An Open Letter to My Dance Students

An Open Letter to My Dance Students December 29, 2014
Me performing with my students and dance troupemates at a 3rd Friday Drum Circle at Playground Productions (Indianapolis).
Me performing with my students and dance troupemates at a 3rd Friday Drum Circle at Playground Productions (Indianapolis).

One of the things I’m learning about teaching dance is that while it’s usually full of delightful challenges, there are rougher times too – such as the time when a dance student moves on to another location.

While in the middle of one of these situations, I started reflecting on what I’d like to tell my past and present dance students. I decided to write an open letter to them and post it here, in part so that I don’t have to reiterate it each time this happens, and in part so I don’t tear up by having to say these things in person.

***

To my dance students –

In the time you’ve studied with me, whether it’s been a handful of classes or a couple of years, I’ve hopefully shown you some of the wonders of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance. You’ve studied hard and learned a number of dance movements as well as the improvisational structure of the dance (which reflect one another like fractals do). You’ve experienced how practicing the moves is a fun activity in and of itself, but the movement vocabulary is also an end to a means: the ability to collectively improvise with your dance partners.

Collective improvisation is a unique experience, and one that I hope you’ve gotten to enjoy. It’s one way to get into a flow state, thereby becoming absorbed in the moment rather than being stuck in your head. Most ATS dancers I know describe the flow state in desirable terms, as something that happens when everything clicks and you’re able to let go of conscious thought and just be in the moment. (In case you’re curious about these flow experiences in belly dancing, I explore them in an academic article on the numinous in belly dance, which also includes experiences like trance dancing and spiritual dancing.)

I hope that when you go on to another dance studio, teacher, or style, you’ve absorbed some of the lessons I try to convey in my teaching, such as practicing self-care at all times, and being compassionate with yourself when trying to learn a difficult concept. I also try to teach that simplicity is often best, that form and intention can go a long way in dance.

As you should know from studying the history of ATS, there’s a lot of variation in our dance. A LOT. It’s just like a language that naturally develops dialects over time and space. I hope that when you go on to study ATS under another teacher, you are respectful and willing to learn that troupe’s flavor. There might be more dialect than you’re used to. They angle their Triangle Step differently, or include one more or less floreo in their Strong Arm. Be graceful and roll with it. You might like some ways that I taught things better, or you might prefer your new instructor’s way of doing things. Be okay with these things. While you’re still a student, you’ll accept that teacher’s stylistic decisions and guidance, and if you decide to go on to become a teacher yourself, you can make those calls yourself.

But in my experience, dancing ATS is less about the details and more about the connection with your fellow dancers. It’s about how the movement vocabulary lets you communicate using hand signals and your gaze, and in doing so, create a novel dance experience for all participants.

To wrap this up, I’m honored that you trusted me enough to let me be your teacher. I know that it can be difficult to trust a dance teacher when our culture’s so wrapped up in body image and confidence issues. Indeed, I think ATS is subversive in large part because it lets us access a flow state and thus not be concerned in the moment about how we look, but rather how we feel. And if I’ve helped you achieve that transcendence at all, then I’m thrilled to have had a part in it.

(also, it occurs to me that if you haven’t seen ATS before, watching a performance might help all this make more sense! so feel free to check out this video of me performing with my students and troupemates, many of whom first started to study this dance form under me…and again, this was all improvised!)

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