Improving Teaching Skills

Improving Teaching Skills

by Margo Abdo O’Dell

Is it possible to learn to dance by reading books and magazines, watching videos or interactive videodiscs, or surfing the internet? Can we learn to dance without feedback on our development?

As dance students, we learn and grow differently. Some of us are visual learners who can watch a movement, internalize the information and adapt it to ourselves. Some may need auditory stimulation, preferring to learn by listening to the description of how a movement looks and feels. Or if we are a kinesthetic learner, we may need to repeatedly perform the movement. One of these three learning styles may dominate, but most of us need exposure to all three in order to master a new dance step. Can a medium other than the human element provide that to a dance student? And what about the emotional, spiritual and interpersonal aspects of becoming a dancer?

Assuming we agree a dance teacher is essential in the development of Middle Eastern dance proficiency, what makes a successful teacher, other than technical dance ability? I would like to suggest that the successful teacher is skilled in four roles.


In the role of educator, the teacher takes on the responsibilities of motivator, coach, skill modeler and skill shaper. The dance step or combination is presented through explanation and demonstration. The teacher answers questions, provides constructive feedback and offers alternative ways of thinking about the movement. It is in the role of educator that the teacher compiles and shares his or her dance technique and information about the history, development and comparative differences in Middle Eastern dance styles.

The educator role is challenging. One cannot instruct what one does not know. The teacher is responsible for understanding the capabilities and limitations of the students in order to insure appropriate and safe execution of movement. For example, if a strengthening or flexibility exercise is being presented, the exercise may need to be modified so each student can find a safe alternative. If a dance movement is being presented, it is important to be sure that the appropriate foundation of technique and alignment are in place before increasing the level of difficulty.


As the empowerer, the teacher guides student involvement and creativity: helping students overcome problems, guides relevant discussion, encourages the reticent student, and stimulates thought about how to personalize dance technique and choreography. Students want the empowerer to be personable, practical, positive and professional. In this role, the focus is on the quality of the individual and group learning experience.


I have labeled the administrative role we play the manager. This is the role that keeps things moving according to plan: registering students, keeping class on schedule, presenting class activities in a logical manner, playing music, making announcements and distributing handouts.



Throughout the duration of a class, we are always the performer. Middle Eastern dance is a performance art, and as such, our presentation must reflect that reality. Class movements should appear as dance. We sometimes relate to students as audience for demonstration purposes, and the genuine feeling of the dance should be apparent and encouraged. To quote the master dance trainer Rakia Hassan, “…[the dance) is not about how much you push, but about how much you feel.”

Does this description of a Middle Eastern dance teacher seem too cognitive for our visceral art form or is it apparent you have been fulfilling various roles all along? Most of us expect high quality for our money, and dance classes are no different. The perceived quality, effectiveness and success of a dance teacher results from the knowledge, attitude and skills brought into the dance studio.



The teacher must have knowledge of Middle Eastern dance technique, performance skills, music and dance history; the experience, strengths and weaknesses of the students; the characteristics and needs of adult students; the benefits of repetition training without overdoing; and the benefits of cardiovascular, flexibility and muscular conditioning for the dancer.



Enthusiasm for Middle Eastern dance, music and culture is a must. Students will be more motivated if they see that the teacher experiences personal pleasure in watching students learn and has genuine interest in each student’s questions and concerns. Patience and tactfulness in all student interactions are also important.



An effective teacher must be able to create a motivating and positive learning environment; tailor class activities; provide and solicit feedback; listen and answer questions; project enthusiasm; possess appropriate performance skills; and gain and sustain interest.

Student Differences

The above information addressed individual qualities for overall teaching effectiveness. Now, let us consider individual student differences. Here is a method to ensure your dance students will not learn and may not return to class: give them too much information; give it to them quickly; increase the level of difficulty before they are ready; belittle them; teach in a noisy/hot/crowded studio; do not respect their experience, comments, opinions; and do not allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment.

A bit tongue-in-cheek, but you get my drift. As educator and empowerer, it is our responsibility to provide a safe and nonthreatening environment that facilitates learning. We are fortunate to have a fascinating variety of students in our dance classes and all of their adult experience and talents must be respected. The fact that they possess such diversity provides us with challenges. We must learn to customize classes accordingly.

For the beginning student, endurance and overall dance knowledge is minimal. Coordination, flexibility and body awareness are in the early stages of development and may cause frustration or impatience. Beginners have difficulty determining what they are doing wrong and may require a lot of feedback. Class emphasis should focus on the basics of isolations, flexibility, strength/endurance and dance technique. Repetition of movement and emphasis on posture and alignment are necessary.

The advanced student can accept increasing complexity of movement as well as increased speed, more intricate use of space, layering of movements and advanced play of finger cymbals. Their strength and endurance means they can handle a longer class and their experience dictates experimentation with improvisation. Guest instructors can be used to challenge advanced students, to move them out of their comfort zone, and to expose them to other approaches. In addition, the advanced student is apt to notice if the music, exercises or other parts of the class routine are not varied. In addition to introducing new steps and combinations, the other parts of the class must be kept fresh as well.

In my experience, the goals of students most always include the pursuit of exercise, fun and camaraderie in addition to Middle Eastern dance technique and performance skills. We can provide interesting classes to meet these goals through well-designed class plans and attention to the roles and attributes of teaching effectiveness.


Feedback, constructive criticism, coaching — whatever the name, the purpose is to assist students, through verbal and nonverbal communication, in perfecting their dance abilities. Practicing cueing (verbal instructions) and methods for breaking down movement goes a long way in the prevention of bad habits for students and eliminates excessive verbalization for you. The type of words we use may impact movement quality. Consider the differing results that may be achieved between two very different sets of verbal instructions: “Keep your abdominals tight, your chest lifted, and head up;” versus, “Dance with confidence and an open heart, feeling energized with a sense of purpose in each movement.”

Generally, we physically demonstrate as we verbally describe a dance step or exercise. Our description may include the name of the movement, the desired result, proper alignment, muscle names, locations, or actions. We stand in the vicinity of students requiring assistance and move around the room to offer individual feedback. We attempt a variety of methods because we have students with a variety of learning styles and experience. No doubt we have all experienced damaged ego by the words of enthusiastic, overly helpful teachers, without being complemented when we finally got things right. So, let us consider when and how to give feedback.

One to One: If the teacher knows the student well and knows she will not be embarrassed, a verbal correction called out to her is acceptable. A one-to-one correction is best if the teacher knows most of the class so they know the student is not being picked on. (Example: “Mary, bend your knees.”)

Group: If a number of students are making the same error, or the teacher does not know the class members well, it is sometimes best to address the group. (Example: “Everyone, make sure your knees stay bent.”) The risks of group correction are that a student who needs to change her behavior may not think the teacher is talking to her, and someone with correct form may think she needs to change it.

Non-Verbal: It is more effective for some students to see the correct movement, if they are visual versus auditory learners. Mirroring a student’s incorrect movement and then demonstrating the correct one may suffice, especially for the experienced student possessing awareness of body alignment and personal correction.

Hands On: If a hands on approach is chosen, it is important to make sure the person knows the teacher is there, and to discern if it is all right to touch her. The teacher should tell her what she is doing correctly as well as incorrectly, and how to make the necessary adjustments. Corrections should be made with a firm touch. For example, if a correction in alignment is being made, correction from the back allows the student to visualize her improvement in the mirror.

After Class: If too much time is spent with one student, the flow of the class may be disrupted. It may be better to ask her to stay after class in order to continue working with her.

Generally, it is preferable if the teacher tells the students what she wants, rather than what she does not want. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t bend your elbows,” try, “Are you keeping your arms extended and energized?” If a student still does the movement incorrectly but with improvement, the teacher can make a genuine encouraging remark that specifies the improvement, and gives useful information about the change still needed, finishing the contact with a positive comment. That is balanced feedback. Also of importance is providing feedback to students when they are performing correctly so that they continue to do so. This is sometimes difficult in a large group, because the teacher may not want to single someone out. Noise can also make it difficult, but eye contact and a simple nod may be enough to deliver the message.

Research and personal experience tells us that negative feedback is not motivating and does not achieve the level of results of other forms of feedback. Enough said.

Margo Abdo O’Dell

A dance class is sprinkled with coaching tips provided by the teacher. We may encourage students to work at their own pace, realizing that some movements may be easier or more difficult than others and some days more difficult than others. We can remind students that dancing is not a competition, and show them how to choose optional exercises or movements if fatigued or injured. The teacher should monitor the intensity of their dancing and know when to modify the speed of the class. Hydration should be encouraged, especially on warm days or in a warm room.

The primary purpose of dance class is to train the body, but let us not forget about the spirit. It is internal growth and development, not the ability to perfect a shimmy that matters in the end. Our dancing bodies may succumb to old age, but our spirit will continue to flourish. Students will appreciate our attention to the internal being as well as the external being.

Teachers as well as dancers seeking self improvement desire individual feedback. Unless we have the good fortune to be videotaped as we teach a class, we look to others to help improve our teaching skills. We can invite other teachers to attend our classes and give us feedback in exchange for doing the same for them. Discussing our methods of verbalization and movement presentation with teachers we respect can provide us with new ideas and practical tips. Attending classes and workshops of those we admire helps us create the image of the teacher we want to be.

Another important source of information regarding our teaching abilities comes from our students. From time to time I ask my students to complete a written evaluation of my class. It is an opportunity for them to give me anonymous feedback about all aspects of the class experience and to make comments or suggestions. This process affords me the opportunity to evaluate my progress in meeting their needs and determine a change in class format, if necessary.

Ultimately, finding and following one’s own path to becoming a better dance teacher is as personal as dance style. For me, the path has included attending dance classes and seminars from numerous instructors as well as educational events from other disciplines to obtain the latest information that will most benefit my students. Let us, as creative dance teachers, not be tempted to follow the path of others, but to choose the path that will be personally rewarding as well as most useful to our students.


Margo Abdo O’Dell, a Middle Eastern Dance performer and instructor of fifteen years, currently teaches at The Cassandra School in Minneapolis and privately. She is certified by The American Council on Exercise and was recently selected to serve on their Quality Assurance team for continuing education. Margo spent six years in the corporate training industry, among other things, assisting others in becoming better trainers and managers.

Copyright 1996. All rights reserved. Margo Abdo O’Dell

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