Monday, June 11, 2012

Being a better Teacher and Student......

This Blog is meant as advice for dance students, but it is also a great bit of advice for those students out there who have ambitions to become a teacher.

I have not taken classes in HOW to teach, or taken teacher training, but I have spent many, many years as a student and have formed opinions of how I like to learn. I have taken classes from teachers who were very poor teachers and amazing dancers, and teachers who were very poor dancers and amazing teachers. One thing I have always thought is important, is that the teachers pay attention to their students needs, and every student is different, especially when it comes to belly dance students. Belly Dance tends to be an adult dance, not that it is inappropriate for children, but most parents (at least where I am from here in the USA) don't understand what and where belly dance comes from, and therefore believe it is only for adults. Because of these beliefs, most students who walk into my classroom are college students, housewives and career women (or men), all adults who have never before stepped foot into a dance studio, anywhere, ever! That puts these women and men at a severe disadvantage. Even a Belly Dance Basics Class doesn't usually cover simple dance basics that I as a lifetime dancer learned at the age of 3 or 4 years old. If you've ever watched a children's class in session at a dance studio, then I am sure you have seen all the little ones lined up and waiting their turn to travel one by one or two by two across the classroom, repeating the same step or movement over and over again. This method, for me feels so boring and slow, and well, that IS the point. That is what a beginner dance student needs. Repetition and a chance to learn to walk before they run (or dance). I think many belly dance students move too fast through their education, because they want to hurry up and learn a choreography and get to perform. They skip or speed through all the basics and their technique truly suffers for it. Then there are those students who hover in the basics class almost indefinitely; some because they never take their lessons home with them and practice, and others because they don't speak up and ask for help or clarification when they don't understand how to do something. Of course there are also teachers out there, who really just don't know how to teach, or are just trying to hurry their students through one choreography after another without ever breaking down the movements.

One thing that I have learned, is that my students make me a better teacher. I have been a teacher of one sort or another for more than 20 years. My first experience with teaching was as a riding instructor for small children. I love to teach. I love it when one of my students works hard, practices and then finally GETS something they have been trying to do. I really really love when my teaching has helped them to do so. My favorite students are those who truly engage themselves in their lessons, ask questions, and take their lessons home to practice. I can see their progress almost on a weekly basis and it is very fulfilling!

So, by now you must be asking, HOW do my students make me a better teacher!? I have found, that since I have such a long and varied dance history there are many things that I do with my body that have become second nature to me. I don't have to think about how I stand or how I breath, or what I do with my feet, hands and arms for balance and poise, or even the small tilt of my chin or drop of a shoulder to express certain emotions. These things are as normal to me as breathing or walking. As a teacher though, I NEED to know how to do these things, how to break them down and explain them. I am truly blessed to have students who WANT to really learn how to do things correctly, they ask questions and discuss how their muscles and body feel when they dance, and together we are able to figure out how to teach their bodies to do the movements. Everyone has a unique way of learning, and as a teacher I have to figure out which method works best for each student. My students make me a better teacher because they are better students.

So, how can YOU be a better student? Here are some tips that should help both you, and through you, also help your teacher tremendously.

1) Be on time to class. Walking in late is disruptive to the class and disrespectful to your teacher. (Sure, this seems simple enough, but I think as adults we tend to forget that a teacher is a teacher and they deserve your respect. If you can't show them respect, then you shouldn't be in their classroom.)

2) Get clarification. Ask questions when you are confused or having trouble. (Most teachers will give you a chance to ask questions, take advantage of it!) One thing I have always said, "there is NO such thing as a stupid question", and it is very possible that the quiet girl at the back of the room has the same question as you. So you won't just be helping yourself, you will be helping her too.

3) Take Notes! Buy a spiral notebook, or a three ring binder and some loose leaf paper and take it with you to class EVERY TIME! Take notes even if you wait till after class to jot down a few things.

4) Pay attention in class. A little bit of joking and such is okay sometimes, but it is not social hour, it is time to learn. You are paying someone to teach you, so get your monies worth. Save the chatting and gossip for after class.

5) Practice at home everyday! Even if you only practice for 5 or 10 minutes, it will help. Repetition! If something feels awkward, doing it over and over again, slowly and correctly, WILL make it feel less awkward. Just give yourself time and keep practicing.

6) Take things in small steps. If your teacher shows you how to do a movement with several layers and you just can't get it in class, take it home and start with one layer and then add the next and then the next. For instance, practice the foot pattern, repeat it till it is comfortable, then add the next layer of a shimmy or undulation or whatever and practice that till it is comfortable, then add the arms and practice all the layers together. (oops, I guess #5 is just another version of #4)

7) Don't give up and don't say "I can't"! Give it time, be patient and try to have fun. It is okay to laugh at yourself and feel silly and it is okay to do things the wrong way. Making mistakes is just another way to learn.

If you do all these things you will find yourself improving and growing as a dancer. 

Best of luck to you on your journey. For me, it has become one of the most fulfilling and enlightening parts of my life.

Remember that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Practice, practice, practice..........

Here in North Central Kentucky, in the Bluegrass area we are having our first real snow storm of the season. Winter is finally and truly upon us. One of the things that happens every winter that just drives me nuts, is that classes get cancelled.

Of course, they need to be cancelled! I would hate for someone to drive in dangerous conditions to go to class and possibly risk being in a horrific car accident. Anyone living up North is used to the drill, anyone with kids dread those county wide 'Snow Days' when all the schools close and all of a sudden you are scrambling to find safe childcare so you can go to work. Snow and ice on the roadways are no fun and sliding into a ditch after hitting a patch of black ice can easily become life threatening.

This all brings up the subject of what to do if you miss your dance class or classes because of inclement weather.  One thing I have observed myself and I am sure many of you would agree; extra/fun activities like dance classes, art classes and other hobbies, no matter how much you LOVE them and feel awesome after participating in them, they can sometimes be really hard to just plain GET TO. We all have busy lives and if you are like me in the past, you go to work 9 hours then you have a family to care for, cooking, cleaning, homework, PTA meetings, band concerts, doctors is full of busy things that MUST be done. Well what I have noticed about myself and many other people, if you get into a habit of attending your classes or activities (no matter what) you will keep going even when you feel like just kicking up your feet and taking a breather or you have no energy and just do not feel like going, once you get there you realize how much fun it is and you are VERY glad you forced yourself to go. 

Those little bits of 'ME TIME' are incredibly important for our own self preservation. Believe me, those house chores and bills and stuff will still be there when you get home a couple hours later, BUT you will feel much better about tackling them because you have had time to renew yourself! I digress...LOL....anyway, what I have noticed is that if you get 'OUT OF HABIT' and start missing your classes due to illness, work, family obligations or bad weather, it is VERY VERY hard to get back into the habit of going. We forget how much we LOVE our hobbies and how we feel rejuvenated and ready to take on the world after our little bit of fun time and then we just stop going permanently.

So, back to the bad weather and missed classes.....
I always tell my students how very important it is to practice their dance at home between classes. If you really want to improve your abilities and grow as a dancer, you must put some time aside to practice regularly. Again we are met with all the obstacles that life throws at us, time is at a premium but as I tell my students, even 10 to 15 minutes a day makes a huge difference. This is even more important when you have cancelled classes or if you have to miss a class due to life getting in the way. My philosophy is if your class gets cancelled and you were planning to go, then you have that time set aside already so use it! If you yourself had to cancel going and time is an issue, at least do 10 minutes. 

Do not let yourself get out of the habit of dancing, do not let your body forget how great it feels to dance!

Here are a few tips for practicing at home and a few things I do for my practice time (I think you'll get a giggle out of a couple of these)

1) It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. You need music, in this modern age it is so easy to obtain music for very little money. I post links for songs that I use in my classes and advise my students on what to buy and where, but I also suggest being adventurous and finding their own music. Even if you only buy a few songs at 99 cents a piece you will have 10 minutes of dance music to use. A few great place to buy MP3 songs are,, but there are tons of others!

2) You only need a little bit of space, the size of your movements are not nearly as important as the quality and control. A great belly dancer can dance a whole performance on a tile. If you are practicing traveling steps, just make them smaller, space is relative.

Some 'spaces' I use to practice my moves? While in the Shower. In front of my bathroom mirror. My kitchen (while cooking or doing dishes). Sitting at my desk while online (I am practicing flutters right The checkout line at the grocery store (especially when I have an Extreme Couponer in front of me). Plus so many other places.  I do use my living room quite often, but I end up dancing with my three year old son in my arms, which DOES hinder

                     Here is a cute example of dancing in the kitchen :)

3) Any time, any where is a great rule to follow. A few minutes of Omis or Shimmying several times a day can really improve your skills fast! It takes lots and lots of repetition to build muscle memory (make sure your doing it right though so you do not build muscle memory the wrong way). What is muscle memory?

4) Some people are planners and need to have a set rule of what they are going to do before they do it. Some are spontaneous and do what feels good at that particular time. I like to use both methods. One thing that is really important though; you will never get better if you do not practice those particular moves that are too hard for you, you know those ones you don't like to do because you feel awkward and weird! Those awkward, weird movements are the MOST important to practice. That being said, it helps tremendously to write out a plan of what you are going to practice so you don't only practice that which is fun. take a few minutes to make an outline of what you have been doing in class recently and make a list of things you really need to work on.

5) Practice both directions, or both sides of your body...if you have one side that is easier than the other (most of us do) practice more on the harder side.

6) When you DO take class, take notes to use as study/practice guides when you are at home. I ask all my students to keep a notebook and take notes and I pass out handouts occasionally with extra info. I can tell who takes notes and practices and who doesn't. The note takers excel and learn faster and are always prepared for the nest challenge.  How to take and organize great notes.

All I can say is hopefully if you have the sad experience of missing your awesome, rejuvenating, and incredibly fun dance classes due to weather or life in general, that you can practice at home, keep the love of dance flowing through your veins and not become a dance class drop out :)

(of course this goes for any extra activity that brings you joy)

Blessings and Happy Shimmies, Safiya