A perpetual student of dance, I have recently attended several workshops. Since my life has been in major transition over the last two years, I have a unique perspective of having taken a step back as an instructor and organizer and have been re-immersing myself in the role of a student. In my time as a belly dancer, I have participated in over 50 workshops by 26 different instructors, and have had a range of experiences from life-altering epiphanies with amazing instructors to fury-inducing frustrations with poor organization and badly-presented content (and sometimes just bad content itself!) So what is it that separates a great workshop from a disappointing one? What do we, as students of dance, hope and expect from taking a workshop? What’s the fine line between a weekend of intense physical punishment and an inspiring re-charge of our dance technique and emotional connection?
Why do we take workshops?
Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves why we even have workshops. The benefit of a workshop is twofold: students get the opportunity to study with someone who doesn’t offer regular classes in their area, and the cost of the instructor’s travel is offset by joining forces with several studios and students in the region to create a larger class than usual. There is often the added benefit of hosting a performance to add a celebrity to your show lineup, offer the chance to see her perform live without having to travel too far, and to bring in a bigger audience and add notoriety to your studio as the hostess. So let’s say you live in Toad Suck, Arkansas (I didn’t make that town name up). It’s not likely that Toad Suck is on Rachel Brice’s tour circuit, and it’s not likely that you’ll be in Portland, Oregon anytime soon to take classes with her in
her own studio there. But you desperately adore Rachel Brice’s technique and style, and you’ve heard she’s an amazing instructor that you’re dying to bask in the glory of. So you work out hosting her in workshop right there in the high school gymnasium of good ole Toad Suck. You market the hell out of it and bring in 50 students from all over Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, each paying $50 to take the workshop (a fabulously affordable chance to study with this megastar). Boom. Win-win-win. Rachel Brice gets paid and 50 Arkansans are now that much happier.
In my early years as a student of belly dance, I signed up for workshops where I expected to be awed.
I expected to be awed, either by the sheer nature of the celebrity him/herself or by the fabulous techniques or movement vocabulary I’d never seen before. One of my first belly dance workshops was with Mira Betz, who hadn’t been established as a headliner just yet. I took the classes solely at the recommendation of my teacher. In the end, I absolutely loved her workshops, and even hired her to come back to my hometown a decade later when I was running my own studio. There was a great energy to the studio during those classes. Mira kept us moving and shaking and laughing, sweating and pushing and trying new things, while keeping the mood light and playful with jokes and silly anecdotes. She assured us over and over that she knew it was hard and she knew it was new for us, but to keep pushing through just a little longer and we might be surprised by what our body can do. She was right.
On the other end of the spectrum was another early workshop I took, expecting to get more of a historical education in early belly dance and folk techniques. (This was offered from a local dancer who rarely taught and no longer is active in the dance community at all, and I’ll be ambiguous so as to not offend or embarrass.)
It was my first eye-popping realization that not everyone should teach, and that I should do a bit of homework before shilling out cash for a class…
It was so all over the place, and the teacher was so crude and constantly referred to the bust as “tits,” which I will always find completely off-putting. She referred constantly to “ghawazee” as hookers without giving anymore background information than that, which mostly confused the hell out of me, since I was so new to dancing and had learned a few “ghawazee” style moves but had never heard of them before being referred to as prostitutes. Anyway….
I’ve polled and discussed this topic with students around the world, and it seems we are all on pretty much the same page about getting our money’s worth. So if you’re a teacher or event-organizer, here is what we, the students, want!
10 Ways to Ensure Your Workshop Will be a Hit!
A great venue: easy parking, clean floor, easy access to water and refreshments
Make sure your material matches your description. No need to break out a thesaurus for a fancy description – just tell us what you want to share with us!
Be prepared with a sequential flow and logically-organized material
Handouts with an outline (including break times for those with health issues), summaries or reference points of the material, and song titles for choreography pieces
Keep the warm-up short and sweet
Move more – talk less. Limit name-dropping and anecdotes, or save them for when we need a little breather between run-throughs or drills.
Identify your take-home concept and repeat, repeat, repeat – give students a chance to let the movements settle into their bodies so they can really absorb at least one aspect of the material
Teach to EVERYONE (not just your friends, the ones up front, or the ones doing best), and offer a correction here and there one-on-one. Or just walk around from time to time to gauge the room.
Be prepared to adapt your material or speed to the group’s experience-level or areas of enthusiasm
Try to keep it clean and respectful – even in your music choices
If you’re interested in the details, here are anecdotes from students about what makes a workshop stand out as great, terrible, and everything in-between:
Starting on Time:
“Starting on time is huge for me. I get chapped if an instructor says ‘We’ll wait a few more minutes for everyone to get here.’ That either means the workshop will be shortened if it is to end on time or run over if time is made up. Neither is good if I’ve juggled my work and childcare schedule to be there.” – C.
“When I have paid my money for a workshop/class and busted my butt to get there on time – maybe paying extra for easy parking rather than circling the block one more time, maybe skipping something else I wanted to do – only to find at the start time less than half the people signed up are there and the instructor holds the start time for the benefit of latecomers, I get really, really annoyed.” – W.
“Last year, a workshop start time was held nearly half an hour. And when the instructor asked if I minded waiting, I had to look at someone I admire and either tell a polite lie that I don’t mind or be the one who says ‘No – start on time.’ Awkward.”
Material Organization and Teaching Styles
“I learn better when there’s a very specific thesis statement that the workshop revolves around. Every piece of information provided relates and supports that main idea. I may not remember everything taught in the workshop, but I know what I’m suppose to take home.” – D
“I have always learned best by doing, so the more we could repeat a move, the better. Some learn choreography by counting but I could never keep numbers in my head and need to “monkey see monkey do”over and over.” – D.
“I’m a visual learner and know I won’t get everything in one day, so a workshop that includes or allows us to take a video clip is always best for me.” – N.
“I absolutely loved one workshop where we spent the first part learning a segment of choreography and then spent the last hour breaking into groups and repeating it over and over for each other. The teacher gave specific feedback each time, and it gave us a chance to improve it under her watch before going home and never seeing her again.” – L.
“I appreciate an rough outline of the workshops and when the breaks will be. If I know when the breaks will be, it’s much easier for me, as a diabetic, to focus on the moment instead of constantly wondering when I will need to step out.” – K.
“The best workshops for me are the ones with handouts that outline what we did. I hate that I pay so much money for a workshop and will only ever retain 10-30% of it. It is too hard for me and everyone around me to take notes without holding up the class.” –J.
Expecting Too Much
“I absolutely hate it when you take a workshop from someone who is clearly just trying to impress everyone with how good she is. The warm-up is a series of advanced yoga movements that don’t actually help my super-tight, inflexible body prepare for dancing, and then the material is done so fast without explanation or repetition or feedback. I end up so annoyed because I am always two steps behind and end up leaving feeling like I have whiplash, rather than gaining any new technique or skill.” – L.
“Worst workshop ever: the teacher introduced a brand new 4 min choreography at the end if her workshop. She expected us to learn it in 45 min, just in time to perform it in front of a full audience at the show that night. Even though we said, ‘We aren’t ready for this yet,’ she still insisted we dance it. It was a humiliating experience… –J.