Have I found a good teacher?
There are a great many ingredients needed for the development of a successful dance artist, but among the most important is a teacher and mentor who knows how to bring varying aspects of training together in a systematic method. The search for a teacher has many similarities to that for a good school in which to train, but the criteria for judgment are unique. Therefore, we decided to divide this discussion into a few groups or “tiers”, in order to facilitate the evaluation of an instructor.
Tier I: These teachers have the most elementary understanding of the guiding principles of dance as an art. For the most part these teachers see dance as an athletic past time. Dance was a hobby where they had fun and was good exercise, and they now wish to provide a fun place for kids to have a similar experience. Most instructors on this level don’t make a career out of teaching; financially, it is a small supplement to their income from their “real” job, and consequentially they don’t spend very much energy on improving themselves as instructors. The focus is more about making sure their students are “having fun” and not with a measured view of improvement for their pupils. This is most often the type of instructor that students will meet as their first exposure to dance, since they are the most common.
Tier II: The next tier consists of those who teach dance for full time employment, but still consider dance merely a recreational activity. They focus on dance as an after school interest that gives students a positive outlet for their abundant energy, as well as a sense of belonging to a social group. The focus tends not to be on the connection between the development of their pupils as artists and the development of students as successful members of our society. Some teachers may have had a glimpse of the world of dance as a whole, but never had much if any professional career themselves. Because of this, they are content to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, providing kids with their entry into their dance experience. Some may be fairly good for very young students, providing them with a solid base of coordination coupled with some stage experience….enough to whet their appetites for more. This is fine, as long as students are encouraged to move on to bigger and better things when they reach a level which surpasses the abilities of this tier of instructor.
Tier III: This next group is populated by those with professional experience of some sort, but minimal understanding of pedagogical progression and developmental training. These instructors are regurgitating what they were been told as students, without having gone through much analysis or background investigation for a deeper understanding of why those instructions were given to them specifically, and may not have been given to others. This can be dangerous because these teachers know enough to look well-trained and experienced to most parents seeking instruction for their child. However, their lack of study in a system of training will allow them to take a student only so far. Usually these students will hit a developmental ceiling at around age 12 or 13, at which point they will be at “the top” of their school with no other view as to what’s next. The exception to this rule is if this tier of teacher happens to run into a student who has very similar physical attributes and work ethic that they had themselves as a student. Then, it seems, that all of the guidance which this teacher repeats seems to apply magically to that one special student who will suddenly rise to the top of their class and may even go on to a limited professional or university experience. But because of the limit of the depth of understanding, this pupil’s success will be no greater height than that of their teacher, nor will this teacher be able to duplicate their success consistently.
Tier IV: This final group is where the the very best teachers, mentors, choreographers and directors sit. Their words of wisdom have weight and substance. Some characteristics of this tier of teach are as follows:
- They have gone through rigorous training as students.
- They have extensive professional dance careers as performers.
- They have continued to increase their knowledge base through additional pedagogical training courses, choreography competitions, discussions and conferences with masters in their fields, etc.
- They have had years of experience in teaching and choreography.
- They have experience with some level of administration of a dance organization.
- They can point to students who have trained with them who have gone on to professional careers in the genre they are instructing or university success.
Even within this final tier, there are those with decades of experience, wisdom and insight, who seem to make a success from whatever they touch. There are only a handful of people who fall into this group, and this mostly happens during their later years. They posses an intangible something that allows them to foresee the path a dancer, an organization, or even the entire dance industry, and can say clearly and specifically the steps to take to achieve success. They possess the gravitas to inspire and motivate those around them to achieve. To come into contact with these individuals is a great pleasure and an honor.
Just as a side note: not all famous or accomplished dancers are the best teachers, and not all the best teachers were the stars of the show. Even in Tiers III & IV described above, there exist teachers who cannot seem to let go of their own desire to be on the stage, and teaching is more about them than about the student. It is important for teachers to understand that the focus must shift….being a performer can be, from a certain perspective, a selfish outlook—after all, much time must be spent on perfecting technique, perfecting choreography, perfecting make up, looking your best in costume….to strive for perfection means much of an individual’s attention is on themselves and their performance. And this is exactly as it should be—in order to achieve artistry and accomplishment at the highest levels, this is necessary. And so, it can be a difficult transition from that of performer to teacher, where the entire focus is on the student and their well-being and development. Many of the most successful teachers were themselves never more than corps or soloist dancers….Agrippina Vaganova (who pulled together the best aspects of Russian, French and Danish training to create her own comprehensive training program now used the world over) and Alexander Pushkin (teacher of Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Desnitsky, Kharatian and most of the other major stars of ballet during the 1930-1980’s), probably the two most famous influential ballet masters of our time were never considered “Etoiles” in their own careers on the stage. But their depth of knowledge and understanding about how to pass on the information that is able to transform the raw material of a talented child into the final moving sculpture of an accomplished artist was unprecedented.
So now, look carefully towards those you expect to pass down their knowledge. Of course, the natural response for many would be to say that the highest caliber of instruction is not required if they do not wish to be a professional, or dance in college, or maybe even next year. However, to even have the opportunity to have that choice, a student must involve themselves to a sufficient degree so as to absorb enough information and achieve a high enough standard so that choices present themselves when the time comes. Having a teacher and mentor who could take you all the way to the top doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to follow that path…but if you even want the choice, then make sure you are working with someone who could help you achieve those heights. And more often than not, all the attributes necessary to following the path to achievement in dance—work ethic, determination, perseverance, dedication, persistence, patience, vision—are all necessary for achievement in any endeavor. Using dance as a means to understand them will assist any child in their overall personal development and prepare them for whatever path they choose in life.