A while back, I wrote an article on getting the most out of your dance education. However, I figured that greater depth was needed on one point: picking a dance teacher.
Picking a teacher is one of the most important things a dancer can do for their education. It will have a very large impact on their perspective of the dance, learning progression, and more. So, how do you make sure you’re picking your best option?
1. Dance with the different teachers.
The first thing you can do is to dance with a teacher to determine if this is somewhere you want to learn from. A teacher doesn’t need to be the most advanced dancer in the room (a good teacher can elevate students above the teacher’s level – think of Olympic coaches), but they should be one of the most conscientious of their partner.
Teaching demands a high attention to other people and partners. A good teacher will be able to assess and dance for whatever partner they have at a given time – beginner or advanced. They may not always be the most creative or musical, but what they do should be clean and well-founded. Also, picking a teacher that has a style you like can be helpful – but be careful that there is substance underneath the style! It is very easy for dancers of another genre to masquerade as a teacher because previous dance background makes them look stronger than they are!
- Clean and clear
- Easy to follow or lead
- Protects the partner
- Dances to the partner’s level
- Patient and kind to all partners
- Causing pain
- Inattention to partner’s level
- Poor ability to dance around other couples
- Easily frustrated by a beginner partner
2. Ask Questions
Before taking a class with a teacher, ask them questions:
- Who they learned the dance from
- What their teaching background is (dance and otherwise)
- How long they have been dancing
- About the history of the dance
- About their dance idols
A teacher should have this knowledge on hand. If they don’t, it is a big red flag for a few reasons. First of all, learning a dance informally can lead to really bad habits that even the ‘teacher’ may be unaware of. If they couldn’t be bothered to invest in their own dance education, do you want them investing in yours?
Second, going through a program yourself helps teach you how to teach the movements. There are teachers who create their own very successful methodologies, but these teachers usually have a very strong teaching background. Don’t forget, teaching is a separate skill. A very difficult separate skill.
Before I taught dance, I taught skiing for 4 years and had to go through a pretty stringent program to get licensed. I also taught theatre arts, a mechanical shop class, and English. By the time I arrived at dance, I knew the fundamentals of auditory, visual and kinesthetic teaching methodologies, assessing problem areas, dealing with learning crises/meltdowns, and more. It still took me over a year to get comfortable assisting in teaching before I branched out as a fully-fledged teacher myself. I even had a couple friends that I privately dance-tutored to figure out what did and did not work. So basically, even with almost a decade of teaching experience, I trained before teaching Zouk.
My partner trained me as his test-drive of teaching methodology. Before that, he had taught Salsa and trained in teaching methodology under top Salsa and Zouk teachers around the world (I think he’s even gone through 2 specifically Zouk Instructor Training programs with top artists).
- Self-taught, or “learned here and there”, or “learned socially”
- Little or no formal teaching background (*usually* a red flag)
- Dancing for a very short period of time (under 1-2 years), or a long period not seriously
- Unaware of the dance’s history
- No dancers they look up to
3. Try a Class
Go and see how they teach. Sign up for a short-term session. See if you connect with how they teach. You may not ‘get’ everything right away, but the directions (even if temporarily elusive) shouldn’t feel confusing. Even if your body can’t internalize a movement right away, you should be able to understand the concepts they are explaining. You should also be able to have fun in the class. Part of being a strong teacher is being able to engage students. A strong teacher will keep your interest in the class. Lastly, you should leave the class feeling like you have learned something.
- Feeling clear on where you are going
- Being engaged/looking forward to next class
- Feeling like you are moving in the right direction
- Feeling like movements are attainable
- Feeling like the teacher is open to questions and to student creation
- Feeling confused
- Being bored/Zoning out frequently
- Feeling like you have not learned anything
- Feeling like the class is ‘too difficult’ (as opposed to just ‘challenging’)
- Feeling like you can’t ask questions
A strong teacher will also encourage students to explore movements on their own. The tools they give you should open your mind to new ways of doing things -albeit likely with some tweaks. The ‘Rules’ of the dance should be clear to you, and provide a framework in which you can move to exploring and creating your own movements. If a teacher refuses to accept anything outside of their syllabus but can’t tell you why that movement doesn’t work, it is a bad sign.
4. Work on Setting Up Long Term Goals
A teacher should be able to help you plan your dance goals. They should also be able to make recommendations on how to get there. Part of having a teacher is having a mentor who can point you in the right direction and guide you through your dance journey. Your teacher should also have such a mentor.
A teacher should also be able to assess your resources and what path will work best for you. If you aim to be a teacher, they should be able to suggest paths you can take to accomplish this. If you aim to perform, they should recommend the type of training you need to improve. If you just want to social dance, they should also be able to adjust accordingly.
They should also be able to point out which supplementary programs you can take. No teacher can take you as far on their own as having a strong network of mentors and teachers – even if they are your primary one.
For example, I would always recommend to my students to take privates or classes with certain travelling professionals. These individuals can help to round out areas that I may be weaker in teaching. Often, for dancers lacking fundamental dance training, I recommend enrolling in ballet or jazz, or other solo dance styles. It is up to the student to pursue these or not, but a teacher should not limit you – they should expand your mind!
- They don’t want you to learn from *anyone* else… only them
- They only recommend the most expensive options to learn through them
- They don’t know how to help you reach long-term goals, or can’t say how the path will move forward
- They don’t ask you questions about your goals – they tell you how it will go.
5. Figure Out Their Opinions and Plans for Growth
Are they a teacher who emphasizes continual learning, or are they ‘too good’ to take classes? Are they cross-training in other styles, upgrading their credentials, or working with other professionals? Are they pushing themselves to create and innovate? If not, this teacher may not be a good bet. There are many local-style teachers across every style who become complacent with how well they dance simply because they are better than their students. In the end, this makes the students suffer.
- Work with other professionals
- Sit in on congress classes
- Train with each other frequently
- Innovate or take on new dance challenges
- Cross-train with other styles
- Have an attitude of constant improvement
- Party, but don’t take more classes
- Don’t seem to have a peer or student relationship with other professionals to learn
- Don’t upgrade credentials
- Don’t train
- Don’t push themselves to new heights
6. Look at their Other Students
A true testament to a teacher’s ability comes from the dancers they create. If you see a school that presents a high level of dancer as their students, it is a good sign. If you see a school that has several people who have taken classes consistently for over 2 years and present as only early-intermediate dancers, it’s probably a bad sign.
A student who takes regular, structured classes for a year or more and comes out social dancing regularly should easily be able to attain an intermediate level within a year. If they are still struggling to social dance well after 2 years, I start to think there’s a problem somewhere in the teaching methodology. Of course, there are exceptions on both ends: some students progress well regardless of the environment, some are very, very slow to progress, and some take classes all over the board and it’s impossible to attribute their learning to a specific school.
A good way to determine where you want to take lessons is to ask the dancers you like who their main influences are (though, be prepared: the top dancers may have learned from top pro’s that may not be local, and may have traveled to invest in their training.)
7. Look at How They Treat Their Students and Other Social Dancers
Questions to ask yourself:
- Are they kind to all social dancers, or only to ones that are actively paying them?
- Do they build people up, or tear people down when discussing dance?
- Are they willing to address dangerous social dancers or negative influences directly?
A dance teacher doesn’t magically stop being a teacher once they leave the studio and enter the social floor. A teacher is always a leader in their community, and should act as a role model. It is up to them to maintain the same kindness when inspiring dancers on the social floor as in the studio.
Beware of teachers who don’t treat the wider community with kindness – they may not have your best interests at heart. If the only dancers who are ‘worthwhile’ to them are the ones that are continually paying them, their motivation is probably more financial than benevolent. A true teacher is willing to inspire and motivate the community, and seeks to elevate everyone equally.
It also falls to teachers to keep the community safe. Teachers need to be willing to intervene with dangerous or bad behavior in the community to keep their students and others safe. If your teacher is not willing to have difficult conversations with you or others, it’s a sign that they are skimming over issues that are fundamental to the growth of a healthy community.
In general, a strong teacher does not seek to hold themselves apart unless someone is paying. A good teacher has a very deep well of resources, and correcting a dangerous behavior that may hurt someone should be a no-brainer – rather than demanding that the offending dancer take classes and pay to learn the skill. If you do end up paying for that teacher, you want one who teaches freely; not according to a $ value on each tidbit of knowledge they hand out. Yes, it’s important to make money, but being a teacher is always more than a bottom line.
For example, I’ve paid for privates with many ‘internationals’, but a few stand out. None of these *professionals* hesitate to spend an extra 5 minutes outside of lesson time discussing something that isn’t working quite right, or to give a little advice. It’s because being teachers is part of who these people are. Yes, their time is very valuable – and I would never demand private attention for free – but they are still willing to guide and assist the growth of dancers outside of ‘strict’ lesson time. If they did not do this, I probably would not look up to these people as teachers.
What if I’m in a ‘Dead Zone’, or there’s only 1 Inexperienced Local Teacher?
Well, for inexperienced, small scenes, the instructors play by different rules.
First of all, the people who ascend to those positions are usually the ones who love the dance so much that they want to spread it. I always would suggest empowering these people to continue, but would also advise their students to recognize the limitations of these people. Often, those instructors won’t consider themselves ‘professionals’, but hobbyists who are filling a void. In these situations, I would suggest grasping any opportunity to learn from top professionals passing through to compliment the basic skills being taught by the instructor.
Hopefully, these instructors continue to grow. If you see these teachers striving for more, then that is a good sign. For those small scenes with a sole teacher, judge the intention and passion as evangelists of dance, rather than applying the stringent criteria applied to large scenes.
If you are in a dead zone, I feel for you. If you have enough experience, maybe you will become that small-town instructor/motivator. If you are very new, see if you can connect with a mentor who can supplement your learning online or at select times throughout the year. Find a practice partner. I currently have 2 people that I’m working with in ‘dead zones’ to bring them to a basic level through Skype. I’m also working in a small scene with a few die-hards to try to start something. It is possible, but you really cannot apply the same rules as to a large scene.