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How to Teach a Dance Style When You’re Not the Expert

Date: 15 May 2023

How should a teacher pass on an embodied art form like dance to their students when they are not experts in certain dance styles?

It’s complicated.

On one hand, teachers are professionals at teaching. With proper preparation they can scaffold a lesson or unit on any dance style. That could look like students reflecting on video examples, reading articles, completing research projects or sharing their cultural dances with the class. The teacher can research and teach what they learned about the particular dance style and provide their sources and a verbal acknowledgement that they are not an expert.

On the other hand, what happens when the teacher doesn’t tell the whole story and misrepresents a culture without knowing it? How can the students physically learn the dance if that style is not ingrained in the teacher’s body? This results in students being taught a watered-down version of a dance that, in many cases, is inaccurate and inauthentic.

When tasked with passing down a dance to the next generation, teachers should stick to what they know deeply! Just because they went to a workshop on a dance style or looked things up online doesn’t mean they are qualified to teach it. Yes, they can incorporate some of the concepts into their teaching, but they cannot teach a whole unit on it if they are not deeply embedded in the culture.

It is a disservice to wrongly teach a dance form for the sake of “education.” One might argue that teaching a little bit of many dance styles gives students new experiences and exposure to dances forms from around the world. This sounds nice, but it’s an empty promise when teachers have little authentic experience with the dance styles.

What can you do if you want to teach dances from cultures that you don’t know?

Before teaching something, ask yourself, “am I an expert?” A person is considered an expert when they have comprehensive knowledge of a topic. If you wouldn’t advertise yourself as a teacher of a particular dance style in the professional world, you should not be teaching it, even to young students.

Instead, hire experts to come to your school and guest teach. Your students will love to see themselves represented!

I learned this the hard way. My middle school students were eager to learn Latin dance styles like Salsa, Merengue and Bachata because they had seen them danced at family gatherings and they wanted to be able to join in. I had no experience with these dance styles, so I asked my students to teach me what they knew. Most of them were used to being wallflowers at family events so they were too shy to share what they had observed. I attempted to learn the basics online. It did not go well. When I presented what I “learned” to the class they laughed and told me I was doing it all wrong. (They were right.) After many years, I was able to raise the money to bring in a teaching artist who could teach us authentic Latin dances.

For the first time, I saw my students truly come alive in their bodies. Everyone was up and moving in the center of the room with a sense of pride. I was upset that it took so long to give my students an experience where their cultures were validated and represented accurately.

Through this experience I realized the need for educationally sound digital arts lessons that could supplement existing dance curriculum or be a dance curriculum for schools that don’t have one. That’s why I started Crelata®, an on-demand dance education platform for K-12 teachers, schools and students. I designed Crelata to bring diverse dance styles to students in authentic ways that encourage creative choices, student-to-student discussion and self-assessment. Within this design, I have created free opportunities so that all teachers can share in the experience I had when I brought an expert into my class.

Teaching dance can be a challenge, especially when you want to teach dance styles from around the world that you aren’t an expert in. I hope this this blog can be a jumping off point for deeper discussion about how we pass on dance to the next generation. Let’s talk!

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