What obedience classes taught me about teaching dance
By Debbie Werbrouck
I’m what you call a lifelong learner. I’ve always loved taking class and I always learn something from other teachers that I can adapt and use in my own classes. But there’s one kind of class that’s offered me an unusual source of learning that I can apply to my teaching: dog obedience.
Before you laugh or get offended (I’m not comparing students to dogs, nor do I advocate telling them to sit and stay), think about this: positive teaching habits can be learned from and applied to many situations. My dog-obedience classes have taught me that teachers need to perfect their communication, encourage good performance, accept no less than their students’ best, and make the process fun for both their students and themselves.
At my first dog obedience class, I was impressed with the calm authority the instructor projected. For many, including me and my pup, this was a new experience and the excitement level was, shall we say, high. So why, under her handling, did the dogs execute each exercise much better than they did with their owners? Working with her, the dogs seemed calmer, more focused, and confident. I wondered what I would need to do to get that level of response from my dog. I would soon find out.
The first assignment was to put our dogs in a “down-stay” position. We were to give the verbal and hand command one time, in a calm voice, and have the dog remain there for 30 minutes. If the dog got up, we were to replace her in the position calmly, without saying anything. A down-stay for 30 minutes? My dog thought 30 seconds was too long for this game. After five days of continually replacing my dog into position, I called my trainer to see what I was doing wrong. She told me that what I was doing was right and to continue the exercise exactly as I had been. I didn’t understand the purpose of the exercise and I struggled not to lose my patience. It seemed like an exercise in frustration with no payoff.
But I kept at it. The day before our next class, I placed my dog in position and told her to stay. She looked at me, sighed, and went to sleep. Eureka! I finally got it. I had communicated to her clearly, calmly, and with authority what I wanted her to do—and I had outlasted her!
So how does this lesson apply to teaching dance? Think about it—how many times have you corrected “chicken-wing” arms or unstretched legs? Is the student not performing the movement correctly because of physical inability, lack of understanding, or inconsistency due to lack of mastery?
If students don’t perform due to a lack of understanding, the fault isn’t theirs. It’s time to brush up on your communication skills. What seems completely clear to you may not be so obvious to your students.
In her book The Loved Dog, Tamar Geller uses the story of being faced with an embarrassing situation during a visit to Bangkok. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t know how to operate the toilet. When she finally conveyed her lack of understanding, someone who understood what she needed to know helped her. Geller uses that story as an analogy regarding dogs and housebreaking. Dogs aren’t doing anything wrong when they relieve themselves in the house—until we teach them otherwise. They need to “speak the language” in order to know that it’s not OK.
Let’s translate that to humans. It’s a mistake to assume that students automatically know what to do. Clearly give information about what you want and how you want it done. In dance classes we need to present information in a way that leaves no room for students to be embarrassed if they don’t understand.
Terrell Paulk, a master ballet teacher at Dancentre South in Woodstock, Georgia, tells a story about teaching a class of very young dancers. He kept telling one young girl to straighten her knee over and over. Finally she asked what a knee was. His point is not to assume that students already know something.
Say it effectively
Do you repeat yourself constantly, with little result? In the book The Dog Trainer’s Guide to Parenting: Rewarding Good Behavior, Practicing Patience and Other Positive Techniques That Work, author Harold R. Hansen gives an example of two boys playing outside. When Billy’s mother calls him home, Billy keeps playing, assuring his friend that he doesn’t have to go home until the fifth yell.
What happens is that parents (and teachers too) inadvertently teach children not to respond on the first request. Any teacher who has made the same correction class after class can relate when a student comes back from a master class and shares the “new discovery” she learned. The student had either tuned out her regular teacher or grasped the concept more readily when it was presented differently.
Getting a desired behavior to become a natural response comes from having the opportunity to do it numerous times, for both humans and animals.
Does that mean that you should explain a movement or give a correction only one time? Of course not. However, seeing the same error occur constantly should make you question whether you have communicated well enough that the students understand what to do. If you’re repeating the same thing in the same way and not getting results, it’s time to try other methods of communication to help them understand. Ask questions of your students and have them explain how to do the movement properly. You may want to have them demonstrate the movement so you can see where they need help. Try using both visual and verbal examples of the movement.
Once the students have grasped the concept, practice will reinforce their understanding. Getting a desired behavior to become a natural response comes from having the opportunity to do it numerous times, for both humans and animals. The challenge is to keep the practice fresh and fun.
Improve your teaching
To improve your teaching skills, Hansen suggests taking a class in something you know little about. This is a good way to observe the skills and methods of the teacher and compare them to your own. As an example he described taking a class in real estate. Although he found the material uninteresting, the teacher was able to present the dry material in a way that kept students engaged. Through this class he learned that there is much more to teaching than merely presenting material.
Regarding establishing rules, Hansen shares a conversation with a client that shows the importance of being consistent:
“My dog gets up on the sofa and there are times when I don’t want him up there.”
“So you do let him get on the sofa?”
“How does your dog know when he should and shouldn’t be there?”
“I don’t know, but there are times when I don’t want him up there.”
Hansen says, “Don’t bend the rules; apply them or change them.” Do you have a rule that you don’t enforce? What are students required or allowed to wear in class? Do you allow latecomers to join in a class? If something is important enough to you that you made a rule about it, you need to enforce it consistently. Otherwise, you can expect students not to comply with it.
Those of us who have “parented” a rescue or shelter dog or a breeder-raised one with challenges understand that sometimes our “students” crave attention of any kind, even if it’s negative. As much as possible, it’s important to give attention and recognition for what we want and less attention for what we don’t want. In dance, there are so many details to focus on that it’s easy to fall into the habit of telling students everything they are doing wrong.
In my dog obedience class our instructor encouraged us to find something that the dogs did correctly and praise them for it. This helped to build confidence so that they would be able to accomplish even more. The same is true in dance class. Find something to compliment so that students feel that they can accomplish that task and more. It’s fine to use “and” with students—you can build on the positive reinforcement and ask for more from them. For example: “Julie, you really stretched your leg and foot well that time. That’s great! And now I want you to stretch your arms as well.”
When is it ‘good enough’?
An important consideration is your expectation of how good a student has to be. Someone who wants a well-behaved dog has different expectations than someone who wants a dog that will win obedience or agility competitions. The same goes for dancers who are recreational students versus those who want to participate in competitions or have professional aspirations.
Make it fun
My dogs have always seemed to know when it’s training-class day; they’re focused and ready to go. And as dance teachers, we should take a cue from that. The dogs are excited because they know they will have fun. That’s what we want for our students as well. We want them to understand what we are teaching, follow our rules, be confident and grow, and really enjoy dancing. You might not get slobbery kisses from your two-legged students, but using these methods will ensure that you deserve them.