Skill as a dancer is integral to the art of teaching dance. Because dance is a physical art, played out in and between the very bodies of dancers, students must be able to see and feel what you want them to do. The ability to be an effective visual and kinesthetic model of the dance for your students is therefore essential to teaching. In addition to the practical purpose it serves, your skill as a dancer helps with inspiring students to take your classes and to aspire to your level of technique and artistry.
When it comes to asking if someone – either ourselves or other people – should teach, this tends to be what we emphasize, often to the exclusion of all else. We focus on dance ability, often equating it with teaching ability.
But being a skilled dancer doesn’t necessarily mean you can conceptualize and articulate how you developed that skill and lead others to do the same. Many if not most high-level dancers are largely unaware and/or inarticulate about how they do what they do. Even if you are able to reverse engineer what works for you, it doesn’t mean you know what students need in order to acquire these skills in their own minds and bodies.
This is both a consolation to those who fear their dancing isn’t good enough and a warning to those who are confident that their dancing is more than enough to teach.
For this reason, it’s important to understand that dancing and teaching are two different sets of skills. Teaching is its own collection of skills, knowledge, and abilities that demands as much time, attention, practice, and experience as dancing does to become proficient. Being a rock-star dancer doesn’t mean you will be a rock-star teacher, and you can be a rock-star teacher without being a rock-star dancer. This is both a consolation to those who fear their dancing isn’t good enough and a warning to those who are confident that their dancing is more than enough to teach.
So if dance ability is only part of the puzzle, what makes up the rest? What skills, knowledge, and abilities are required to be a great teacher? Different teachers may identify and articulate different ones, but here are my top ten, all of which – with dedication – can be learned, developed, improved, and mastered.
1. Skills of breakdown and progression:
Breaking down complex skills into learnable segments and preparing well-designed exercises to work on those segments in a logical order. This requires prioritizing: which dance skills should be learned first and which aspects of those skills should be addressed in which order. Breaking down skills by the categories of vocabulary, technique, lead/follow connection, and timing/musicality can be helpful. Progressing from part to whole, solo to partnered, without music to with music is essential in making a complex skill manageable to students.
2. Skills of organization and pacing:
Designing and executing a lesson plan with a logical flow that makes sense to students. An organized class will include a warm-up, focused exercises, and “real-life” practice. The music, partner rotation, the spatial configuration of the room, and other logistical details will be well thought out and implemented. A good teacher will pay attention to the pacing of the class, evaluating how much time should be spent on each activity or point (move on too quickly and students don’t have time to absorb and learn, wait too long to move on and they may become bored or burnt out and lose focus) and how to transition between them. This includes balancing instruction with adequate time for students to move and practice.
3. Skills of presentation:
Articulating content and setting up exercises in a way that is clear, manageable, and engaging for students. This includes the volume, speed, intonation, and tone of your voice, the clarity of your ideas and phrasing, and the body language (eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and overall posture) that keeps students’ attention and interest. Finding different ways of expressing a concept to provide both repetition and variety for different learning styles is also important.
4. Skills of observation and listening:
Seeing, hearing, feeling, and intuiting students’ current level or acquisition of skills and knowledge as well as signs of engagement, boredom, overwhelm, frustration, etc. Do they understand what the exercise is? Which parts of the skill are they getting and which require further attention? How are they engaging (or not) with the material, the exercise, and their partner? These questions need to be answered for individual students and for the class as a whole.
5. Skills of assessment and feedback:
Determining what the student needs to hear, see, and/or feel in a particular moment to correct, guide, or affirm them in their learning process. Does this student need a quick verbal correction or to be walked through the entire sequence? Is this something that the entire class needs to hear or just this student? If you don’t have time to address a student’s need as fully as you would like, what can you offer to make them feel heard and seen and give them an idea of what to focus on?
6. Knowledge of body mechanics:
Understanding, communicating, and applying the basics of alignment and movement, particularly the most common causes of physical discomfort and injury in the dance form you are teaching. The phrase “first, do no harm” is a mantra of the healthcare industry, but it can and should be applied to any discipline that involves the body. Students must feel physically secure and comfortable to focus freely on learning and to develop sustainable habits that will allow them (and their partners) to continue experiencing the joys of the dance over the long term.
7. Knowledge of learning theory:
Understanding and providing the mental, emotional, social, and environmental conditions needed for students to optimally learn. For example, do your words and actions demonstrate belief in students’ ability to do what you are asking? Are your partner exercises and instructions safe, comfortable, and considerate? Is the music too loud or too soft for what they’re being asked to do? Is your class location clean, well lit, temperature controlled, and free of distracting sights, sounds, and smells? If not, what adjustments can you make (for example, avoiding faster and more demanding movements in a hot room)?
8. The ability to foster a positive class atmosphere:
Communicating and modelling confidence, encouragement, enthusiasm, interest, curiosity, and a positive work ethic. This means considering the unique backgrounds, learning styles, motivations, and strengths of your students. It also means helping students to work through the inevitable stresses and challenges of the learning process in both a positive way (through words) and a practical way (through action).
9. The ability to be patient and selfless:
Dealing and engaging constructively with different types of people and situations, including ones that are frustrating, confusing, annoying, etc. Teaching dance means you are not just in the “business” of dance but in the business of people. This requires dealing with your own social weaknesses. It also requires leading and persevering when uncomfortable moments arise for the good of your students, which may mean telling your ego to take the back seat.
10. The ability to focus attention and energy:
Being in the moment, reflecting, improvising, and being willing to have your mind changed. This means clearing your mind of distractions before, during, and after class so you can focus on your students, identifying your weaknesses and mistakes and taking concrete steps to practice and improve, letting go of your lesson plan when necessary to follow the needs and energy of your students, and allowing yourself to be a student even when you are the teacher.
Postscript: Be sure to also check out my favorite quotes on teaching!