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Earlier this year I wrote quite a long post about teaching with tips for teachers. Having re-read it recently I think there are a couple more tips that are also important.  More fundamental, perhaps, than what I wrote then.  This is what I’m talking about here.

1. Lesson Planning

Have a plan, let your students know it and make sure you stick to it.  Now it is fine to go off on a tangent if something relevant comes up, but make sure you get back to the main thing you had planned to do, and make sure you do it.

Tell your students what you’re planning on teaching them, and then teach them that. If you want to be really awesome, summarise what they’ve learned at the end. This is the older teacher’s hat trick of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them it, then tell them what you told them.”  One of the best examples of this I’ve had lately is the ATS Classes at Drummond High School.  On the first day of term I was given a list of the moves I’d be learning during the term.  And we did learn all the moves that were on the sheet. They also handed out a suggested music list and some biographical information about the teacher, which was very helpful and informative.

To help keep you on track a playlist can be really helpful.  If you’ve planned it out beforehand, you can pick music that suits what you want to teach in the class.  You can have your warm-up music, then music suitable to whatever you’re teaching, and lastly the cool-down music.  Build your playlist so that it’s as long as your class is. Then, if that’s running in the background, the start of the cool-down music will remind you it’s time to start winding down the lesson, stretching out and summarising what you’ve taught that day or so far that term.  It will also help keep you on time, which leads nicely onto the next tip:

2. Time Management

Be mindful of the time.  There’s nothing wrong with looking over at a clock or your watch to check how much time there is left in the class and adjusting your teaching accordingly. Make sure you bring a watch or a clock – don’t rely on the venue!

I know that sometimes it can be rude to check your watch – teaching is not one of those times.  When teaching, it is rude not to be mindful of time. If you don’t pay attention to time you could overrun. This is particularly problematic if there is another class waiting to get into your space. There was one particular class I was a student of where the (non-bellydance) class before always overran by 3-5 minutes and that ate into our time. It was so frustrating.  We use to stand at the side and jingle our coin belts to try and give their teacher a not-so subtle hint.

Even when you’re not eating into another classes’ time, if you overrun you are eating into your students time.  They will more than likely have somewhere to be once class is over. In your class there are probably a few busy people who have every minute of the day accounted for.  There may be students who have arranged childcare to cover the class and need to get back to their kids promptly. If you don’t finish on time you are eating into their time, time which they have not agreed to give you when they signed up for the class.

I once had a workshop that started very late because we were all chatting, teacher included.  Because of the late start the workshop overran by at least 30 minutes.  I say “at least” because at that point I had to leave as I’d made arrangements for later in the day and couldn’t stay any longer. The workshop kept going after I left.  That teacher’s lack of timekeeping meant I had to choose between missing out on teaching I’d already paid for and was looking forward to, or being late/missing the thing I’d planned for later.  So while it might seem rude to start a class when people are still chatting, it’s really not.  You are being respectful of everyone’s time.

Many thanks to the lovely Atiya who got me thinking about this.  She’s starting classes up in Dundee – if you’re in the area go check them out!

Related Posts:

My friend Tamsyn has written a fantastic blog post about the connection between physical movement and emotional memory, including the implications of this if you are instructing people in movement.

http://tamsynbellydance.posterous.com/dance-happiness-and-physical-release-the-role

I find it incredibly hard to take time out and just stop for a while, even if that’s really all I want to do.  But that’s exactly what I did these last four days, and I feel so much better for having done it.

I find it hard enough to take time out from work and other obligations if I am actually ill.  I have found it slightly easier when I had to take some time off to care for someone else (somehow that felt like a more acceptable thing to do).  But last week, on Monday, I decided I needed a break.  Not because I was sick.  Not because someone else was sick.  Not because I needed to do something, but because I needed to do nothing.  My mental reserves were pretty much running on fumes and I actually decided that that was a good enough reason to stop, to take time off, and to do nothing.

It was fantastic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Look after yourself, listen to what your body and mind needs (and wants).  Your body in particular is pretty smart, smarter than you – at least my body is smarter than me. Get a massage, stay in pajamas all day, sleep a lot, do nothing that you don’t really want to do.  Don’t do housework.  Don’t catch-up on those odious things you’ve been putting off.  If they’ve waited this long they will wait a bit longer.

Give yourself the same consideration you would your best friend.  Take time out when you need it. You’re worth it.

I know a thing or two about professional teaching and about educational theory (*cough* Post Graduate Certificate in Education, with Distinction *cough*). Following the years I spent teaching for a living in Secondary School (or High School for my North American readers) I moved back into education myself and these last three years have seen me become a student in many areas of life – academically, professionally and in my leisure time. I’ve been overawed by some of the amazing teachers who have taught me in the last few years, and taken note of those teachers I felt “could do better”.

I’ve recently been reflecting on these years of learning and decided I would put down in writing some tips and thoughts for teachers, both for my own edification and also because I think that they might just possibly be helpful for others. There’s no particular order to this list, it’s simply the order that they popped into my head. But the last one is the most important one.

1) Be aware of your own power

When you are in the position of teacher you have a great deal of power. Even when there is no exam, even when the class is just for fun, you have power. You know something that the people in front of you are hoping to learn. They have given you their time in the hope that they will get something of worth to them back from it. They may have given you money. Remember that. And remember that everyone, everyone, is vulnerable. That is particularly true when they are in the position of ‘student’.

You have the power to make people feel stupid, no good, to feel worthless. You have the power to make them feel clever, talented, full of value. You have the power make people feel bad about themselves or to feel good about themselves. And no matter how technically brilliant your explanations and insights may be, your students will remember most of all how you made them feel. Be aware of that immense power and use it wisely. Praise publically and criticise privately. Or better yet offer constructive feedback, and still do it privately. And pay attention to everyone, even the people hiding at the back right hand corner of the room (that’s typically where the really shy people navigate to). They may well be shy, but they still want and deserve attention – even just a bit of eye contact, a nod and a smile.

2) Empower your students

If your teaching is worthwhile you will be giving your students the opportunity to change something. This change might be in expanding their knowledge, it might be teaching their body to do something new. Change has consequences. Let them know what they are, and give them the choice.

I always remember when I first started learning Geology, back in the dim and distant. In the first lecture we were told that this class would change the way we viewed scenery and landscapes. And it was true. By the end of it I couldn’t just look at a landscape and think “Aww, that’s pretty”. No, I would look and see the faults and folds, I would theorise about the geological events that had caused the land to look the way it did. And because I was forewarned, I felt like the change was at least somewhat within my power – it was not ‘done to me’, I felt that I had done it to myself.

Another example is from a workshop I took with Ansuya where she taught floorwork. At one point during the workshop she stopped and talked to us about “acceptable pain”. About the bruises, cuts, scrapes and the pain that she and many other performers were prepared to accept as part of their work. She explained that what she was about to teach next was sore, particularly if we did it repeatedly. In doing so she offered us the opportunity to participate or not, depending on our individual attitudes to pain and bruising. That was empowering because I didn’t just go into it blindly and then feel resentful afterwards for the pain I’d suffered.

Dancing connects you more firmly with your own body. For many people this is welcome, but for others it might not be (I’m thinking particularly of people with chronic pain, as an example). If people are new to dance they might not be aware of this consequence of learning your dance form – let them know. Let them know if there’s a good chance they will ache afterwards or even bruise. You don’t know their plans – they might be going to a wedding the next day, or modelling and those bruises may not be okay for them to have. Give them the power to choose by giving them enough information to make the choice. Never assume that they will know, and certainly do not assume that they will be okay with it.

3) Know your limits

Be aware of where your knowledge and competence stops and be okay with that. No-one knows everything, no-one is competent at everything, and it’s alright to learn from others even when you yourself are a teacher. In fact it’s more than alright, I would argue it’s necessary that you keep learning – both to broaden your knowledge/competence base and to remind you of what it’s like to be a student.

Be prepared to admit when you don’t know something or how to do something. You will have far more integrity if you own your own ignorance. In doing so you make it okay for your students to not know things too, and you avoid straying into the potentially dangerous (and perhaps even litigious) areas of making things up because you are ashamed that you don’t know, or making your students feel stupid for asking by giving a defensive response that hides your ignorance. When you acknowledge your own limits you create an environment where not knowing is fine, where it is acceptable. This is the fertile ground where learning occurs best. I split this post as it was getting looong, click here to read the rest

Everyone around me seems to be getting pregnant – co-workers, teachers, friends. It must just be that time of life and time of year. It’s reminded me of my very first teacher, a lovely woman in Glasgow who was heavily pregnant when classes begun. The very first live bellydance performance I ever saw was with this *very* pregnant lady, dancing beautifully and even spinning to ‘Mysterious Ways’ by U2. I think it really shaped my ideas about bellydance and about pregnancy and how well they fit together.

As a teenager I viewed the pregnant ‘bump’ with extreme suspicion. It looked alien and very odd to me. I never really wrapped my head around the pregnant ‘glow’ until I saw that teacher dance. Looking back I marvel at how well she had adjusted to the ways in which her body was changing – particularly with the practical things like adapting to an ever-changing centre of mass. When I saw the below video I was reminded of that performance – and very struck by the spinning!

 

And here is the same woman doing a full-on performance, 8 months’ pregnant.

 

I was and still am captivated by these performances and catch myself just watching her belly as she dances. It’s hypnotic.  I’ve tried to find videos of other dance forms performed by pregnant women and had a very hard time.  I found a short contemporary performance and a few videos of ballet practice or informal performance with pregnant dancers and that was pretty much it.  I’m thinking that not many other dance forms really lend themselves to pregnant performances – they’re not really body friendly in that way.

I know there’s some who believe and claim that bellydance started out as a way to help with birth and post-natal physical recovery.  From what I’ve looked into, the historical record doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to say about this (Shira has a good article about ‘wishtory‘ that could be relevant here).  On the other hand, ‘women’s’ issues are not covered particularly well in older records so who knows.

A former colleague told me about exercises she’d been taught in an antenatal class that looked exactly the same as hip circles and figures of eight from bellydance – which makes perfect sense to me as those movements can be particularly good for easing lower back pain – which is a common difficulty with pregnancy I’m told. So regardless of whether bellydance has historical roots in pregnancy, birthing and post-natal recovery, it is a pregnancy and birth-friendly dance form (if care is taken to avoid sharp movement, backbends, etc.).   I have a feeling that it can be helpful in a psychological sense too as dance connects you to and roots you in your body – which is constantly changing during pregnancy.  I imagine that staying connected to your changing form can only be helpful in fighting back against that inner voice that calls you unattractive, which I’m told becomes even more forceful for many women when pregnant.

Connection is at the heart of so much in life and so it’s no surprise that it is an absolutely key element in performance too.  Humans without connection wither and die like plants without water; isolation at the heart of a great deal of psychological distress.  In live performances how well a performer can connect with her audience is a profound part of how enjoyable the audience member – and, dare I say it, the dancer – finds the performance.

I recently had a wonderful chat about connection in performance with a friend who has studied theatrical clowning.  As she studied it, theatrical clowning was about being spontaneously fun, in a deeply authentic way – a hugely difficult thing to learn and do.  Throughout her training she and her classmates were able to sense when a peer was being genuine, or not, and gave feedback on what an enormous impact this had on how they felt about the performance.  Performances that were genuine were seen as funny and engaging regardless of what the performer did; those that were not genuine were experienced as dull or even irritating.

Although it sounds like hokum, or magic, people can pick up on whether or not a performer is being genuine, is in touch with their inner self.  By connecting with yourself and responding from that place, you can connect with your audience in a profound way.  I’ve watched live dance performances that were technically perfect but that did not engage me at all – and I have watched performances that had some technical flaws but still gave me goosebumps, or moved me to tears.  The key difference is that ephemeral sense that the performer is performing from their soul – that they are genuine, that they are not just going through the motions.

Of course you won’t always connect with your audience, even if you are in touch with yourself.  They have to be open – at least a little bit – to the connection.  Connection always requires the Other with whom you can connect.  That’s another part of what can make it so hard.  It can be painful to offer that precious, beautiful internal “you” and to not have it received.  Performers need open hearts and thick skins to thrive and to survive.

In late September last year I injured my back after a long weekend full of exuberant DIY. I didn’t know I’d injured it at the time – there was no spasm, or any pain other than what seemed like regular muscle pain from a weekend of hard work. It was twingey on Monday, gaining to very sore by Tuesday, increasing in pain to the point that I ended up with a recommended local osteopath (the fantastic Lynn Bennett) and at my doctors.

The (locum) doctor gave me lots of strong painkillers and (essentially) told me to go away for twelve weeks. Lynn, the osteopath, was much more helpful, and in addition to diagnosing me as hypermobile, gave me “adjustments” that eased the pain on a temporary basis. Over a number of weeks, seeing Lynn helped reduce my pain considerably, though due to my hypermobility her adjustments wouldn’t fully “stick” particularly long – my back would just adjust itself back to being sore within a day or so, sometimes less. Lynn explained with my kind of back and this type of problem that it would probably take quite a bit of time for it to fully settle down. For a long-term solution, she suggested that I go to Pilates classes to help strengthen my core, which would then support and stabilise my back and reduce the pain and the chance of the pain returning.

Well, I hummed, and hawed about it. I’d been to a Pilates class once before (courtesy of a curious friend). I had not enjoyed the Pilates class. It felt a bit like Yoga (which I like), without any of the calmness, bendiness or precision (which I also like). Additionally, it seemed like my back was settling down and slowly getting back to normal with her treatments so I put the Pilates classes off and mentally marked them as a “maybe”.

Fast-forward to January, when my back went into an incredibly painful spasm while I was at home. I had to take several days off work. I went back to the doctors and was given more painkillers, my hypermobile diagnosis was confirmed by them, and I was given a note excusing me from my up-and-coming jury duty.

All and all it was not – in any way – a good experience.

What it did do, however, was make up my mind about trying a Pilates class. Anything, anything, would be better than going through that pain again. I asked around and a former student suggested I try Bea Alexander Pilates. After going onto her waiting list (she is REALLY popular), I managed to get into a beginners class. I explained to Bea about my injury & hypermobility, and have found her to be an exceptionally anatomically knowledgeable teacher, as well as an excellent and clear instructor.

My back pain hasn’t gone completely, and some days it flares back up again, but it has definitely reduced. And I also now have exercises I can do at home or work that help alleviate the pain, so things are looking up.

Prior to all this happening I was looking forward to learning ATS with Susan Tonner at Drummond High School. I managed most of her fantastic classes in the Sept-Dec term (with my osteo’s blessing I might add), and had planned to go back in January, but with my very limited time I had to choose between that class and attending Pilates. Pain made the decision for me.

It’s frustrating to not be able to make my choices based on desire rather than necessity, particularly when it comes to what exercise I choose (a realm I’m used to having choice in). Trying to get used to not being fully able-bodied (hopefully temporarily) is difficult and frustrating. Still, I’m hoping I will emerge from the other side of this with a pain-free back and a strong core, which will hopefully positively impact on my dancing too.

I recently listened to ‘The Creative Fire’, a fantastic audiobook by Clarissa Pinkola Estes that I recommend for anyone involved in creative pursuits. I was particularly struck by her comparison between creativity and sex:

“you can have sex in order to make a child but you can also have sex in order to show an expression of yourself or to show your creative self, or to share yourself, or to give pleasure to another person, and that’s true of creativity… sometimes it’s a giving of pleasure to yourself or others…” (CD3, track 6)

It’s been rattling around my head ever since I listened to it, thinking about it with reference to the various creative activities I am and have been involved in – writing, painting, ‘crafting’, cooking, and, of course, dancing.

With particular reference to dancing, it made me more aware that the downside of performing, and particularly performing for money, for me is that I ended up dancing far less for my own pleasure, and far more to create a ‘product’ or to give pleasure to others. It has reminded me that there was a time when my home ‘practice’ was not about preparing for the next performance, making sure that I was in peak condition for that performance, and so on. It has reminded me that I used to dance – almost exclusively – for my own pleasure and amusement, often alone in my house. I miss that fun and self-pleasing part of dancing.

(Interestingly, earlier in the same CD she also compares creativity to excrement, in that if you do not release it, it will poison you. That makes me think back to my post ‘I dance because I can’t not dance’)

I’ve taken time out from the bellydance world, more or less, since New Years.   It’s given me some time and space to think about my experiences both as a professional performer and teacher, but also as a member of a diverse and vibrant community.

In March last year I had a very unpleasant interaction both with a friend in the community (someone I had met when we were both studying bellydance) and her partner.  The partner contacted me by text, phone and facebook to insult, shout and swear at me while accusing me of plagiarism.  He threatened me and threatened to hack my website and “permanently destroy it” (as if you could do such a thing).  The friend was unaware of his actions, but didn’t speak up to distance herself from them, instead she publicly defended and supported his accusation.  (She and I have since met, before Christmas, and are now back on speaking terms).

In becoming a professional bellydancer I never expected to be threatened or called a cockroach.  Perhaps that was naive of me.  I never expected to have a friendship ruined either, and perhaps that was naive too, for when we are both working in the same field there is the very real possibility of having to compete for work and it takes a special kind of relationship to survive that kind of pressure.

Around ten months ago I was blamed, behind my back, as being one of a number of local teachers who did not support a charitable bellydance event that was cancelled due to lack of early bookings.  I both blogged about it and handed fliers for it out to my students.  But, I believe, in making clear what portion of the event fees were going to charity I was perceived as not supporting the event (and the event organisers removed me as a ‘friend’ on Facebook).

My relationships matter to me.  People matter to me.  It’s been a pretty big deal to have had a friendship destroyed.  And being bad-mouthed isn’t that great either.

But on the up-side I’ve also made friends with people I’ve met in the community both in the UK and the USA.  These are people I am proud to call friends and to spend time with.

So this ‘scene’ seems quite dichotomous to me.  On the one hand there are groups and places where we have communities and sometimes even communes, mainly of women, learning to use and enjoy their bodies. Competitive behaviour, where it exists, is usually channeled into self-improvement in these spaces.  The ‘business’ side of the scene takes a back-seat to the community aspects.

On the other hand there is the part of the scene that is dominated by the struggle to make money.  Competitive behaviour is usually channeled away from self and towards others (though sometimes this is masked, I suspect due to how ‘unladylike’ and ‘improper’ competition is typically considered for women).  I’ve found most of the diva-like attitudes and behaviour I’ve encountered are in this part of the scene.

And I get it – it’s incredibly difficult to make a career out of being a bellydancer. In general the supply of performers and teachers far exceeds the demand.  There’s not much of a career progression either.  There is a huge gap between the local teacher and performer and those who are able to make their living at it like Jillina or Suhaila.

‘Getting it’ doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.  I’ve been burned twice by this part of the scene and on reflection that’s two times too many.

Those of you who know me, or have read other posts of mine, will know I have a strong interest in the processes involved in learning (and teaching).  I stumbled across a quote today, in the book ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sacks that confirmed something I have long believed to be true.  Let me share it with you:

“mental simulation of movements activates some of the same central neural structures required for the performance of the actual movements. In so doing, mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning. This modulation not only results in marked improvement in performance, but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice.  The combination of mental and physical practice leads to greater performance improvement than does physical practice alone…” (from The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It by Alvaro Pascual-Leone).

Quite a number of years ago someone told me about athletes using visualisation in addition to physical training to help them improve their performance.  At the time my first thought was that it was a bunch of new-age hokum but I filed it away for further consideration anyway as I try to keep an open mind.  Time passed and I came back to it and eventually found it a useful tool personally – but always wondered if I was fooling myself – that because I’d been told it would work I believed that it did.  More time passed and I began performing bellydance.  Lacking the time in my life to physically practice as much as I wanted to I would, and do, go rehearse choreographies mentally as I listened to the music on my way to work, or University or what-not.  I found it extremely useful – far more beneficial than not doing this ‘mental rehearsing’ – and now happily incorporate it into my rehearsing plans.

It was gratifying to see that the field of behavioural neurology has confirmed, scientifically, what I have experienced personally.  I also thought it’d be worth sharing, particularly the lines “mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning. This modulation not only results in marked improvement in performance, but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice” – if you’re just learning bellydance, or teaching beginners bellydance this would seem a particularly useful point to remember and share.

There is an advantage to living, breathing and thinking about bellydance; it helps you learn it even faster!

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