Follow the Bouncing Butt;

In Defense of a Teaching Method

by Najia El Mouzayen
July 10, 2001

I was appalled when I first heard it!  "Yes, I think I know her!"exclaimed the dance teacher to a student dancer.  "She teaches by the 'Follow the Bouncing Butt Method', doesn't she?"  I disdain  the inelegant imagery, but worse, the statement contains proof of the misperceptions concerning study with a "hands on"style of dance instructor.  Some of the "Follow Me" teachers should be more aptly described as "inspirationally oriented". Many people study and attempt to learn on such a superficial level that they cannot recognize the difference between the vehicle of presentation and the destination of that subject which is being presented!

"The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires." --William Arthur Ward (1921-)

Not all dance students know what is reasonable to expect from an instructor of Danse Orientale. Few have experienced instruction that is both intuitive and personal.  Schools devoted to the teaching of Oriental dance do not exist in the Middle East, where the dance mostly originated, except (maybe) for the amusement and accommodation of a limited number of foreign tourists interested in Middle Eastern dance.  Most of us have been a product of our public schools replete with their pedantic methodology.  Seemingly, those methods have rendered many students nearly incapable of appreciating teachers who seek to inspire by example.  If dance teachers were teaching reading instead of the performing art such as dance, then memorization, drilling, and repetitious practice of small increments of knowledge would become the unanimous and obvious choice of teaching method.  Teachers!  If you want your students attached to you forever, pedantry is a truly captivating way to instruct!

"Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question." --Rousseau (1712-1778)

If you were educated by teachers who are accustomed to breaking down movements into their smallest components, reconstructing them, bit by weary bit, you may find yourself automatically critical of the unfamiliar instructor who dances along side her students in an apparently free form dance-along  However, please notice that this teacher is most likely, talking and explaining, correcting and entertaining, encouraging and laughing, and constantly assessing your technique as you move together.  I would encourage you to take a second look at the situation. Do not easily dismiss it as less than another teaching method that may appear to be more analytical on the surface.  Teachers who have little feeling for fledgling performers, and whose agenda may be more likened to massaging their own egos, are often the instructors most likely to take the easy road and "break down the steps and movements" into nasty little pills for you to swallow…

"He who wishes to teach us a truth should not tell it to us, but simply suggest it with a brief gesture, a gesture, which starts an ideal trajectory in the air along which we glide until we find ourselves at the feet of the new truth."--Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

Please don't misunderstand me though: All teachers, even the "Dance-along Cassidys", occasionally have to stop and disassemble steps and movements into palatable chunks for those students who are having great difficulty learning a specific concept about dance, but who are on firm ground with other aspects of the dance study.  For those students who seem to possess innate talents for the moving arts, the "breaking down" process is a tedious and most rigid way in which to learn.  Though it is satisfying to beginning students, it is rarely, if ever, that the said step or movement is then carried out with any real ease, or with the casual quality of the movements as they would be performed in the Middle East.  Dance instruction given by the "Break-down" method produces a "quick fix" type of dancer who then believes that she knows the one exact way movements must be done. A rigidly precise quality is ensconced in her dance from a time early in her career that is difficult to rid from her repertoire as she develops into a real Middle Eastern style performer. Often, I find when coaching dancers from various teachers, that the dancer is fine until she tries to innovate; then she is at a complete loss because she lacks the understanding of what techniques of balance, line, and body language have to do with the melding of movement and music.

"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." --Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

If a teacher chooses to teach primarily by the "Explanatory Method", then she must also decide whether she will be teaching mostly "transitions", "limited choreographies", or "full choreographies".  These are the easiest methods of instructing because one need only invent a series of appropriate steps and/or movements that the students then practice repeatedly during lesson time while the teacher moves about making suggestions and corrections. The instructor has the distinct advantage of creating this construction beforehand, privately, so that her own mistakes and dance weaknesses do not appear when she is actually working with her students in class.  While preset limited choreographies and teaching complex series of transitions does "work" for many students, the method is a colossal waste of class time for any student who has access to a practice space at home and who has any incentive or initiative toward improving her dance.  Yet, I have to admit that group lessons can hardly accommodate such students anyway. Also, I would have to acknowledge that many "Belly dance" students are more in search of social interaction than in the art of performance.

"I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge…..When I have presented one corner of a subject to anyone, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson." --Confucius (551-479 B. C.)

Although we cannot, and should not, make the performing art of Danse Orientale into a science, there are basic concepts in its content just as there are related and basic concepts in other forms of performance arts.  A few of these are:

  • Use of balance, line, and space.
  • Audience management: projection, energy recycling, personality and timing.
  • Stagecraft:  lighting, fitting movements to the area.
  • Production: Choosing appropriate music, costuming, stage maquillage.
  • Musical interpretation and movement technique.
  • Dramatic sense, gestures, and body language.
  • Cultural considerations.

This list is not meant to be all-inclusive but to illustrate what I mean when I state that a great teacher highlights the concepts which form and guide the movements rather than focusing on merely accomplishing and repeating the actual individual folk steps involved. The truth of Middle Eastern dance is that its movements and precise skills of rhythm are relatively easy to convey.  It is the detail and relaxed attitude that is difficult to teach!

For decades, My primary instructor, Bert Balladine, of Northern California, has appeared to be a continuing master of the "transition" style of teaching.  However, while Bert showed us the series of transitions that he casually laid out for us in each class, he was actually teaching by an "Experience and Inspiration" method.  While he taught, he spoke incessantly of show business topics and told us stories and anecdotes making us laugh and chuckle.  In truth, he was more of a lecturer than one might perceive in a brief class encounter, which appeared to be mastery of simple transitions from one movement to another.

The true content of his lessons that I experienced was in his amusing lectures and in the corrections that he made while the group pranced around in circles repeating the series of dance steps he had set to music (often played on a non-stop loop). While I learned in this method for the most part, I also noticed that a majority of students did not listen very well.  They simply enjoyed the transitional series part of the dance lessons and did not produce a very extraordinary dance when all the dust on the dance floor had settled.  I realized, then, that some students could take lessons for a thousand years and never become much more than skilled practitioners.  However, those who listened and were inspired to create and innovate, to express passion and emotion, far surpassed their contemporaries taught by other instructors.

"Good teaching is one forth preparation and three-fourths theater." --Gail Godwin (1937-)

Bert taught us to be theatrical and taught us that dance was a performance art which could, by the way, be quite personal and therapeutic for those who did not wish take it to the performance level.

"Follow the Way, not the teacher of the Way"  --Anonymous

Each instructor has to rely on those skills he has best mastered. I found that I could not instruct in my teacher's method for several reasons.  Mostly, it was because I did not have the long dance/theater experience that he had had.  Instead, I brought to the table my teaching background and my graphic arts training, along with my musical training from my childhood.  I have adopted the method of teaching dance concepts through introducing a new step or movement while dancing simple steps and movements with my students and interweaving the new addition. While we move together, I explain how to access the new thing from a variety of the old, more familiar movements. Often, I ask the student to dance sparely and I request that she try introducing the new items on her own while I observe and make corrections.  It is most difficult for some students to dance solo in front of me; however, soloing "separates the men from the boys"!  As I have written many times before, "One must be willing to chance performing badly before it is possible become an outstanding and experienced performer." In the process of dancing freely, yet in unison, in the "Follow Me" style the student learns on an intuitive level, where and how to make changes, where to repeat patterns, when to expand dance space and when to contract it, how to acknowledge the ornate details within music rather than merely applying a simplistic response to the percussion. In Arabic they say "Keeda ho!"  meaning, "Do it like this!" I insist that my students maintain a dance notebook, and I provide class time for writing in it, and I help them to write their notes accurately.  My main reasons for doing this during class time is that I believe that it is the strongest way that I can bring students to recognize and record the basic concepts of dance and families of movements that I have presented. Each person learns differently and some are not able to retain ideas until they have committed them to the written page.

"Within the tablets of thy mind write this that I have said to thee." --Sophocles (496?-406 B. C.)

So, on the one hand, we dance along, side by side, incorporating New steps, highlighting families of steps and movements.  On the other, we keep the ideas of choreographic sense simple by grouping them and recognizing their characteristics and origins both similar and dissimilar. Also, the notebooks help me to keep track of the many students who are moving along their own individual developmental paths.  A teacher can keep a more reasonable idea of the exact status of her dance students while dancing along with them because she can more often push them into more advanced subjects or concepts than one might logically anticipate that they are ready to address.  Often the progress of a student is uneven, and even illogical, because of personal life experiences,  former dance and musical experiences.  A teacher who is bound and determined to present dance subjects in a premeditated, orderly sequence is due for some great frustrations, disappointments, and unwanted surprises.  A student learns what she is ready to learn and often does not perceive that you have even presented the subject unless you specifically draw her attention to it while recording it in the notebook.  Sources of information are readily forgotten though!

"Men must be taught as if you taught them not;  And Things unknown propos'd as Things forgot."--Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Development of style is an illusive thing.  The greatest gift you give your dance students is insight into your own dance and the way in which it comes together with the music.  From that point onward, it is hoped that new dancers will be enabled to create their own dance by observing how you have created yours.  You have taught them to rank both movements and steps in families so that dancers can access whatever the music or the moment needs from memory and an underlying aesthetic of movement category.  Rather than make a dance choreography and hand it over, like so many eggs in a basket, you must teach them a method for analyzing the music.  You teach them to apply various choices, and construct dance from a free thinking or emotional point of view rather than limiting them with the rigors of logical exactitude.

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery." -Mark Van Doren (1894-1972)

Sometimes what seems so simple and even spontaneous is anything but!  If you have criticized instructors because they do not hand you pre-written notes and choreographic notations that have been constructed in advance of the class, you are barking up the wrong creative tree.  Your process for creativity will amount to nothing special if you have not addressed the adventure with your own ideas and talents.  A poetry teacher, for example, teaches you a form.  You supply the words and images, creating your poem, by the teacher's inspiration. It is my hope then, that if in the process of taking dance lessons from any workshop instructor, or a new personal coach, that you will attempt to see beyond the obvious and try to discover what values the teacher actually is attempting to deliver by whatever her chosen means.

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