Toward an Ethical Practice of Belly Dance Instruction. Part 1: Personal and Professional Ethics—A Self-Assessment

 In Essays

Originally published in Zaghareet Magazine

Most of us consider ourselves ethical people, guided by faith, values or, at the very least, good intentions.

As instructors, we strive to provide the best instruction we are capable of offering to our students. We don’t set out to hurt others physically or emotionally. Furthermore, most of us would emphatically declare that we have the best interests of our students in mind when we interact with them.

The purpose of this series of essays is to discuss the ethical teaching relationship with students and to outline practical steps for examining teaching practices to ensure they meet personal and
community ethical standards. The intended audience is teachers, but students can benefit by learning more about what they expect from a teacher.

What is ethics?

“Ethical awareness is simply the recognition by any individual of the rights inherent in the existence of any and all other individuals.” (The URANTA Book, Paper 27, Section 3; quoted by Anthea on Each of us has our own ethical framework, influenced by our family of origin, religious community, culture, heritage and personal beliefs. We will begin our discussion of ethics in teaching by exploring the parameters of our own ethical beliefs.

One useful way to create an ethical baseline for further examination is to answer a series of questions:

  1. What do I value in my relationships with others?
  2. How do I want to be treated? How do I treat others?
  3. What are the moral or religious principles that guide my life?
  4. What rights should all people be entitled to have?

Some of these questions may seem obvious to you, but some may take a little more meditation or thought. For instance, you may value different aspects of relationships depending on whether the relationship is with family, friends or students. You may aspire to live by the “golden rule” but upon honest reflection realize that you don’t always meet that standard. Any self assessment can be enriched by seeking input from trusted family and friends. Find people who will give you honest feedback rather than tell you what you want to hear. The purpose of this exercise is to help us identify what is important to us- our core values, beliefs or principles, and evaluate whether those are reflected in our behavior. Sometimes just taking the time to remember what we value will impact our ability to behave in such a way as to honor those values.

Self-inventory for teaching

Once we have grounded ourselves in personal reflection we are ready to begin examining how our core values or ethics impact our professional values and behavior. One step toward establishing an ethical teaching practice is to do an honest self-assessment of our motivations as teachers. Many of us begin teaching in order to share the transformative experience of belly dance with others. Or perhaps there are no teachers in our community and we begin teaching in order to create a belly dance practice for ourselves and others. Whatever the reason, take a moment to reflect…Why are you teaching oriental dance? How do you benefit from teaching? There may be very obvious reasons, such as income, exercise, community, and dance practice. Think of the less lofty but very real reasons, too. For example, maybe you enjoy being the center of attention and having people compliment you on what a fabulous dancer you are or what a lovely body you have. It is in this area, of our honest but less altruistic reasons for teaching, that we may be able to find warning signs that could signal potential for unethical behavior.

Meet our problem teachers

Take a look at the teachers below. Maybe you will recognize one of these teachers from your own experience. Maybe you will recognize some of their behaviors in your own practice. We are all human and as such may not live up to our personal ideals at all times. I hope you can use these caricatures to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses as an instructor.

The Diva

The diva is a wonderful dancer who has been successful on stage. She attracts students who see her dance and want to look just like her. She is often appearance-focused and sees beauty in her personal style and technique. Her standard of beauty (usually aligned with stereotypical Western ideals of beauty) is imparted to her students in subtle ways. For example, this thin and gorgeous woman may comment to her class about how she needs to lose weight. The effect of this behavior is to make the average women in her class feel fat and ugly. She will pay more attention to those students who reflect what she values in looks and skill. Other students will know that they are not her “favorite” when they don’t receive as much attention or feedback. In extreme instances, the diva may be-little students who are overweight or unskilled with negative feedback or by refusing to let them perform.

The Damsel in Distress

Our damsel is characterized by always being the underdog. She will bemoan her competition, horrify her students with the wrongs that have been done to her and bask in their sympathy and concern. She shows her “vulnerable side” to her students by sharing these “confidential” stories and will often cause the students to become fiercely loyal in an effort to help their victimized teacher. Instead of encouraging a collaborative dance community where students and teachers all collaborate and learn from each other, the damsel fiercely guards her students and discourages them from interacting with dancers outside her sphere of influence. At first she may not name names, but eventually the students will come to know and despise the villain (usually a competitor). The damsel succeeds in getting warmth, love and attention from her students while at the same time discouraging them from taking classes with other teachers.

The Absent-Minded Professor

This teacher is good natured and fun to be around. The problem is that she leaves her music at home, forgets the choreography, looses your check, and seems to teach whatever comes to mind that day without a plan or progression. Students initially understand and consider her endearing. Ultimately, they may begin to wonder whether the teacher respects them enough to prepare for class.

The Emo (emotionally demonstrative) Madness Teacher

Our emo teacher is unpredictable and emotional. She may insult you or withhold positive feedback. It is difficult to understand why anyone would continue to pay this teacher when she is so emotionally volatile. However, since she is a good dancer, many students continue to study with her despite her hostile criticism. The most dangerous emo teacher is the passive/aggressive one. This teacher will be friendly until the student does something to upset her. Then she turns and begins to criticize, scold, withhold positive feedback and ignore.

The Petty Criminal

Our petty criminal will pirate other’s music and sell it to her students. She steals costuming or show ideas from other dancers without giving credit. She may feel entitled to the creative ideas her students share with her. For example, the petty criminal might take an idea for a dance number from one student and give it to a more skilled (more attractive, more loyal, etc.) student to perform in a show. Like the Damsel in Distress, our criminal can also be found slandering her competition. Whereas the damsel’s motivation is emotional, the criminal’s motivation is financial. The criminal wants to ensure her financial success by manipulating her students to believe negative things about other dancers, thereby eliminating her competition.

Finishing your self assessment

Most of us will be able to see ourselves in at least some aspects of the above caricatures. In recognizing the positive and negative aspects of our professional lives, we will be better able to go beyond the obvious to consider how teaching benefits us emotionally, spiritually, or interpersonally. Maybe you feel joy when you see a woman learn to appreciate and love her entire self. Perhaps you feel a sense of accomplishment as your students’ technique progresses. Only an honest self-assessment will allow you to create the foundation upon which to build an ethical practice.

Once you are clear about your internal and external motivations for teaching, evaluate what you do well and what you would like to do better. Maybe you know that you could be more prepared for class if you spend a few more minutes looking over your lesson plan. Maybe you don’t use a lesson plan, but would like to. After you have analyzed your strengths and areas for improvement , ask a trusted colleague to share their assessment. If none of your colleagues have seen you teach, then invite one to observe your class.

Finally, it is imperative to get feedback from your students about your classes, teaching style and their experience. Use anonymous surveys at the end of workshops or class sessions so that people can feel free to express their opinion without fear of reprisal or hurt feelings. By utilizing self assessment and input from others, your dance instruction becomes dynamic, constantly changing to adapt to the needs of your students and reflecting your increasing knowledge and awareness as a dancer.

Continue reading—Part 2: Truth and Consistency