Students and Their Teachers

We love it when Laura drives. She makes the three hour trip to Chicago for Dance Camp seem like one. It’s the end of February and the sun is shining; deceiving us into thinking it’s as warm outside as it is in the car. But it’s only 32 degrees and the Weather Channel has forecasted a 6-12” snow storm destined to hit Saturday night and carry through until Sunday. We’ve agreed not to worry about it, to keep an eye on the weather and accept the fact we might have to head home early–the price we pay for travelling out of town to dance.

Dance Camp Chicago is supported by the Swing n’ Country dance club of Chicago, a fabulous group of volunteers responsible for keeping the country dances alive in the Midwest. We came to this event in preparation for a country dance competition we’ll be attending in three weeks. We knew it would be a great opportunity to get our country routines on the floor, to experience the “traffic” of other dancers and put our navigational skills to the test.

It’s Friday night and Toby and Laura have already danced their way to an easy first place in the Country Two-Step competition. For me, it was the first time students I had taught were evaluated on the dance floor and they came out looking pretty darn good. I was super proud of how they danced. Not because I was their instructor, but because I could see the work we have done together in action and that was rewarding.

On Saturday, after breakfast Toby texted from his room. He was super stoked because he had booked a two-hour lesson with Ronnie Debennedetta!

So, let’s back up a second – when we first talked about coming to Dance Camp, Toby asked me, if he had the chance, who he should book a lesson with and I told him, definitely, Ronnie was the best. It wasn’t the first time he and Laura planned to take a lesson from someone other than me. On the contrary, I encourage them to seek out additional teaching if I, or they feel like it will help them get better faster. So, Toby and Laura had been supplementing their lessons with me with additional lessons from a few other instructors, most of whom I had recommended. That’s why it came as a complete surprise when I felt apprehensive, a little bit protective at the thought of “my students” having a lesson with one of the best dancers/instructors in the country western dance world.

Fears about not being good enough began to surface and swirl like sharks in the water. I was afraid that Ronnie might expose me as a fraud, someone who didn’t know what I was talking about. Now, I’m not a novice by anyone’s definition. I’ve been dancing for fifteen years and teaching for about ten of those, in various capacities. I’ve taken regular private lessons for over 7 years, 2-3 hours each week and know almost 20 dance styles-half of which I have danced competitively. Even so, I still didn’t feel like an expert, especially in that moment, nervous about what he might say. Part of me didn’t want them to take the lesson, but then I reminded myself that wasn’t the kind of dance teacher I wanted to be. I didn’t want to keep them ignorant so they would be dependent on me. I wanted them to be free to gain all of the expertise they could. But every time my students go to someone else for a lesson, I face the possibility that they might quit me. That they might think I’m not a good teacher, or that I am telling them things that are “wrong.” It puts every ounce of my faith to the test to just let go and trust that I do know what I am talking about.

Now, I know instructors who demand a type of focused loyalty in which their students only learn one consistent style of teaching. They don’t want them going to anyone else because they feel that incorporating different approaches causes confusion. They are so confident in their ability to bring their students to excellence that they wouldn’t dream of letting anyone else interfere with their teaching techniques. I respect that concept from an instructor’s point of view, because if a student is learning from too many different people, they will struggle with trying to implement conflicting information, which they are sure to encounter. Working through mixed messages can be challenging even for seasoned dancers and can significantly slow a student’s growth creating frustration at a critical stage in their development as a dancer.

I have also been on the other side of the fence, wanting more than my main coach could offer me. I never once thought he wasn’t a great teacher. But then again, I never expected him to know “everything.” I only expected him to give me his best, and that, he did. But sometimes, when we are seeking excellence in our art form, we need more than one answer to a question. There were times when I simply needed the opportunity to research the information and work it out for myself. Looking back, I appreciate his willingness to let me find what I was looking for because I think it made me a better dancer and I’m pretty sure it has made me a better teacher as well.

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