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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 1, 2008
Category: technique

Mentoring student teachers: role models who bridge the gap between concept and practice

By Rachel Straus

Not long ago only a couple of hundred dance studios, college dance departments, and public school dance classes existed in this country. Today there are thousands. Attendant to the boom in dance popularity, it seems that anyone with chutzpah can call themselves a dance teacher. Too often novices teach without proper training in classroom management skills and age-appropriate lesson planning. Worst of all, they often work with young children, putting this most vulnerable age group at physical and emotional risk.

“This is a major problem,” says Elsa Posey of the Posey School in Long Island. She studied with Doris Humphrey at the 92nd Street Y in New York City and remembers Humphrey saying, “Always look for a mentor. Don’t go off on your own.” Today Posey and other experienced educators assiduously serve as mentors to the next generation of teachers. They guide a select group of graduate and undergraduate students, who they call student teachers, by giving them opportunities to serve–under supervision–as instructors.

“I think it’s really important to get a formal education that includes teaching methodology, child development, and psychology,” says Posey, who founded the National Registry of Dance Educators. “You don’t learn everything you need to know about teaching in a performing arts situation.” But, she says, taking pedagogy classes alone isn’t enough to develop as a good teacher. Posey is in her third decade of bridging the gap between academic learning and the realities of facing students in the classroom or studio, by mentoring student teachers at her Long Island school. In 2004, the National Dance Education Organization established the Elsa Posey Student Scholarship Fund, for her proteges to attend NDEO member colleges, including Temple University and New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.

“First you have to be dancer. Secondly you have to become a teacher. Both are studies that continue for a lifetime,” Posey says. “The dance education profession has been harmed,” she says, by dancers “who think they have learned it all in the studio and who consequently open their own school of dance without receiving further education.”

Freddie-Lee Heath’s teaching career in North Carolina recently reached the quarter century mark. A graduate of East Carolina University, he was mentored by former Agnes de Mille dancer, Mavis Ray. In turn, Heath now mentors dance majors from his alma mater. He invites them to Raleigh’s Ligon GT Magnet Middle School, where he is a full-time faculty member.

His student teachers are in for “some big shocks,” he says. “First, not everyone is passionate about dance; they have to learn how to deal with that.” Then they discover that public school dance teachers are always working, not just by giving classes and choreographing for school productions, but “serving as the lighting designer, program designer, and costume finder, and as a psychologist, guidance counselor, and disciplinarian,” he says. And third, they encounter public school dance facilities that are often lousy.

Heath’s mentoring program is thorough. Student teachers take notes while observing him in the trenches for a semester before they ever step in front of a class. When they begin to give class, they start with one and increase to up to five classes per day. Heath says he expects his student teachers “to make goofs” while teaching, “but I do not give them the fix.” He counsels them to document everything that happens in the classroom, especially if it’s something controversial.

A staunch advocate for maintaining boundaries between teacher and student, Heath insists students address him and his student teacher by their surnames. “Students will ask female teachers, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Where do you live?'” Don’t answer, he counsels.

“When you go into the public schools, the students are going to test you. You have to be firm and fair. You also have to be human and tell them what your expectations are, every single time.” Heath recalls a particular student teacher who had a high-pitched voice and who struggled with keeping students in line. “I told her to stop the class, speak in her strongest voice, and not to scream.”

The key to becoming a good teacher, says Heath, is instructing with clarity, commitment, and consistency, and with great technique. “It’s important to keep that human element,” he adds, “one teacher passing it on to another future teacher.”

Good teaching doesn’t mean you have to know it all, points out Theresa Cone, assistant professor at Rowan University’s Health and Exercise Science Department in New Jersey. More essential is to teach with love for the subject. Cone, who was honored in 2007 as the National Dance Association Scholar/Artist and has supervised graduate students teaching in the public schools, described the experience of one man teaching a line dance to a class of 90 students. “He wasn’t a trained dancer, but his teaching was enthusiastic, committed, and clear,” she says. “The kids lit up and it really surprised him.” His success derived from his willingness to expose, without apology, his lack of expertise. “I don’t go out dancing a lot,” he said to his class, “but I like to.” Subsequently, the kids rallied to his amateur’s enthusiasm.

As a new department coordinator and professor at West Virginia University in 2006, Heather Ahern inherited the role of mentoring four student teachers–dance minors–who are teaching classes in the local community. She would prefer that students take a required workshop before they are eligible to teach (and plans to institute such a program), but she says these particular students meet her expectations despite their lack of formal teaching credentials. “They have proficiency in movement,” she says, and they are patient, interested, and responsible. Also most have taught in some capacity at their home studios. “They can be stern when needed, they use their intuition, and they learn by watching and doing,” she says. The fact that three out of four choreograph on their college peers, she observes, is making them better communicators with the children. Also, she admits there is no substitute for the experience of being in front of students. “You throw someone in the fire and they are going to learn quickly.”

Where her students encounter their biggest challenges is in coping with “the unruly child, the shy child” and “the over-expectant parent.” Ahem coaches them outside of class, using the NDEO Standards for Dance in Early Childhood as a resource. But most of all, she says, “I try to instill in them that different people have different learning styles.” Therefore “you have to say it, do it, count it, and sing it. It may feel incredibly repetitious, but you need to find many ways to impart knowledge.”

These experienced teachers, who allow their students to feel out their footprint–before they have to fill it–are offering an immeasurable service. “It’s a very complex thing to teach,” says Posey. “You’re dealing with the body and the art and the mind, tire soul, the community and the culture.” Because new teachers need all the help they can get, finding a mentor and pursuing a well-rounded education are steps to building a solid foundation in dance teaching.


The National Registry of Dance Educators recently developed a list of precautions and practices for using teenage dancers in private studios. According to the NRDE’s founder Elsa Posey, students who are not of legal age should never be given a professional title like “assistant.” They should be called helpers and should have the following qualifications:

* The helper is determined to be responsible by the teacher who has personal knowledge of the student’s character and capability.

* The helper understands the class being taught in terms of its technical level and its appropriateness for the age and ability of the students.

* The helper is clear about what she or he is and is not allowed to do. The helper’s primary responsibilities include watching and lining up the students, bringing them to the bathroom, and learning how to conduct a classroom.

* Helpers are never paid for assisting because they are not professionals.

2008 Dance Magazine, Inc.


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