backbend they aren’t prepared to do, or taking a “gig” they saw advertised in umm… I dunno, craigslist? Do people do that?)

    Besides, performance is my main strength, so it comes out when I teach (acting is seriously good training, ain’t it?).

    Teaching them these basics (learn what your body can and can’t do, learn your history/ music, demand basic respect as a performer etc) should be one of our main jobs, as teachers.

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    interesting post Sharon, I say this as I reflect on having experienced that strange sensation of finding one of my troupe either out there doing a solo in “our” costumes, finding out another was sidelining with another group etc….and while part of me wondered at the motivation of these individuals I guess too with what you’re saying I wonder how I didnt set up the boundaries of respect and open communication with regards to these two issues….finding what one person considers sacred when another doesnt think that way – who’s to blame/responsible for that??

    I remember my first ever bdance teacher saying over and over how we dont dance in pants cause then people would see the moves….this was a cab dancer who also spoke quite negatively about her previous learnings and I learned from that how NOT to behave. to be professional and positive – best not to say anything etc especially in the class environment.

    I teach to give students skills to dance, like you am a firm believer that this dance isnt necessarily about performing….and I often wonder at those who’ve got great ambitions but not necessarily the best ability – how do we nurture them so they feel challenged and have the patience to maybe master this in a society that is all about here you go in 2 mins here’s your instant noodles/result/whatever.

    An interesting thought though – and if you’re setting up their expectations are you also meant to follow through – that if you’ve prepared them to dance, how would you facilitate or encourage that? I mean I’ve often wondered how student troupes evolve and why we need to label them as such?

    But to answer your question….I try to provide good tuition across different levels, when someone shows the right aptitude and ability to be prepared to perform, I bring them into our performance prep class – which requires that ability already so we can focus and prepare for THIS event or That. I’m open that being in the troupe is costly in terms of costuming and time, sometimes people think they can do it but have stepped back when their confidence or other aspects conflict with their ability to commit to this…I do think its a whole other aspect, and I think there’s so much in that as teachers we need to be seen setting a good example…so our students absorb and reflect that too. I also try to balance the performing roles out so we all feel like we have ownership/participation – these two might do great floor work so we’ll highlight that here, but these two can do this other stuff here.

    Its a juggling act isnt it. I think as Teachers we are so many things to so many people. I feel guilt at times, especially when students come to me after others are already on their path, and I cant devote to them what I used to, give them some of the magic that others have sometimes taken and moved on with….but I guess life is a big balancing act isnt it.


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