(updated June 1, 2018)
Someone once told me that if you can do something, you can teach it. I think that is the most untrue thing I have ever heard.
What makes a good dance instructor? There are a few specific qualities that I believe a great dance instructor in any genre has, and that you can look for. These are skills I try to imbue in the people whom I train to teach as well.
Great instructors are eternally curious. They like their concepts and methods to be constantly challenged because they are, first and foremost, interested in being really great. If they aren’t exposing themselves to others who will challenge them, then they are constantly questioning their own approaches and beliefs. Great instructors are therefore eternal students.
Ask your instructors who they are working with and why; what they are working on and why. Ask them what training they take as TEACHERS, not just as dancers.
Another hallmark of curiosity is awareness and acknowledgement of other schools of thought and ways of doing things. Any dance instructor who speaks in absolutes is either uninformed or insecure. A truly good instructor will be able to have a conversation with you about how other professionals may do things differently. They will be able to demonstrate multiple approaches or techniques. And, they will be able to clearly articulate WHY they personally choose to do things the way they do – in a consistent way (read on).
Instructors who are actually READY to teach something are consistent. They demonstrate consistency in a variety of ways:
- If they teach you a core technique or a “rule” of the dance, they can apply it to every single basic pattern in the dance.
- If you ask them how one thing they tell you or show you coincides with another thing they tell you or show you, they have an answer that illustrates consistency between the two things.
- What they teach you is what they do.
- Their core technique and foundation is consistent through all movement (every body part), and all parts of the dance.
- They teach all their students the same things, although not necessarily in the same way (see “Communication” below).
The best instructors strive to communicate in many ways. It’s probably not possible for a single person to teach really well to every learning style, but a good instructor will be able to do these three things well at a minimum:
- Demonstrate it (visual)
- Explain it (verbal)
- Get you doing it (kinetic)
Most of this is possible in a Group Lesson and all of it is possible in a Private Lesson.
Here’s a template I like to use to quickly explain run-of-the-mill teaching versus really great teaching:
- Observation: “You are doing x wrong.” Or, “You need to fix x.” Observation alone is not teaching.
- Instruction: “You are doing x wrong and this is why it’s a problem.”
- Good instruction: “This thing you are doing is creating these problems and here is what you should be doing instead.” Better teachers observe, explain, and show.
- Awesome instruction: “You are doing this, and it’s creating these problems, and here is what you should be doing instead. Let’s fix it together, and here is a tool/drill you can use to practice on your own.” The best teachers observe, explain, show, and get you DOING it differently.
All of this is not possible in a Group Lesson but should be expected in a Private Lesson.
The best teachers care about you, the person, and want you to succeed. They’ll encourage your strengths while strengthening your weaknesses. Like a magic mirror, they will show you what you’re capable of, not just what you’re doing “wrong”.
It Feels Good
With all that said, a good instructor for YOU is also someone you can click with – someone who “speaks your language”. Experienced instructors will generally be able to speak more than one “language” but probably not all of them – so in the beginning you might want to try out a few different instructors.
How do you FEEL after the lesson? Let that be your guide.
As your dance progresses, your needs or focus may change and the instructor you started with may not be the one you need later on. That’s O.K., too. Poor instructors make you feel guilty for getting second opinions. A good one will understand that and may even recommend another instructor to you – either to fill in gaps or to send you in a new direction entirely.