On building an ATS® troupe

So you’re a teacher, and you’d like to create a troupe for your students or dance partners. How do you decide who’s in and who’s out?

FatChanceBellyDance®, as an example, famously doesn’t audition its members. Your “audition” starts the moment you walk into your first Level 1 class, and continues throughout your study. Many ATS troupes around the globe follow this model unquestioningly.

But this approach to troupe-building is deeply problematic, and as a community we need to do better. This model discourages clear communication, censures ambition and promotes dishonesty, and creates an environment ripe for gossip and discrimination.

Let’s break it down.

1. This approach discourages clear communication

In the “always auditioning” model, the guidelines for inviting new dancers into the troupe are rarely, if ever, clear – sometimes even to the troupe leader. Dancers who get invited demonstrate some combination of skill, commitment, personality, and perhaps other traits.

Because the “audition” guidelines are never shared, students are continually compared against an unclear standard. They may unwittingly fail without ever being told why. And worse, they are being tested without their awareness or consent.

Contrast this approach with the working world. The best companies encourage clear communication between managers and employees. If an employee is doing well, she knows why, so she can keep doing it. If an employee is having performance problems, the manager addresses these problems early, directly, and frequently, with the assumption that the employee is capable of changing behavior and ultimately succeeding.

Without this shared value of clear communication, the employee will fail, because she is never given the opportunity to improve.

Which would you rather have – a culture of secrecy, or open and transparent guidelines about how to get to the next level?

As a troupe leader, know this: People can’t read your mind, and you shouldn’t expect them to. ATS® as an art form involves interpreting many subtle cues, but you should never expect mind-reading.

2. This approach censures ambition and promotes dishonesty

At FCBD®, my experience was this: The moment a dancer expressed an interest in joining the professional troupe or becoming a teacher, that was the moment it was guaranteed she wouldn’t. Anyone who showed ambition was immediately painted as a “diva,” or sometimes “uppity.”

(For those not aware: “Uppity” is a deeply racially-charged word. Historically, it’s been used to disparage ambitious Black people. When you use this word to disparage someone’s ambition, you are participating in a racist dialogue. My heart sunk when I heard someone I respected describe another dancer in this way.)

This name-calling encourages dishonesty from the most advanced students. Some people are genuinely goal-oriented, and I guarantee there are dancers in your advanced classes who wish to join the professional troupe. If you discourage them from stating their goals out loud, you are encouraging them to lie to you and themselves.

Again, contrast this with the working world. At a company with a healthy culture, if I’d like a promotion, the steps to requesting it are clear:

  1. Express to my manager that I’d like to advance in my career.
  2. Ask her for help in creating a clear path forward, including skill development and opportunities to practice those skills.
  3. Actively work towards the promotion, and re-assess after a time period.

If I succeed in meeting my goals, and the company has the availability to promote me, we move forward.

Students come to dance classes for many reasons; exercise, de-stress, the atmosphere. The most advanced students are advanced for a reason: they have goals and are willing to work towards them. This motivation has to be okay if you want healthy group dynamics.

3. This approach encourages gossip

The “always auditioning” model creates an environment where troupe members are encouraged to talk about potential members. They’re explicitly invited to speculate not only on technique, but also perceived motivation, family life, and personality traits.

Because the student is participating in an audition, not a conversation, the troupe members do not discuss these things with her; they judge her solely on their perceptions. She is never given the opportunity to offer her perspective, or counter the troupe’s speculations.

This is gossip, and is unhealthy.

4. This approach promotes discrimination

We all have implicit biases. I know we’d like to think we’re judging our fellow dancers based solely on skill, but we’re human beings, and that makes us fallible.

When you as a troupe leader don’t create clear advancement guidelines, you don’t create structure to combat your implicit bias. Your troupe will wind up sharing most of your demographics, and then your implicit bias becomes entrenched and institutionalized.

I’m not only thinking about race, of course. Perhaps your professional troupe is multiracial, but is made up entirely of cisgender women over 40. Perhaps the group has people from many age groups, but none are parents. Or perhaps the group doesn’t have any members who have full-time office jobs.

Wouldn’t a greater diversity of thought create better art? The only way to create that diversity is to have clear guidelines to combat implicit bias.


All of that said, there is one benefit to the “always auditioning” model. As a troupe leader, you know that your prospective member is easy to work with and deeply skilled. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re bringing into the troupe. You may even like them. And because they’re “always auditioning,” they’re never allowed to make a mistake.

But the downsides of this approach far outweigh that benefit. Instead, if you want to build a professional troupe and a class environment with positive, healthy dynamics, look to the working world. There are companies with good, supportive cultures that encourage clear communication. Learn how they do it, and apply it to your dance life.

On being ready to teach

Recently, a dancer reached out to me with a question: “How does one know when they’re ready to teach ATS®?”

What a doozy of a question for a Monday morning! There are so many complicating factors that have nothing to do with how good a dancer you are. But here are some initial thoughts on the matter.

1. Be able to “walk the walk.”

Being an excellent teacher requires very different skills than being an excellent dancer. But realistically, most students will never surpass the level of technique they see on your body.

So be honest with yourself about your posture and technique. Video yourself, watch the videos with an eye toward self-improvement, and be ready to continue to commit to your own ongoing education.

2. Be able to “talk the talk.”

When I started teaching in Maine, I was terrified. I spent hours with the instructional DVDs, memorizing every word, sometimes transcribing them. I hadn’t completed General Skills yet, and was very, very new. But I did bring an in-depth understanding of anatomy and other movement forms, including some knowledge of other styles of bellydance, and because I was working with a friendly community, I was supported.

You do not need to be a Sister Studio to teach ATS®. You don’t even need to have completed General Skills or Teacher Training. It is not required, and never has been. It sure does help, though.

It’s also helpful to understand anatomy, and specifically the muscles used for our posture. I also recommend gaining an understanding of the broader culture of bellydance beyond ATS®, so you can answer questions intelligently.

The most important thing, though: be ready to admit when you don’t know something. And be able to do it with grace.

3. Be ready for the “business of the business.”

You may have decided that you want to teach because you love the art form and you want to share it. That’s great! But for the vast majority of aspiring teachers, you will also find yourself running a small business, even if you don’t think of it that way.

You will all of a sudden have to deal with the reality of renting a space, marketing yourself to keep your classes full, keeping track of attendance, and handling the financial transactions. You might need to deal with practical matters that you’ve never thought about, like music licensing and liability insurance.

After a while, your students will be hungry for performance opportunities, and you’ll need to find or create them. You’ll need to coordinate costuming, or at least provide advice. You might need to create a student troupe.

You’ll need to deal with the softer skills of managing a class of adult learners, and deciding about the boundaries you’d like to have (or not have) with your students. You’ll need to figure out how to lead confidently, but with warmth.

You’ll need to make endless decisions about what you want your business to look like, and be ready to make different decisions if the first ones turn out to not be great. You might find yourself suffering from decision fatigue (yes! It’s a real thing!) and you’ll need to press on anyway.

4. Be prepared for the community’s reaction.

I was lucky; there was no one else really teaching ATS® when I started teaching in Maine, but there was a strong dance community already, and a clear interest in this art form.

You may not be so lucky. There may already be a glut of local ATS® teachers in your area. Are you prepared to work together with them? Perhaps you’ll need be flexible about the nights you teach, so you’re not in direct competition. Maybe you can commit to taking each other’s classes, or holding events together, so the community can see you’re collaborating. Support your fellow teachers.

Or maybe there’s no dance community to speak of, and you’ll need to build that from scratch. You might need to get creative about your marketing so you can attract students, and you might need to do this in an area where no one really knows or understands what you’re trying to do.

5. Be prepared to make it look easy.

Yes, there’s a lot of extra work. But the best teachers don’t place the blame on their students for this work. They don’t berate or shame their students for sometimes having other lives and not making it to class; instead, they create a positive atmosphere so that people genuinely want to show up to class and practice.

Be a destination that people want to go to, and they will.

There’s so much more; this only scrapes the surface. And ultimately, as a community we need to support people who are willing to teach and share this lovely, graceful, community-oriented art form.

I’m sure there’s more. What do you think? For those of you who are teachers, how did you know when you were ready?

(Featured photo: Carrie Meyer, The Dancer’s Eye Photography. With the delightful Bethany Maxwell.)

The bigger picture.

In a few short weeks, I’ll once again be helping to run ATS® Homecoming, an event that gathers the American Tribal Style® community together here in San Francisco. I’ll be running the registration table with Cat Ellen and a few dedicated volunteers; please stop by to say hello when you pick up your name tag.

And come to my workshops! There’s three workshops over the course of the weekend, with room in all:

Many of you have asked after me, and I appreciate it. For me, this event will be bittersweet and hard. A few months ago I was coldly “suspended” from the FatChanceBellyDance teaching collective, with no advance notice or conversation, and with no clear or realistic path to reinstatement. Further, when I announced this, I was subsequently publicly gaslighted when representatives from the collective falsely told the community that it was my choice to leave.

As someone who manages people in my day job, I have a lot to say on how to fire someone with grace, class, and dignity, but for now I’ll say: this ain’t it. All of this bitterness and anger on both sides could have been avoided if someone from FatChance had simply reached out to me first.

But you know what? As a community, we have bigger problems than petty interpersonal crap. We are living in a scary political time, when global nationalism is sweeping the USA and other countries.

Our art form may be uniquely American, but it has its roots in social dances from the Middle East. In addition to the ongoing crisis in Aleppo, many in the Middle East belong to a religion that our incoming government has publicly maligned, leading to intensifying, more public discrimination and violence against our neighbors here at home.

These are frightening times.  The world is painful and scary, and many of us — especially white women — are only just now waking up to how painful and scary it is.

As artists inspired by the Middle East and India, we could just sit back and make art. We could send “thoughts and prayers” to Syria while we lavish ourselves with pounds of antique jewelry from that region. We could set our intentions for global healing as we make art and hope that somehow this changes the world outside of our own heads.

Unfortunately, the most effective currency we have to make change, even as artists, is still currency. Money. While it’s important to support the artists in our community who make costuming and jewelry, or the teachers sharing their knowledge, we need to act in other ways too. Here’s where I’m sending my currency: The American Civil Liberties UnionInternational Rescue CommitteeIslamic Relief USA. And there are so many other organizations worthy of our financial support.

If you have the financial ability to do so, I invite you to join me. The challenges we are facing as a community are bigger than any of us. And they are real, and tangible, and our response should be too.

A new chapter: returning to my roots.

In the early 2000s, I was living in an unfamiliar town, without a lot of friends or family, and was profoundly lonely. I stepped into a group improv bellydance class and found — community. Joy. Support. It was life-changing. And so when I moved across the country to Maine, one of the first things I did was find a bellydance class; I knew exactly how to find community.

As I matured in my dance, and as I grew closer to the the source of ATS®, that focus changed, little by little. Distractions began to pile up.

First it was the obsession with the costume: not just a belt, but the right belt. Not just a skirt, but the right skirt. Ten yards or more, please. And then the makeup: not that lipstick, it’s too neutral. Your bindi isn’t big enough. You need to fix your eyeshadow. Paint your nails. Your eyebrows aren’t right. And the jewelry, oh, the endless jewelry.

(A confession: I despise wearing so much jewelry.)

And then it was the technique, even beyond the quest for perfection: am I doing this right? Is my elbow at exactly the right angle? Is her elbow at exactly the right angle? Should I dance with someone who doesn’t have great technique? Will someone tell me if don’t have great technique? Will someone tell me directly if I’m doing something wrong?

And finally, and most pernicious, the obsession with hierarchy. What are the guidelines for advancing to the next level? Who’s in the troupe, and who’s out?  What are the rules for getting in? Who’s good enough? Who has the wrong attitude? Who has the certifications, who’s approved to teach? Who can successfully intuit the ever-changing unspoken rules?

I’m ashamed and sad to say that I got caught up in this culture, because I thought it was necessary to support the ATS® brand. No more.

All of these distractions from the reason I started dancing have built up to this:

I’m no longer part of the FatChanceBellyDance® teaching collective. This was not by my choice, and I’ll save the story for in-person conversations. This heartbreaking shift has caused me to re-evaluate my relationship with dance, what I want out of it, and whether I will choose to continue.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: I want to remember why I started doing this in the first place. I want to go back to the beginning.

The most important thing for me in dance — beyond technique, beyond spectacle, beyond performativity — is connection. I cherish my connections with the worldwide ATS® community. That is the root of why I do this, and that is where I will focus as I move forward.

Speaking of roots: “community” and “communication” share the same linguistic root. We can’t build community if we are hesitant or afraid to communicate freely, honestly, and authentically. With open, compassionate hearts. Fearlessly.

I want to dance with people who are fearless communicators, on and off the dance floor.

I want to dance with people who are bighearted, generous, and kind.

I want to dance with people who only expect mind-reading when we’re dancing together.

I want dance partners who find the good in their fellow dancers. I want dance partners who open up communication instead of shutting it down.

I want to dance with people who don’t care about hierarchy. I want dance partners who prioritize joyful connection. I want dance partners who know that our art form isn’t a sorority, it’s a method of communication.

I want to work with community builders.

So, what does this mean in practice?

I’m still devoted to American Tribal Style® bellydance, as created by Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman and FatChanceBellyDance®. I love the strength, the beauty, and especially the connection that having a clear shared dance language enables. I respect Carolena and her brand, and will continue to support her artistic vision to the best of my ability, as I have for many years.

And I will still be teaching at ATS® Homecoming in January 2017, and offering SSCE at least at that event and perhaps beyond.

I will not be teaching regular classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are enough excellent teachers here, and I respect the local teachers who rely on dance for their income.

However, I will happily travel to teach workshops. I love working with the global community. It’s also important to me to keep the workshops affordable for the communities in which I offer them; reach out to me if you’d like to talk logistics.

Additionally, I don’t want to run my dance career as a business any more; I only want to support the worldwide ATS® community. To that end, any funds I earn will go to charity, or to support your local dance community.

And if you live in the Bay Area — or are visiting — and you share my goals, consider this an invitation to come dance with me. In my living room, in yours, in a studio, or in the street. Come back to the roots with me, and let’s focus on connection and communication.

Come dance with me in joyful community.

 

(Photo credit: Don Labit Design)

Massive closet-cleaning!

Folks – I’m cleaning out the dance closet. Please buy my stuff!

UPDATE: It’s a non-smoking home, but I do have cats. I’ll do my best to clean things up for you, but clothing items are best for the non-allergic.

Guidelines:

  • Preference will be given to local dancers or those visiting the Bay Area who can pick up (I’m looking at you, Advanced Teacher Training students). I don’t want to ship all this stuff.
  • I have loads of unlisted items (jewelry, hip shawls, miscellany) in my closet that are also up for sale — if you’re willing to arrange a time to come my house, look through my stuff and I’ll give you a deal!
  • Price includes shipping in the continental United States. Otherwise, contact me for a shipping quote.

If you would like an item:

  1. Comment on the post (here on my blog, not on Facebook) with:
    • the item(s) you’d like, and
    • whether you need it shipped or can pick it up.
  2. Remember, those willing to pick up get priority. If a local dancer expresses interest in the same item within 48 hours of an initial comment, it’ll go to them.
  3. I’ll respond to your comment via email. We can exchange payment details and shipping info (if applicable) over email.

 

Skirts: Skirts for sale

Pantaloons: Pantaloons for sale

Cholis: Performance cholis for sale

More coming soon as I post it — stay tuned! Thank you, and thanks for buying my stuff.