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.)

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The end of an era

I first came to 670 S. Van Ness in April of 2010. I was visiting from Maine, in town for General Skills. I remember walking down 18th, turning left at the Whiz Burger and rounding the corner onto South Van Ness, and slowly realizing… I was not alone. There was a group of women, different ages, sizes, faces, wearing skirts and cholis, congregating in the driveway as if they belonged there.

And they did, of course. They were all just early. Carolena arrived – what a presence! – and opened the door to the Mothership.

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That was the beginning. Since then, I’ve been there countless times, connecting with other dancers and connecting with my own body and my own heart. This is a sacred, transformative space. And I’m only one of the newest people to participate.

Fast forward six years. There have been twists and turns, friends gained and lost, and countless connections forged in this space. I have met new friends from around the world; I have danced with people who barely spoke English. I have calloused my aching feet on that famous squeaky floor.

I never aspired to teach as part of the FatChanceBellyDance® teaching faculty. Really. I wanted to work hard and refine my technique, and if I happened to be invited, I would have welcomed it gladly. But it was never an aspiration.

I’ve been part of the teaching faculty for two years now. What a gift. For people in this community, it’s the ultimate honor: to teach at the Mothership.

Today, I taught my last classes in this space.

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Forgive the blurriness. It was humid today in the studio and I hadn’t wiped off the lens.

We’re not stopping, of course. We’re moving next door for a while, and will be expanding into additional spaces in the Bay Area soon. But that doesn’t mean it’s not bittersweet to leave this transformative, beautiful space.

Farewell, Mothership. Here’s to the next evolution.

How to give and receive critique

In my day job, I am part of a small team of designers at a software company.  When I first started at the company, the developers weren’t helpful when asked for their thoughts on pending designs, providing useless critique like “I don’t like it,” or “that just looks ick.”  (Actual quote.)

I wanted to work with them, but they didn’t understand how to give feedback that was meaningful or actionable.  To solve this problem, we held a session on giving and receiving design critique.  The session went over well, and now the teams are collaborating better than ever. (Go read this version of the story; it’s better than I could explain.)

In dance as in life: I’ve been thinking about how we give and receive feedback to each other in dance performance.  I’ve noticed that critique tends to fall into one of three camps:

  1. Entirely positive, and very general.  I call this the “puppies and unicorns” critique.  “You’re such great dancers!  You’re so much fun to watch!!”
  2. Entirely negative, usually given behind someone’s back.  “This is awful,” someone will say.  “Those guys shouldn’t be on stage.”  Or my favorite, “this isn’t bellydance.”
  3. Silence.

None of these critique methods, of course, are helpful.  None of them help the dancers become better dancers. And while developing a critical eye towards your own performances is important, sometimes it’s good to get other people’s advice.

So here are some guidelines, pulled from design critique methodology, to help us all provide excellent feedback for each other.

If you are asking for critique:

  1. Ask for what you want. If you’re genuinely asking for feedback, say so! If you’re just sharing something because you want support, a phrase like “Check out this video – we had such a fun time!” will give your audience a clue.
  2. Be specific. It’s okay to ask for general critique, but you’ll get better advice if you ask for thoughts on something specific you’re concerned about: “Do you think that particular combination worked well?”

If you are offering critique:

  1. Make sure your opinion was asked for. Just because someone puts something on YouTube doesn’t mean they’re asking for your thoughts. If you’re not sure if critique is welcome, you can check in: “Thanks for sharing this! Are you looking for any feedback?”
  2. Ask what kind of advice they’re looking for. Maybe you’re focused on their costuming choice, but they are wondering if their formations played well on stage. “Are you looking for any specific ideas?” is a great question to ask.
  3. Be specific. If someone is genuinely asking for your advice, telling them “that was great!” isn’t helpful. If all you have is praise, you can be specific with your praise: “I particularly enjoyed the way you responded to the music when it changed tempo, it was very dramatic.”
  4. Assume good intentions. If there is something you didn’t enjoy, be kind. Some ideas:
    • “It seemed like your shimmies weren’t as bouncy as they normally are. Were you having an off day?”
    • “I’m not sure that costume worked well – it didn’t feel like it matched the music to me.”
    • “I think you need to work a bit on your posture. Your dancing was lovely, but your arms didn’t match the rest of your troupe, and I found it a little distracting.”

If you are receiving critique:

  1. Thank the person. The person who is offering their advice (hopefully) took time to offer you thoughtful, focused critique. Check your ego. If you argue or get defensive, they are unlikely to provide you feedback again.
  2. Take it to heart. Ultimately, you own your dance. It’s up to you to weigh the person’s critique and decide if you want to incorporate their feedback for next time. But at least consider it – there’s a reason you asked them for their advice in the first place!

How do you give and receive dance critique?

Tribal Illumination, July 19-20 2014 in Portland, Maine

Registration is OPEN for the Tribal Illumination weekend in Portland, Maine!

Maine is beautiful in July, and we’ll be dancing all weekend at the beautiful new location of Bright Star World Dance in Portland’s historic West End neighborhood.  We’re planning eight hours of instruction, plus a hafla in the studio, and I can’t wait to see all of my New England dancers again!

Click here to register for the whole weekend.  One-day passes will be opening up soon, assuming the weekend doesn’t sell out first.

Want to know what you’ll be getting yourself into?  Have a look.

Saturday, July 19, 11am – 1pm
Tribal Foundations for Clean Lines
Immerse yourself in the powerful-yet-fluid aesthetic of American Tribal Style® bellydance. We’ll begin with a thorough warm-up, and then dig deeply into applications of the ATS® posture and vocabulary that can be applied to any style of bellydance. Learn how to create fluid shapes rooted in vibrant stillness, and use your body and breath to project joy, gratitude, and an open, regal presence. Open to all levels of bellydancers, of any style, looking to refine posture and add strength, grace, and precision. Advanced ATS dancers will get a lot out of this workshop as well!

Saturday, July 19, 2-4pm
Tribal-Style Turns & Spins
The grounded, smooth aesthetic of ATS-style spins and turns can lend a regal air to your performance, no matter what style you call your own. Learn the subtle tricks in your feet, hips, and torso that will allow you to be solid in your footing, and create a crisp and sure landing in slow turning moves. Then, we’ll take these concepts and apply them to faster turns, including the always challenging calibrated spin! Dancers of all levels & styles are welcome.

Sunday, July 20, 11am-1pm
Musicality for ATS®
The ATS vocabulary and formations provide endless variety to meaningfully interpret your music. Learn how to listen for shapes in the music and create beautiful, elegant visuals that work musically with any song style in our repertoire. Developing your ATS musicality will not only enrich the audience’s experience, but will also result in you having much more fun dancing!
Please know the basics of the ATS level 1 vocabulary, including simple trio and quartet formations.

Sunday, July 20, 2-4pm
Dueling Duets Done Well
The elusive dueling duet: an audience favorite that is easy to learn, but challenging to master. Learn best practices to “duel” beautifully and musically, using this fun formation to keep the audience entranced! We’ll also cover simple variations to create beautiful and unique shapes, as well as the newest variations to come out of the FCBD® studio, not available on any DVD!
Please know the basics of the ATS level 1 vocabulary, including simple duet and quartet formations.

Come on out for a fun weekend not to be missed.  Portland is only two hours’ drive from the Boston area, and is served by Concord Trailways buslines, Amtrak, and an international airport.  Hotels abound, and there are lots of AirBnB options for lodging.  Can’t wait to see you all!  Register today.