Topical Series: The Student-Teacher Bond

I’ve recently been giving this topic a lot of thought.  At least from what I have observed in the competitive Pro/Am ballroom world, student and teacher pairings are a “thing,” meaning that many students are identified with their teachers.  People know the main dance instructors in the area, and they know that she dances with Decho, and she dances with Yavor, and she dances with Igor, and so on. (Forgive me for focusing on the female student and male teacher, but this is the vast majority of pairings, and, though there are a few dedicated male students, the serious female students significantly outnumber their male counterparts)

But the relationship between dance teacher and student is an interesting one, I think.  And just as every friendship, or marriage, or business agreement is unique, so is each student-teacher pairing.  The relationship is so interesting, in fact, it is one of the subjects my friend Marian will broach in her upcoming book about the ballroom dancing experience.

Reflecting on my own student-teacher relationships, as well as observing those of others and talking with my friends, it seems to me that there is quite a strong and unique bond that develops between partners. I think that it is always understood that one person has more experience and expertise in the area of dancing, and that there is a business exchange of money for a service, but the lines of the relationship can become blurry as well. Because of the intimacy involved in ballroom dancing, both physical and emotional, sometimes things can be confusing for students. Especially for newer students, having someone focus all their attention on you, give you encouragement, and even touch you, well, this is not the normal adult experience when interacting with other adults. Rarely do we get the full attention of another with all the distractions of modern life, and most interactions are strictly hands-off. To experience the interaction provided on a dance lesson can be intoxicating.

Some instructors, however, tend to be very businesslike and even a bit cold to students outside of lessons or competitions. They view spending time with students as a business date for which they are paid. They may attend a social event in association with the studio or a dance camp or a competition, but avoid any social contact outside of these types of events. In fact, in some studio systems fraternization outside of the studio or studio-sanctioned events is strictly forbidden and a fireable offense.

There is nothing right or wrong about any particular way of conducting a student-teacher relationship, and this particular method of viewing it only as a business transaction does perhaps create more clear and strong boundaries between the student and teacher. Indeed, some may even consider it the more professional route, however, for me, all I can say is thank God my instructor is an independent and that he is an awesome human being and friend outside of just being my instructor. From previous experience I can say that I’m glad that my current instructor has no qualms about being genuine friends outside of dancing. Personally, I think it helps the dancing itself and because our relationship is genuine on and off the dance floor, this contributes to our collaboration on the dance floor, because, well, we really do have a person-to-person level connection based on respect, friendship, and appreciation (not just on the business agreement).

In the past, my two previous instructors seemed almost mysteriously unavailable…except for when we were on a lesson, during which time they were extraordinarily available. I hardly had any idea about what may have been going on in their lives, much less know where they lived, both of which I know about my current instructor.  In fact, the first instructor I had was the son of a studio owner and he knew the ins and outs of the “game” to ensure what I perceived as basically “customer service” for his dance students. He knew that many students enjoy lavish attention focused on them and so purposely steered the conversations to be much more about me than about him (a fact he disclosed to me later on in our partnership). Again, not a bad thing, I suppose, but it prevented equal sharing and thus shifted the balance of power within the relationship. He who withholds the most generally wields the most power in a relationship, and at the core, most relationships are about an exchange of power, who has it, and who doesn’t, and the interactions that occur to get and maintain a position of power.

In the case of instructors, they have knowledge that the student doesn’t have and wants, and the more they can milk that, the more they can dribble out the information in tiny droplets, the longer they can string a student along. Now, of course, that is only one possible explanation – we students can only absorb so much information at a time! Sometimes we need tiny droplets because that is all we can handle in the moment! But, still, Ivan dances like I wish I could dance. I go to him to teach me that and pull out of me the performance that we both know is “in there.” In one sense, the instructors are in the more powerful position because they have what we students want and we are willing to pay money to get it.

On the other hand, the student may also be considered to be in the more powerful position because he or she is the one paying for the service, in effect employing the dance instructor. In America, where the customer is always right mentality pervades, and lessons are a significant chunk of change, studios and instructors will often accommodate even extremely difficult personalities to ensure positive cashflow.

This brings up a possible confounding situation for the instructors. While students may view their instructors as friends or even as someone to have a crush on, some instructors may actually dislike some students, and yet their income depends upon such people. In that case, setting firm boundaries about when the instructor is on the job and when he (or she) is not, may be imperative to keep the relationship going on at least a neutral trajectory.

When a person first starts dancing, she may be randomly paired with whomever has time in their schedule for a lesson. At this stage, it’s the luck of the draw whether a student is matched by the powers that be with an instructor she will “click” with. At the get-go, the instructor must work to make the best impression, please the new student as much as possible, and ensure the relationship starts out fun, engaging, and something the student will want to continue with. As a dancer gets more experienced, however, even such charms may not be enough. A student may decide she wishes a different experience. She may see other instructors in a competition setting and observe their dancing skills, how they interact with their other students, and how they perform with their professional partners and compare that to her own experience with and of her current instructor. If one of these factors is particularly lacking in her current instructor, she may even specifically pursue a particular instructor, especially if she wants to improve her status in the ballroom world by dancing with a champion, or because another dance instructor is a better height, or because she saw the instructor’s students do very well with placements.

But whatever the case, whether randomly matched, or purposely pursued, the student and teacher must come to some sort of agreement about the partnership (whether explicitly spoken about, or not) as well as build rapport. Some partnerships are more confrontational than others, some more based on humor, but no matter what, there has to be a connection…whether based on a shared love for dance, or affection for one another, or money, or dislike, or outright animosity….there has to be some reason that a student stays with a particular instructor.

It seems that most of us students form strong bonds with our instructors and would prefer to stay with him, even when things get tough. And do not doubt that there are bumps in the road, on both sides of the partnership. From life events, to simple frustrations about personal idiosyncracies, students and teachers can become angry with one another, or experience resentments, or other difficulties.  Even so, many of my dancing friends have overcome such difficulties and often find their relationships and connections with their instructors stronger and better for working through it.  Others, however, have felt the need to find a new instructor.  There are prices and benefits to both strategies and with each partnership formed and broken are opportunities to become more clear about what a student expects from an instructor so she can actively verbalize it a priori or at the time of a disagreement.

No matter what it looks like, I think that all student-teacher partnerships are special if only for the fact that of all the people in the world we two have chosen to work together toward a common goal for a particular length of time.  Of all the people in the world, we have come together to grow and learn and share our time and ourselves, two of our most precious resources.  Add in a passion for dancing, and well, there is no other relationship like it.

So, I’m curious…What is your relationship with your instructor like?  Or, if you are professional dancer, what is your relationship with your students like?  Are they all different?  What makes a good student-teacher relationship?  What makes a horrible one?  Have you ever broken apart from a partnership?  Why, how, and how did it all work out in the end?  What would an ideal instructor (or student) relationship look like?

I can’t wait to hear about your experiences!

Much love, Stef

9 thoughts on “Topical Series: The Student-Teacher Bond

  1. Marian Condon says:

    Stef – Thanks so much for the shout-out! I appreciate it. You’ve hit on a topic that, as you mentioned, interests me greatly, although I will address only its positive side in my book, because my intention is to attract people to dance, which I believe to be, overall, a very healthy and nourishing activity. One of the instructors I interviewed, a gentleman from Maine who has taught in a variety of studios, alluded to a “collusion” between student and teacher: the teacher pretends to be very fond of, and highly interested in, the student, and the student pretends to believe him or her. I think that is exactly what goes on, much of the time. Although I don’t doubt that some teachers do genuinely like some of their students, a skillful teacher behaves such that it is very difficult to tell when the proffered emotion is genuine and when it is not. Do dance studios trade on lonliness and the wish to feel special? Sure they do; that is simply a fact of life and actually, I’m fine with it. They meet a real need in our culture, and the reputable ones go to great lengths to prevent besotted students from signing over their worldly goods to instructors. Of course, the non-fraternization policies also protect the studios from having their instructors teaching students privately, and much less expensively, in their homes, or starting their own studios and taking their students with them. I go to Arthur Murray to have a good time and I do – I have a wonderful time. I adore my own teacher and don’t worry about whether he adores me in return – that’s irrelevant, really. I understand, and completely accept, that part of his job is easing my wallet out of my pocket – if he didn’t do that, he wouldn’t be teaching for long and my treasured studio would soon close its doors. I also allow myself to become fond of many of the other instructors because 1) they are mostly youngsters, and the Mom in me wants to protect and nurture them, 2) they are gorgeous young critters whose energy and beauty make me feel good, 3) they dance with me…and dancing is my absolute most favorite thing to do. Thus, I get cut up when they leave, which they do in droves – the franchised dance world, with the very steep learning curve for newbies, lousy pay and bad hours- is tough. But, doing life skillfully involves being good at both loving and letting go. So, I will continue to love them… and let them go, with gratitude and blessings.

  2. seejendance says:

    This was interesting to read, as I’ve had experiences with both sides of the spectrum. My studio is a bit unique in that everyone is treated as family, so I’ve often referred to my two instructors as “little brothers.” My previous instructor and I had a decent relationship, but it was a little too “business” for me. He kept a lot of things to himself, which is fine, but made it really hard to carry on conversations in social situations. When he left, I picked up my current instructor by default because there wasn’t anyone left. After a rough start, he’s now one of my best friends and it shows on the floor. Our stage personalities just mesh better and I feel comfortable communicating with him more.

    • loveablestef says:

      Things always seem to have a way of working themselves out. I’m glad you connected with your new instructor and how awesome to feel like your studio is your family. Hey, and it was fun to read about your recent show/wardrobe malfuction! Kudos to you for making it through even with a misbehaving shoe! Much less doing so without your partner noticing anything was amiss…now that take some serious skilllzzzzz!

  3. Vikki Liles says:

    I’m at one of those studios where extra-curricular student/teacher activies are verboten. No twitting or whatever it is called (I think I have to learn that but putting it off). No gifts from students to teachers. No dinners except at events or comps. No lunch dates. No texting. Don’t even have my teacher’s cell number. (Which was interesting at an out-of-state comp. Not only did I not have his cell, but didn’t have his room number so could not leave a message on his room phone. I had to call the studio to call him and then call me back to know when and where we were supposed to meet.) I’ve heard stories about – shall we say – inappropriate relationships between young studly teachers and lonely old ladies with too many dollars and zero sense. And I have seen, sadly, lonely ladies of various ages mistake the interest of the teacher during the 45-minute lesson for something else. My teacher is a very good-looking young man. As I tell him, I have shoes older than he is. He is passionate about dancing, and loves being, as he put it, in a front-row seat for watching lives change because of dance. But it is also his profession and his business. It is my understanding that the parent corporation actually has training sessions for the teachers to avoid, spot, and handle the situation when the student starts to – for lack of a better phrase – fall in love with the teacher. It is most understandable – sometimes the teacher is the only person to touch the student for a long time. Dancing is intimate. The teachers are pretty damned attractive. The first time I was told to connect my ribs/stomach area to my teacher’s I almost fainted. Especially since I am not small. (OK – I’m fat – and was even fatter back then.) Right now, I feel great connection to my teacher. He has designed a program for me to get better results at comps, increase my stamina and power on the floor and shag off some major poundage. But he wants me to weigh and measure myself once a week and REPORT THOSE NUMBERS TO HIM. It is a measure of the trust I feel for and from him, that I am 99% sure I will do that tomorrow when I show up for my lessons. So that’s the best way to describe my relationship with someone young enough to be my child and who has come up with more ways to spend my money that I could have ever thought possible.

    • Vikki- Sounds as though you are at an Arthur Murray or Fred Astair studio. All the rules you listed apply at my A.M. studio. In the process of doing research for my book on what dancing does for people (a lot!) I interviewed a young man who, with his partner, owns a studio not too far from where I live. He runs his operation quite differently. There are no contracts; it’s all pay as you go. Students have parties in their homes and invite instructors. The owners have parties in their home and invite students. The studio offers trips that don’t necessarily involve dancing. Everybody has everybody’s contact info. I asked him what keeps his instructors from making private deals with students and cutting the studio out of the picture and he said that has never happened, and not only that, he has instructors who’ve worked for him for over 10 years – a rarity in the franchised world, or at least as far as I know. Whether a lonely student has ever lost her mind and been taken advantage of by an instructor, I did not ask. If his studio offered as many events – parties, outings, practice sessions, etc., as A.M. does, I might give it a try, as his way of doing things sounds appealing. However, I know A.M. maintains its policies for a reason. It’s a successful company and it’s lasted a long time. My studio has done wonders for me, and I am very grateful. There is not a single teacher there I don’t like. I get along wonderfully with all my fellow students. My teacher is charming, a good teacher and a fine dancer, and I enjoy him enormously. I’ve been in Ballroom for only a year and a half and have a lot to learn. So, I observe, follow the rules, and try to keep my opinions to myself.

  4. Vikki Liles says:

    Marian – Yes, I dance at a studio affiliated with one of the big franchises. It has its pluses and minuses. It is, so far as I can tell, much more expensive that many independents. There are a lot of parties, group lessons, events, etc., that look free, but they are not when you factor in the cost of the lessons. If you pay $75 or $80 with no “free” stuff, but $120 to $130 for “free” parties and group lessons, then the free stuff isn’t so free. I am not a big fan of all the themed-parties, and rarely attend those events. Have never turned up at a party in a costume, and never will. I’m not there to have “fun” in the conventional way. Others just want to go dancing. I need to Dance. With a capital “D.”

  5. Interesting thoughts. I co-own a dance studio with many students choosing to take private lessons. We have a pretty strict ‘no fratinization’ policy which we call our ‘Professional Conduct Policy’. From time to time there are moments where teachers want to see a particular student socially (I mean – we have some pretty awesome students!), but by and large teachers are supportive of the separation between their work and private lives. It allows them breathing space. I beleive the most important thing to do is to explain it genuinely and transparently. We do this with teachers when they start with us, as well on a semi-regular basis. And recently we recent produced a video/blog for our students:
    Happy to hear your thoughts.

    • Swan Kelly says:

      Does this link still exist?

    • loveablestef says:

      I fully understand the no-frat policy. In some ways it makes a lot of good sense. Also, we are all human. I guess the inquiry is where to dance the line between being professional and connecting authentically. The magic I see between couples that are connected, whether they be in a formal relationship, or not, just can’t be faked. How do we connect and deliver that magic as Pro/Am couples while at the same time respecting the boundaries that exist on both sides of the partnership, and validly so.

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