The Hard Conversations

by Aslahan

As teachers, it is our responsibility to guide our students not just in technique and expression, but in etiquette and professionalism. It is our responsibility to create a good learning environment for everyone in class. Sometimes, these responsibilities mean initiating conversations that may make an individual student uncomfortable. These conversations are uncomfortable for us, too (who wants to embarrass a student or quash her enthusiasm?), but are necessary to protect the student herself, the rest of the class, the teacher, the community, and the art of belly dance.

I think most instructors feel this responsibility, but often these hard conversations never happen, not because the teacher isn't aware of the problem, but because the teacher just doesn't know what to say. My approach is to identify why the student's behavior is a problem, and present it to them privately and compassionately, with the assumption that they truly are not aware of the damage they are causing.

It helps to think ahead of time about what you will say to start the conversation. Rather than generalities, here are some specific examples of issues you may find yourself needing to address with a student, precisely *why* they are an issue, and a suggested "script" for what to say to your student.

The student is taking on paid gigs before she is ready.

This reflects badly on belly dance (someone without the skills representing professional dance), and also on you as a teacher.

"I know how excited you are about this, but I just don't think you're at that level yet. Taking professional gigs before you're ready reflects on me as your teacher, and also misrepresents professional belly dance as a whole. I need to ask you to stop."

The student is taking on paid gigs and isn't charging enough.

Undercutting affects the whole community as prices go lower and lower.

"I need to talk to you about the rates you're charging. The going rate in the community is X, and when you charge less than that you bring down prices for everybody. As a professional dancer you should be charging X at a minimum."

The student has an inappropriate costume.

Even at a hafla, a student's costume (too revealing, obviously a lingerie bra with sequins added, etc) can reflect badly on belly dance as an art, and you as a teacher.  

"I need to talk to you about your costume. I know you love it/are excited about it/have performed in it before, but it really needs to be altered so that it shows less leg/shows less breast/covers your underwear/doesn't show your panties when you spin/is less obviously a covered lingerie bra. Perhaps you could wear a vest/wear a bolero top/add harem pants/wear something different for this show."

The student has started teaching before she is ready.

Again, this reflects badly on the art of belly dance, and on you as the student's teacher. Additionally, the student is almost guaranteed to turn out students of her own with sublevel skills and standards, and may even hurt someone.

"I know how excited you are about this, but it's too soon for you to be teaching. You put your students at a disadvantage by not being ready as a teacher, and your actions reflect on me as your instructor, and on belly dance itself. I need to ask you to stop."

The student talks too much in class.

Everyone's time is being taken up on something other than what you are teaching. Other students may become frustrated and discouraged.

"I need to ask you to limit your comments in class a bit more. It's distracting to my other students, and I want everyone to feel that their time is being used effectively. Can you save your comments for before or after class?"

The student tries to answer other students' questions.

The student may be giving incorrect information. The student may have a different answer than you do, which confuses the class (your class is about YOUR philosophy and approach; that's why your students come to you). The student is using up people's time with unsolicited answers. Other students may stop asking questions if they know it will trigger this student to respond.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm and I know you just want to help, but I need to ask you to let *me* answer any questions that come up in class. Having multiple 'teachers' is too confusing for the other students."

The student brings gossip, conflict, or all their personal problems ("drama") to class.

Even if this is occurring before or after class time, it creates extra stress and unpleasantness for the other students.

"I know you feel a strong bond with the other students, but many of them come to class to get away from the problems of work and social pressures. I need to protect that, so I have to ask you to leave your problems outside when you come to class. It's just not the right place to vent."

The student frequently corrects the teacher in class.

Again, the student is taking up the time of everyone in the class. The student may be flat out wrong, or (this is often the case) is trying to expand on something you've given a simple explanation for, which confuses the other students and loses the focus you were trying to achieve.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm and I know you just want to help, but if you're concerned that something I've said is incorrect could you ask me about it after class? These discussions in class take up everyone's time and can be confusing for the other students."

The student wears too much perfume.

This can be overwhelming and unpleasant for both you and the other students in your class. Additionally, some of other students may have chemical sensitivities that make this a health issue.

"I need to talk to you about your perfume. It's lovely, but it's just too strong for the class environment. I need to ask you apply it more lightly/refrain from wearing it to class."

The student has body odor. (NOTE - of all the topics in this list, this one has the most potential to humiliate a student, and should be handled with delicacy, privacy, and a little face-saving spin.)

This is unpleasant for the other students in your class, as well as you. Your other students may leave and not return.

"I'm embarrassed to bring this up, but I've noticed you have some body odor in class - maybe you are coming here from another workout? Would it be possible to change clothes in between?"

An embarrassed or disappointed student may try to draw you into a debate:

    "But no one's complained about my costume before."
    "But I don't feel right charging as much as a dancer who has ten years of experience."
    "But I have a music degree, and oversimplified information drives me crazy."

Getting drawn into an argument won't help things. You can stay out of the debate by saying something like: "I understand how you feel, but" and then restate the problem as outlined above. Or just "I understand how you feel, but my concern still stands."

Often the student is simply embarrassed to have made a mistake, and will appreciate the guidance after her embarrassment has subsided. Have patience.

Every once in a while, you'll find yourself with a student who will not make the changes you ask. That brings us to one of the hardest conversations, if you choose to have it:

The student needs to be asked to find a new teacher.

The student is continuing to disrupt your class and/or negatively affect your reputation. This can lose you students or gigs, and possibly hurt the dance community as a whole.

"I'm really sorry, but I've talked to you about [insert issue here] and you don't seem to be willing to change. It isn't fair to my other students/affects my reputation in the dance community. I have to ask you to find a new teacher."

Most of the time, students mean well. They are unaware of how they come across, or unaware of the issues they might be causing in the belly dance community. These conversations are never comfortable, but they nearly always solve much more trouble than they cause.


Reader Comments (14)

Well done. Very well expressed. This is an awesome resource for the community. Thank you for writing it.

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJemileh

Thanks for including perfume as an issue in addition to all of these other very important issues!

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBadriya

Regarding the inappropriate costume issue, when I was teaching, several weeks before a show, I would provide students with written instructions regarding my expectations for costuming/makeup as well as music requirements (i.e., length, no religious music) for those performing solos or other group numbers that were not part of class routines. If they wanted to perform, I had to approve their costume which was done 1-2 classes before the show so that they would have time to make any alterations. I remember telling 2 girls that their skirts were too see-through & they needed to wear something on their legs even if it was just pantyhose with the feet cut off. They did not listen & when it was show time, they did not dance. I have no control over what students do on their own, but if they are participating in something that I organize, then it's my rules.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmara

Well written. Thanks for putting this out there : )

March 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

A recent encounter I had with a student could possibly be added...
A "fellow" bellydancer who lives in the same area has decided she will start up her own class within a 2 mile distance from me. She also decided to start mentioning her class to the rest of my students. When I confronted her after class this week, I advised her politely that this behaviour is inappropriate as this is my class and such topics should not come up. She jumped back at me saying that the other students asked first (they didn't, I heard the conversation). Her technique is substandard and in class she openly shows me disrespect by not listening to my instruction, not taking correction well/disregarding them, racing ahead of me and occasionally attempting to take over or presume I have said something when I haven't.

I am frustrated to day the least as I have only just commenced teaching and I am wondering if I should be asking her to,leave the class altogether. I feel that she is in my class to 'spy' and to pilfer students from me. Alas, she would be the kind of person to bad mouth others who she doesn't like.

March 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDesiderata

What if it is the teacher who displays these bad habits? In my experience, there isn't and hasn't been another teacher/class within hours or more. I began learning what I could, but realized there was no more I could learn from this teacher. I oftentimes feel there is an air of raunchiness when it comes to costumes and even protocol and having a level of professionalism. I respect my teacher, but...There simply is nothing else more that can be taught. I literally have to go elsewhere and it has been this way for many years. They came into this as a hobby and I would have never known better if not for the Internet and sites like this one. Some students are allowed to make frequent interruptions and it becomes plain obnoxious when the giggling begins... My goodness, I realized how long I have been holding this in. I even feel terrible for saying this. I honestly am a humble person and get tears in my eyes even typing this. What can a student do?

March 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterName Withheld

Seriously? This article is disgusting. What about belly dancing being an art form or an expression of self? The inappropriate costume particularly bothers me because there's nothing inappropriate about the female form. I'd love to see a nudist belly dance. I'm sure it'd be beautiful and a unique art form. The rest of the points come across as so pretentious and controlling. This would only really strike home with a snobby,narcissistic,prude teacher with control issues. The only actual points in this are the drama and rudeness and perhaps the perfume is others were allergic. Other then those,this article is pointless and idiotic and ,frankly, bitchy.

March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlly

seems as if this post hit a nerve with a student.

March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJemileh

In my opinion there are 2 completely different kinds of classes :1) Proffessional, Those that train from basics to expert have certified training..and take everything seriously.
2) Joyous, Those that are there for the love of dance,choreography and the companionship.
I believe that both are quite ok as long as those takign the classes understand what type they are attending. I don't teach ,I have in the past, I have attended both styles of classes. With that said I do believe that integrity and posture are very important !

March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBonny

Re: "fellow" bellydancer.

Everybody has something different to give. If you know the value you are giving to your students and they know the value they are getting, why are so afraid of someone with substandard technique?

I thought some of the suggestions were rude. Every teacher has a right to run their class as they wish. However, commenting on the person's life outside of the classroom is not appropriate, and comments regarding undercutting each other can made to the class as a group.

March 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFellow Dancer

This has always been a heated issue in the community ~ and one I have always had to practice lovingkindness around. While I am not sure I would have delivered in the same manner as "Ally", I have disagreed with many of these practices for a long time. It makes me a very popular.... :) I have taught students who go on to teach and perform ~ And I was taught before I taught and performed. I can agree with injury prevention in instruction ~ I would say many instructors I have taken from haven't had much education in body mechanics and injury prevention ~ usually those instructors who have ~ have a strong background in exercise instruction....

RE: Gig pay ~ I can understand the fear around prices for dancers..... and how horrible it must feel to have a gig go to another dancer who is pricing less than what the community agreed on ~ I think this brings up interesting ethical issues of price fixing in a free market economy ~ which, I guess is no longer illegal in the States, but had been for a very long time. I simply don't agree ~

I think there will always be people we deem 'not ready' ~ and people who deem us 'not ready'. :) It is scary to let go of this, and feel and think for oneself. We cannot control other's behaviors ~ teachers and students alike ~ We must go within and make choices that are well thought, and ultimately serve our highest evolution and integrity.

Unfortunately ~ many in this world do not do this.... and it is a lost art which I think is on it's way back.

I personally find this community has a tendency for fear. And of course it is understandable ~ it is a small community with an even smaller chance for high level stage opportunity ~

No one person is going to agree totally with another ~ and it is a challenging forum in which to navigate.

In speaking with someone who has seen the behaviors of the community ~ they said, "it was like watching people fight for crumbs."

I think the best thing this community and ALL people can do is teach because you love it ~ work on one's fears about how things reflect on us....that isn't a truth of this universe, it is false.... a scary one, I fully admit.... dance because you love it. And be mindful of your actions to not use one another to gain over one another. Take an action because it is correct for your path ~ baring in mind, not everyone will agree or like it ~ and do so with a discerning mind and heart.

Thank you Aslahan, part of being a teacher is being able to set a standard, and standing strong in a kind way. Doing so can provide great communication and clarity.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterattar

Great Article by Aslahan. I thought the points highlighted were absolutely appropriate. It is unfortunate that some of the comments were negative. Yes, we are all dancers. Yes, we are all artists. However, when we dance in public, we do shoulder responsibility. If you're not prepared to do so, that's fine - realize then that you do not belong in the public eye when it comes to this art form. There are other places that you can perform, or you can create your own private parties and wear whatever you wish, or not, dance however you wish, or not. No need to be nasty or snarky about dancers that do want to dance in the eyes of the public and have enough manners to know the difference between what is professional, respectful, and courteous, in costuming, dancing, and comportment.
I, too, have always had a hard time with the "assessment of a dancer's skill". With my years of dancing and teaching, I see both sides. A novice dancer can only learn by actually "doing". There are too many nuances to learn that can only be learned by the action, not just the guidance. The instructor is there to guide you; not hold you back purposefully, or selfishly. Does it happen? Yes. Are there instructors that shouldn't be teaching, much less performing? Yes. Unfortunate in both cases. However, the student also carries a duty; if she/he is there to learn to dance, there should be no question as to their behavior. It is rude to disrupt a class, period. If the class is not strictly for learning to become a professional dancer, of course it's more lax. Know the difference.
Undercutting and teacher-cutting; GREAT points of discussion. Two subjects I could drone on about, but will choose to withhold from doing.
Love the comment from the student "who's learned all she could". Two ways to answer that. One, you're absolutely right. You've reached the peak of learning from this particular teacher, and it's time you move on. OR....You've been so busy thinking that you know everything that you missed out on half the moves the rest of the class has learned. If you're truly feeling that way, take a test: write down every nuance of ONE movement. If you cannot name at least five, you need to go back to basics.
As professional dancers, we do take our Art seriously. Not only is it our name, and our reputation, we also proudly carry the name and reputation of our teachers and mentors, which is hand-in-hand with etiquette, professionalism, and ethics.

April 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZahira Zuhra

See my thoughts, here:

April 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPracticalDancer

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