Have you ever taken a belly dance class with an instructor who’s really tough? I mean, the kind of teacher who takes belly dance seriously, has high standards, and kicks your butt? Did you rise to the challenge or walk away shaking your head, saying “no way, that class was too hard” or “that teacher was mean”?
It seems these days that the concept of “tough love” is considered “old school” and is commonly avoided more than embraced. Teachers in grammar schools and high schools are told to be ‘politically correct’ and never touch a student in any manner, not even to hug. Their hands are tied when it comes to a student who is out of line and could use a bit of discipline to get back on track. I remember being deathly afraid of my fifth-grade teacher, an old lady with a loud, gruff voice. The fear was so great, I worked extra hard to please her… and you know what? I went from being a mediocre student to being “teacher’s pet” with all A’s. That tough woman did me a favor in the long run. My confidence soared and I remained a straight-A student all the way through college.
And then there was the ballet master I trained with for many years. The world-famous program was super traditional. As a student, I wore a sky blue leotard to indicate my skill level, pulled my hair up in a bun with no bangs allowed, was silent when the instructor entered the room, could never lean on the barre, and was given only one shot at watching the combination demonstrated before having to repeat it. The stern-faced teacher then walked around the room with a yardstick that occasionally tapped at a limb to straighten the form of the leg. Mental focus and physical endurance was key to success. The outcome was a slow progression towards a beautifully trained classical ballerina.
A tough-love teacher presents a challenge to you. Either the challenge is a physical one where you know you will be expected to work hard, pay attention and practice, or the challenge is a mental one where your own ego can get in the way of you choosing to stay and work with that person. Tough-love teachers direct your progress and keep your evolution in check. They offer positive reinforcement supplemented with a strong discipline. Ask anyone in football, track, ice skating, piano, voice lessons, martial arts, flamenco, gymnastics, or any other kind of movement or artistic coaching. Excellent training works on all levels, including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The tough coach demands a level of respect between all the individuals within the classroom in order for the class to be focused and effective, and also so that the topic is learned and practiced safely and successfully. While growth of individual ability is the primary goal, at the same time, this type of instructor develops your character, which will ultimately affect your entire life.
I was fortunate to study intensely with master artists Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah and Mahmoud Reda. Both men were creative, energetic, passionate, and quite tough. If they didn’t like what you were doing in their class, they were not afraid to get right in your face and make a blunt suggestion about what to fix, or they might just ask you to leave. There were times when I witnessed an inflated ego get totally knocked down so far that the dancer left the room crying. At times like these, the training also developed your sense of humility. No one ever dared to disrespect the instructor by telling him he was out of line. If you didn’t like the directness of the “old school” style, you just didn’t take class anymore, and in the long run, it was your greatest loss.
When you decide to study with a person who is considered an oriental dance artist or master, then you are in for a wonderful journey full of obstacles and growth. If you don’t want that kind of journey, please find a laid-back class at an informal setting where the goals of the class are more about socializing than serious dance study, and with that, lower your standards of how far you will grow as a performer.
Should you find that rare artist who is also a great teacher, consider yourself blessed, take a deep breath, and trust that the process will condition you to be the best dancer you can be. That coach will offer you the following challenges, and here’s how you need to meet them:
After four decades of teaching belly dance, it’s always been a wonder to me why Middle Eastern dance still struggles with recognition as an art form. I believe that if we are ever to gain that recognition, we need more great dance coaches and dancers who know the value of tough love!
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JASMIN JAHAL, Author
I've been dancing since I was 3 and a professional belly dancer for over 40 years. I've learned so much from personal belly dance experience and want to share with you advice, tips, suggestions and more. Anytime you have any questions and need sage advice, please reach out and let me hear from you!