When Should Dancers Transition to Being Teachers?

Post Views 6,300

One of our readers submitted this question after witnessing a teacher handle a student’s question in class quite ineptly.

I think that the more relevant question is WHY, not WHEN. There is no magic number of years you should dance before starting to teach. There is no competition you must win. There is no particular certification that should be acquired, unless you’re in the ballroom dancing world. Far more important is the motivation you have for starting to teach. Let’s take a look at several factors that might be involved in deciding whether to become a dance instructor.

Money

Let’s just deal with this first. There have been a lot of messages out there recently about finding a way to do what you love as your job. After all, you spend a majority of waking hours working, so shouldn’t it be something you enjoy? If you love dancing, maybe the solution could be to do it professionally!

051916 moneyWell, perhaps, but teaching people to dance is rarely very profitable. If you rely on that income for your living, the stakes become rather high. It affects the way you view your classes and how you feel about students who attend regularly or don’t. You have to be an aggressive marketer and set up your classes to maximize profit. Most communities can’t support a dance teacher comfortably, which means either traveling a lot, moving to a big city, or teaching a huge range of dances. It will also land you right in the middle of dance scene politics, even if you don’t start out wanting to compete with others.

Plus, while you may fool some newbies, people who have been in the scene longer can nearly always tell when you’re motivated by money. And it’s not viewed well. Sure, everybody has to eat, but we don’t want to be your money bags.

Admiration

You love to be at the center of things. You want people to know you and respect you. You want them to see you and think “I want to dance like (fill in your name)

There’s actually nothing inherently wrong with feeling like this. We all long for affirmation in some way. However, this need for affirmation might be better fulfilled by focusing on performance. When you put on a show in the social dancing world, it is all about seeking the audience’s attention, making them feel something with your movement. It doesn’t even necessarily require that high a level to be able to learn choreography and dance it with an energy that will grip people. At a higher level, you can train with a partner and create couple shows or videos for YouTube. You can even be the one to create choreography for a group of dancers – while this is often done by teachers, it is truly a separate skill, and well deserving acclaim.

051916 admiration blurBut teaching to be admired? You’re putting your sense of well-being into the hands of students. You will be up and down depending how many people loyally come to class and what they say about you. You will probably come across as egotistical or hungry, never mind the question of whether you are actually any good at teaching. You’re almost certain to be the kind of teacher who can’t admit when they’re wrong or don’t know how to explain something, dismissing questions by saying “You just have to feel it” or even belittling your student for asking such a thing. This is one of the most infuriating wrongs I witness from teachers, and unfortunately it’s not uncommon.

Demand

People love your dancing. They love dancing with you, and they love watching you dance. You have excellent balance, fluid movement, clean lines, flawless connection, and beautiful musicality…or at least you are well on your way. People ask you: “Aren’t you a teacher?” “When are you going to start doing classes?” “I would love to take a private from you.”

That kind of approbation feels wonderful. It is certainly an indicator that if you want to teach, you could find support in your community. After all, everyone wants to learn from a skilled dancer. I would urge you to consider a few other questions, though: Do you want to teach? Do you know how to explain dancing to others? And does the scene need another teacher?

While being in demand is a good motivator, it shouldn’t be the only reason you start teaching. Having a gregarious personality, being a fun social dancer, or impressing people with your movement quality are all assets for a teacher, but they don’t actually add up to being a teacher.

Uniqueness

Maybe you are one of the first in your town to start dancing a particular dance style – kizomba, zouk, pachanga, whatever. People come up to you and say: “What is that?” “Can I try with you next time?” and pretty soon, “Would you teach us?”

Or perhaps you’ve been dancing a particular style for long enough to have developed your own special style. Something about the way you do your footwork, move through transitions, or put together moves impresses people. People ask you to teach them how to dance like you do.

If you want to share with others what you’ve developed, awesome! You have found your niche. So long as you can articulate where your style comes from and how others can achieve it, that individuality will be an incredible asset. It could even grow into a following!

That said, don’t feel obligated to help others recreate what you’ve crafted over time. Whether you don’t feel up to breaking things down, don’t want to invest the time in teaching, or simply prefer to stay one of a kind, others’ recognition of your uniqueness can’t be your sole motivating factor.

Partner

051916 partnerWhether it’s your romantic partner or your training partner, you’ve invested a lot in that relationship. When they ask you to teach with them, you can’t imagine refusing and having them ask someone else. Surely if they’re ready to teach, and they’ve asked you, you must be ready…right?

I think it’s important to consider in advance what your role is going to be. Is your partner going to be the teacher, with your role limited to silent assistance? Will you circulate and offer feedback as students practice? Will you each teach your respective roles? Will you fully co-teach?

If you’re going to be an assistant, it’s enough for you to dance well – so long as your partner understands both sides of the dance. You can grow into more responsibilities with time and experience (that’s how I got started!) If you are going to be a teacher in your own right, though, you need to have more than just your partner as a motivation. Otherwise, not only will it be a disservice to your students, it will be likely to strain your relationship as well.

Teaching Expertise

Some of you are just naturally good at explaining things. You see someone who’s confused, and you quickly formulate a way to break down the concept so they can understand. Others of you have invested in quality teacher training, spending weeks, months, or years to develop your pedagogy.

Now let’s be clear – just because you took a class called “instructor training” does not necessarily mean you have any teaching expertise. Some such courses are higher level dance classes with no actual work on pedagogy; others throw theory at you with no instruction about implementation; some are just plain mislabeled. If you’re serious about becoming a great instructor, do the research to be sure that not only are you learning from awesome teachers, but that they will cover the various aspects of teaching.

051916 teaching expertise blur 2Every dance instructor should have teaching expertise of some kind. Regardless of whether you have a piece of paper certifying it, you need to be able to help your students improve in understanding, technique, musicality, and so on. While some people can improve just by watching an excellent dancer, most students who come to class need a little bit more than that. The more you focus on making every lesson better than the last, taking time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, the more you hone your teaching ability.

Nevertheless, teaching expertise is more of an asset than a motivator. If it isn’t accompanied by enthusiasm for the community and compassion for the learners, it’ll be pretty dry. You must have a genuine desire to see your students improve, or why put in the time?

Passion

Maybe you live in a smallish town where social dancing is not a hugely popular activity. Or perhaps you dance one of the less widespread dances. You love dancing and you want to be able to do more of it with more people. You are on fire with enthusiasm and you want to help your local community grow in this dance.

Thank goodness for people like you! Everyone who is happy with their dance community owes it to people who were passionate enough to invest huge amounts of effort and time into building up the scene.

There might not be anything more important for becoming a teacher than this passion to share your dance. This is what fuels you as you try to organize new dance opportunities, pulls new people into your orbit, and inspires others to join in your efforts.

And yet…we all know that person who is excitedly teaching the newbies crazy tricks and dips that are endangering everyone on the floor. The urge to share your enthusiasm, while incredibly important, doesn’t cover all faults.

Conclusion

In the end, you need a combination of these factors before you can confidently take the step to becoming a teacher. You’re a skilled dancer, or at least enough better than the majority that people admire your dancing. You have demand for lessons, or you’re interested in building up your scene. You have teaching expertise, or else there’s a lack of teachers in your area and you intend to start with what you know and work hard to hone your abilities as an instructor. You care about seeing other dancers improve, and you want to invest time and energy in helping them do so.

There’s no single formula that yields the correct time for someone to transition to being a teacher. If you aren’t sure, try teaching without calling yourself a teacher. Run a practice session and share what you know. One thing is for certain: even when you do become a teacher, you should never stop being a student. There is always more to learn – and I’m glad of it!

Featured image courtesy of Benoy Varghese Photography. Blur filter my own.

9 Comments

  • Debby Smits says:

    Very well explained and on point!

  • Mick says:

    Very well put Rachel and as good writers do, you left the best advice until last:

    “If you aren’t sure, try teaching without calling yourself a teacher. Run a practice session and share what you know.”

    I’d add, if your Facebook friends call your dancing ‘awesome’, keep calm and worry a little.

  • Salsa Ohio says:

    Good article. Very well done…I would love another a piece on when is it time to stop teaching. Workshops is where I see a huge inconsistency. For example a really pricey workshop weekend and of the classes maybe one or two instructors were decent the others simply regurgitating dance basics, make me frustrated. Nothings perfect and putting together a venue isn’t easy but if someone only has an entry level knowledge please don’t take peoples hard earned money. They usually benefit off the new dancers enthusiasm and thirst for more training. The retention aspect doesn’t matter because its usually not hosted locally or the instructors are from another are. Hit and run… don’t get me wrong it’s not all like that but let’s just say I’ve paid my dues when I was new.

    • Hmm, you raise several interesting questions there, Salsa Ohio. Here’s what I took from your comment:
      1. When should teachers retire?
      2. How can teachers know where to cap themselves, what the highest level they can really teach is?
      3. How can organizers make sure they take on instructors that are able to teach the topics and levels the organizers want for that event?
      4. How can students be sure they will get value for their money? Especially if they are new to the scene?
      5. When is a class that goes back to basics an interesting, fresh look that helps us renew our foundation and go deeper…and when is it just “regurgitation”?
      Our writing team is already considering your questions for our future posts. Thanks for sharing!

  • Ohio Salsa says:

    Hi Rachel,

    1. When should teachers retire?

    I said “I would love another piece on when is it time to stop teaching. “More towards one who should have never started.

    This came from my expensive Kizomba workshop weekend I attended and the instructor was simply awful. This isn’t “final jeopardy” but how can you not know what followers saida is? Or can offer no help on weight distribution which is critical in a slow sensual dance like that. How do you accept cash from people is beyond me…

    Retire when it makes sense to. If your candid feedback is that you are not an effective instructor or you have no student retention then that may or may not be a sign that times are changing and you’re not…

    2. How can teachers know where to cap themselves, what the highest level they can really teach is?

    Cap ? I thought that was called “Masters” ;-). Where I live they have for example Salsa level 1, 1.5 and level 2 That you can sign up for. I will stay at 1.5 because I don’t want to run elaborate patterns which is ok…I’m more about connection and feeling than moves…if she’s smiling then my moves work 😉

    3. How can organizers make sure they take on instructors that are able to teach the topics and levels the organizers want for that event?

    Interview them….have them come to the studio and maybe a “dry run” of the material…15 min or so not an hour, should give an insight to the depth of knowledge.

    4. How can students be sure they will get value for their money? Especially if they are new to the scene?

    Go to socials, find dancers that make you say “Wow he’s/she’s good” and ask them how they learned and do they have an instructor recommendation. Most advanced dancers are more than happy to help because they were new once too and know the feeling and dance for enjoyment…that’s the person you want to ask…
    If you see an advertisement for a big workshop weekend bring the flyer to the studio and ask…or use social media and ask around…it’s cheaper to buy the full workshop passes but if you only want to key on one instructor buy it a la carte that way you’re not stuck feeling the way I did….

    5. When is a class that goes back to basics an interesting, fresh look that helps us renew our foundation and go deeper…and when is it just “regurgitation”?

    When instead of running through a woman’s right turn and cross-body lead with hair-comb right off the bat…take 10 minutes to teach musicality, have a whiteboard or something and show the 2-3 clave, teach us about the layered rhythms the difference between salsa music and western music.. the tumbao , heck bring a clave to class…

    Help us understand what to listen for in the songs…When I was new I was taught some moves in beginner class and then told “hey get out there and have at it” Gasp…That was probably the most uncomfortable thing I ever did. I had no clue about the music and I hope that gal’s rotator cuff healed… jk ….yikes I get the “willies” just remembering that night…

    Regurgitation to me means nothing creative nothing new…same stale moves.

    Creative and fresh to me for a beginner at a workshop weekend for example would include….Musicality, bring example music even the dreaded 1234 5678 song “I Love Salsa song”…. Then posture, fix me…..show me how my rounded shoulders are making me slow and off balance, show me how to have slight bend in my knees show me where the ball of the foot is and why it’s important to be on them…. Show me the woman’s right turn but show me connection….teach me how to feel that…explain that without a good connection none of the advanced moves work….

    If all I come away with is connection, posture and musicality what a heck of a bargain….

  • David Sander says:

    Often 80% of the primary thing that beginners need is simply encouragement to keep dancing. There are actually a lot of skills they need to learn by doing regular practice and socials. So patience and instruction on the most important points for them is a key learning feature for a beginner. I can do well at helping trained professionals because I’m experienced enough to know the typical movement faults of a ballet or performance dancers who come into the Salsa scene.
    Often students are taught steps but not schooled in connection and not told how to do the improvisation that is a central feature of well done social dancing. Improvisation is also important in adapting to your partners strengths and weaknesses.
    Different people have different methods of learning. Patience is important. I tend to get the large motions first and then work on refinements. This annoys one of the better teachers in my city who objects to my not moving my feet when I am struggling with a new arm movement. It is impossible to learn everything at once, so I focus on the most difficult aspect of a new movement before adding the other movements to it.
    I have also heard its best for beginners to learn from a recently minted teacher because they are more familiar with the beginners problems and will be more clued in to those than someone who has been teaching at a high level for fifteen years.

  • Fred says:

    I’d add, related to passion, to be mindful of the difference between doing it for the fun and enjoyment and professionally or for some income. The latter may take away from the joy and intrinsic motivation of salsa, that spark of excitement we all love when we go to a party and enjoy the dancing and music and friends etc. When motives begin to be mixed up, fun, money etc, things may get complicated. And then there is the “politics” sometimes with the competition from other teachers or companies, may be even enmities etc etc. You start to hear about teachers who don’t social dance at congresses or even local events cause they’re tired after so much instruction or are just bored or burned out from doing it over and over again. Dance may start to look like that “shift” at that dreary place one used to work at, knock on wood!!! I think this is a huge huge risk. Its a sad thing when something you used to really love turns into this thing you now have to take a holiday from!!? can you believe that??? People are taking their holidays to dance salsa, and you are taking your holidays to get away from it??? It is a tricky risk to navigate, i think, in making that switch from social dancer who’s 100% intrinsically motivated to a teacher where factors like income start to exert themselves and threaten that intrinsic motivation and giddiness one once had for salsa. Like many people here, i’ve been to events where i seem to see some teachers who seem not to be having fun, hopefully i am wrong, and then i also seem to see some who are just having a ball. perhaps, one source of motivation can be that one is helping others to have fun by teaching and passing on their knowledge, so that it is gratifying to see people one teaches enjoying themselves, or students saying thanks for one’s lessons.

  • Melissa West-Koistila says:

    This is an excellent article! I really enjoyed reading it.

  • Thank you for all these fine points! You raised issues I hadn’t considered, and I found my place under several of your points.

    Two aspects for me, that I think weren’t included: 1) Teaching as a way for me to learn more and improve my own dancing(!); and 2) Wanting to introduce a new style of *teaching* to the community.

    First, when a person seeks to teach a topic, let us hope that they study the topic, organize their thoughts, and plan the class. Perhaps they practice the moves they plan to teach. Taking on the challenge of explaining things in a way that others–lots of others with lots of different learning styles–can comprehend and use it, this helps us improve ourselves.

    Second, I saw in my particular dance, some few teachers, near and far, with ideas and manner of teaching that I disagreed with. I didn’t quite or always understand why, so I undertook a study of teaching, learning, coaching, and practicing, as well as studying my dance style. I dislike the hierarchical, copy me, pattern-based, fault-finding mode of teaching. I prefer a peer-to-peer, mind-body experiments, experiential, exploration way of learning. I believe, I hope that I can model best practices for teaching, in my teaching and in my writing, and that some of these ideas will find their way to benefit students beyond those working with me.

    Again, my thanks for the light you shine on an important topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *