Monday, February 16, 2015

PROTECTION FROM POISON: HOW TO DEAL WITH A TOXIC DANCE TEACHER



   I just had a very peculiar experience… on my way home from an afternoon walk, I passed my first dance teacher.  Initially, I didn’t realize it was her. It wasn’t until she jerked her head quickly in the other direction with a a familiar grimace on her face, that  it dawned on me who she was...because I haven’t spoken to her in over two decades.

This woman was abusive and such a supremely evil sociopath that over the years,  whenever I thought of her (and trust me, I did that as little as possible) it absolutely shocked me that I ever even entertained the thought of  continuing to dance!

 I will never mention her name, and  have never given her credit as being my first teacher, she was that bad. She was a decent dancer, but she was also pure poison to everyone who had the misfortune of taking her classes. It’s not like I a sensitive kid when I started taking from her either.  I started belly dancing at the age of thirty as an adult with a full life, as were many of her other students. At that point, it didn’t occur to me that I would ever turn professional; I just wanted to take a dance class. Twenty-five years later, I’m well into a dance career that  has been my number one passion and raison d’etre.  Bumping into my former teacher  actually unsettled me- and believe me, that’s not an easy thing to do!  Before I continue with this anecdote, I must tell you that this story has a happy ending.

She Who Has No Name wasn’t just a stern teacher, or one who had high standards and a no-nonsense personality.  She was, for lack of a better description, bat-shit crazy. This was in 1990, waaaay before the internet was commonplace and finding something as obscure as a belly dance teacher, even in a large city like Los Angeles, wasn’t easy, so I stuck it out. Even as a brand –newbie, belly dance was so important to me, I figured it’d be worth it, but her abuse still affected me big time.  She continually told me that I was clumsy, lacked talent, was ugly and would never be a dancer.  If I asked her to break down a step or combination, she’d roll her eyes as though I’d just demanded something impossible. And for the record, I wasn’t the only one she did this too, either- everyone was fair game! She was also insanely jealous. If any of her students started doing well or a little too well for her taste- she viewed them as competition, and did everything in her power to tear them down.  She was also a raving bitch over smaller, inconsequential things. If a student of hers happened to get a new hip scarf or bought a secondhand costume, she’s sniff derisively and roll her eyes. When any of her students tentatively started gigging, she’d badmouth us to our faces…and to anyone else who’d listen!

On one of many evenings that I cam home from her class upset, my boyfriend confronted me.

 “ I thought you said belly dance was your favorite thing that you’ve ever done,” he said compassionately,

 “So let me ask you a question: why are you crying?”

 It was then I knew I had to leave her, so I did.

  Finally, I met a decent teacher, a real teacher, someone who not only knew her technique, but also was a talented performer…and a well-adjusted human being. She also knew how to address students with different needs and learning styles, was encouraging of her pupils’ growth and gave them performing opportunities and professional advice.

 Though it would be another five years before I became an instructor myself, I immediately saw the difference in these two women, and vowed that if I ever taught dance classes, I would be  like my second instructor…the one I actually acknowledge as my first teacher, since She Who Has No Name was, at least chronologically, the “real” first teacher.

But she was so toxic that the only thing she ever really taught me was HOW NOT TO BE.

Sadly, I’m not alone in this experience. In the dance world, many of us have to deal with toxic teachers.

Toxic people are that way because they unhappy- and the only thing that brings them joy is making others feel  the same way.

 A toxic teacher actually delights in ruining the self-esteem of her pupils because she sees them as a threat.  Sometimes this abusive behavior is constant, other times there’s a Bi-Polar quality; your teacher will be nurturing and nice one moment, then turn on you. They play favorites and pit students against each other. Others are merely pessimistic, but their negative feelings and “glass half full” outlook on life is contagious.  They see themselves as victims of fate and circumstance, feel entitled and complain constantly. They gossip and never have anything nice to say- about anyone! They isolate their students and threaten them if they want to take classes with others or desire to join in on other activities in the dance community, like showcases or other performance or volunteering activities.
  Sadly, your toxic teacher might also be very talented.  Just because she is crazy doesn’t mean she’s not a gifted artist; she might be the best instructor in the area. And even worse, she may be the only teacher around- many of us live in smaller towns or places where there is only one local teacher and no other options!

 If your teacher is poison, here are some things you can do to stay sane.

First of all, don’t take anything your toxic instructor says to heart.  

 A healthy student/teacher relationship is built on equality- and it’s also a paying business relationship.  You are paying for your knowledge; therefore you are actually your teacher’s employer!  Remember that her main objective is to drag everyone down to her level. Shield yourself emotionally as much as you can. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, and that your own dance practice is just as valid as anyone else’s.  Don’t take anything personally.

If you need to discuss your feelings or vent about your teacher, do it with a non-dancer pal, significant other or a family member. The last thing you want to do is have something you said get back to the teacher herself.  Toxic people often have minions; spies that they employ to report back on the activities of other students. Don’t play into her web of craziness by making any sort of comments about her to anyone who might repeat them.

Obviously, if you have other options for classes in your area, leave your current class.  Do this as quickly and painlessly as possible; just stop attending class.  In case your teacher questions you about your decision, don’t make a big deal of it. So as not to make waves, offer a brief explanation that seems plausible, something like your work schedule won’t allow you to continue at this time slot, or you have family obligations.  Thank your teacher for the learning opportunity, and do not engage otherwise, just depart. If you are going to take with another instructor, keep it on the down low.  Any sane teacher welcomes her student studying with others, but if your crazy instructor gets wind of your departure she’ll do what she can to ruin your plans- an your reputation!

If your toxic teacher is the only instructor in your area, again, do whatever you can to protect yourself emotionally.  Remind yourself that you are here to learn, not to be abused. Rise above, and keep to yourself. Do not engage in her drama, and try not to let it affect you. Keep a healthy distance. Arrive at class, take class and leave. All business, all the time, you’re there to learn, period! 

 Take everything your teacher says with a grain of salt, because her negative opinions- about you, about other students, about the dance world in general- is just that, only opinions, not fact. And it’s already been established that they’re distorted, petty and mean-spirited.

If you live in a remote area, learning from DVDs  will tide you over. This is usually supplemental, but if your options for live instruction are limited, this is a good way to go- at least at first.  Also, a great option for you would be taking online classes- there are many available now, and you’ll be able to study with competent teachers who don’t live anywhere near you.  Many studios offer monthly discounts   for live, real time instruction or downloadable online classes.  Google your favorite dancers and see if they offer these kind of classes. You can also investigate taking a group or private Skype session every so often.

 If you happen to see your teacher at a local dance event, don’t get freaked out- this is bound to happen.   Be prepared for it. Make sure the interaction is impersonal and amiable.   Keep it brief. Compliment her on her performance, or just say hello. There’s a good chance she may get nasty- that is, after all, her M.O.  Brush it off and don’t engage.  You’ve done nothing wrong.   The last thing you want to do is get sucked in and involved with her again!

If you are starting to get gigs-or if you’ve already been gigging, your instructor might try to ruin your chances by gossiping about you.  If your teacher starts spreading rumors just ignore them!  Don’t feel the need to explain the situation   anyone, keep your mouth shut. Bullies delight in   their target’s reactions.  Don’t let anyone know this is affecting you. There’s a great chance she’s done this   to others… and an even better chance that everyone else sees her for what she is, and realizes she’s full of it!  As the Internet meme goes, just Keep Calm And Carry On.

 Hopefully, these tips will help you to break the chain of Toxic Teacher abuse. And now for the happy ending of my own story…

  Seconds after I running into my own toxic ex-instructor, I got a text from one of my students. She had just placed in a huge belly dance contest!  She was absolutely giddy.  The text thanked me  “for all your help and wonderful advice”.  Though I’ve trained many professional dancers and lots of champions over the years, their success never fails to touch me; it makes me ridiculously gratified to know that I’ve had a hand in the success of others.  It never gets old- as a dance teacher, this is what it’s all about, sharing   knowledge, love and passion for the dance with others.

With a little tear of happiness in my eye, I texted my student back congratulating her, and typed in so many hearts and flowers and smiley faces that I was definitely guilty of Emoji Abuse.

 It was also the best F**K YOU  possible to She Who Has No Name!

I delighted in knowing once and for all that I’d broken her chain of abuse…and you can do it with your  Toxic Teacher too!

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Monday, February 9, 2015

PRIVATE DANCER: THE BENEFITS OF PRIVATE INSTRUCTION




 Many dancers think private lessons are a luxury they can’t readily afford, but private instruction is almost always worth the extra cash.

When you have one-on-one time with a teacher, you’ll likely to find that you learn much more than you would in a group class. In group situations, there often isn’t enough time for individual attention- and this goes double for crowded workshops with sought-after teachers! The personal, tailored-to-you instruction of a private session will address both your weakest and strongest points, which is something that doesn’t always occur in a classroom situation.

Private lessons move along at your pace- not the group pace. This makes privates ideal for accelerated students.  Many classes and workshops, while not exactly being “dumbed down”, definitely cater to the average student, and while a superlative dancer will still get something out of the class, continued instruction on a common denominator level may not be challenging enough  let that student excel to the greatest  height of their potential. Students who need some remedial assistance will also benefit from privates for completely the opposite reason- the class they are in (perhaps the only one available to them) moves much too quickly, causing frustration or even making the student want to  throw in the towel and give up.

  Privates also address curriculum that may not be covered in group classes, honing specific aspects of the student’s repertoire, such as working on a choreography or competition preparation.  Every so often, I get requests from absolute beginners who want private lessons, but I almost always urge the baby dancer to try group classes first.   For a beginner, a group class situation isn’t only a technique-based learning experience, it also allows the newbie to see a range of talent amongst their peers, and gives access to the   mindset, culture and social aspects of serious dancing. In my opinion, private coaching is optimal when it focuses more upon improving existing technique, challenging the student to stretch her (or his) boundaries.

That being said, any way you’d like to learn is fine, and if you can afford private instruction from the start, then go for it!


 Here are a few sound reasons to invest in private sessions:

You’re preparing for a competition

You’re choreographing a professional piece for a theater show

You want to really enhance and/or define your own personal style

You need to learn or refine your technique in a dance genre that’s new to you

 You have a chance to study with a professional who does not live in your area

You-or your troupe-want to learn a specific choreography

The group classes you are attending are too far above or below your level of achievement

 You want to learn something that isn’t being taught in your regular group classes, such as emoting on stage, marketing, or a different style of dance

You cannot find group classes that have a good fit with your non-dance schedule


  It’s my belief that privates are beneficial – almost mandatory- for dancers who’d like to move their careers ahead, and for those who are professionals- or about to go pro.  So many things can be addressed!  And I also think that often, a private with a competent instructor is worth about three to five group classes….  But that’s just my two cents!

 If you are already a professional, the lessons can be counted as a tax write off; if you’re thinking of becoming a professional, the individual instruction will be invaluable to your career.

No matter what way you cut it, privates are worth every penny you spend on them!


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Monday, January 19, 2015

SALLY FORTH! SELECTING, CARING FOR, WORKING WITH AND TRANSPORTING SALLY RAND FANS


 
Photo by Lapis

Sally Rand Fans are an amazing prop for dancers- they’re gorgeous, lush, theatrical fans, made of ostrich plumes, and they look simply incredible onstage. They convey the glamour of a bygone era, and wow audiences with their stately, sensuous beauty. They’ve been a staple in burlesque and showgirl performances for decades, and have also become hugely popular with belly dancers in the last decade or so. Mounted on strong plastic, Lucite, wooden or bamboo staves, these fans will open and close fairly easily, but still will not snap open the way smaller fans do because of the bulk of the feathers plumes.

 For beginners, using Sally Rand fans will take a bit of getting used to because on the type with Lucite or plastic staves, the butt-end of the fan is very thick. The staves are usually divided by metal or plastic washers, which enable the staves- mounted with bulky feather plumes- to open and close properly.

 These beauties can have a single row of feathers, or can be layered with up to four or five rows of large ostrich plumes.  Because of the relative heaviness of the staves themselves, the large circumference (or “wing span”) plus the bulk and weight of the plumes, these fans can be difficult to handle at first, and you will definitely have to build up strength in your arms and shoulders.

If you’re new to working with Sally Rand fans, there are many on the market to choose from. All sorts of  Sally Rand fans can be purchased on eBay, and lots of them are from China. The quality of the Chinese fans is usually very good, and the prices are amazing.  I got a few sets when I was performing in Hong Kong, and they’re all amazing.

However…The less expensive fans might be very costly to ship for Asia- makes sure to read the fine print…  And also be sure that the price includes a pair of fans, not just a single fan!

 While professional  or experienced dancers usually agree that “bigger is better”, if you’re just starting out with Sally Rand fans, the larger ones might be almost overwhelming to you, size-wise and strength-wise.  Even for taller gals, the smaller or “petite sized” Sally Rand fans still look impressive; they’re a lot easier to handle and they are much more convenient to store and travel with!

Speaking of travel, a good way to transport your fans to gigs , or even  for checked luggage on a plane, is to use a  sturdy, large document tube. These can be purchased at office or art supply stores, and will protect your fans in transit. I use them all the time, and  have never had to replace even one of them. The document tubes, depending on circumference, will hold a pair of fans easily, and the smaller  sizes will fit into most standard suitcases ( though not  carry-on sized) as well.

To store ostrich plume fans, I use a large, tight-locking  plastic container, wrap the fans in plastic dry cleaning bags, and throw in a handful of cedar chips to keep the moths away.

 Also, it’s really worth spending the extra money that may be charged for male plumes. As with most species of birds, the male ostrich plumes are far more lush and thick than the female plumes.  Even if you’re using smaller-sized Sally Rand fans, the thicker male plumage will make the fans look rich and impressive.

 Before you purchase your fans, check the sizes of the height and spread. If the sizes aren’t listed on the website, don’t bother purchasing- you don’t want to wind up with a tiny set of hand fans! 

Another good thing to know is that your computer monitor might display the color of the feathers significantly darker or lighter than the way they will appear in person.

 Making your own Sally Rand fans from a kit  might seem  more cost-effective, but if you're not a crafty type  gal,  spending a few extra bucks on already assembled fans will probably be worth the money...and the hours  you spend getting frustrated  trying to put the fans together on your own!

And again, whether you’re purchasing fans domestically or from overseas, check on the prices for shipping!  As I said before, even the smaller fans   are still pretty large, and no matter what size you get, the shipping package will not be a standard size!


Before you practice or perform with any sort of fans – but especially Sally Rand fans--make sure to do a complete warm up of the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders, along with the rest of your warm up.

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