An Unlikely Dance Teacher – Part 1: Teaching Tenets

Two weeks ago I––for the first time in my life––taught a dance class. Someday I will write a memoir about the exceedingly unlikely sequence of events that led to me teaching that class, starting with a glitch-in-the-matrix literal “woman in a red dress.” But today I’m focusing on documenting for myself––and anyone who is interested in pedagogy––what I believe makes for a good dance teacher and a good dance class.

If you read between the lines of this blog, you discover that I’ve written about teaching in nearly every post. Nearly everyone I bring up in my writing is a teacher: my Go teacher, my coach and mentor, my stepfather, my dance teachers, and John Danaher. I even cite my inspirational high school theater teacher in my “Reading” page.

I bring this up to show that I pay a lot of attention to teachers. That attention in part manifests in my learning. In general I’m a good student: I become at least competent in whatever it is I try to learn. But teaching a class––and not just learning––has helped me to understand that I have also incidentally learned from my teachers how to teach.

By imitating the great teachers I’ve had, I stand on the shoulders of giants. And I think one day I will be an excellent teacher like those giants.

Below I’ve outlined a few of my teaching tenets. These are the pillars on which my classes now stand. They are subject to change as I develop.

Let the Material Do the Talking

I’ve explained before that I did the heavy lifting of my learning of partner dancing in Buenos Aires despite a poor understanding of Spanish. This led me to the conclusion that for dance teachers, speech is unnecessary. It may even detract from the students’ experience.

I also noted sparse speech in classes with Yismari. Basically the only words you hear in her class are numbers (for counting) and que rico, que rica la vida (for praising the musicians who make our music).

The fantastic Chinese language teachers I had at Oberlin understood this as well. Language students learn by speaking, not by listening to their teachers instruct.

I’ve come to view speech, in fact, as something almost pernicious. At worst, lecturing is the teacher’s egoic energy-sucking tool. Think of how one of your college professors used to drone on, stroking his own ego. He took the spirit, adventure, and discovery out of learning.*

Keep it 100% Positive, Always

I remember the exact moment I gave up studying math. I went into the office hours of my MIT-educated multivariable calculus professor and came away feeling stupid.

The most important thing I’ve ever learned about teaching and learning––all credit to my mentor––is that validation leads to motivation. Period. If you want your students to learn something, they must be self-motivated. If you want them to be motivated, they need to hear how well they’re doing.

You might say, “But new students objectively suck at dancing.” And, yes, they’re not going to be backup-dancing for Daddy Yankee anytime soon.

But to the knowing teacher, just by showing up they’re doing extraordinarily well! Certainly much better than yesterday, wouldn’t you say? And if you come to my class, you’ll know it.

Let the Kids Play

There’s a part of me that’s a patriarch. That same part of me wants a plan and curriculum. And to stick to that plan and curriculum. And by executing that plan and curriculum, the class will therefore be fun and the students will have fun. Diktat: Fun will be had by all!

But that’s not how fun works.

In the first class I taught with my teaching partner, we lost control of the class a couple times. In those moments, if I’m being honest, I experienced momentary panic. But as I looked around I observed taht the students were actually enjoying themselves. They were playing! They were having fun!

Teaching involves some toeing-of-the-line between chaos and order. It’s almost like a dance, if you will. I think there’s likely a lot I’ll need to learn about managing this dynamic.

Lean in to Your Own Love of What You’re Teaching

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while now: Since all of the world’s information is online there is no reason to go to an in-person class for information. This might sound a little too SoCal for some readers, but I believe the modern teacher’s job is less about imparting information and more about curating a vibe.

A student said to me last week, “I love how much you love this.” In my view, there is no better compliment for the modern teacher than that. It is precisely the foundation of the vibe I would like to curate.

Make it Relatable

One reason bachata has exploded in popularity is that it has adopted mixes with pop music in a way that salsa has not. To be clear, I don’t advocate for salsa to go the way of bachata. Due to some cultural-historical factors that I don’t really understand, I don’t think it even could.

That said, there is a challenge for me to remember that when my students hear Cuban music, they don’t hear what I hear. For this reason I start the class with reggaeton and end the class with reggaeton––a strategy I’ve seen employed by Yismari and some other teachers I’ve had.

Give Students Individual Attention

Recently I took a Brazilian jiujitsu class that I regard as probably the best BJJ class I’ve ever taken. There were several factors that made it a great class, but one in particular was the level of individual attention I received from the teacher.

Specifically, the teacher noticed I was making a mistake. Beyond that, I consistently made the mistake each time I executed a specific sequence. The teacher stopped the entire class and demonstrated the proper technique. (Kindly, my teacher did not call me out by name in front of the class for the error.)

It disappoints me how often I see teachers in all fields check their phones during classes.**

Remember Your First Class and Keep it Simple

A good portion of our students come in from a nearby hostel in Ocean Beach. Classes are Monday nights, and since there’s nothing else really happening Mondays, they follow the hostel’s activities coordinator to our class.

Many of those hostel guests are taking their first ever dance class with me. That means we have students who are feeling a jumble of nervousness, anxiety, enthusiasm, cautiousness, defensiveness, excitement, and a handful of other tingles. For many of those students, we are combatting lifelong “I can’t dance” personal narratives.

For this reason, it is essential that the students succeed. There is a part of the teacher’s ego that wants to demonstrate a flashy figure or technique. But the students are better served by the most basic of basics––if that’s what success means.

The upside to this, I hope, is that some of those students will cherish that small success and be motivated to show up again. Either in our class or to another class.

I still remember going to my first class, nearly eight years ago. And it is not lost on me that some of these Day 1 students may be unlikely dance teachers themselves eight years from now.

*There’s a time and place for droning on and stroking your own ego––and that’s a personal blog that nobody is required to read for a grade!

**The exception here is to document class for social media, which I regard as an essential tool for “vibe curation.”

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