Dancing is hard; teaching it is harder

April 26, 2017 — by Sanjana Melkote

Sophomore moves from learner to teacher as she experiences teaching dance to young children. 

In my 10 years of being a dancer, I have heard (and often disregarded) my teacher’s corrections such as: “put in more energy,” “smile” and “pay attention to technique” countless times, but I’ve never thought about the work a teacher puts every day into pushing their students to be their best.

Suganda Iyer, founder and director of Jayendra Kalakendra, a dance school in the Bay Area, has been teaching Bharathanatyam, an Indian classical dance form for 25 years.

She teaches her students with a clear vision concerning the correct technique in Bharathanatyam, but doesn’t expect us to achieve it on our own. Whenever we don’t understand a step, she will make us repeat it until we master it, and when we struggle with facial expressions, she tells us stories that explain the meaning of the dance.

I attend dance class twice a week: once in a solo class and another in a group setting. Even when I am placed in the back because I’m taller than most of the other dancers, she can point out every little mistake I make.

I don’t know if her extreme attention to detail has been developed over time, but in an effort to improve this skill in myself, I signed up to be a teacher’s assistant last fall and take on a class of twelve 10-year-olds, who are still grasping the initial nuances of dance.

I met my first challenge when I walked into the studio. I wasn’t simply dealing with my peers; I needed to take control of the room. I introduced myself nervously and directed the class to start stretching and warming up.

I discovered that the first step in becoming a good teacher is gaining the students’ trust. So, while they were stretching, I asked them about their schools and families. Even though these few personal questions initiated a trivial connection compared to years of watching these students grow, it was the start of our relationship.

As the class went on and the children grew tired from dancing, I could see their effort slipping, and even though I didn’t want to appear harsh, I itched to call out their glaring mistakes.

Once I felt more comfortable with my students after a couple of weeks, I corrected them more and pushed them a little harder each class.

I also learned that it is very important to encourage young students, especially with dance because it takes a lot of hard work to master and can be unrewarding despite persistent efforts.

I was slowly pushing the intensity in class while trying to be not strict like our teacher, but one day all the students came to class without practicing and none of them could show me the new combination properly.

I became frightened because these students had started to slack off, and it was all because of my relaxed approach of teaching.

I felt angry that just because I was nicer, they didn’t feel the personal drive to work hard. I told them that if they didn’t have enough respect to practice what had been taught from our teacher Mrs. Iyer, who puts her life into making them a better dancer, they didn’t deserve to dance.

I felt harsh, but they started working harder and will hopefully make my teacher and me proud again.

I am slowly understanding the balance between tough love and encouragement, and I realized that both come from a place of care in a teacher after having to deliver both myself.

Teachers have an incredible responsibility, and the task of helping a person grow and change in almost any endeavor is never easy. Shadowing my teacher in her dance school helped me improve new qualities in myself and made me realize that she will always teach me meaningful lessons.

Rising from dancer to teacher also pushed me in many ways. I now constantly correct myself in the mirror because I’m not just dancing for myself anymore, but sharing my knowledge with others. And I now strive to teach this art form with the same care for quality that Mrs. Iyer taught me.

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