Raising the bar

I read a quote recently by Pixar co-founder and chief creative officer, John Lasster: “Oftentimes, it feels like Hollywood thinks of the audience as the lowest common denominator,” says Lasseter. “We [Pixar] always think that the audience is so smart they’ll be there for you – especially kids.”

This made me think about the way we teach dance. I find that many teachers – myself included at one time – teach to the lowest common denominator, oftentimes underestimating the interests and abilities of the students. They lower expectations, lower the bar, and lower the meaning of successful dancing. They say, “Oh, they don’t want technique” or “They won’t get it, but oh well” or “It’s okay if they don’t do it right, as long as they have fun.”

Naturally, your first thought is, “Well, but it’s just as bad to go to the other extreme, to raise the bar impossibly high or have unrealistic expectations.” And you would be right. Teachers who teach above the level of the student, who expect students to achieve goals inappropriate for their level, who get lost in technique, or who ignore the needs and interests of the student are just as dangerous. They either don’t care about the student’s progress or else don’t care about the student’s feelings – this is, after all, a hobby for most of us and it should be fun and emotionally rewarding.

What I am advocating is to raise the bar enough to challenge the students and then help them get there. To not teach to the lowest common denominator and abandon the others. To not doubt the ability of the student to do a move properly if shown how to do it. To not assume that the student will not like technique or will not care about doing a pattern correctly. (This last one is a huge one for me: students can understand and feel the difference in doing something correctly, if only you take the time to show them.)

We face many challenges as dance teachers, one of which is often teaching to a wide variety of skill levels in any given class. It is up to the teacher to assess the skill level of the class and determine the appropriate level of class content. In some cases, teachers may have to inform students that they are not yet ready for the given class. (I’ve done this on several occasions, and I have only received “thank you”s for being honest and helpful.) Yet if we as teachers hope to raise the level of dancing in our communities, we need to raise the bar a little and then help our students reach it.

Teachers, do you teach to the lowest common denominator? Do you teach at a level beyond your students?

And students, does your teacher challenge you? Does your teacher help you understand the dance or does your teacher speak way over your head? Does your teacher not seem to care about helping you do the dance properly? What do you want from a teacher, dance or otherwise?

4 comments

  1. This has to be one of the biggest challenges a teacher faces; how to satisfy each student. I find it especially challenging in the beginner level classes. We encourage students to take the beginner series several times, and I find it a challenge to keep repeat students interested. More often than not, I end up teaching to the lowest common denominator. I try to balance it out by giving the repeat students individual advice and encouragement. I wonder if that is enough, though?So, here's a question for you: Those students that you inform about not being ready for your class, where do you send them? and what do you suggest they do to be ready for your class? (ok, so that was 2 questions)

  2. Hi Laura,Thanks for your insights. The students who I say aren't ready are in levels above the beginner class. The studio where I taught had several levels (from beginner to pre-advanced, whatever that means) and it was up to the instructor to help regulate the program by helping students place themselves in the right class. Of course, if a teacher wanted more students, s/he wouldn't do that at all, interrupting the program for the rest of us.Anyway, to help a student prepare for the next level, I would give two pieces of advice: take the previous level again, and focus on X and Y skills (X and Y being skills specific to that person). I would also suggest private lessons if that person was completely against repeating the previous level to help fill the gap. In fact, I made that offer to some – you can stay in this class if you take some private lessons with me – and nearly all took me up on it.For beginner classes (a whole other discussion, really) I still don't teach to the worst student in the room. Like you, I give as much individual attention as possible, but in the beginner classes I find myself doing that for the weakest and the best students, and focusing my group teaching on the majority in the middle. This way the class improves as a whole, the weakest get the help they need, and the best get a little extra something to work on. I'm raising the bar for all of them relative to their ability and giving them each the tools to reach it.

  3. I know this isn't about teaching per se, but in a way it is…anyway, here's my (perhaps related) questions. When someone dances socially with a teacher, whether or not they are taking privates or lessons from them specifically, should they not adjust to the student's level (with reasonable challenges thrown in for good measure)? And, in your opinion, should the teacher also be dancing with the student for fun at that point, or be evaluating the student as they dance, so if the student asks for feedback on the social floor, the teacher can give it?

  4. Jen: I can't speak for other teachers, but as far as I'm concerned, if it's a social setting and not class, I'm off duty. I treat the student like any other person I'm dancing with – I try to raise her level of dancing while staying within her skill level. Whatever it takes to make it work. Do I analyze my partner, student or no? Sure, but not necessarily the way I do when teaching or judging. I find that some knowledge of her strengths and weaknesses helps me to decide what I can lead or should not lead. If asked for advice, I'm happy to share a couple of areas for improvement, but sometimes I'm so busy working on my own dancing that I don't think too much about her dancing. If it's a student I work with often, I may give a pointer or two to help the person in her progress, but social dancing should be about fun and feeling good.

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