These 2 concerns are very intertwined.

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.

I used to offer a typical, Western-style, levelled class schedule — e.g. “beginner”, “intermediate” —  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 to be the best way— breaking things down into small, single moves  and steps, with lots of breakdown of how to do each of them, in a linear progression.   That worked for some students.   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 was also regularly reminded that it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what Egyptian dancers are 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 moving together and responding.

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

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 student tendency to rush through class levels, and 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, simply by ticking off levels one has “finished”.   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 linear, progressive experience.   In the “bellydance” genre, we see students who’ve fooled themselves into thinking “I’ve taken classes for a year, I can be 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!  I’ve had a recent student ask for, but then blatantly ignore, every piece of advice I gave her, interrupt every class she attended without reason, and blow off most of my instruction to her.   ( You can lead a horse to water, but…)   A quality class and a gifted teacher can be wasted on someone with a crappy attitude and a head full of delusions.

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/how 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 mass poaching of students, who came for one class but were coaxed into another, thinking they were getting the same quality of instruction.   When folks are new to a dance form, they really don’t know what to expect.

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, deeply entrenched senses of  false accomplishment from those who have moved “up” in levels, without having the awareness that they aren’t truly keeping up with technique or 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 other 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 rec-/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– feeling joy and fulfillment.

Another roadblock typically placed in one’s own path is to “cherry pick” in classes.  Dancers get to a certain level, and rather than going deep, they run around collecting tricks, nifty tips, and “moves” as they like, rather than paying attention to the wider context, and the more ephemeral skills of emotionality, musicality, and refinement.   The dead give-away for a Cherry Picker is the question “Can you show me some combos?”    (Geez, if you wanted fried with that, you should’ve ordered from the drive-thru…) The 3 biggest boo-boos are Too Fast, Too Flouncy, and Too Flashy — the “tells”  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 cut-and-paste American technical approaches onto native Egyptian dance forms does NOT work, and ignores that there are fundamental differences in how “bellydance” is danced here versus 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 an inherently damaging move, it’s still going to get me hurt!  I also no longer believe that getting better and better means the technique must get harder and trickier–it more often means going deeper, feeling more, and allowing that to manifest authentically and soulfully.    This overall approach isn’t gimicky, quick, 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 abilities and knowledge that MOST dance students have, 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 speak.   No amount of new costuming, reading, forum-posting, blogging, 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??  And WHY are so many in our genre trying to sell the idea that “anyone can become a dancer”?  

I’ve taken inspiration from the Eastern approaches to learning, such as one sees in martial arts, where everyone is all together and the black belts are part of the teaching as well as working their hardest, whether or not they are being pushed or directly watched by their 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.  Over time, knowledge grown and honed through practice and experiences becomes wisdom.    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 don’t honour that.

I’m not arguing that levels don’t work, ever, 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 teachings, 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 duds.   Take workshops.   Go to shows.  Watch and work with some of those dvd’s you’ve bought.  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.    Maybe then you’ll see some “progress”.