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.


10 thoughts on “On building an ATS® troupe

    • Greetings Janet, Your April 23, 2017, article “On Building an ATS Troupe” calling for the establishment of ” clear advancement guidelines” was a clear true call. The reasons for establishing these guidelines were also true. The suggestion to “look to the working world” was problematic. Many of us have not had a positive experience with “companies with good, supportive cultures that encourage clear communication, ” many of us have not. My own experience of Corporate America is that of a bastille populated by secretive, back stabbers more than willing to throw me under the bus at any opportunity while smiling sweetly in my face. Communication was not in any way “open or transparent.” On Sunday evenings, I would become deeply depressed just thinking about going to work on Monday. My point is that not all of us have had good work experiences to draw upon to establish good environments and guidelines for our dance groups. So some examples of these “working world environments with positive, healthy dynamics” could be used to overcome this lack of experience. And to know a more modern approach. Luckily, I had decent bosses and work environments when I was an archaeologist. Luckily, I have run my own businesses and discovered a few more techniques.
      Next is my observation that all troupes and potential troupes are not created equal. My own troupe Black Bear @ Oasis was created completely from scratch. I have called myself the Student with Students. I work hard to stay ahead of my students. Right now the troupe guidelines are 1. Show up. 2. Practice, 3. Support each other. and 4. Get the studio rent paid. The 7 Bears are learning ATS together. Some of my students are quick learners and some are still struggling with a shimmy. The guideline bar is low right now. But the more we perform , the more ambitious we are. Do we set that guideline bar ever higher to the exclusion of some very hard working, creative, dependable members?

  1. HI Janet,
    Thanks for your thoughtful article. I totally disagree. I have been a member of several troupes, and run a couple myself. The fit for a troupe member is not at all like fit for a work position. Work is regulated by labor laws, etc., and you HAVE to get along at work – it’s your livelihood.

    A troupe is for fun and adventure. It is super important that the troupe members all get along. Someone has to assess this important aspect of a potential new member while knowing all the current members and how they might all fit together. Similar dancing skill is minor compared to fitting together in the interactions of a troupe. It’s more like dating – and in dating you have healthy implicit bias (for example, whether you want to date people of the same gender or some variation). The dancing skill can be learned over time – you can start in the chorus, and it might take years to achieve the skill level needed.

    You said, “… they judge her solely on their perceptions. She is never given the opportunity to offer her perspective, or counter the troupe’s speculations….” Could I suggest that if you want to be in a troupe, you work at trying to make friends with all the troupe members? If you are hanging out with them for lunch or bellydance events, they will get to know you quite well over time.

    I believe the same as true for a promotion at work – once you get to a high enough level, you will find that people you call “friends” are the ones that promote you. You are also auditioning at work all the time – but the most important parameter for a promotion is NOT how hard you work, and how good your work is. The most important parameter for promotion at any work is how well you get along with the boss and the boss’ boss, etc.

    You say, “… 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.” This one benefit outweighs ALL the others – at work or in a troupe.

    There are some aspects of your article and my comments here that are in agreement.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful article.

    • Nancy, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I appreciate the dialogue!

      I agree with you: if you’re running a troupe for fun, then my initial suggestions don’t make sense, and personality fit is the most important characteristic. There’s nothing wrong with creating an affinity group.

      But if you are creating a professional troupe that your students aspire to join, with teaching and other responsibilities, then for your students’ sake you should set a higher bar and treat it like the job that it is. What’s wrong with creating a clear set of guidelines for students who aspire to something greater? The guidelines could even include things like working well with others and being committed to effective conflict resolution. As long as the guidelines are clear, then students know what they have to do to advance.

      Without clear guidelines, students are left in the dark, and this creates an unhealthy studio culture. It creates a network of sororities instead of professional dancers, and turns troupe formation into a vague popularity contest.

  2. Janet, I appreciate you. I enjoy your blogs and videos and learned much from you. But when you start talking about ATS and “discrimination,” “racially-charged” words, “biases,” and workplace guidelines and ethics, I mean you just make me want to run away from this vision, and any teacher or troupe who embraces it. I couldn’t disagree more. Whatever happened to ATS being a tribe of women laughing and dancing together, supporting each other. I’ll never forget the first time I heard this from my first teacher’s lips. I thought “wow, women DO this?!” We paid this teacher and she made a tribe happen, even with all the pettiness and emotions that we women brought to it, it was fun and it was of great value to each of us, something that we’ll carry with us the rest of our lives. God forbid we end up with nothing to choose from but businesses in the business of teaching ATS. Before long, the government will have to regulate it. Thank you, it is a very thought provoking article.

    • Thanks for your note, Krys. I appreciate where you’re coming from. But I believe very strongly that we can build an even stronger, more inclusive community of people of all types, laughing and dancing together, supporting each other, if we commit ourselves to creating guidelines and clear communication about troupe membership.

      Without clear guidelines, professional troupe membership becomes an exclusionary popularity contest, without a clear path for problem-solving. No one wants that!

      • It almost sounds like you’re saying that people are being excluded from somewhere where there are “rights” involved. In other words, there is unfairness happening. Of course that’s what’s happening. Because human beings are involved and humans are often unfair and judgmental and women especially can be very good at excluding. We can learn to be more accepting of each other as women, particularly if we address issues as part of a tribe rather than as a business. On a spiritual level, if you will. But I do think we must lighten up, quit being so offended and sensitive. I guess these guidelines you speak of aren’t for the average ATS troupe. You’re talking FCBD level, I think, and there I think you may have a point.

      • As I replied to an earlier commenter, I’ve got no problem with people forming affinity groups. You want to make a troupe for cisgender women over 40, go for it! But the moment that troupe becomes open to new membership, especially new members who may be coming up through your student ranks, that’s the moment you need to develop and share clear criteria about who is eligible to join. If you don’t, you do your students a disservice, because you are sending the message that membership is subjective and based on popularity.

        If a grownup sorority based on popularity is what you want, go for it. But that will create a lot of the toxic interactions I mentioned in my original post, and I consider it bad for community-building.

      • Lol, Janet, and I’m laughing at myself. It must be because I’m on the east coast and I assume you’re out west. Cisgender … forgot what that means, I know I read it somewhere. Affinity group … I don’t know if that’s a lesser status than simply an ATS troupe or what. But I’m just going to say… okay. We sure don’t want toxic interactions – though I don’t know how anything you come up with will avoid that where human beings are involved. As for avoiding bad community-building, I just don’t think guidelines will work. Because people will always have different perceptions of how the guidelines are being applied fairly. I have to say though, I’ve belonged to a couple of troupes. We disagreed, got pissed at each other, hurt each other’s feelings and supported and loved each other, but to label us a “grownup sorority” because we didn’t have guidelines, well that’s a little much. What we did have was a group of free spirits, unconstrained by guidelines and letting relationships take their natural course. But Janet, knowing your personal experience, at least as much as you shared, I do understand why you feel strongly about it. Perhaps it can be successful. That remains to be seen because I don’t think it’s ever been done.

      • Cisgender means that your gender identity matches the sex assigned to you at birth. An affinity group is just a group of people linked by a common interest or purpose.

        And you’re right, maybe it’s never been done! But I think we owe it to our students and communities to try. If we create professional-level troupes, we should treat them like the jobs they are. I’ve seen so many problems arise out of professional troupes operating like businesses for teaching, but more like “friend groups” or affinity groups in other ways. I think we owe our community and our students a better experience.

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