By: Susan Angell-Gonzalez (President/CEO ShowMakers of America / Former Texas State University Strutters Director/Choreographer)
This is an exciting question that I have heard debated my entire career as a dancer, teacher and director. Being a good dance instructor is at the heart of the precision dance industry, and it’s a core value we need to be able to define.
Obviously, a fundamental understanding and experience of the subject to be taught is essential, but academic knowledge alone does not make a teacher. Successful teaching is about how we share our knowledge in a way that allows others to understand, and to become better performers. How well we can dance is less important than how effectively we can help our students to improve.
Teaching dance requires a complex set of skills that include the ability to:
Dance Directors have many responsibilities, but one of the most important is accountability. Being accountable means developing and implementing quality teaching plans. All directors/coaches want to bring out the best in their performing group. In order for your team to work toward your goals and expectations, you must decide what you want the group to achieve. Often because of the popularity or frequently seen moves at dance competitions, teachers feel forced to teach steps and skills to their students that are beyond their technical abilities. They show their students “what to do” and then spend hours of class time watching them struggle as they challenge their lack of technique and physical understanding of the movement. It is important to keep the technique and skill level in your choreography appropriate for the level of your team. Students are pushed to improve, to acquire the required skill levels, without taking time to communicate the “how to do,” often creating bad habits instead of good technique. As teachers, we sometimes forget (or ignore) the fact that we must teach an understanding of the technique and muscle memory requirements.
Teachers, you must constantly remind yourselves that achieving technical excellence in students does not happen overnight. Technique needs to be taught slowly and with confidence, communicating the “how to” information in such a way that your students understand the physical feeling and muscle memory logistics of each important position or dance move. Teaching in a way that reinforces learning through repetition in every class/practice means thinking in terms of a never-ending time line (one that includes the “how to do”) technique and steps and pays attention to age-appropriateness. It is advisable to start the fundamentals early on in your dance team training/prep classes (if your school offers them). Keep in mind that it is one thing to challenge your team and it is another to attempt the unachievable.
Speak Their Language
Great teachers know it’s not always what you teach…it’s how you say it! Dancers are constantly being evaluated and must endure comments from teachers, directors, critics, and peers. And those words have power. They can build dancers up or tear them down. Receiving comments about one’s physicality from teachers and directors is a natural part of the development process in any dance training. But what is really being said? Is it useful? Do the dancers understand the intent? How teachers speak to their students matters. It can make the difference between training students effectively, (so that they can maximize their potential), and undermining the effects of good training. The message you need to convey to your students is important, but so is how you deliver it. Don't just tell them they did good. Be expressive with your feedback so they can discover their skills and build from them confidently.
Teachers need to be constantly aware of the damage they can do with thoughtless comments. Words can have unintended results. Words matter when dealing with students’ motivation, too. All teachers want their students to excel and reach their potential. It takes knowledge and skill to push a reluctant student to a new level or pull more out of an underachiever. In my experience, I found that students respond well to consistency and stability. Still, it’s understandable that a teacher might become frustrated by a student’s lack of drive or reluctance to experiment with a new way of performing a skill. However, the greatest failure may not belong to the student, but to the authority figure who doesn’t measure words and actions.
My experience has taught me that all students have different strengths, abilities, and they vary in how they learn and perform. As teachers, we know that but don’t always accept it (and we should). We should deal with these differences in ways that stimulate the classroom atmosphere beyond what we imagined or planned.
As the former Director/Choreographer of the Texas State Strutters, I emphasized each individual’s strengths and consistently worked to help each dancer overcome weaknesses through varied and useful approaches. My weakest dancers made me a stronger teacher. The less talented student can help us become better teachers, by digging deep to discover new teaching methods. As dance advocates, our goal should be to encourage our students to thrive and appreciate dance artistically, technically, and socially. We can accomplish this only by being flexible and diversifying the delivery modes of what we’re teaching. When we don’t do this, dancers are indeed neglected, underestimated, and limited.
Push past your comfort zone and agree that every dancer in your class or on your team deserves to be fully engaged by your teaching, and not slighted by lack of will or insight. Some students may not immediately respond to your skilled approaches, but smart teachers realize that what seems to be a hindrance (to the student) or an inconvenience (to the teacher) is actually an opportunity to grow. If you are willing, you can configure new tools and varied teaching styles. And with this new mindset, you can look at each student and think, “I see greatness in you.”
Though we strive to help our students achieve at the highest level possible, it takes time to get results. Remember: Plan the work, work the plan, and teach until the teaching is done!
ShowMakers of America® “Raises the Bar” for Performance Excellence with the Best Teachers and Choreographers in the Industry! Our company is a “vault” of collaborative innovation and matchless talent!
Our unsurpassed teachers have hundreds of years of experience between them, are exceptionally talented, utilize the finest instruction methodology, and have been trained by prominent choreographers, performers, and teachers in the dance industry. They represent many diverse performance groups and many are accomplished and experienced Dance/Drill/Pep Team Directors/Choreographers.