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?