Selecting a Teacher

This is an article that I adapted from an earlier blog post. It was published in Danzin’ Magazine.

As we approach a new year of dance training, many parents and students in our industry will be looking for new teachers. Similarly, many schools, studios and conservatories will be looking to hire new faculty members. And finding the right teacher can be a very difficult process for both students and studios. It has come to my attention recently,  that many parents, students and studio owners are favoring young teachers who can still dance “full out” over older, perhaps more experienced teachers. Dance can not really be taught by simply “showing”. If showing and demonstrating was the primary necessary skill and talent, then one could simply learn to dance by watching videos of dancers… and we all know that isn’t possible. Many newer and younger teachers (not all) tend to “show”. Clearly they explain while they show but they tend to rely on “this is how you do it” and then demonstrate the step or combination. Of course they will give some “how-to” information and offer some corrections, but in my experience with many newer teachers, they tend to rely on their technical prowess to make their point. I know that I did. Then the years crept on and one day, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I put into the studio, my body betrayed me.

I believe that dancing is more about “what it feels like” than “what it looks like”. This idea has always informed my teaching, but as my body declined it became more and more apparent that I was going to need to become a more skillful explainer if I was going to have a career. Of course, when teaching beginners, a certain amount of demonstration is helpful; and perhaps even necessary. But one does not need to tendu like Baryshnikov to teach tendu.

I remember the legendary Luigi talking about what he “felt” in class. He continued to demonstrate, as best he could, as his body aged. Clearly in his advanced years he couldn’t dance like he did in his youth. No one can. But he could still, though his teaching, take an absolute beginner and guide a dancer into a career. He explained everything from the point of view of what it felt like to him. He explained these feelings in excruciating detail. He explained what he did and how he did it with brilliant clarity. It was a painstaking, time-consuming process. And it took a student who was very hungry and very patient to “get it”. But once the student “got it” they had a depth of knowledge and understanding of dance that was richer, more profound, more expressive and more interesting than the students of the other methods that I encountered. He so often said to me “I don’t teach chorus dancers, I make stars”. And to a certain degree he did. Every student that passed through his studio was brought up and nurtured, through his technique, to become profoundly unique artist with a solid technique that supported their artistic expression. There certainly are young, fit, still performing dancers who are excellent teachers. But to think that a studio owner or parent would prefer a young teacher, still in “performing shape” to a seasoned and experienced professional simply because they can demonstrate “full-out” is disappointingly short sighted.

Building a dance technique and cultivating an artist is not a quick process. It takes endless hours of maddening repetition under the guidance of a teacher who knows how to impart the information. I implore studio owners and parents to weigh their choices very carefully. Careers can be made by a teacher and careers can be destroyed by a teacher. Do not select a teacher based on what they can show, because these teachers will create dancers who can “do”. Rather, select a teacher based on what they can teach, because these teachers will create dancers who can soar.

Luigi teaching in the studio
Luigi, well past the age of 80, still teaching

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