Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Teacher

The Teacher
I have written blog posts dealing with many aspects of the tango world, tango etiquette, classroom behavior etc., so now it only seems fair to have a go at the gateway to the world of tango – the teacher.  Rather than a typical column, this will be a bullet point list of things that I look for, or avoid, in a teacher.
Ø     Does the teacher love the dance and have a deep passion to share the experience with the students?  Do not take it for granted that they do.  There are many “dance teachers” who just sell lessons.  You want tango, they go into the back room, watch a video and then teach you a few steps.  You will never discover the passion of tango from this type of teacher.
Ø     Does the teacher have a depth of knowledge? Far too many Argentine tango teachers are really just people who have learned steps and terms, and while being useful in a practica, they are not qualified to help you through the intricacies of the tango. 
Ø     Can they dance beautifully and inspire their students?  I recently went to a milonga and the class prior to the milonga was finishing and the class implored the teachers to perform a dance.  The gentleman said, prior to his dance; “we are not performer, but teachers”.   What a load of garbage.  If you are a teacher, you damn well better be able to dance in a public setting and do it in a way that inspires the students.  Inspiration is more important than the learning of steps, particularly for the beginning student.  Also a large and unappreciated part of the learning process is simply watching and imitating (which is basically how ballet dancers learn in the early years).   If a teacher does not have the comfort and technical ability to “dance the dance” they should not be your teacher.  Again, helpful people in a practica, but not for teaching.
Ø     There is a corollary to the last thought about a teacher being able to perform on a certain level, but beware the great performer who is not a great teacher, which is very common.  There is a saying in the sports world that great players never make great coaches.  The point is indisputable with a quick look at the great coaches of most sports.  It holds true for dancers as well.  Some people are born with so much talent, that they perform their sport or art from the very beginning so well, that they never have to invest much time learning the how, so they are not necessarily the best at explaining to others, how to do something.
Ø     Does your teacher step on your toes and blame you?  Poor form from a teacher.  If the teacher steps on your toes, more often than not, it is the teacher’s fault.
Ø     Does your teacher dance with you?  It does not have to be a constant thing, but I cannot get through a class without at least a moment with all the students, leads and follows.  Dance is a contact sport, after all, and sometimes you need to “feel” what your student is doing, or you may have to impart the feeling a student needs to learn, and nothing beats hands on.
Ø     Along the lines of the last point, does your teacher dance with you socially when the opportunity arises?  Dancing with my students at a milonga tells me volumes about what I need to work on with them to make them better social dancers.  Class is one thing, but the pressure of the milonga in the beginning can bring out issues that you never see in class. 
Ø     Does your teacher know everything?   I don’t think so.  I learn something new in every class I teach.  Beware the expert who thinks they have nothing left to learn.  When a traveling teacher is in town, does your teacher make a point of attending as many classes as possible?  Or is it beneath them to concede that they might be able to learn something from someone else?  Perhaps they are simply afraid of looking bad in class?  Seeing your teacher in class learning is a great way to gauge how good a dancer they are.   Trust me, tango is of such a depth that one never stops learning, if one is a true tanguero.  A good teacher is a good student.
Ø     Now here is a most important point:  Does your teacher allow you and help you feel good about your dancing?  Let me be very clear about this.  As I have said for decades, and written about in other posts; when dancing daily, I have one great day a week, one horrible day a week, and all the rest fall in between.  Therefore the best a teacher can do is to help you enjoy your good days more, and get through the bad days better.  Acknowledgement of improvement, along with corrections will help more people than ongoing criticism.   I have never been a fan of being pushed by negativity or getting angry, though there is a definite school of thought that believes in that method of teaching.  The question I ask is, “ do I feel better having attended a class, whether a good day or bad?”  If the answer is no, I don’t go back. 
Ø     Has anybody heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?  For those who have not, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for it, and it put an end to slavery in the United States.  Unfortunately, far too many dance teachers believe that they own their students.  If a teacher speaks harshly about all other teachers, and insists that you only take from them, you might want to look elsewhere.  If the studio tells you that if you go to another studio, you cannot come back, I would not be going back just because of that attitude.   Now I do firmly believe that in any form of dance, there should only be one or two primary teachers to give you your foundation, but spreading out and seeing the many styles that there are is one of the great joys of dancing; and why would a teacher want to deny their students that pleasure? 

Ø   Does your teacher respect your time?  The teacher should set the example and be ready to go at the beginning of the lesson.  For me, that means arriving early enough to prepare for the class and be ready to work hard from the very beginning.  If a teacher is late once, it might be excused since disasters do happen.  More than once is inexcusable.  Anyone who has ever worked in theater knows that curtains do not wait, and to make others wait is a sign of disrespect.  If you can be ten minutes late all of the time, you can be on time.