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"Does Learning Constitute Copying?
My Musings about Sharing Dance"

by Najia El-Mouzayen

Originally published in Caravan Magazine
Revised for Gilded Serpent, October 18, 2001

I am remembering a phone call that I received a few years ago from a well known dance instructor and colleague in another state.  She tearfully related to me a story that greatly distressed her.  It seems that after having participated in a workshop taught by another well-known instructor, word reached her (through the dance teacher grapevine) that she had been accused of having copied the materials and teaching technique of the other workshop teacher.  What a mean spirited accusation for any creative instructor to live down! One of the things that I admire about my caller is that her teaching technique seems somewhat similar to mine, and therefore, I can relax and share with her, and I feel validated. (We dance teachers seem to long for validation!)  Her teaching content, though worded and imaged differently than mine, is also often identical in content to my own major dance concepts. 

I could still feel her pain as she spoke. Still evident were her disappointment, puzzlement, and feelings of unjust victimization.

I shared with her that I, too, had had such things happen in my own career years ago. For example, I once had an intermediate level student who became so aggressive with her dance prowess that she auditioned for my dance gig at the folkdance taverna, “O Aitos”, and she attempted to compete by claiming she had taught me to dance!  (Too bad for her that my employer had seen me learn (and develop into a performer) under the  guidance of my real instructor!). Once, after I taught a number of important dance concepts at a Rakkasah West workshop that I had never seen addressed by any other Middle Eastern Dance teachers, a European teacher approached me exclaiming, "What a fantastic class!  You teach what I teach; only I teach it in much more depth!" ("Oh! Thank you," says I… "In your dreams, Ducks!"  I thought to myself.)

It is my observation and conclusion that people perceive of what is being taught within their own ability to understand.  Further, it is also possible to believe that one is being copied when, in fact, both parties have come to similar positions by different paths.

I have seen, first hand, my accused colleague's excellent teaching impact at various workshops.  Her accuser, Miss Big Name Dancer, always presents material that is intricate and well-prepared.  Sadly though,  her lessons are a limiting body of subject matter because of her concept of choreography is a thing composed in and for itself rather than a body of music.  It is often irrelevant to the music, rather than an artistic, heartfelt and specific musical expression. As one watches Miss Big Name dance and teach, one can see perfection in the execution of irrelevant movement not specific to the music. Her dance relies almost wholly upon the rhythms and very little upon lyrical and melodic content. Even though the Eskimos were said to have twenty different words for snow according to its detailed characteristics, a Middle Easterner cares little for naming, differentiating, and classifying shimmy techniques.  They appear to respond more enthusiastically to dramatic and appropriate musical response.

An example of a musically responsive dancer would be Sadia on the commercially available video tape "Arabian Dance Fever".   Sadia's musicality pops into my mind as outstanding. I have become quite bored watching video tapes of flap-doodle dancers shaking and wading through music to which they do not listen nor respond.  Sometimes, they seem to me to use music as some lame excuse to be doing weird things with their bodies in public. My friend's strongest point, for me, lies in her personal interpretation of the music.  But I digress from my theme about sharing through teaching…

Whatever one teaches to another (even another teacher) is up for grabs after that point, to be danced, taught, or adapted by him or her. 

Yes, it would be a blessing to see credit given to the contributing teacher, just as one would be required to credit the written work of an author. Often though, these ideas are passed on from one teacher to the next and are "morphed" along the way.  We can never underestimate human nature and the immense capacity of an artist's ego to forget one's mentors and those who inspire creativity. I think that the best we might hope for is some mutual tolerance and shared glory among dancers and dance instructors.

I remember the words of Nagwa Fouad a few of years back when she said to me,  "How nice to think that there are such beautiful dancers to carry on when I decide to retire." (A standard Egyptian nicety.) I would like to add my own thoughts to her quotation and say to you, "How nice to think that there are other dancers who feel the way I do about interpreting music and who also have the ability and motivation to share it!"

Dancers whose mantra seems to rely upon being the first to do something that has not yet been copyrighted by another (implying exclusive use and ownership) are doomed to disappointment and eventual disillusionment. 

They will be forever lost in the nasty struggle for fame and …err…fortune, a struggle piled high with dance road-kill.  Likewise, knowledge and ownership of the "One True Dance Technique" or the proper way to teach dance is also a cumbersome and limiting Pterodactyl of an idea; not only does it not fly anymore (if it ever flew well), it is also rather ugly by my aesthetic standards. I would love to tell you which instructor called me with her story and reveal her as someone I respect, and probably you would like that, too.  However, I also fear reprisals and backlash at her from the teacher who accused her.  She will forever remain anonymous with me.  Some other far away time, I will interview her when she can talk candidly about all the dance things in her heart.

All we can hope for is an understanding that there may have been parallel development or that the kernel of an original idea may have been assimilated and enhanced.  What kind of immortality does a dance teacher expect to garner, anyway?  Wouldn't it be sufficient to believe that you had contributed a lasting impression  on the dance you love?

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Ready for more?

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