We trust dance teachers to tell us the “right” way to dance. Whether it’s how to place your foot, establish connection, or execute general body mechanics, we use their guidance to grow and learn. But, what happens if our teachers tell us something wrong?
How Teachers can be Wrong
There are several reasons that a teacher may be “wrong”. Some teachers have few access to resources, and therefore are ‘filling in’ the blanks that they don’t yet understand themselves. Some are stubborn, and refuse to seek out correct answers for problems in their methodologies. And, some are mistakenly bringing in elements from other styles that don’t necessarily “work” in the other genre.
In general, there are a few higher-risk categories for teachers who are likely to do something “wrong”.
New Scene Teachers
In new scenes, the role of “teacher” is often filled by one of the more experienced social dancers. Depending on that person’s training, they may be anywhere from a late-beginner to advanced dancer. Generally, the only qualification is that they know more than the other people. Sometimes, they may not be the most advanced dancer – but simply the only one willing to teach.
One great thing about teachers in these scenes is that they’re often very open to growth – and many invest significantly in their own education. In these situations, “wrong” habits are often stomped out relatively early on. These teachers often grow into great, established, knowledgeable teachers over time – and bring their students up with them.
If you are a young teacher in a new scene, be prepared that you need to outpace your students in order to be an effective teacher. After all, you can’t teach your students what you don’t know yourself. When you feel your students creeping up to your level of knowledge, spend the time to learn what is next. This will help you avoid teaching something that you later have to undo.
Teachers with Ego
When a person starts teaching, it can be difficult to balance being a student and a teacher. Some may feel that if they show students they are still learning, it means they are not “good” enough to teach. So, they may avoid taking workshops and classes in order to present themselves as a teacher.
These teachers frequently end up teaching something wrong because they are afraid to show they haven’t learned it all. Rather than express that they don’t know something, they will make up information to fill the ‘hole’ in their knowledge.
If you are someone who fights with this ego, remember that it is possible to be both a teacher and a student. The best teachers always are. Being open to continued learning also helps to establish a continual growth mindset in your students. After all, if your teacher still takes classes, why the heck shouldn’t you?
Other Dance Training
Some teachers are incredible dancers – of other styles. But, sometimes that other training can hinder their growth as a teacher in a new style. For example, a Salsa teacher trying to teach West Coast Swing (or vice versa) has a huge technical gap to overcome. Yet, because of their quality of movement and ability to mimic, they may become teachers before they are really well-versed in the new style.
If you are someone with substantial training in another style, take the time to actually learn the foundations. Go through a progressive series. It may feel slow and you may learn quickly, but it’s also important for you to understand the why before you undertake to teach new concepts.
Wrong vs Different
For all the mistakes that teachers can make, there is also a difference between a teacher being ‘wrong’, vs a difference in approach, opinion, or understanding. Something is wrong if it fundamentally does not work with the style of dance. For example, in Zouk, if I were to teach students that upper body movements were the result of whipping my neck, I would be wrong. This is an incorrect movement that goes against the fundamental principles of Zouk.
However, there are differing schools of thought on whether the feet should be closer together or farther apart, and whether the knees should really bend with the upper body movement. Neither of these schools of thought are wrong; they just lend to a slightly different aesthetic and feel. But, both these aesthetics and feels are cross-compatible with each other.
This is an important distinction to make when you are learning a dance. It can be tempting to write off something as “wrong” when it differs from your pre-established understanding of the movement. But, it may simply be a different approach to the same mechanic. In these situations, the teacher did not teach you “wrong”; they simply taught you a different way of achieving the same result. It is up to you (as a student) to use the version of the movement that you prefer.
Wrong vs Misunderstood
Another common issue is that some students misunderstand what a teacher is trying to tell them. This can result in the student executing something “wrong” when the movement was taught “correctly”. While this may indicate that the teacher needs to develop a better approach to communicating the principles, it does not mean that they are teaching incorrectly.
For example, if an instructor teaches that a movement requires inner thigh contact and a student interprets that by sticking their pelvis forward, the teacher is not wrong. Rather, the student inaccurately applied a principle, which created an undesirable result.
When someone offers critique that appears to run against what you were told, keep this in mind. See whether what the person has offered is fundamentally opposed to what you learned – or whether there is a way for both concepts to work at the same time.
Wrong vs Effective
Some teachers may not teach as effectively, but may be correct. For example, they may have a solid understanding of what is right, but be unable to get their students to execute the movement properly. Very often, this happens when a teacher is still learning the finer points of teaching.
This can be frustrating for students, particularly if said teacher is the only one in your area. In situations like this, I would advise becoming a more proactive student. Ask questions about things you don’t understand. See if you can pick up nuances from how they execute the movement. Ask them to do the movement with you.
In addition to helping you grow, these things also help the teacher become more effective. Especially in small communities, student interaction can help transform a novice teacher into a seasoned pro.
When your Teacher is Wrong
If you come to the conclusion that your teacher is wrong about a particular movement, my advice is to seek guidance from someone you trust. This will give you an alternate (correct) way to perform the movement.
If you have other options for teachers, you can consider switching. However, if you’re in a small scene where one teacher is really trying to start something (or if you otherwise love your teacher), consider speaking with them directly. For many teachers, comparing what they teach to what established professionals do is a valued way to learn. For example, I sometimes have students who take privates or workshops with others, and they tell me what worked and didn’t work for them. Sometimes, that feedback gives me a new, better, or alternative approach to tweak my own material.
You don’t even need to directly tell them they were wrong. Even if you demonstrate what you learned in an excited way, many teachers will be listening to exactly what you tell them worked. Going back to the example of head movement, you could say something like this:
“I took a [private/workshop] with [pro]. I feel like they really helped me get head movement. They were explaining to me how it comes from the upper body, rather than the neck. Doing it that way also helped get rid of all my neck pain!”
Even if it is just a stylistic difference that you liked (rather than something you think was taught wrong), you can say something similar.
If your teacher is not receptive to the new information, it can be useful to ask them why. Some teachers will have a reason for not liking a certain approach, and will share that with you. If the reason makes sense, revisit and see whether this may simply be a stylistic (rather than functional) difference. Some teachers may explain that there are multiple approaches. And, some may simply shut down and not want to talk about it.
If you have a teacher who refuses to entertain outside information, be aware that it may be in your best interests to look externally for additional knowledge. While they still may be a great teacher for certain things, a resistance to improvement is usually a sign that your mileage with them will be limited.
If You Were Wrong
If you’re a teacher and you were wrong, you have taken a step towards being a better teacher by realizing your mistake. Now, you will be able to move forward teaching something better and more effective.
Mistakes happen to everyone. I am sure that every teacher has evolved in their approach and material since they started. For some (especially those without a lot of guidance), that includes realizing they were teaching something wrong.
Your next responsibility is to change your approach, and re-educate the students you gave the incorrect information to. If you’re uncomfortable saying that you were wrong publicly, you can still correct the error. For example, you can tell your class that you want to revisit a concept, and say that you found an approach you really like and want to share with them.
For new students, start them off with the “right” thing from the beginning.
Errors are Human
Remember that everyone is human. This includes dance teachers. Therefore, they may make mistakes. That does not necessarily make them a bad teacher, dancer, or person. Sometimes, even great teachers do teach something incorrectly – and then later revise it when they gain new knowledge. While lots of misinformation is a red flag, noticing a couple minor revisions is usually a good indicator that you’ve found a teacher who cares and continues to grow.
When you review whether a teacher is right for you, it is important to consider whether what they teach matches what’s commonly accepted in the genre. It is certainly possible for teachers to start teaching “too early” (note: the rules are different in brand-new scenes). It is also possible for teachers to overreach their own knowledge. When someone’s information differs drastically from what is widely taught, it is a major warning sign – and is often accompanied by incorrect teaching.
Overall, I am far more concerned about teachers who never seem to make any changes to their curriculum, than teachers who realize that they need to make adjustments or fix errors in their teaching.