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Teacher to Teacher | Speaking Truth

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By Carol Crawford Smith

It is hard to tell a student she is not ready for the next level of study—even harder if I know the student will see that her peers are advancing. But I simply will not promote a student when she is not ready. That would be unethical on my part and dangerous for the student.

According to my dance teacher job description, I am to guide students to work correctly within their natural facilities, yet also encourage them to reach beyond their physical comfort zones. I want all dancers to reach their peak. And that means that sometimes those who are nearing the heights might soar off to find a new nest, where a new guardian will provide the nourishment they need to continue their development.

As honest as I am with my students and parents, I must also be honest with myself. I cannot be all things to all dancers. There are times when I hit a roadblock and cannot get a student to that next level, no matter what words I use or examples I give.

I remember working with a much-adored student who, for more than 10 years, had dedicated herself to her lessons and advanced to soloist status. Once, while rehearsing her in a variation, I paid particular attention to refining her port de bras and épaulement. After repeated reminders, the look was still not right. I could have continued to insist that she perfect the upper-body positions, but I would rather boost my students’ self-esteem than inflate my own ego. The most important goal was for my student to dance with confidence and joy and receive accolades from the audience. She did, and I was proud of her accomplishment.

One of my strengths as a dance teacher is my confidence in my own abilities. I help students maintain enthusiasm, and I give them plenty of opportunity to experience the joy of dancing. I can polish students into accomplished artists. Yet somewhere between enthusiasm and artistry, the road can get muddy and the direction unclear. One struggling student might finally stop resisting and embrace my corrections. Another might leave my studio to seek guidance elsewhere. Either choice is OK.

I cannot be all things to all dancers. There are times when I hit a roadblock and cannot get a student to that next level, no matter what words I use or examples I give.

It can be disappointing when a student leaves, especially if she has been at my studio for years, but all students must find their own path toward their own best dance life. I’ve learned that an important part of being a good dance teacher is learning how to let go.

“Everything must change, nothing stays the same.” As the words to Oleta Adams’ soft song flow through my thoughts, they remind me that as students, families, and supporters come and go, it is important for me to remain honest. I cannot compromise my position and allow someone to continue studying pointe with bent knees and ankles that roll over. That would be a huge disservice to the student and her parents, who entrusted me with her care and proper development. An impatient dancer might leave for another studio that will grant her desire to dance on pointe. I can live with that. I will awaken each day with a clear conscience knowing that my assessment was accurate and that no harm was committed under my guard.

It would be wonderful to say that every dancer who leaves my studio does so to begin a career with a renowned company or to dance on Broadway. But some of my students must take many other steps before they can achieve such success. That’s when I swallow my pride and say, “It’s time for you to study somewhere else.” It’s my job as a teacher to let my students take those next steps toward their dreams.

Advising a student to move on means losing tuition, of course. But I never let the thought of lost income stop me from sending a student elsewhere if I believe it will lead to their success. My bottom line is never the money, but the safety, health, and happiness of my students. This philosophy actually attracts students to my studio.

I can honestly say that every dancer who crosses my threshold will be treated like a precious gem, and I will do my best to help all of them sparkle in whatever dance environment they choose.

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January 2011
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