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How to be a committed dance teacher

Since I started teaching couple dances, I wished to follow a righteous path of benevolence and kindness towards my students. I met a lot of teachers, men and women, following the same principles for a respectful way of dancing and teaching.

I found difficult sometimes to know where to start, how to self-analyse, and eventually change my behaviour. Some things, we are doing on purpose, others are unconscious bias and we don’t know if they are good or bad.

I want my lessons to be well structured, observant of the history of the dance, promoting kindness between students, AND respectful of my co-teacher.

Personal note : In terms of teaching, respect or benevolence, I do not claim to be flawless, and this is not a lecture about what you should or shouldn’t do. It is a personal reflexion on the subject, things I wish to do more, and you are free to agree or not.

The structure of a 2 teachers lesson

Let’s start with the basics. What is a social dance lesson ?

For social dances like tango, swing or salsa, even bal folk, it often means a dance couple teaching to an assembly composed of couples (meaning dance partners). Most of the time, dance couples (teachers and students) are reproducing the gender scheme : man-leading + woman-following. Therefore the man teacher will explain the dance for the leaders, the woman teacher will explain the dance for the followers.

It is not an absolute rule, we can regularly see some woman-woman partnerships, and fewer man-man partnerships (though I didn’t met any yet, except for queer scenes). For the rest of the article, they will be designated as man-teacher and woman-teacher.

Instruct and supplement

Teaching social dancing means to :

  • Give a context
  • Give instructions and exercises
  • Give details and precisions to help comprehension
  • Correct the students and answer questions

In theory, the dance teachers will have built the lesson together and divided the speaking time. I attended to a lot of dance classes, and in most of them, the man-teacher took the lead of the class. Most of our instruction is dedicated to leaders and the lesson starts with it, because they have to give the direction and initiate the movements, while followers just have to let go and obey.

Many man-teachers will give the instructions for an exercice, and the woman-teachers will give supplemental instructions or details for the followers, and add her insight.

Distributing the tasks that way is not a problem in itself. But I believe, if we don’t prepare how it’s done, it might create an imbalance in the way the students apprehend their teachers.

It might spread the idea that the man-teacher is the only person in charge and the woman-teacher is just an assistant. Or that leading is more important or difficult than following. The personality of the teachers might give that impression as well, when one teacher is over confident, and the other is shy.

Self-analyse advice n°1 : How is the speaking time attributed in your dance partnership ? Are you attentive to your partner’s speaking time ? Does your woman-teacher take the lead and your man-teacher supplement to the exercice ? Did you talk about how you will organise your speaking time ?

Every teacher can build the partnership as they like. In some partnerships, one prefers to give all the instructions, and the other prefers to sit on the sidelines to watch the students and correct them if needed. There is no rule. I just know many woman-teachers who takes the observant role, either because they like it better, because they have the impostor’s syndrome, or because there is no space left to take. 

Who’s gonna have the last word ?

Still in the idea of working on our speaking time, I observed sometimes the tendency of some teachers to have “the last word”.

For example, the man-teacher is giving instructions to the class, the woman-teacher is supplementing…and the man-teacher will add a remark or another instruction.

Most of the time it is an unconscious mechanism, and if the woman-teacher has the same penchant, she might add another remark and it can last for hours…

It is disturbing for several reasons :

  • It takes more time, at the expense of the practice time of the students
  • It reinforces the idea that one teacher has ascendency over the other
  • It gives the idea that the lesson was not well prepared

I do not think that flaw is particularly a man’s flaw. It is clearly something that might be experienced by everyone.

Self-analyse n°2 : Did you ever pay attention to your way of supplementing ? Do you give one big instruction, or do you like to give a lot of little details ?

The importance of invitation and consent during the class

In a lot of lessons I attended, we skip the part where people properly invite each other. There is an assumption that a student who agrees to attend the class, agreed to dance with everyone in it. It is a simpler, faster, and equal rule for all… and much simpler for the teacher than for the students.

It happens that some students are making the others uncomfortable, either because they are brutal or creepy. Couple dance sometimes attracts people with the wrong behaviour or not enough understanding of personal boundaries. Collectively we are more inclined to ask everyone to “make an effort” instead of resolving the problem. If someone is a risk for the other students (physical or attitude), we have to analyse why and do something about it.

There is always a creepy dancer...
We need to talk

It’s a difficult and disagreeable thing to do and I hate it.

The lesson, antechamber of the social dance

Our students are coming to our classes because they want to learn the steps, so they can go to the parties. We also have to teach them the ways of social dancing : what is consent, how to say yes or nicely-no to an invitation, without having to justify, in a benevolent way…

It is not an easy part. So, let’s train in class ! It is a good occasion to learn another rule of social dancing : if I don’t invite, then someone might not dance.

The dance teacher is also there to teach a sense of community. But if not careful, we might also teach elitism and frustrations.

It is not simple to teach people not to force themselves if they don’t want to dance with someone, and in the same time, how to be inclusive and tolerant.

Having couples changing partners on a circle doesn’t work for me if I want to teach these notions with more than words. So usually I don’t use circles, students can take all the space and dance with who they want, without me commanding them.

Ungendered dancing by example

Maybe you’d noticed, I am pro-ungendered dancing.

It is great to tell students they are free to change roles and/or invite a same-sex partner. But students are imitating us. It works better if we show example.

Ungendered teaching

As a woman, I feel much more legitimate to talk about ungendered dancing when I teach for leaders or if I demonstrate as a leader. And it’s even more efficient for students when I lead a man.

As much as I can, I try to associate with co-teachers, man or woman, who are mastering both roles.

Try not to focus only on the leading part

It is a major problem in our teaching, we are more focused on the leading part. That’s the first part we will introduce, sometimes that’s the only one. It puts in everyone’s head that leading is more difficult than following.

Self-analyse n°3 : take three minutes to think about it. Do you believe that leading is more difficult than following, and why ?

To be equal, our teaching should be 50/50 leading and following, which means :

  • Really theorise what is leading and following, so it can be fully included in our lessons
  • Give real instructions to followers, not just supplements
  • Teach an equal share of the “listening” part

Try not to impose your views

It may be the most difficult part for me : not to impose my view to the students and choose my words carefully. Ungendered dancing is a major thing for me, but not for all my students. If your class is a Equally Lead and Follow (ELF), then all the attendees agreed to change roles. If not, then I must accept their will if they don’t want to change (even if I know that they all end up trying, at some point).

Teaching alone

Of course when you’re teaching alone, you don’t have to share the speaking time with your co-teacher. 

For me, teaching alone means mastering both roles in social. If not, then you’re relevant just for half of the students – and it’s not the best configuration.

Teaching alone also means that, to illustrate your meaning, you’ll have to pick a student to demonstrate. If you’re also promoting ungendered dancing, you’ll probably ask men and women, why not :

  • A woman to lead you
  • A man to follow you

If your classes are not ELF, that might be a problem.

Ask for your assistant’s consent

What ever role your assistant will take, you cannot ask your students to work on consent if you’re not doing the same. In all types of lessons, teachers should ask the consent of their students before showing anything to the group. And be ready to accept if the person doesn’t agree.

Dealing with a regular assistant

Some solo teachers are using regular assistants to help them dealing with the students. In theory, these assistants don’t help building the educational program (or it would be a co-teacher).

The assistant’s role is not the more comfortable one. He/she is not an official teacher, but still he/she has an influence over the students, and they may ask him/her for help or feedbacks. It is important that his/her role is clearly define and that you are both sure of sharing the same values.

Some teacher’s words

There are multiple resources about teaching, animation, exercises for students : blogs, websites or teachers groups about teaching. We can learn a lot with experienced teachers who know more than we do.

If I know one thing : teaching dance is not easy. It is about teaching so much more than steps : historic context, rythm, music, consent, benevolence, ungendered dancing… in a nice, funny and easy looking way ! You have to deal with your co-teacher, speaking time, and take time for individual feedbacks and special attentions for dancers with a lack of coordination or special needs.

If you have ideas of animations, workshops or talks that might help other teachers or organisers for a more benevolent and equal dance communities, feel free to send your participation on that page.