As a belly dance professional, you know that your training and dedication to the art is serious business. We have spent many hours and dollars on our dance training, and will likely continue to do so for as long as we are in the business. Thinking back on your journey from student to teacher, did you imagine then, the dancer you have become today? Did you know you would aspire to become a belly dance teacher? Me neither.
When you open your door to teach a beginner belly dance class, you are in a unique position to shape and influence the future generation of belly dancers. Their experience in your class can potentially determine their perception of belly dance as an industry and a cultural art form. Imagine that this one experience, in your class, can cause them to become completely obsessed, or be completely turned off by the art and industry as a whole. While most beginner experiences are likely to be somewhere in the middle, it is important to remember what it felt like as a beginner belly dance student.
I have two priorities when it comes to student experience and curriculum. First, that students have a safe and enjoyable experience. Second, to instill a love of dance and motivation to continue learning.
Here are six essential elements of a beginner belly dance class that I believe will help you connect with more diverse student base and keep them coming back for more.
- Help students feel successful.
Give them a simple fun combination or a move they can show off to the partner and friends, because they will ask, “Honey, what did you learn at belly dance class? Show me something.” I have learned after teaching many types of students from all walks of life, that a good balance of successes and a healthy dose of future potential that they must earn, is a great way to motivate and inspire students. The professional belly dancer knows the time, money and hard work it takes to achieve a high level. We know that, and we should impart that to our students in manageable doses appropriate for their interests. If students experience little successes in the beginning of their dance journey, they are more likely to be motivated to continue. They may or may not want to go pro or perform publicly. That’s not the point. Give them a chance to discover that for themselves. Give them the means to succeed at every level to the best of your ability.
- Help students understand their bodies.
Belly dance is known for improving body image and instilling confidence. Understanding body awareness should be a key component of beginner classes. Show students how to use their muscles. And remember belly dance is not just for women. I strongly believe the language we use to communicate about body movement and anatomy should be gender neutral. There is a wide-spread trend of belly dance as a feminine art, but that is far from the truth when you consider the origins of belly dance from folkloric traditions and the industry as a whole. Teach students how muscles work to create isolations and movements. Use descriptive language that is not specific to female anatomy or traits. I define fluidity as controlled sequential muscle engagement. When I am teaching a movement, I will always begin by addressing which muscles to use and how to find them. I try to first focus on student’s body awareness internally, then the desired movement outcome. I have found that descriptive language and the dynamics of muscle engagement is a much more efficient way to develop strong foundational movements.
- Help students avoid injury…physically and mentally.
This goes hand-in-hand with teaching students about their bodies and how to use their muscles. Tell them to listen to their bodies. Establish a strong class structure that includes a proper warm-up, and cool-down or stretching. As you teach good alignment and proper muscle engagement, share self-correcting techniques. Be sure to include only movements that are safe for a general population. There are specific movements that I would not consider appropriate for a general beginner class without proper conditioning and skill-building first. These include: jumps, standing or traveling in relevé, fast turns, back bends, hair tossing, and level changes that involve kneeling or similar dynamics. Also be sure to practice a variety of movements that involve both upper and lower body, including the feet and hands. Establish a pattern of class progression from the basic foundation in every class, then build it up to a new movement or combination. Teach students to engage their whole body, one part at a time and with lots of practice, reinforcement and encouragement. In addition, avoid prolonged practice of a specific movement, especially if some students are not getting it. This can cause students to become frustrated and has potential for injury. Some movements take more time to develop and some student need more time to learn them, but it doesn’t all have to be now. Move on after ten minutes if some students are still not getting it. They will in time, but not if they become injured, frustrated or embarrassed.
- Give students only the information they need that interests them at that moment.
There is no need to lecture beginner students on the history of belly dance in the first class. A few background notes are fine and that is all they need on the first night. As the session progresses you can educate them with new tidbits each week, in about two to three minute chunks. We know there is a lot to learn about this dance, and in time they will…hopefully, by sticking around. For now, in the category of belly dance history, culture, ethics, etc., select three pieces of relevant information (or no more than 5 minutes per class – 2 minutes is ideal) that you feel is important for beginner students to know as they embark on this wonderful journey. Give them more information when they’re hooked and hungry for more. When I first started teaching, we did not have the internet. We made hard-copy handouts for students. My students admitted they didn’t always read them until much later, sometimes years later. Nowadays we can share much more electronically, and we have technology to moderate how much and with whom to share resources. Prepare some links to share that are relevant to your class topics. Send them by email or create a Facebook group for your students. Sometimes you have a student who is especially enthusiastic. She may ask for information about a topic that isn’t the focus of your instruction. Have something prepared to instantly gratify her curiosity, even if it’s not about the thing she asked. try not to overwhelm them with information that is not immediately useful to them, but when they ask for something more or different, point them in the right direction.
- Give them lots of positive feedback and encouragement.
Beginner students need mostly positive encouragement. My belief is that a beginner class is less about mastering movements and more about the mastering our perception of ourselves. It is important for teachers to consider students needs at this juncture. Many students discover belly dance as adults, perhaps with injuries and years of poor posture or lack of physical activity. In addition, it will be take a few weeks before they are used to your teaching style and your class format. Some students are self-conscious. They might not have much body confidence or awareness. People also have different learning styles and preferences. Be patient and respect these differences. Some students are extremely sensitive about being corrected, while others may constantly ask, “Am I doing it right?” Any corrections that you suggest should consider these factors, and that means you will need to get to know them a little before implementing a disciplined approach to corrections. When students do something right, make a really big deal, no matter how little. For a beginner, just standing in correct alignment is a huge foundational accomplishment. People feel good when you notice them and their effort. While it’s important to provide correction, it is equally, and perhaps more important, to encourage students with positive feedback.
- Don’t set the expectation they have to practice at home.
They are beginners, give them a break. There are good reasons for beginners to refrain from outside practice. Beginner dancers have not yet learned enough to practice on their own. And there are other reasons beginner dancers should not be expected to practice outside of class. For one, they don’t have the benefit of instructor feedback and correction. They could be practicing the movements incorrectly, forming bad habits, which can potentially lead to injury. If they are reinforcing incorrect technique in their muscle memory, that will definitely make your job much harder. I made a 40-minute video for my students to practice only the very basic muscle isolations and movements with reminders about posture and alignment. I don’t require my beginner students to practice outside of class, but the video is an option if they want to practice with my guidance in the same style and format as my live classes. Another really good reason not to expect beginner students to practice outside of class is this: If they are expected to practice at home, this may actually be a huge turn-off for many students. Most belly dance students are there to have fun and de-stress. If they have homework, well that just defeats the purpose. Let them enjoy your class when they are there. If they want to practice at home, give them something. Rather than leaving them on their own, or worse finding with a source that may contradict your teachings, suggest an approved resource that reinforces your teachings.
What elements do you consider essential to a beginner belly dance class? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Are you ready for more?
Get the free e-Book: “How to Teach Belly Dance for Fun & Fitness”