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The Importance of Taking Your Time

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This may seem obvious to many, but sometimes I think it bears revisiting this important fact: becoming an intermediate or advanced dancer is so much more than the number of moves you know.  Unfortunately, many teachers “sell” it this way, encouraging students to leapfrog through the class material, drawing students in by boosting their egos but without the attention to detail that would help them become truly strong dancers.  The result is a group of highly motivated and excited dancers surely; but they lack the refinement, control, and polish that they could have if they were instead encouraged to take their time.  They are given quantity over quality, and what’s worse is they usually don’t know any better.  How could they if no one is setting that example for them?  The teacher who is supposed to be helping them understand what it truly takes to really grow in their dance is sending the wrong message.

I find new teachers run this risk the most.  They may have a lesson plan written out to teach two moves in a given night, and then later report “but they got through all that so fast, I taught them three more things!”  Woah, slow down there m’dear.  Have you really given them all they could absorb–nay, NEED to absorb–in the 15-20 minutes you had to break down and drill those moves?  Or could you have dug a little deeper into what you already had to present them? And in the course of your sessions, is one or two times through the body of material really enough to be throwing new challenges at them?  Or would they benefit from doing it again, looking at it from fresh angles, entrenching it ever more deeply into their minds and muscles?  Perhaps some very talented students are truly ready for new material after a few repetitions, but most are not. Frankly, even among those who learn that fast, they will gain so much by being encouraged to take their time, and dig into the details of the movements they have in front of them right now, before tackling on new material.

I tell my students from the first night (and also on the class descriptions and FAQS) that they should anticipate taking Level 1 several times–three or more sessions is common–before moving up. I tell them if all it took was one night to master a concept, they would be pros in 6 months!  Our phrase (inspired by Quinn Donovan of Gypsy Fire Bellydance) is

“That’s why it’s called ‘the foundations’ and not ‘the easies’!”

I instill in them the understanding that to really become a strong dancer takes development of muscle memory through repetition, fostering comfort with the concepts, in order to be able to build on top of this skill when they move on to Level 2.  Just like a ballet dancer, who still does their barre work regularly, we need to be humble and even eager to continue explore concepts we “already know” in order to truly do the dance justice.  I deliver this message something like this.

“If at the end of a given class, you feel like you haven’t gotten it yet, or feel a little frustrated, it’s OKAY! I don’t expect anyone to learn any concept in one night, or one week, or even one session.  You’re going to get to revisit this concept many more times, and each time it will get a little easier–you will get a little stronger, a little more flexible, and eventually you will feel more confident with it. Then you will be really ready and rarin’ for the next steps!” 

I find that delivering it this way makes students feel safe and comfortable working longer at each level, without rushing to the next. And this attitude of taking one’s time permeates my classroom experience.  There is no culture of “I gotta move up fast” in my classes, and everyone works at their own pace.  I have advanced students who periodically (or even regularly) take Level 1 classes to continue to refine their technique.  Sure, it’s really exciting to get to the next level, and be faced with all the new challenge and energy that comes with it.

I am excited to help students move toward the next stage of their dance development, but I want them to do it thoughtfully and without any urgency that might carry them too far too fast, to their detriment.

It’s a delicate balance helping students feel excited and motivated to move forward, but to do it with a realistic sense of the time that takes. You want to encourage them and, while being their main point for an honest reality check, also not discourage them.

Over my many years teaching, I have at times seen students choose teachers based on the fact they advance their students more quickly–eager, motivated students who want the next challenge (despite their mind and body not necessarily being ready for it) will find a teacher who feeds that desire.  I have seen students who possessed technique which would barely qualify them to be in my Level 2 classes already performing in other groups. Without a mentor to guide them at a pace best suited to their needs, they lose out, in my opinion. It makes me sad–these dancers have amazing potential with the right guidance.  To be able to harness their enthusiasm and channel it more carefully, they could be some of the greats of the next generation of dancers.  But they rush through the details so fast, they never really refine their skills at each level.  Though they have a large volume of movements in their vocabulary, they have weak execution. Teacher’s tip: there is a common rule in the teaching world, that it takes 8 minutes of repetition/absorption for the muscles or mind to learn something new.  So a minimum 8 minutes of drilling will add a new layer of understanding to a given skill. Now think of how many layers and details go into a bellydance move. That’s a lot of 8 minute drills right there, so give it it’s due time to sink in.

“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.'” ~Dan Rather

A teacher who is feeding the ego isn’t fair to the student. And in my opinion, a teacher who does so to win/keep students is in the teaching business for the wrong reasons. It’s somewhat akin to feeding a child junk food–they can live on it, but they won’t be very healthy in the long run.  They need their fruits and veggies, even if they don’t want them or understand why they need them! Feed your students a healthy diet of encouragement tempered with honesty…they will thank you later. Concentrating on technique, integrity, patience, and humility, while successfully stoking their flames of creativity, enthusiasm and motivation is a delicate balance; but I think it’s a key ingredient to good teaching and to skilled dancers which come from our classrooms.  Making the process the focus and the fun, rather than some carrot of the next level or performance or next dozen new moves, will in the long-run nurture the strongest dancers.

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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.

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