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Teaching Styles: A Letter to the Editor
In Defense of Demanding Teachers



In the March-April 2003 issue of WAMEDA's magazine there was a letter "To the Seer" from a dance student in Florida who called herself "Cowardly Belly Dancer." This student was dismayed that classes with her new teacher, who had required an audition to let her join, "were brutal. She is very demanding, but she also has a nasty temper and lets you know, not very kindly, when you don't measure up to her standards. I've left each lesson (2) in tears with her stinging criticisms ringing in my ears. Part of me wants to tough it out and the other part wants to run."

I would like to comment on this letter from the point of view of a "demanding" teacher. I know that I have a reputation in the Washington DC area for being very hard on my students, no matter what the level (and yes, for my advanced classes I require an audition). I enroll my more advanced students with the understanding that my classes will prepare them to become professional dancers. I do not teach beginners in the same manner, and I refuse to teach Arabian Fantasy. Yet even my beginners get a taste of the business as I learned it - working with Egyptians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Moroccans, Algerians and Syrians in London, Paris, New York and the Middle East. It is not a business for the faint hearted. It is also not a business for bad dancers. As I constantly say in class, people are paying their hard earned money to be entertained. They don't want to see their culture butchered or a dancer who doesn't feel the music. They want to see a polished professional, one that will smile even when there's a piece of glass in her foot. The owner of the club, who pays his hard earned money to the dancers, wants to see that his customers are happy. He wants the customers to come back and spend more money. They will not come back if they don't like the entertainment. So if the dancer is bad, she will get fired. Quickly. Or she may not get a job at all. Dancers are a dime a dozen (certainly in this country).

So by being "brutal," which in reality is just another word for honest, I am simply telling my students the truth about their dancing. I do not consider that I am being mean. I am doing what they are paying me to do - telling them what is wrong and how they can fix it. I tell my students in the beginning that my goal is to make good dancers out of them. If they don't like my style, there are, as the Seer wisely replied, "plenty of very good dancers in the area" who have a warm and fuzzy teaching style. But the business of belly dancing is not warm and fuzzy. You have to WANT to be a professional dancer to succeed. You have to be willing to take a lot of hard knocks, get roughed up a bit, have fellow dancers burn cigarette holes in your costumes and say bitchy things about you. It's all part of the night club/cabaret scene. It is not recital time or a nursing home extravaganza. Money is involved. Greed is there and so is envy. You need to be tough to survive. And you need to leave your innocence at the door. You can't break down in tears every time someone tells you "You didn't dance well tonight." You say "Oh, why not?" and if you are smart, you will learn from the answer they give you.

All of my students that have finished my professional program (the course lasts 2 years) that want to work are performing now. I am very proud of them all. They still come back to me occationally to work on details. Each one has told me that dancing in front of me is much harder than performing. That's the way it should be. I turned the auditioning process into a "piece of cake" for them - because they will never be as scared as they were when they performed in front of my camera. You see, the camera does not lie. Neither do I. A club owner will just say "Sorry, I have enough dancers for now." I want the women I teach to be prepared for the real world of professional belly dancing. That is why I do not mince my words. But I do not mince my encouragements either. When someone does something well, I say so, loudly and with enthusiasm, just like an audience that shouts and throws tips.

I would say to "Cowardly Belly Dancer" that she needs to examine several things: 1) her motives and priorities, 2) her abilities and 3) her teacher's abilities.

1. First of all, what does she expect to get out of learning Middle Eastern Dance? Exercise? Friendships? Fantasy? A profession? Money? If she is only taking lessons for exercise or social reasons then she is better off going to a teacher whose style matches her learning requirements. But, if her teacher is teaching something she wants to learn and she can't learn it anywhere else and she REALLY WANTS TO LEARN, then she should stick it out and stop complaining. If she is trying to take the dance to a professional level, then she definitely needs an attitude change. No club owner I know will hold her hand and say "There, there, don't cry. I'll pay you double to make up for it." Nor do I know any Arab customer who will come night after night to watch a dancer make a joke out of his or her culture.

2. Secondly, is "Cowardly Belly Dancer" a good dancer? Does she have rhythm? Is she on beat? Does she practice at home? Does she feel the music? Does she 'get it' when things are explained to her? And mostly, how hard does she try? By taking an objective look at her own abilities, she can then answer the question, is it the teacher or is it me?

3. And lastly, how good a dancer is the teacher in question? What kind of experience does she have? How long has she been dancing? Has she danced professionally and if so where - in the United States or in the Middle East? Can she convey her knowledge? Does this teacher have something unique that makes the so called "abuse" worth it, or is it all an elaborately crafted hoax for the masochist in us all? By the way, did "Cowardly Belly Dancer" actually learn anything in the first classes she went to or was it a waste of her time?

Only "Cowardly Belly Dancer" can answer these questions. But one thing is for certain. She has a choice. She can either spend her hard earned money for these classes, or not. It's up to her. Unless, of course, the teacher doesn't like her attitude and kicks her out of class. Then the problem will be solved for her.


PS - None of my advanced students has ever quit my classes once they were enrolled. I have on the other hand asked some to leave. I love all of these students dearly and have been very pleased that they help each other get jobs and trade information, very much like an alumni association.