Confessions + Lessons From a Formerly Reluctant Dance Teacher
There are so many ridiculous clichés about teachers and education as a profession, the worst of them all being “those who can’t do, teach.” I try to use the word "hate" sparingly, but I absolutely hate this saying. I have always been someone who believes in the importance of educators and sees how terribly they are undervalued in our culture.
However, the strange thing is that on a personal level, hearing all of this negativity about teachers over the years got under my skin. A little part of me actually thought that perhaps, "those who can't make art, teach." Because I chose to study dance in university, people would often ask if I eventually planned on being a dance instructor or professor. I would usually act appalled by this thought and proudly (and probably a bit pretentiously) state that no, I was going to be a professional choreographer and that’s that.
Things changed when I moved to Tangier, needed to make a living here, and the job at the conservatory fell right into my lap. When I began teaching those dance classes regularly about five years ago, I would hesitantly say to people, “yes, I teach dance,” always followed by, “but I’m not actually a teacher, I’m a choreographer.” It’s silly, really, because the two are in no way mutually exclusive. Why in the world couldn’t I just be both?
It was the wise Maya Angelou who said,
“At our best, we are all teachers.”
The people around us learn from our example, whether we are aware of it or not. The issue is that when we become aware of this fact, the feeling of responsibility and reluctance kicks in.
A formal teaching position often creates the expectation that you have to be an expert. I saw teaching dance as having this weight of finality to it- something that says, “I have completed my career as an artist, therefor I will impart all of the wisdom I have gained to my students.” This was problematic because I was just starting my career as an artist at the time and I felt like I had zero wisdom to share with anyone. In my mind I was practically still a student, nowhere near an expert on all things dance, and quite frankly I was terrified to jump into this job. However, it was a job, and that was something absolutely necessary for me to start a real sustainable life in Tangier. So I stuck with it.
What happened when I actually started teaching was that I discovered that no one has it all figured out in the beginning. Even teachers are human (what a shock) and we are allowed to be human in front of our students. Once I let that fear of not being the perfect example go and got to know my students better, things started to open up. I found that teaching is in fact a great practice for me because it means I am forced to choreograph new material almost weekly and therefor grow in my personal work, I get to brainstorm interesting improvisation structures, and also gain experience instructing and directing dancers of all levels. Teaching was, in fact, making me a better choreographer and even a better performer.
Five years later, there have been many ups and downs with my personal feelings towards teaching dance, but overall the general relationship has transformed from one of reluctance and skepticism to one of love and wonder. This year, especially, has shown me how incredibly beautiful and rewarding it can be to see a group of students- of young women, in this case- start to grow into themselves and transform as thinking dancers in front of your eyes.
Just last weekend my current group of adolescents completed their end-of-the-year performance and I was absolutely brimming with pride and am still glowing from it all. I saw as some of the girls went from being too shy to even do a simple improv in the classroom to getting up on a stage and sharing their own personal dance story with the audience. I am inspired by seeing them so inspired.
All of this made me deeply reflect on what being a dance teacher has taught me over the years and how, in fact, it has made me grow both personally and professionally, all the while learning how to better serve and motivate my students. These are some of the main realizations I’ve had:
- You have to be honestly and unapologetically yourself in order to gain your students trust- especially when teaching kids. Young people have an innate ability to see through any facades and some of the more outspoken students will occasionally call you out on it. Being a teacher teaches you to be able to humbly admit when you in fact don’t know something, in turn owning and standing up for when you decidedly do. You learn how to better be yourself in front a group of people, unafraid of judgements and trusting that you are enough.
- If you do what you love, that passion will be absorbed and internalized by your students. True love and curiosity for any subject are infectious. At first when I began to teach, I was incredibly self conscious about the fact that I am not the most technically trained dancer in the world and was skeptical about what I actually had to offer young aspiring dancers. However, with time I realized something important. I believe in dance as a vital and necessary art form, plus I do in fact have the training to back it up. I have a deep love for movement and all of its wild possibilities and if I can translate even a small piece of that belief and love to my students, I will be happy.
- The most rewarding thing is not to mold a student to fit a certain box or label, but to push them even further into the joy of being and expressing exactly who they are. I've written before on how amazing it is to see someone's personality emerge and flourish through movement. As we grow together, I want to continue to inspire students to keep following their own paths, finding their own personal motivation and constantly seeking answers to endless questions.
The truth is that I will always consider myself a choreographer first, but I am no longer in any way hesitant to say that I am also a dance teacher. In fact, I am quite proud of it. I have found delight and significance in this work, especially because it is really just another form of doing what art and performance usually aim to do: encourage people to think outside of the box, inspire and provoke new thoughts, stimulate discussion, and challenge implemented ideas. With these words in mind, couldn't we say that all artists inherently teachers as well?