I don’t know what level I am and don’t want to start over. / I feel like I’m not making progress.

by on Apr.16, 2013, under FAQs

Those of you who may have taken classes with me as recently as 2011 need to know that there’s been a big change in the way my classes are structured as well as how I teach them.

These 2 concerns are very intertwined.

I used to offer a typical, Western-style, levelled class schedule, e.g. “beginner”, “intermediate”, etc.  I even offered “advanced” classes for a while until I talked more with colleagues in other cities and actually went to real advanced classes.   ( I so wasn’t ready to teach “Advanced”.)  I taught in what I believed was the best way—breaking things down into small, single moves /steps, with lots of breakdown of how to do them, in a linear progression.   That worked for some.   But not all.  And it certainly wasn’t getting many to a place of feeling and embodying the dance as it’s meant to be.
I also was regularly reminded that it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what Egyptian dancers were actually dancing.  My hours spent watching and training with dancers such as Dina, Denise Enan, Jalilah, Hadia, and Sahra confirmed that.   I recall someone trying to clarify a “travel step” at a 2006 Dina workshop, and asking if it was “grapevine step”.  Dina became irritated, and said “it’s NOT grapevine, just do what I am doing”.    Egyptian dancers and those who truly dance in the Egyptian way know that they aren’t “connecting the dots” as they dance, they aren’t doing “combinations”—movements flow to and from one another,  and the arms are not separable from the feet nor from the hips.   It’s the total package.

“Bellydance” as a genre is painfully and embarrassingly wide-ranging in its standards and expectations.   One teacher’s “beginner” might offer the same content as another’s “introductory”.   Some teachers don’t set the content for their classes at all— their studio or rec program does.   Some mistakenly label classes as “intermediate” when it’s really just the next step for that particular group of students.   This is suspect and misleading, and one could argue, deceptive and even fraudulent.

Some teachers break their classes into sub-levels to make the content more accessible or to keep students in classes longer.   One local teacher felt that this tempered the tendency to rush through classes, and that this might help slow students down appropriately so they might better learn the skills, work ethic, and respect for the craft required to become performers.   This approach can also convince adult students that they are making “progress” in their training, even if they aren’t. Most of us aren’t testing our students or requiring them to audition for levels.  Training isn’t a race, truly, nor is it a totally linear progressive experience.   In the bellydance world, we see students who’ve fooled themselves into thinking “I’ve taken classes for a year, I can become a teacher/performer”.   We also see dancers hocking dvd’s and classes promising “easy and fast” lessons to “become a bellydancer”.    Would breaking classes up into more sub-levels help?   I don’t know.    I know a lot more respect for the art form from its own students and practitioners would.

We don’t typically see testing at levels for students to “move up”.  They often decide themselves when they want to try the next level.  I personally don’t believe in placing limits on someone’s aspirations for themselves, but, I do believe in laying out the steps in a realistic way, and giving honest feedback on how someone is doing.  I also try to regularly reference reality in my teaching.    I’m not pulling my standards or advice out of thin air–it’s all based on solid, real-world training from dancers much bigger and better than me.  Of course, if I had a dollar for every time I have been ignored, I ‘d be a rich woman!

One of the main reasons I abandoned my levelling labels was that another local teacher began to copy them, without having taken my classes or asking me about what I was teaching and more importantly, why.   The fact that we were teaching under one roof made it confusing for students who came to think our classes were interchangeable.   There was also poaching of students, who came for one class and were coaxed into another, thinking they were getting the same quality of instruction.

I’ve found that there are just not enough dedicated students in Winnipeg to sustain multiple sub-levels, or even the Level 1-5 approach I was using from 2005-2009 (inspired by the Cassandra School‘s approach).   I see a pervasive senses of  false accomplishment from those who have moved “up” in levels, without having the awareness that they are not truly keeping up with the technique or the choreography.   Many students start to shrug off advice and instruction when it becomes too difficult, writing off the instruction as mean-spirited or “stylistic”, or some other motive,  rather than what it is—TEACHING.   Then there are those who think they’ve purchased dance ability, simply by showing up to class and spending time there.   I don’t even know where to begin with that mindset.   An additional issue with “levels”  is students who see themselves as “stuck”, simply because they’re staying in the same level year after year.  The world is full of hobby-level athletes who get to a level of accomplishment and stay there, yet continue to enjoy themselves in their sport.  Most athletes and musicians out there learn to make peace with their maximum level of achievement and enjoy the other fruits of their pursuit–joy, fulfillment, and artistry.

Another roadblock typically placed in one’s own path is the tendency to “cherry pick” in classes. Dancers get to a certain level and rather than going deep, they run around collecting tricks and “moves” as they like, rather than paying attention to the wider context, and the more ephemeral skills of emotionality, musicality, and refinement. The 3 biggest booboos in my mind are Too Fast, Too Flouncy, and Too Flashy. Dead giveaways of the lack of maturity of a dancer’s technique and general presentation.

How can a teacher keep adult dance students—recreational  or performance-track— working, truly progressing, engaged, having fun,  and challenged??

Well, that’s the professional  journey I ‘ve been on almost since the beginning of my teaching, and most intensely since completing my Teacher Training Level 3 with Hadia.  I ‘ve embraced the idea that trying to paste American technical approaches onto Egyptian dance forms does NOT work, and does not take into account that there are fundamental differences in how bellydance is danced here and there.  Hadia has discovered, and now shares, that Egyptian dance is unto itself, and is best learned as whole body movement, working from the complete and large, towards the refinement of the small and detailed.   Not the other way around—the common dot-to-dot approach of teaching bellydance as isolations that somehow connect to create perfectly geometric shapes.  I’m no longer obsessed with what I used to think of as the  “precision”  of dancing in perfect planes and shapes, and I realize that no matter how small I might make something, if it’s a damaging move, it’s still going to hurt!  I also no longer believe that getting better and better means the technique gets harder and trickier–it means going deeper into the music, feeling more, and allowing that to manifest authentically and soulfully.    This overall approach is neither gimicky nor trendy, so it’s a hard sell.  But try doing yourself the favour of cleaning out your eyes, ears, and brain the next time you take a class or workshop.  Don’t try to force what you’re learning into a category that already exists for you—try to do it as you are seeing it, as it’s being described.   You may be surprised as what you are missing.

I now focus on essential, e.g. necessary and fundamental, content and thematic classes based on what people both want to learn and need to learn.  I have retained use of the term “Intermediate”, because it accurately describes the wide middling ability and knowledge that MOST dance students have in our city’s classes, regardless of years of study or style.    Most students will stay at this relative “level”, no matter how hard they work or how long they study.  That’s the hard truth that many teachers seem unwilling to deal with.   No amount of new costuming, reading, forum posting, sewing, note-taking, workshops, practicing, drilling, corrections, and choreography will get you past your inherent limits.    Not all hockey kids make it to the NHL.  Most dance students never will achieve pro level.  That’s okay, really.   Why do we think it’s not??

I’ve taken inspiration from the Eastern approaches to learning, such as one sees in a martial arts club, where everyone is all together, and the black belts are part of the teaching as well as expected to be working their hardest whether or not they are being pushed or directly watched by the master.    This way, those who are new to the art get to see where they can or might head in the future, all things considered.    There is something to be said for the “shut up and do” approach.

Contemporary educational approaches to language and music instruction  do not spend so much time drilling on  single notes or lists of vocabulary, but on learning and using information in  a context, however you are able at any given moment,  which becomes  knowledge, and over time, knowledge grown and honed through practice and experience becomes wisdom.    E.g. you learn to play a song, or recite a poem, rather than simply practicing c-major scale or  practicing your pronunciation of  “Where is the bathroom?”.   These are the principles behind language immersion programs, as well as multi-age classrooms.   Sometimes diving into the whole is much more  illuminating than only being shown glimpses of its parts.   This is reality–not everyone will be the same.   Everyone learns differently.    Being able to work your best with guidance, but also choices, and seeing the “road ahead”, knowing you can try something in the order that’s right for you.   “Levels” in dance classes do not honour that.

I’m not arguing that levels don’t work or that teachers shouldn’t use them.    I’m sure many teachers find ways to do it successfully.  I’m personally no longer convinced that they do, so I have put them aside for now.

If you still find yourself married to the idea that you may be “starting over” or “stuck”, find other reasons for dancing besides a sense of continuous “progress”.   And please, it’s not likely your teacher’s fault if you feel stuck.   That is supremely disrespectful to lay your boredom with your dancing at the feet of the person who’s been teaching you.   Stop to really consider whether you’ve applied her/his teaching, applied the corrections, and taken the advice you’ve been given WITHOUT PUSHBACK.  Actually practice.  Show up for class on time, every week, prepared and changed into your dance dud.  Pay attention and try your best in the moment.   Stop rolling your eyes and asking “why do I have to do this?” and actually do it, with enthusiasm and energy.  Watch and work with some of those dvd’s you’ve bought. Maybe then you’ll see some “progress”.

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Located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.