Bellydance Class as an Ecosystem: Fostering Collaboration and Inclusion

Think back to when you first started taking belly dance classes. Do you recall what brought you into that class? Do you have a sense for your first impressions during that first class? Perhaps it was a long time ago, and these details are fuzzy, or maybe it’s in more recent memory. Do you recall if you felt included or like you had to “break into” a clique? If you can remember or at least imagine what that experience was like, what is your impression about the classes you teach? When a beginner or new student comes in that first day do you have a sense of their experience? I have been giving this a lot of thought lately. My own classes are growing and there is a steady group of dancers who attend nearly every week. Some of them were part of a recent performance experience, which was wonderfully bonding. As other people drop into my class I want to be aware that I don’t inadvertently create an environment where someone doesn’t feel welcome, included, or appreciated. I recognize I can’t control how someone else feels while at the same time knowing there are some factors that can effect a dancer’s experience of my class. I’ll share some of the things that have worked for me, I would love to hear about what you do.

Inclusion starts before class does – Often we are gathered outside waiting for another class to vacate the studio. We greet each other and I strike up introductions with dancers who are new to my class. I’ll ask them about other movement classes they have taken and how they found the class. If another student is also waiting we usually get to casual chat which hopefully alleviates some of their anxiety of wandering into a new class. I also will notice if someone is hanging back and allow them some space to decide when they want to engage with others. As an introvert I am all too familiar with social awkwardness.

“Circle the Wagons” –  I begin my classes in a circle, dancers facing each other. We introduce ourselves, check in for injuries, and share if we have a question or goal for the class. One studio I teach out of does not have mirrors so I teach in the round. This creates a wonderfully cohesive energy during the class, dancers can easily see each other and feel supported as they learn. When I teach at a studio with mirrors I often turn around during class so I am interacting with the dancers personally and not their reflections. People like to be seen and acknowledged. If dancers feel like they are a part of your class, they will make the effort to return.

Law of Attraction – Be the type of dancer you want to attract. Remove your ego from the need to keep every dancer who comes in the door. I work to create a particular type of environment for my classes. My classes are body positive, LGBTQ inclusive, silly, adaptable, and community building. We are a group of dancers who appreciate these qualities and may perform together from time to time. We come together for a certain amount of time every week to be challenged, have fun, and learn that our body is not our enemy. I know that not every dancer is going to want those things, I’m completely fine with not being the right teacher for every dancer. There are many fantastic belly dance instructors in Oakland and the Bay Area.

Nourishment of Creativity – Be sure you are “feeding” your students so they can grow as dancers. Let them know about workshops, festivals, haflas, etc. If it doesn’t exist quite the way you’d like, see if your students can help you launch something. Let them assist according to their strengths. If possible, stay in communication with them outside of class. I created a Facebook group for dancers who attend my classes. We share about a variety of events, resources,  inspirational videos, and questions. I am also able to easily share class announcements so dancers know what to bring for the next class.

Get Feedback – On a regular basis I ask my dancers for feedback about aspects of class. What resonates with them. What do they like? What is not clear? Is there something lacking? Teaching is an educational experience that is challenging. If dancers feel comfortable and safe they will ask insightful questions that lead to breakthroughs for everyone in class. If I notice that someone isn’t quite connecting to the material or others I will do a private check in and see if they can give me some insight on what might help them grow. Again, I’ll state that not every dancer is a fit for my class or for yours. Allow them the opportunity to realize this and support their decision to explore other options.

I have observed that most dance teachers share a common desire to have students attending class who are invested in learning the dance form and committed to delving into their education. I believe that fostering an environment of inclusion and collaboration with dancers is a means toward that goal. Your class ecosystem will flourish and be inviting for others to join.