Toward an Ethical Practice of Belly Dance Instruction. Part 4: Dual Roles
Originally published in Zaghareet Magazine
In part 3, we discussed the inherent power dynamic in the teacher/ student relationship. The teacher has knowledge, skill, education and experience that the student usually doesn’t have. We stated before that teachers have a duty to be respectful of that power differential when they interact with students. Many teachers create professional or student troupes. These troupes can provide students with an opportunity to perform beyond class haflas. They can be an incredibly valuable component of dance education for dancers who are interested in performing. However, we have also seen some of the most significant ethical abuses within the context of the dance troupe.
There seem to be three most common types of performance groups within the belly dance community. The first is the student troupe. In this case, the teacher organizes her/his students into a performance group. In some cases, the teacher is the director and choreographer. Often, the teacher encourages leadership, growth and shared choreography within the group of students. The second type of performance group is the artistic director/company model. In this case, the teacher serves as the primary or exclusive artistic director. Finally, the third type of group is a collaborative. Collaboratives usually have shared artistic direction.
In this article, we will mainly be discussing ethical implications for the student troupe and artistic director/company model since those are the most likely groups to have dual roles. In those groups there is often a teacher who is also the troupe leader or artistic director. This specific relationship can be explored to learn more about respectful and ethical interactions.
Teacher as troupe leader
When the teacher is the troupe leader, she/he must take extra care to be clear about expectations, guidelines and benefits for the participating members to avoid potential ethical situations. When a teacher leads a dance troupe, she takes on a different role in relation to her students. The teacher/troupe director’s role can become conflicted between what is best for the student and what is best for the troupe or teacher/director. Because the performance of the troupe can be a reflection on the skills or ability of the teacher/director, self interest can over-shadow concern for student/troupe members and their wellbeing. This conflict can be manifested in different ways, for example:
1. Teacher doesn’t give student accurate assessment of when she/he will be ready for troupe.
For example, students who are told for months or even years that they will be allowed to participate in the troupe only to be passed by time and time again while other dancers were accepted. The students ultimately believed that the teacher was trying to prevent them from taking their business to another studio by manipulating them into thinking they would be accepted “next time.” The problem was that “next time” never happened.
2. Teacher has unwritten/unspoken requirements for the troupe (e.g., appearance, size).
If the teacher/director has specific, published and clear expectations about appearance, then the students can determine whether they want to comply with those or go elsewhere. The ethical issue arises when the teacher states that all sizes and appearances are welcome to participate, but then makes decisions about performances based on the appearance of the dancer.
3. Teacher requires commitment to troupe prior to admission (beyond dance education).
In one case, students were encouraged to purchase very expensive costumes prior to being accepted into the troupe in order to demonstrate their serious interest and commitment. After purchasing the costumes, some of those students were accepted into the troupe, but some were not. Those who were not accepted were angry, hurt and felt that their trust had been abused. Many left the teacher in order to find dance opportunities elsewhere.
Another common problem in this dual relationship is when the teacher discusses any troupe business in the context of a class with some troupe members and some non-troupe members. It can be hurtful, demeaning or even cruel to those who are not participants (and want to be) to have troupe business discussed in front of them when they are not allowed to participate. The clearest way to create an appropriate boundary is to have troupe related classes separate from the general student base. If this is not possible, then troupe business should not be discussed in front of non-troupe member students.
In addition, if the teacher is using her classes to identify potential troupe members then the students should be given clear expectations about how decisions regarding inclusion will be made. For example, will there be auditions or is every student who has taken the advanced class invited to participate? Nebulous or vague expectations can be frustrating and even hurtful to students who aspire to participate in a group dance situation. Expectations such as “demonstrate your interest and commitment” without specific actions or skills that the student must demonstrate or master can be disillusioning. We imagine it is pretty common for teachers who are also troupe leaders to be evaluating potential new troupe members from within their broader class population. However, we would caution that without the consent of the student, this could be exploitive rather than enhancing to the student’s dance development. When a teacher prioritizes what is best for her troupe over what is in the best interest and desires of the student, then the teacher runs the risk of objectifying the student, by using that student for her own troupe or professional advancement.
In order to combat potentially harmful situations, the teacher/troupe director can be explicit about expectations for membership in the troupe. Policies should be clear regarding admittance into the troupe, removal from the troupe, attendance, financial commitment, compensation or lack thereof for performing, advancement within the troupe, and personal appearance. If the teacher/director is going to be dictating how people look for performances (e.g., mandatory hair pieces or body stockings), choosing women for performances based on size or engaging in any other behaviors that might be demoralizing to her students/troupe members, then she has the obligation to be explicit in advance about those requirements or expectations.
If you are interested in getting feedback on how your students/troupe members view your selection process, troupe management or even class management, anonymous surveys are useful to gather important information that students/troupe members might be reluctant to provide directly. In addition to providing you with valuable feedback, you are encouraging your students and troupe members to actively participate in the shaping of their dance experience.
Ethical practice in belly dance occurs when dancers are encouraged to achieve their fullest potential, when teachers approach students as people rather than objectified bodies, and when consistency and fairness are hallmarks of the teaching environment. The reader will have to decide for herself whether she accepts or rejects the ethical conclusions that we have presented over the course of this series regarding the teaching of belly dance. In any case, we hope that you will undergo the process of exploring what ethical belly dance instruction means for your teaching endeavors.
About the Author
Terri Allred is a belly dance instructor in Rochester, MN. She has been a student of dance her entire life, and began teaching Oriental dance four years ago. She has been a member of several professional belly dance troupes and dance collectives. She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree which included coursework in ethics. She is currently a member of Khahari Dance Collaborative in NC, Shaia Dance Collective in MN, and is the founder/director of Happy Hips youth belly dance troupe in NC and MN. She can be reached at www.sadiyabellydancer.com.
Sadiya has taken on a co-author for part 2 and the remaining segments of the series. Her twin sister, Shaiya, a social worker by training, will be providing writing and editorial assistance from Raleigh, NC where she directs the NC chapter of Happy Hips, teaching belly dance to children. She can be reached at www.hhbellydance.com