Teachers, Teachers, and More Teachers

The Proliferation of Oriental Dance Teachers in Germany

by Horacio Cifuentes

Since living in Germany for the past five years, I have observed a tremendous growth in the number of Oriental dancers desiring to become teachers. In Berlin’s TIP magazine, one may find listed more than one hundred so-called “teachers” offering classes in their living rooms or the local recreation centers. These are actually sponsored by the government, and are available at a very inexpensive price. Unfortunately, the quality of instruction leaves a lot to be desired.

Newcomers to the dance with a desire to be able to dance at their husband’s next birthday party, check the magazine listings and choose whatever address is closest and cheapest. They don’t know who is who, and take little or no interest in finding out. After they can perform a figure eight and can manage to somehow shake some part of their bodies, they feel it is time to become teachers. The result is a breed of pathetic mediocrity which spreads and lowers the dance more and more.

Since about three years ago, some of the most established Oriental dance schools throughout Germany have been offering a series of seminars which provide the participants with a “Bauchtanz Certificate.” These twelve-weekend teacher training workshops have been successful, possibly in part due to the German love of diplomas and certificates. While some dancers think that it is a good thing to legitimize belly dance teaching, the majority of professional dancers are up in arms about it because of the reduced quality of the teachers it produces. This has been a subject of much controversy of late, with numerous articles appearing in German and Austrian Oriental dance magazines praising or criticizing the idea.

When the dance was first introduced to Germany in the seventies, there were very few workshops or events anywhere, and everyone would jump at a chance to learn any step from anybody with experience. These were treasured opportunities to learn from the masters. In the past few years, attendance at workshops in general has declined in Germany. There has been such an over-abundance of workshops recently that students are simply “turned off” from the whole idea of taking workshops. In the magazine listings one can find workshops offered weekly, several at a time. There are step and combination workshops, improvisation workshops (a contradiction in terms?), veil workshops, zill workshops, shimmy workshops, 3/4 shimmy workshops, facial expression workshops, “kamel and kobra” workshops, “how to get in touch with your feelings” workshops, Mother Earth and Father Sky workshops, and on and on.

The dance scene is so saturated by workshops in diverse subjects, that when the real masters come, often times there is but a handful of participants. To sponsor an artist, fine as she or he may be, is a big risk for any studio, especially if the teacher is from abroad. In 1994, we sponsored legendary dancer Tahia Carioca in Berlin. Most dancers did not know who she was, and the reaction when we announced her coming was flat. We offered a special workshop to give dancers the opportunity to meet the artist, who is an important historical figure in this dance. Only about twelve people came to meet her. It is my impression that dancers in American have learned to know the difference between quality and mediocrity, and that they don’t just run to any workshop. It is my hope that as the younger dance scene in Germany matures, this will also happen here, and the true masters will once again be treasured.

Horacio Cifuentes. Photo: Don Klein.

Another reason for the decrease in workshop attendance is the changing economic climate. Taxes were dramatically increased as a result of the unification of East and West Germany. With less money available to them, dancers are choosing the safer route of taking weekly classes, rather than taking the chance on a more costly weekend workshop which could turn out to be a disappointment.

Some teachers keep their classes full using psychological manipulation and guilt rather than skill, and discourage or forbid their students from taking workshops from out-of-town instructors, or anyone else. A teacher in another city where Beata Zadou and I were offering a workshop, told her students that we were “too difficult,” “very arrogant,” “we only accepted top professionals in our workshops,” and that the students would be “frustrated and embarrassed,” etc. At a workshop in another city, the group appeared to have little or no experience, judging from their posture and response to the movements, so we decided to teach the workshop at a beginning level. In conversations with some of the participants during the break we were shocked to hear them comment about their students, their performances, etc. These were participants who could not even follow simple combinations, yet one of them said, “I prevented some beginners from coming here today. They would have been over-challenged!”

These comments are the tactics of frightened teachers who prevent their students from learning something they themselves may not know or may not be able to explain later. They are afraid to be seen by their students at a workshop where they may not be able to execute a step perfectly right away. Aren’t the great masters those who can produce students who dance even better than they do? Is it not the ultimate joy for a dance master to have a student who goes beyond him/her?

At a recital of a dance school recently, the teacher’s performance brought me back to the mid-seventies. It was like a time warp — even the costuming was from way back then, the steps, the music, everything. I wondered what she could be teaching her students if she is that far behind. How can someone teach if he or she refuses to continue to study or research? Should not teachers also be students, who strive to better themselves by continuing their training, even if it means accepting corrections in the presence of a crowd? Even the most celebrated dancers in the world, like Baryshnikov, take dance classes regularly (daily) and accept corrections, because they know that they simply cannot afford to function without them.

What does it take to become a true dance teacher? In order to teach dance, one should have had extensive dance training. In Russia, there is a school for dance teachers which accepts students only after they have already had eight years of rigorous ballet training. Before becoming a teacher, one should be a real dancer first! One should have had professional stage experience outside of the classroom, before an audience, under the lights, the real thing. The artistic maturity required to produce dancers comes through having lived the real thing, not just the theory. In addition, one should have knowledge of dance history, at least some knowledge of anatomy, and understanding of body alignment and posture.

A broad perspective on the arts in general produces a more well-rounded teacher. How can someone teach dance who has never set foot in a museum to look at some beautiful works of art, has never gone to the theater, to a Broadway show, to a modern dance concert, or to a ballet? What is a dancer/teacher without a sense of color, composition, space or poetry? All of the fine arts are related. A real dance teacher has, or should have, an understanding of all these factors, as well as a certain “sixth sense” for the needs of each student.

What can we expect in the next few years? What will become of all these “fast-made” teachers in twelve easy lessons? I predict that things will become worse before they become better, and a few seasons will pass before the students in general will learn to recognize a fake teacher from a true dance master. Once these individuals realize that in their wish to do good they do harm, then hopefully this urge they have, this mad desire to be teachers in just a few lessons, will fade away.

Horacio Cifuentes’ early dance training included the Folkloric Troupe of Columbia, the American Ballet Theater in New York and the school of the San Francisco Ballet. By the age of 21 he was dancing major solos with the San Francisco Ballet. He later studied Oriental dance with Magaña Baptiste, Suhaila Salimpour, Bert Balladine, Ibrahim Farrah, and Shareen el Safy, among others. He has taught and performed extensively in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and is co-owner of Tanzstudio Halensee with his wife, Beata, in Berlin, Germany, where they produce “Oriental Fantasy” each Spring. www.oriental-fantasy.com

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