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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The Mirror of Relationship

Have you ever heard the saying that all relationships are a mirror?  Although sometimes I think my mirror is cracked and imperfect, I’ve been thinking about this concept lately, and that there exists a special kind of power being in relationship with other human beings.

What is meant by this adage, as I understand it, is that we can only see in others what we can see in ourselves and we have the opportunity to see these things because we are in relationship.

Know that person you think is awesome?  The one who is so smart, or compassionate, or strong, or funny?  These are all qualities that you possess but may or may not be able to recognize in yourself.

People who we like tend to exhibit qualities that we want more of, on a subconscious level, and are therefore we are attracted to them.

On the flip side, know that bastard who is unethical, lazy, just a general SOB.  Well, I hate to break the news, but guess what?  You (and I) possess those qualities as well.  We are just generally in denial about it and project it onto others rather than accepting it.

Now, of course, we all have light and dark natures, being divine and damned all at once.  We are human.  But with that comes the gift of choice.  Even if we have urges to act one way or another, we have free will and can override even darker desires, especially if we live according to principles.

Why am I bringing all this up?  Well, I’ve noticed some interesting clues about myself (and about Ivan) in my relationship with him.  Now, let me be clear….PLATONIC people!  I love the guy, but just not that way, if you know what I mean.  But he sure is being a mirror for me right now, as is every relationship I have in my life, but since this blog is about dancing, and mostly I do that with Ivan (or alone in group classes), it is this relationship that I will explore.  Well, that one and the relationship I have with myself.

Ivan and I, we reflect one another.  I can see myself in him, and though I haven’t specifically asked Ivan about it, I’m guessing the reverse is true as well.  What I mean by this is that Ivan has certain patterns of thinking that I can relate to.  One of them is never thinking he is/I am “good enough.”  I swear, the man can deflect any compliment (even from people the likes of Shirley Ballas), avoid hearing positive things about himself (seriously, he will just keep talking), and he can reason himself out of anything good he was thinking about himself.  I am going to give myself a little credit here and say that I’ve improved dramatically in this area, (there was a time in my life when I couldn’t make eye contact with anybody nor could I receive a compliment) but I still play the same mental games with myself, even if to a lesser degree than before.  I, and Ivan too, psych ourselves out of our greatness before even taking a single dance step.

This awareness is fine and well, but so what?  Well, it bothers me.  It bothers me a lot that Ivan refuses to see how wonderful a dancer and person he is.  When I look at him, I see the makings of a champion.  Heck, he already was a champion back in Bulgaria, but it’s like he thinks he’s already reached his apex.  I disagree; I think the best is yet to come….if he will allow it.  And it saddens me deeply that he can’t or won’t see this possibility for himself.

And that is the real epiphany.  Because if Ivan is a mirror for me, then the deeper truth is that it saddens me that I can’t or won’t see what a wonderful dancer and person I am and that I, too, have the makings of a champion.  It feels bold, audacious, and uncomfortable to even entertain these thoughts, much less admit them here, so there is still work to do.  When and how will I find the confidence and unconditional self-love I so desperately seek?

For me, it as a lot to do with my body image.  I can get so hung up on identifying with my body.  I harbor thoughts that others are thinking I shouldn’t be dancing at this size, that I’m not attractive/sexy/elegant – basically all the things a dancer “should” be.  Of course, I have no idea what others are thinking!  Not really my business, but the point is, I’m thinking it!  These are my thoughts about me.  I imagine that others are thinking them because that is easier and less painful than to acknowledge the truth – that I judge myself so very harshly.

God bless Ivan.  I was having a low self-esteem moment while practicing our Latin Rumba routine the other day, hating on my arms.  I have Italian ancestry and you know those old Italian grandmas with the huge arms, almost like bat wings?  Well, I am blessed with those genes.  My arms are probably the thing I hate about myself the most.   So, I’m seeing my arms in the mirror, and doing this dance that is supposed to be alluring and I’m feeling like the fattest, ugliest, most unworthy dancer that ever lived.  (No, I don’t catastrophize.  Not me!)

So anyways, I am not feeling good about myself and it shows.  Ivan asks me about it, and I say, “Ivan, how am I suppose to dance sexy when that is the absolute last thing I feel about myself right now?  These arms of mine are so gross!”  To which he replies, “That is not the girl I see.  I see the one inside you.  The ‘hot mocha.'”

In that moment, he reflected back to me my potential.  He affirmed that it is possible for me to change.  And he acknowledged he is dancing with me, not just my body.

I think one of the qualities Ivan has that I want more of is to be comfortable in my own skin, both personality-wise and physically.  He is as genuine as they come.  He is truly himself all the time.  Some may think he’s a wacko, but I think it’s awesome that he is true to himself so deeply.  He also has no body shame that I can detect.  He complains about his weight, because I think like every ballroom dancer is slightly insane and thinks they should be rail thin, even the males, but even if he isn’t exactly where he thinks he should be, he shakes and moves and dances big and bold and with expression no matter if there is one person in the room or 100.  I want some more of that, too.

I believe that we all mentor one another just by being around each other.  The way I walk in this world (or how Ivan does) exemplifies a particular way of being.  I can learn new and better ways of being just by being present with individuals who have what I don’t, and vice versa.

So I’ve come to a decision to take some action.  It’s actually selfish of me, if I think about it.  Ivan continually calls forth qualities in me that I’ve been reluctant to allow.  He creates the space for me to dance bigger, bolder, and better, and to also express more deeply and authentically, not to mention blasting away most of my mental limitations.  It’s time to return the favor.  But, of course, by doing what I’m planning on doing for him, I’m also indirectly doing it for me.  I’m doing it for the part of me that identifies with that part of him that refuses to accept his greatness as a dancer and as a person.  The part that chooses not to hear positive feedback, only the negative.  The part that psychs himself out, judges, criticizes, and squashes.  I can’t stand the self-defeating practices anymore.  So as I take action in an attempt to heal this  “Mental Problem” Ivan has, I will also be healing myself.  I love holding the paradox – being selfish and selfless at the same time.

I’m going to give Ivan a mirror.  On this mirror I am going to write in Bulgarian (I got some help with the translation from Marieta) “I am a champion!  Yes I am!!!”  I’m going to instruct him to look into it for at least a minute or more every day.

And you know what?  Knowing that I want to create the space for Ivan to step into this practice, I’d better make a mirror for myself as well.  Forget this indirect healing stuff!  If I’m so friggin’ aware of this part of me that wants healing, I have no excuse!  So I think my mirror will say, “I am worthy!  Yes I am!!!”  I know I’ve got the right phrase because it’s making me cry right now.  Bingo.  That’s a bullseye.

So, what have I reflected for you in this post?

If you were going to create a mirror for someone in your life, who would it be?  What would the mirror say?

And, more importantly….what would your own mirror say?