Inspiring Excellence through Arts Education

Teaching Dance

By Terri Miller

I am a dance teacher. I am certainly not the best teacher out there, but I try to give my best to my students. I walk a fine line between being fun and encouraging, and being challenging and effective. My goal is to give students that may not want to become dancers a lifelong love and appreciation for the art, and the work it takes to become good, while giving my students that are interested in using dance in their careers the tools they need to take that next step. (No pun intended!)

Teaching dance may seem like a pretty simple job. How hard is it to twirl around on your toes, after all? Don’t you just play music and jump around? Actually, a lot more is involved. Like any teacher, a dance teacher does a lot of “behind the scenes” work that goes unseen, and sadly, unappreciated at times. Hours of picking music, costumes, planning lessons, choreography, and continuing to educate oneself to keep up with styles and trends is included as well as developing skills like classroom management for multiple ages, and developing the ability to keep students interested and invested in what is being taught. This does not include teachers who are also studio owners who, in addition, have a mountain of administrative and communication issues to address every day. Teachers in the performing arts do not teach for the money, they teach to share the love of their art form and the impact it had on their life.

Knowing the exceptional teachers that I have had and the ones that I work with on a weekly basis, it saddens me when I hear disrespectful grumblings of students about their teachers and classes. Whether it is that the teacher doesn’t like them, the class is too hard, the class is too easy, the teacher is too strict, the teacher is not strict enough, and my personal favorite, it’s not challenging enough; that dissatisfaction breeds negativity and creates a new obstacle for teachers and studio owners to overcome.

Dance is a unique art form in that it combines artistry and athleticism. A student must be proficient in both of these aspects to be good, and that takes time and repetition. For example, a plie (knee bend)is one of the first things taught in ballet class and it is usually the first exercise at the barre in any level of ballet class anywhere in the world. If I had a dollar for every plie I’ve done in my life, I’m pretty sure I would be a millionaire! Why is this important? A plie is done before and after every jump and turn, it is used in transition steps to smooth out movement, and lengthens and softens extensions, it also stretches the Achilles’ tendon allowing for stability and flexibility during movement; such importance placed on what at first glance seems to be something insignificant. The “boring” and “unchallenging” steps are needed as the foundation to complete the more difficult combinations and “tricks”. Just like drills in sports, the basics must be drilled in dance so that they become muscle memory and can be executed correctly without thought. Some of the best professional dancers in the world take beginner level classes in order to focus on foundational technique because they are wise enough to know it makes them better dancers. They do not wait to be challenged by their teachers, but instead challenge themselves to bring perfection to even the simplest movements. The age of You-Tube and other media outlets have created a desire to be able to do everything instantaneously, however in that awesome 30 second clip, what is not seen are the years of hours of practice and the teachers giving class and corrections to get that dancer to that point of 30 seconds of on-camera awesomeness.

Teachers invest in students. They invest time, talent, creativity, knowledge, encouragement, and yes, criticism. Part of a teacher’s job is to correct and critique. Most genres of dance rely on a specific technique as a tool of artistic expression. A dancer that doesn’t use their “tool” correctly will not perform to the best of their ability. Sometimes, students can take correction personally and it results in the idea that a teacher does not like the student. Actually, the opposite is usually true. If a student is getting a lot of corrections, that means that the teacher sees potential in the student and wants to push that student to continue to improve. Most teachers are not being “mean” when they correct, they are trying to bring the student to their next level, or are trying to bring awareness to a flaw that could hold a student back or even lead to eventual injury. Corrections are the gifts given to students, how the student uses those gifts is beyond the teacher’s control.

Today’s world is one of constant stimulation and entertainment. Our constant connectivity is a mixed blessing. Instant gratification rules the day. To excel in dance, or any performing art takes time, practice, and patience. Not every exercise or class is going to be fun and entertaining. Progression is definitely not instantaneous, and does not come without much correction and critique. It’s so easy in today’s world to turn to something new when the least amount of frustration comes to us and we rely so much on outside stimuli to give worth to things. I think we sometimes lose the sense of joy we find when we challenge ourselves to be the best we can be. We forget, in our fast paced world, that the things that take time and effort are the things that make life beautiful. We sometimes take for granted the time, energy, and investments of the people that help us achieve excellence.

If you are blessed to find teachers that are knowledgeable in their field, care enough to want to see their students excel, can balance encouragement and critique, and are willing to spend many unpaid hours researching ways to bring their best to their classes, then let me suggest that negativity be replaced with appreciation for all that goes into the “simple” job of teaching dance.