Toward an Ethical Practice of Belly Dance Instruction. Part 3: Safety and Security

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 In Essays

Originally published in Zaghareet Magazine

Part three of the four part series on Ethics and Teaching addresses issues of safety and security: physical safety, emotional safety, and the ways power is used in the relationship between a teacher and a student. In the first part of the series, readers were encouraged to do an ethics self-assessment, evaluating their personal and professional ethical beliefs and practices. In part two, readers were encouraged to examine issues around truth and consistency in their practice and teaching.

This segment on safety and security extends both of these first two themes and encourages teachers to examine the deliberate commitments they make when a student enrolls in their classes to make sure those students are not harmed.

Physical safety

Many teachers emerge from the ranks of students and don’t have training in physiology, anatomy, body mechanics or movement beyond what they receive from their teachers. We were both fortunate to have teachers who had studied anatomy and body mechanics. Our teachers didn’t have a formal degree, but wanted to make sure that they were not injuring their students. We believe that in order to have an ethical practice, you must have a basic understanding of the human body. That doesn’t prevent people from getting injured as a result of dancing, but it makes sure that you don’t directly contribute to the injury because of negligence.

Basic attention to warming up and cooling down appropriately can eliminate some risk. Cautioning students about potential areas for injury (e.g., lower back, knees) in general and in relation to specific dance steps that they are learning can prevent even more risk. Finally, by asking your students to bring any injury to your attention, you are able to further ensure your student’s safety by modifying the dance step appropriately.

Many dancers can tell stories about classes they have attended where the instructor did not pay attention to posture, conditioning and strengthening or the muscular motivations behind movements. Unfortunately, these dancers may have been injured or may feel belly dance isn’t right for them because of …. back problems, hurt knee… you fill in the blank. One student told a story of having to discontinue all exercise because of the strain and injury she experienced in her back after taking a belly dance class.

In addition to making sure you are teaching moves correctly and asking students to inform you of injuries, ensuring physical safety also requires students to have the proper foundation before advancing to more complex moves. If a beginning student is allowed to enroll in an advanced class (because the day works better for the student or because the instructor has to consolidate classes because of enrollment numbers), it is important for the teacher to make sure the student knows basic posture, body alignment and technique. For example, if a student jumps into a class that is too advanced and attempts moves that have never been broken down and taught, that student is much more likely to be injured.

Emotional safety

People come to dance, particularly belly dance, often seeking things related to emotional wellbeing. Women come to belly dance for many different reasons including life changes (e.g., broke up with my significant other, moved to a new area); a physical challenge (e.g., diagnosed with chronic condition, rehabilitation for injury); emotional reasons (e.g., looking for community of women, positive body image, healing from abuse); etc. We are not suggesting that dance instructors should serve as therapists, but we do advocate for a safe emotional environment for our students.

The classroom environment ideally would be respectful of differences including age, race, ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, and size. We have seen teachers who say that they are open to all kinds of people, but who use heterosexist language that is offensive to lesbian students. One student tells about her former teacher who never looked her in the face when she was talking to her, but instead looked at her stomach. This behavior made the woman feel judged about her size. If we are aware of our own personal biases, then we can create a more tolerant, supportive environment for our students. If you don’t think a woman in her 70s should be belly dancing, then you are probably not the right teacher for that woman.

Inherent in the teacher/student relationship is a power dynamic. The teacher is, by definition, more powerful than the student. She has knowledge, skill, and experience that the student doesn’t have. Teachers have a duty to be respectful and mindful of that power differential when they interact with students.

One of the ways in which teachers wield the most power is in providing honest feedback to students. There is often debate among belly dance teachers about whether to correct students in class. Some teachers say that they don’t want to embarrass a student so they only give general feedback in hopes that the student will understand that this correction applies to her. We believe that although the intention is good, the outcome can be negative for the student. Students can’t improve if they are not given constructive feedback about technique, posture, or any other dance element. After all, we are talking about teaching, not playing the “follow the leader.” It is also terribly frustrating for students to realize they have been in class for many months executing a move incorrectly. Without feedback, students can develop inaccurate “body memory” and it makes it much more difficult when they try to re-learn the move in the correct way. If a move is being modified for a more basic class, it is also a good idea to explain this and at least show the class the eventual goal or how the move will eventually look. At the beginning of each class session, we ask each student if she or he is comfortable receiving feedback. That way the student has given informed consent prior to being offered constructive criticism.

Likewise, positive feedback is essential in the progression of a dancer’s skills and in the creation a safe environment. We try to give positive feedback to every student in every class. It is honest, specific and intended to make the student a better dancer. Because of the power dynamic inherent in the teaching relationship, students need to be told what they are doing correctly and acknowledged for their effort. The instructor’s duty to provide feedback isn’t restricted to the classroom. We believe that it is our responsibility as teachers to say something positive to each of our students who perform at a hafla, show or any other venue where we are in attendance. We may also offer constructive criticism if asked to do so. It can be extremely de-moralizing for a student to perform in front of her teacher only to be faced with silence or indifference.

As teachers, it is sometimes sobering for us to realize just how much power we have. Our students look to us for guidance, support, encouragement, and attention. We impact the way our students feel about themselves and we shape their impression of the art of belly dance and of the belly dance community. When we treat our students with patience, kindness, and constructive feedback, we are modeling our expectations for their behavior towards each other and other members of our community.

Continue reading—Part 4: Dual Roles