So a month or two ago, Shawn and I were talking through our students, and making sure we were each up to date on everyone’s progress and situation. I started to talk about one of my students, who hadn’t been taking any lessons lately. I felt badly about this, and after about three minutes, Shawn stopped me.
“You’re talking about this student, but you’re so focused on your own story that you’re losing his,” he said.
“Wait, what?” I replied.
“Do you think he feels bad about his dance experience?” Shawn asked me. “Absolutely not! He’s made amazing progress, and he’s accomplished some huge goals. You’re only talking about how you feel like you’ve failed as a teacher with him. If this student were here in front of you, do you think he would feel good about how you’re talking?”
“Oh, crap,” I said. “You’re right.”
I had focused so much on what I thought should have happened, and why it didn’t, that I was losing sight of why this person was dancing, and what HIS joy was. Not cool!
Transparency is one of our core values – but what does that really mean? And why is it so important?
For us, transparency means that not only should we strive for total clarity and integrity in all normal business operations, but also – and more importantly – in speech, actions, and thoughts.
One of our choices as teachers – and it is a choice! – is to be very mindful of how we think of our students and their stories. We try our best to always keep their stories front and center, and to honor them. Anything we say about a student’s dancing, his or her journey, personality, or life ought to be something that they would hear and feel good about. Or at the very least agree with and feel respected, empowered, and valued. (Most likely it’s something we’ve already talked about one on one anyway!
A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.
— the Dalai Lama
Have you ever been to one of those nail salons where the staff talk about customers in a different language in front of them? You know what I mean. And you know when you’re getting talked about – or when the lady three chairs down, who honestly is being a huge pain in the ass – is getting a royal chewing-out in another language. Even if you totally agree, it’s not a great feeling.
We make it a priority as teachers to never let that be something that happens – anyplace. Even in our own brains. It’s one of the reasons we started The Connected Dancer: because we feel so strongly that there should never be a “back room” conversation about a student, under any circumstances. The dance industry is full of amazing teachers, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also sometimes pervaded by a culture that creates two separate worlds: a world of teachers-and-students, where things are phrased or framed or delivered in a very particular way for a particular reason, and a world-without-students, where professionals can vent their frustrations and emotions and say what they really think. That disparity isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s outright appalling.
It’s easy to think of people in our lives as problems to be solved – especially when we are responsible for helping or educating them in some way! I remember when I would take on students at Oxford, it was very common for their supervisors to call me up and say something like, yes, this is Owen, he’s working on history – he’s got quite challenged by essay writing this past term and he’s just sort of a 2:1 student, really [that's England-speak for a B student].
Ooooof. That would not make Owen feel awesome. It didn’t make me feel awesome, as his soon-to-be teacher, that’s for sure. It made me sad and a bit angry that this kid was being described by all the things he couldn’t do.
How different would it be if someone had said, hey, this is Owen, he’s working on history – he’s a really hard worker and he’s in the orchestra; he’s been working a lot on his writing and he’s really improved but I think you can really help him take the next step. Yay! That’s exciting! I am so pumped to work on writing with you, dude. And I already think you’re a cool guy who works hard and plays music. You’re all right by me.
The stories we tell ourselves about people in our brains define how we think about them.
If we are habitually describing people in terms of what their problems are, how they get under our skin, or why things aren’t going the way we want, it skews our world view and the way we interact.
For myself, I know that I am not always the most patient person. Sometimes I get frustrated, or distracted, or irritated. But being aware of the stories I tell myself about people, and how I think about their progress and our interactions has really helped me build my enthusiasm, my patience, and my respect. I am so honored that we get to teach the students we do.
Teaching dance is an amazing job, to be sure, but it’s also a big responsibility. People entrust you with their stories, their dreams, their fears, and their bodies. There’s the potential to do great good, but also the potential to damage not just someone’s body but their emotions and their psyche. As teachers, we feel that it’s our responsibility to help our students be the best dancers they can be, and by extension, to be the best possible humans. The authenticity and emotional honesty that truly good dancing demands just can’t be faked. It’s real, and it’s raw, and it’s visceral. That’s why learning to dance is so much more than just moving your feet around – it’s a full-body and full-person experience!
And just like a greenhouse helps plants flourish and stretch toward the sun, as it shines through clear panes of glass, so too does learning and growing happen best in an environment of authenticity, integrity, and transparency.
*This post previously appeared on our website at www.TheConnectedDancer.com. Check it out!