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Teaching Beginners Courses
in Oriental Dance

By Despina


Table of Contents

  • Part One: Drop Outs
    • It's Hard
    • Slow Progress
    • Don't Like It
    • Commitments
    • Frustration
    • Can't Keep Up
    • Your Teaching
    • You

*Note: I realise that some of you who teach don't teach course sessions, but have drop in classes instead. I only teach course sessions and therefore only feel knowledgable in that aspect of teaching Oriental Dance, which is why I only address teaching in that situation.



Part One: Drop Outs

When students drop out of your class, it can actually have a very bad effect on your self esteem. "Is it me? Am I a bad teacher?" you may ask yourself.

Here's the good news: it's not you, it's them. Here's the bad news: it's you, not them. Confused? Good. So am I. Just kidding!

Back to the point: it could be you, them or both. Enlighten yourself…read on!

Reason 1: It's Hard

The Problem:

People don't realise how hard it is to learn Oriental Dance until they try it.


When people inquire about classes, don't burst into a 2 hour lecture on the complexity of the dance over the phone. This will put fear into their hearts, and that is not our goal here.

It's no secret that Oriental Dance is not easy, so if a prospective student does ask on the phone tell them honestly: "it's like anything else: it's difficult to start with and takes time to learn". But ideally, let them come to class and tell the whole class (without terrorising them), that it's like anything new: it takes time, effort and regular attendance of classes in order to progress. You're not tricking them by doing this, simply telling them at an appropriate time.

So during your introduction in the first class tell the students that it won't be easy as ABC (I can feel a song coming on) and encourage them to give themselves the patience they deserve in order to learn over the time of the course, as opposed to overnight (as many will expect from themselves). In my own words: "Okay, the first rule is: don't freak out. Don't worry if you don't get it right, don't worry if you feel like you don't know anything. Because you won't get it perfectly right and you won't know everything in the first few nanoseconds you begin any dance, including this dance. It takes time. Remember, you're here to learn and have fun. Now let's boogie!"


Reason 2: Slow Progress

The Problem:

They expect to get good without attending classes and/or practicing or get disheartened when they don't improve radically after a short time.


If someone pays for a course or set of classes, attends half or a third of them, never practices at home and comes to you complaining that they gave you their money and haven't learnt a thing, what do you do? Well, prevention is the best solution.

Once again, tell them in the first class what they can expect to gain throughout the course. Tell them, "In this course we cover 10 songs. We will do 2 songs per class and have a review every 3rd week. If you're serious about learning and come to every class and practice for a couple of hours a week at home, then you'll theoretically come out at the end of the course with 10 choreographed songs. If you're just here to have fun, then expect to learn some moves and get a feel for the music."

They know what to expect from the onset, so they can't complain to you later.


Reason 3: Don't Like It

The Problem:

They don't like Oriental Dance.


This is something you'll never be able to do anything about. Some people (in fact, most people) will love it. But some won't. Wish them well in their quest to find a physical activity they enjoy and don't feel upset or bitter about it.

If someone misses three classes in a row, give them a call. Say, "I was just thinking about you today and noticed you've missed out on the last three classes. Is everything okay?" People have paid you their money to learn. For you to not care when they disappear only means one thing to people: that you're only concerned about their wellbeing while they've got their hand in their pocket and once you have their money you don't give a damn.

Have some decency - a phone call only takes 2 minutes. Take the time and make the effort to do it. If they say that it's just not their cup of tea, be positive: "Well, let me say that it was a pleasure meeting you and teaching you for the short while that I did. And if you change your mind I'd love to see you again…Best of luck."

This person may not like Oriental Dance, but they might know someone or meet someone who would like to learn. And guess who they'll recommend to their friend? They'll remember you for your kindness, concern and good wishes and recommend you.

Reason 4: Commitments

The Problem:

Other commitments have arisen that are more serious or important.


Again, this is something you can't do much about. And again, a phone call is your duty to them.

People see you as a business person and perceive the business world and the people in it as cut throat. Be the opposite - be a concerned human. The impact of being on the receiving end of your compassion will stay in their minds. If they don't come back to classes, then wish them all the best and welcome them to future classes. Believe me, if they want to continue in the future they'll definitely come back to you.

Reason 5: Frustration

The Problem:

They feel like they're the only ones not 'getting it'.


Your words of advice at the beginning of the first class outlined in the solutions to Reasons 1 and 2 will sometimes prevent this from happening.

Another method of prevention is encouragement during class. Be very generous with your praise and back off or be gentle with correcting people. If the person is particularly lacking in co-ordination, don't keep correcting them with every move as they'll feel very singled out.


Reason 6: Can't Keep Up

The Problem:

You're moving too fast.


One of the most important aspects of teaching beginners is remembering what it's like to be a beginner.

You've been dancing for years and know many moves, choreographies and pieces of music off by heart. But a beginner is doing just that: beginning to learn what you already know off by heart.

The solution is in your lesson plans. Plan to do songs that are simple and a little repetitive in their choreography and only do maximum 2 songs in a one hour class. There's no time for more than that if you're breaking down the song move by move. Stick to your lesson plan. Just because you've danced that song a zillion times and are a little 'over it' as they say, it doesn't mean your students are. It's all new to them.

Another thing you'll need to keep is enthusiasm for the music you use: get over being over it — get into it!

Reason 7: Your Teaching

The Problem:

They don't like your teaching.


Sorry guys, but it's got to be said: not everyone can teach. Some people can dance like no one has danced before, have perfect technique and beautiful choreography, but they don't know how to teach it.

I've seen teachers who don't bother to explain moves to beginners. Dancing to the music is just not good enough - every single individual step needs to be broken down for beginners.

I've seen teachers teach individual moves and never put it into choreography. What is the point of individual moves on their own? They mean nothing - it's like having the ingredients to make a cake but no recipe to tell you how to put it together. Pointless.

I've seen teachers who choreograph and teach parts of songs and never get back to teaching the whole song. As far as I'm concerned, unless you're doing a class on improvisation and will improvise to the music, if you haven't choreographed an entire song to (at least near) perfection, don't teach it to beginners. Teaching students 45 seconds of a 3 minute song is of no use to anyone.


Reason 8: You

The Problem:

They don't like you.


Apologies faithful readers (glad you made it through Reason 7), but I've encountered this myself as a student: teachers who are bitchy, distracted or perfectionistic.

Firstly, there is no place for nasty comments in the classroom. "Don't move your arm like that, it looks stupid" is a comment directed at me in class one day. Guess who never went back to that teacher?

As for being distracted, I'm talking about 10 minute conversations in class about how many loads of washing had to be done that day, or how a friend of theirs nearly chopped their finger off while doing the gardening. Who cares? People pay you to learn how to dance, not to learn about your personal life. Chit chat during a warm up with low volume music is okay - it gets people comfortable and shows that you are not simply "The Teacher" or "The Goddess" but a person, which is an important side to show to your pupils. They don't want to be taught by a goddess - that standard is too high to live up to. But during class, the only conversation should be about the history of the dance, the origins of the moves, the culture from which the dance comes - and the odd, very brief non-relevant conversation on occasion (don't make it a habit).

Now for perfectionism: people come to your classes for varying reasons. One of those reasons is not to be perfect. If you're training more advanced people for a troupe performance, then perfect timing is necessary and a degree of perfectionism necessary. But beginners want to learn and have fun.

So to sum up: criticism, lack of focus and repetition to the point of torture have no place in your dance classes.



Part Two: Disrespectful Students

The following contains advice that not everyone will like. As women, we are taught to "be nice" at all times, even if it costs us our pride.

Some of the advice and possible reactions given below might be too much for you. Everybody's different, but if you're running classes as a means of livelihood then you should be running it as any business person would run their business. That is, with a firm hand. Talk to some people in the corporate world - they certainly wouldn't put up with what would be their equivalent of the following behaviour from clients. They would cut their losses and go. In their case a face to face confrontation may not be necessary, as sometimes is in the following scenarios, but face to face is the nature of our business.

Scenario 1: Childish Students

The Problem:

Adults who act like children — giggling, mimicking and being generally disruptive. One will never act like this on their own, this kind of behaviour only surfaces in groups of two or more (usually teenage boys hanging out on street corners, but I've discovered to my dismay that this ugly phenomenon occurs in adult women too).


Tackle the problem before it's too late to say anything. If you let it go twice without saying anything then you're basically saying that it's okay to act in this fashion. This works: Whatever you're doing - explaining, showing a move, dancing to music - stop immediately. Turn the music off if necessary and look at the disruptive students for 2 seconds (which doesn't sound like a long time, but it is when it's pure silence in a room full of people).


Ask: "is everything okay?" (I know you want to say: "what's yer damn problem??", but it's better to rise above their stupidity and be as mature as you can muster). They're likely to say: "everything's fine". Pause for a second and say: "[one of their names] could you please come over to this side of the room?" Yes, you're treating them like children by separating them from each other, but they deserve it. Then at the beginning of the next 2 classes ask one to go to the other side of the room before class even starts.

In the 3rd class see where they stand and how they act. If they start with their b.s. again, stop the whole class and say: "Is there a problem?" (a little more aggressive than last time). Answer, invariably: "No". At this point, you should definitely lose your temper slightly and demand: "Then why the constant snickering, mimicking and disruptive behaviour? There are X classes left. If you plan to continue acting like that I prefer to have you leave now, so how about I give you your money back for the next X classes so that you can go immediately?" while reaching for your purse.

If they stay, promising they'll behave, but don't straighten up after that (give them just one more class to redeem themselves), have the money for the amount of classes left in your hand and say: "I don't think this is working out. Here's your money back. Good luck". And walk away.



Scenario 2: Challenging Students

The Problem:

These are the ones who ask in a challenging, rude manner: "So, When are we going to see you dance?"


This is the answer I gave to the student who asked me this question: "You see me dance an hour every week. If you'd like to stay for all 3 classes you'll see me dance for 3 hours straight".

Her answer was: "No, when are we going to see you dance?"

I couldn't make her see that I dance all during class - I really don't know how you can not tell that someone is dancing when they're right in front of you dancing. I'm not sure what she was expecting to see (an hour performance with full make up and costume??).

So I said: "Well, if you'd like to see me perform you're welcome to come to one of the restaurants I perform at. Would you like the details?" If the reaction after this is aggressive, then say: "Listen, I dance for X hours every week and one of those hours is during this class with you watching me. If you can't tell a dancing person from a non-dancing person then I can't help you." If you're a real tough cookie, add: "And in fact, since you can't tell a dancing person from a non-dancing person then maybe you shouldn't be attending this class". Do a quick calculation in your head deducting the amount of classes left in the course they have paid for. If you have the money there and then offer it to them. You don't need a person like that in your class.

There's not much you can do with a student who's got a sour face and wanting to pick a fight. The only thing not to do is to get defensive and say: "All right then, you wait there - I'll go home and get my costume and prove to you that I can dance!!"


Part Three: Demanding Students

The Request:

"You should write out all your choreography and draw pictures of the moves and make a video of your choreography. I can't remember anything when I get home."

How To Respond:

What do you say? Well, basically my thoughts are that there is not one dance class (of any type of dance) that I've been to where the teacher hands out pictures and descriptions of the moves with a video to back it up. (And frankly I haven't the time to do the former or the money to do the latter).

Your answer: "Firstly, as time goes on you'll remember more and more moves. We will repeat the moves in different songs throughout the course. Also if you get the music I use and listen to it at home it will bring back to mind some of my choreography. Secondly, Oriental Dance is not about remembering how someone else interprets the music move for move. It's meant to be an improvised art. I use choreography in order to have the repetition necessary for you to do the same moves again and again so that you will eventually remember them. And you'll also notice that sometimes the choreography changes - when I change the choreography the message I'm trying to get through to the class is that there are different ways to dance to the same music. So give yourself time, you'll remember more and more moves and eventually be able to choreograph your own pieces."




Famous Last Words

I certainly haven't covered all the possible issues that may arise when teaching. Please email me and let me know of any other bits and pieces you'd like me to write about. I'm always happy to get letters, comments - even criticism (be gentle!) Despina



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About the Author

Originally inspired by the 1960's television show I Dream of Jeannie, Despina has been studying Oriental Dance since 1992. She studied with a variety of people, representing a variety of different belly dance styles, and through that acquired a broad perspective on the dance. She started performing professionally in 1995 and then teaching in 1997. Her mentor, Amera, has provided a great deal of valuable guidance over the years.

Since 1998, Despina has dedicated herself full-time to teaching and performing belly dance. In 2002 she completed Belyssa's Bellydance Teacher Training Course.

Despina has contributed several articles to this web site.

For more information about her dance studio in Australia and its activities, see her web site at:

Click on the photo to the right to see Despina's picture in more detail.




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