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.)

When “doing the best you can” isn’t good enough

When you’re playing on a sports team, and you lose the game, you lose the game.

When you’re taking a test, and you don’t know the answer, you just don’t know the answer, and there is no “A” for effort.

When you’re giving a presentation at work, and you mess it up or screw up the sales pitch, you’re done. You don’t get a second chance.

When you’re in dance class, you can apologize to your dance partners before and after an exercise.  You can explain what you were thinking when you screwed up.  You can try new things, and maybe they don’t work out.  It’s okay to make mistakes in class.  That’s what class is for.  That’s why you’re there.

But when you’re performing, you get one shot.

In class, Carolena talks about “feeling the fear” of being onstage, and how necessary that mindset is to provide a flawless show.  If you mess up dramatically and visibly on stage, I guarantee that almost no one in the audience will be thinking “well, that was weird and I didn’t really like that, but I suppose she did the best she could.”  Nope. The audience member leaves thinking “wow, that was weird and awful.” Or maybe they forget your performance entirely.

In other words, if you go on stage thinking “oh, I’ll just go out there and do the best I can,” frankly, you won’t. Per Carolena, you need to feel the fear.  You need to go onstage and be flawless.

Does this scare you?  It should.  Performances should be scary.

You might get to apologize to your dance partners, but you don’t get to apologize to the audience.  They already have their experience; they don’t care about your explanation or excuses.


Here’s an example.

I’d had a long day at the office, but I’d promised Carolena I’d show up to be a student for a taping for the PowHow classes.  So I came to the studio, put on some makeup, and tried to transition my brain quickly from Nerdy Day Job Brain into Dancer Brain.  It takes some time, you know, to transition mentally as well as physically.

But the taping started right away. Carolena had been there all day, as had some of the other “students,” and I was one of a couple people who was coming to provide a boost of energy at the end of a long taping day.  I had to make a really quick transition, because we started with recording the drill portion, and somehow I found myself in the lead.

“Ok,” I said to Carolena, thinking I was showing a great positive attitude, “I’ll do the best I can.

But that’s not what she wanted to hear, and rightly so.  There was no time or space or energy for “the best I can.”

“No,” she said, “you will do it.


If you’re practiced at feeling the fear, you can move past the sheer terror of stage fright and use the adrenaline of being on stage, combined with your skill and presence of mind, to bring the most high-energy, flawless, immersive performance that audience has ever seen.  There will be no room in your brain to make a mistake.

“The best you can,” in performance, is a cop-out.  As an audience member, I want you to be magical.