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

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