How Dance Instructors Can Keep a Beginner’s Mind

If you’ve been dancing a long time, do you remember what it was like when you were a beginner dancer?

The Joy and Frustration of Being a Beginner

One of the classes I teach at the Salimpour School of Dance is Level 1 technique. Our students often have no prior dance training or experience. They’re often looking for a new way to get exercise and have fun, and many of them are apprehensive… because trying something new as an adult can take a lot of courage. Especially in a room with a wall of mirrors at the front!

When I teach Level 1, I often think back to when I was first learning belly dance, particularly the Suhaila Format. I remember how hard it was for me to separate my hipwork from my footwork. I remember being frustrated with myself when I couldn’t do a drill right away. I remember how I sometimes struggled to learn a combination or a chunk of choreography. Of course, I became a beginner again when I started my Master’s degree in dance, where I was taking four modern dance classes a week.

Instructors Need to Reflect on Their Beginnings

It’s important for instructors who teach beginners to reflect on what it was like to be new to a dance form. This act of self-reflection helps us become more compassionate instructors, and also allows us to create more positive learning environments.

When we forget what it’s like to be new at something, it’s easy to get frustrated with those who are new. We let our egos interfere. We think we know something, so we use that knowledge to look down on those who don’t instead of allowing those who have less experience process and figure out how they need to approach the new information. There’s a phenomenon of human thought where we think that everyone thinks like us, but as an instructor, I need to be able to understand that everyone’s experience in the classroom is unique.

I Love Teaching New Students

Personally, I love teaching new students. I love the excitement I see on their faces when they start to assimilate a movement into their bodies. I love their questions about anatomy and the body. I love seeing those imaginary “thought bubbles” over their heads when they’re figuring out a drill or exercise. I love seeing the sense of satisfaction they exude after they’ve danced a combination several times. I love seeing our regular students progress and improve, even when that improvement might be small. New students are absorbing so much information, and as an instructor, I can so often see students integrate and physicalize that knowledge from week to week. It’s exciting, and it keeps me excited about my own practice. When I’m excited, they’re excited. And from a business standpoint: when students are excited to come to class, they’ll keep coming back.

When the teacher expresses enthusiasm, the students feel it, and it becomes a positive feedback loop of awesome.

We’re All Still Learning

And here’s the thing. We’re always beginning at something. No matter how long we have danced, there is always a new choreography to learn, a new stylization, an advancement of technique, the constant polishing and cleaning up of work that we think we know. There is always more, be it physical (such as layering or finger cymbals) or theoretical (such as learning to recognize different Arabic musical maqamat or historical/cultural context).

Even if you’re not an instructor, remembering your beginner’s mind and allowing yourself to be a beginner might help reinvigorate your practice and allow yourself to try something new.

How does approaching dance with a beginner’s mind help you as a student or instructor? Tell us in the comments!





How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

When you’re a dancer, sitting out might make you feel like you’re not doing enough. You want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.

Sitting Out Is Still Participating

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, our instructors required us to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. They didn’t let us leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way.

It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

5 Ways Watching Class Can Improve Your Skills

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class. Then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure. They won’t think you’re weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

Additional Sitting Out Strategies

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class.

Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up.

If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything.

That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.

Have you had to sit out class because of injury? What did you learn from that experience?

Tell us in the comments!