Teaching Class Yields Belly Laughs

Brookline TAB, June 12, 2008

Nothing is ever what you think it’s going to be. Especially the first time you try to teach.

Teaching an after-school belly dance class at our school, Lincoln, was an idea I had last year, when I was finishing a year of studying belly dance. I wanted to share my passion with others, but because I did not have the nerve to perform anywhere, I wasn’t sure how.

I broached the idea with our PTO president, and she was very excited about it. By the fall, I had four girls signed up, first- and second-graders. The day of my first class, my head was filled with images of little girls in pink, eager to learn, falling in love with exotic music and hanging on my every word.

I could not have been more wrong.

They did wear pink, but they also wore black, camouflage, leopard prints and high-top sneakers. They thought the music was weird, and funny. They enjoyed the hip scarves — a little too much. They wanted to change their color choices frequently, or they needed me to re-tie them every few minutes. (When you don’t have any hips, it is tough to keep a hip scarf in place.)

They were beautiful, lively, happy little girls, but that, too, was nothing I expected. They would go from high-pitched laughter to inexplicable pouting in minutes. They listened to me, but only in small bursts. I only got through a few moves each class, before half of them would say, “We already learned that one!”

I felt stressed. I felt like a failure. It seemed that I was getting mad a lot, and learning my limitations rather than teaching anyone anything.

What I learned did have some value. I learned, for instance, that bringing in snacks helped a lot, because it gave me some leverage with them: “We’ll do 10 more minutes of this, and then there will be a snack.” I learned that I could only teach three things in one hour. I learned that the hour was really a half-hour, because of snacks and running around. And I learned that teaching was a lot more than merely loving a subject and loving children.

Over time, I finally learned how to control them, but I still felt I was not “reaching” them. Then one day, it dawned on me that I was trying too hard. That day, after they had bugged me for the umpteenth time to let them dance for each other, I decided we could do just that: We could put on a show. A recital for the parents, on the stage. I didn’t know how, exactly, but I figured we would do one brief song and work on just a few moves to accompany it.

That was probably the turning point — the moment I let go of my unrealistic expectations and connected instead with them, their interests and abilities. The upcoming recital gave the class a structure, a rhyme and a reason. I hadn’t realized how much this small goal would help. I felt my head clear. I finally understood that I wasn’t going to be teaching much actual belly dance, but maybe, if I let the girls play with hip scarves and veils for a while, I’d get to show them what was great about dance.

Maybe the girls sensed my new focus and peace of mind. They worked hard, in their own chaotic, noisy way. Over the weeks I could see their movements coalesce into a kind of orderliness. I could sometimes recognize shimmies, undulations and pedal turns. Through all the chaos, there was the vague shape of a choreography that would come and go, like a mirage on the desert.

The day of the recital arrived. On the stage, before we started, there was chasing and running, slipping on veils, playing with the curtain. I felt my tension rise with the noise, but I reminded myself that this was what they did. I tried to relax, told myself that it would be OK, whatever it was. And sure enough, when they heard their song, their eyes widened and they gasped. They ran — of course — to take their places.

They glided in slowly, veils overhead, and they arranged themselves into a circle. They followed through with the piece, quiet and dignified. My heart bloomed with pride. When they were finished, everyone clapped. And then came the best part: The girls each thanked me, and then asked if they could take it again next year.