Dance Instructor: It’s More Than a Title

During my tenure as an instructor, I’ve come to understand a few things about people and perception, especially as it relates to the expectations others have of us once we take on that title. Understanding what ownership of the title infers for the astute instructor can reap major benefits. Failure to understand the ownership aspect however, can lead to moments of confusion, misunderstanding, frustration and in some instances, outright despair for both the student AND the instructor.

What I hope to do with this blog is to help others coming into instructorship, and those currently providing Steppin’ instruction understand what ownership of the title of instructor means to many  aspiring students as well as the impact they allow us to have on their lives. By doing so, it is my sincere desire and anticipated hope that this will help others avoid some of the pitfalls that I’ve experienced, thereby avoiding unnecessary pain, agony and future regret.

Your Students Expect More

As an instructor of Chicago Steppin’, I’ve also worn many other “hats” based upon the nature of the situations I’d find myself in with the people I’ve provided instruction for. I’m amazed sometimes at some of the things I’ve had to deal with and some of the situations I’ve been in and nothing surprises me now as I’ve seen quite a bit in my 13-year instructional tenure. Over time however, I came to understand a few things about my “position” as an instructor and how important it was for me to comprehend the full magnitude of two things: 1) what was expected of me as the person in the position and 2) what was assumed by those who held a certain regard for the position.

What I came to understand in my initial role is that the people coming to me to learn the dance saw much more in me and attributed much more to my persona than the simple title of instructor. As a dance instructor, at times I also involuntarily took on the role of leader, counselor, arbitrator, consultant, advisor, and at times a mediator.  In my mind, my students saw me as a leader and ascribed to me the qualities, traits and expectations of a leader. As a leader of my students there were a few things I needed to be mindful of. I had to be mindful of what I said and how I said it. I had to be mindful of how I carried myself in those public moments that my students shared with others in which they proudly introduced me as their instructor. I had to learn the true value of honesty, integrity, sincerity, respect, commitment and obligation that allowed me to be a participant in those public moments.

Your Students Give More 

I also had to come to understand just how much of themselves people were willingly giving to me and I had to learn to appreciate the sacrifice for the “gift” that it was. Admittedly it took a while, but I eventually came to understand and appreciate the fact that both the instructor and the student were making an “emotional investment” in each other, and that that investment should not be taken lightly.

I had to learn to be sincere, humble and grateful to be viewed with such importance to people as they shared slices of their lives with me at family reunions, wedding receptions, birthday parties and other functions where dancing was a part of the event. And the more I understood the tacit, yet expected adoption of the roles I was expected to assume, the more difficult it became to insist that I be only perceived for the single title/role of instructor that I wanted to claim.

Your Students Are Vulnerable

I’ve discovered over the years that if you present yourself a certain way that people tend to like you. I’ve also learned that these same people will ascribe certain personality traits and attributes to you as a person, solely by the way you carry yourself and at times by the way that you dance. I’ve learned that men hoping to learn this dance – black men in particular – do so by at first making one huge sacrifice: making themselves vulnerable enough to say that they don’t know what to do and they’re willing to learn from me. As an instructor and as a black man myself, I had to learn that when men open up like this, they’re making a huge sacrifice of pride. How we as instructors interact with them will often determine whether they stay with the dance or walk away from it. I try much more now than I did in the past to be aware of the sacrifice that men make to come to me to learn the dance…and I respect them for it.

I also found women to be vulnerable in terms of their desire to learn the dance, but that vulnerability was nowhere near as profound as that I experienced with men. That’s not to say that I haven’t had some memorable experiences with women’s vulnerability learning this dance, but I’ve always felt more comfortable around women and better equipped to deal with the apprehension, fear and doubt they experience while learning Chicago Steppin’.

Your Students Share Information

My primary focus with female students, particularly in private lesson settings, was to ensure that at all times during our sessions that my disposition, performance and overall demeanor was as professional as possible to avoid any misunderstandings. I entered the instructional arena of Chicago Steppin’ because I had a strong and sincere desire to bring it to the city of Indianapolis – that was my primary motivation – and it was important to me that I not lose focus of my objective by getting involved with my students beyond a professional capacity. Word gets to the street fast in instances where instructors forego professionalism for ill-timed and inappropriate “flings”.

Attending regional and national stepper sets allowed me to meet and interact with quite a few women, and I quickly learned of the reputations that some of my male instructor counterparts had on the Steppin’ scene. I determined very early in the game that for me to establish a legitimate national presence I could not afford to have my name uttered in the same conversations as others with questionable or undesirable behavior. This voluntary practice of self-monitoring didn’t make me perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as I look back over time I think it has served me well. That is also not to say however, that I haven’t at times been misrepresented, or my actions misunderstood.

Your Students See More 

I’ve also learned a valuable lesson about the perils of notoriety in this dance. I’ve come to understand that when one reaches a certain level of popularity or notoriety, one’s every move is being watched both privately and publicly. In most cases, people are watching you because they’ve found something intriguing about your style, persona or dance proficiency. In some instances however, the surveillance is solely for the purpose of finding fault. How you carry yourself in those moments determines, for the most part, the narrative of you that will be shaped and shared in your absence. Knowing this, just remember this little information nugget: Folks can’t dine on what they can’t find!

On a more positive note, I have former students who to this day still introduce me to others as their instructor. Many of them make the introductions very matter-of-factly, and they do so beaming with pride…and I like that! I like it because it validates both my effort and the rewards of the emotional investment that we made in each other. In many instances the dance relationships have turned into long-lasting, genuine friendships. I can say with both pride and humility that I know some genuinely, beautifully-spirited people and I appreciate and value the relationships that I’ve forged with each and every one of them.

My Enduring Hope

These are just a few of my lessons learned resulting from thirteen years of providing dance instruction that I believe shed light on the importance of understanding the various roles and attributes ascribed to individuals deciding to teach Chicago Steppin’ (or any other social dance for that matter) under the title of instructor. My hope is that by sharing my perspective I help others understand that the responsibilities of an instructor can take on many connotations, yet they all seem to be synonymous with a certain level of expectation as it relates to behavior in the areas of leadership, professionalism, competency, trust and accountability. I’m sure that some of you have your own list of lessons that you could share. Feel free to leave a comment or share a lesson or two that you’ve learned in the comment box below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Keep Steppin’ my friends, and I’ll see you on the wood somewhere soon! 🙂

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