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To Teach or Not to Teach?

By Thea



During my many years of belly dance, it never occurred to me to teach. "Thank goodness for that," I already hear thoughtwaves coming my way, along with a couple of less craggy waves from friends and relatives: "and what a pity that you didn't/don't, for you would have made/would make a fine teacher."

I had developed my own immutable notions on the subject of teaching as a music student during adolescence: "You may not be a teacher unless you are first a world-class performer. That way you will not be guilty of the mortal sin of leading another aspiring world-class performer toward faulty technique" A tall order to live up to, so I became neither world-class performer nor teacher.

My mind if not my heart was aware that there may have been some fallacy with this injunction. I only needed to look at my friend Remy, a fellow violin student during our first two years of college. Together with a third violinist, we each performed one movement of the Mozart G Major Concerto with the college chamber orchestra. The conductor, himself a violinist and a sympathetic leader, wanted us to taste the glory of standing in front of an orchestra and soloing. Perhaps he knew that playing the entire concerto from memory in front of large audiences would be the fate of only one in ten million, but he provided us with the experience, for which I am grateful.

That a concert soloist's career would be unlikely did not bother Remy, who had other ideas and whose goals were as grounded as her technique. Rather than transferring to another college or conservatory for her junior year, she would move to Japan to study with the visionary violin pedagogue Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, whose unique ways of nurturing children's musical growth are now celebrated worldwide and have been adapted to different instruments.

Remy would and did become a teacher of Suzuki's method, I'm sure one in great demand since she studied with the master and humanitarian himself. I became an editor and technical writer, a talent for me as much inherited as acquired but less congruent with what had been my "bliss." But this story is not about regret but to describe how life, like dance, may draw interesting and unexpected twists and turns.

As a belly dancer, an art which came to me less naturally than music but which I pursued no less stubbornly, I maintained my original "code" about teaching, until one fine day last winter my sister-in-law tricked me to teach. As an officer's wife, she is active in the Family Support Group for her husband's ship. Why not present something special for the February meeting, so close to Valentine's day? How about a belly dance teaching demonstration?

My reply echoed my code: "No," I said, I haven't danced for quite a while, I've never taught, I probably look bad in my costumes if indeed they fit at all, I may be getting a bit too old for this, and I cannot straddle and put my face on the ground, which all dancers must be able to do as proof of flexibility."

"But you've shown me movements," I've seen you dance, the ladies have never experienced this and will love anything you show or teach them." It's not until eight weeks from now and by then you'll fit into your costumes."

Beverly was persuasive so I agreed. My eight-week dieting windows often shrink to eight days. As I approached the two-week window, I had cold feet. "I can't do this." I informed Beverly over the phone.

"Too late, " she chimed cheerfully, "it's already in the newsletter."

"Well, then I must have conditions," I demanded, knowing I had a friendly adversary. I shall not present this dance out of context. "You must serve mint tea and baklava, and we must burn most of Bert's oil lamp collection to increase atmosphere. "

"No problem, said Beverly, it will be done."

On the appointed date we arrived with the oil lamp collection, an excellent thing because the setting, a Navy day care center, was none too picturesque. I would do a short three-part routine with zils, veil, and cane and then "invite" my viewers to finish the dance with me. This invitation would be presented on papyrus-like, raffia-tied scrolls in a silver bowl along with the tea and baklava. A treasure chest of veils and wraps stood ready for my "students."

The cavernous space was filled with shelves of children's toys and cheap furniture and a garish rug whose design was an alphabet soup in primary colors. We closed the sliding door that divided the room to effect a more intimate space and moved the rug to "center stage." Tables were hastily placed in a U-shape around my stage as Moroccan mint tea brewed. Finally, the oil lamps and incense were lit and the room transformed.


The viewers were mesmerized, and of course, their greatest excitement came with the opportunity to rise and participate in the dance. As the taqsim began they selected their finery and imitated my slow movements while, in trance-like rhythm, I spoke to them about the dance's long and far-reaching history. Fascinated, their energy rose as we added livelier twists, lifts, and turns with the final beledi.

It was wonderful to find myself in the center of a group experiencing the enchantment of "beginner's mind." As my fears evaporated, I could see clearly that the energy in teaching, as in performing, flows in two directions.

This event reminded me of my own beginner's enchantment with belly dance in the mid-seventies in Pasadena. I had already taken a few classes with the feline, madras-clad, slightly mysterious Narayana, her bead-studded nose ahead of her time, and had witnessed a few grace-filled performances. Then one day out of the blue, about a half mile away from my most prosaic neighborhood, I noticed a "store" had popped up in a residential area. It displayed some belly dance skirts in the window (I did not own one yet) and a sign offering both dance and hatha yoga.

I reverently took a pilgrimage to the store on about six different occasions to stare at the skirts and to look inside. There was never any sign of life, so finally I gathered the courage to call its proprietor, who was quite ready to meet her subject.

I myself was not quite ready for the most eccentric lady who greeted me. She was probably in her seventies, although at the time I judged her to be eighty. Her dark gray hair was long, tangled, and a bit witchy, her slight frame adorned with a lavishly embroidered Levi jacket festooned with sequined butterflies. She introduced herself as herself Aquarius Melchior but said I could call her Yogi Melchior.

She clad me in my first belly dance skirt of gold brocade. As I observed how this circle skirt, with its on retrospect incorrectly placed splits, altered the appearance of a simple hip circle or figure eight, it was as if I was having a religious experience. Later on I would wear circle skirts with correctly placed splits, skirts with one split, skirts straight and ruffled, gathered skirts, sequined skirts, Egyptian skirts, and skirts of many layers, but they never had the transforming effect on me as did that simple brocade skirt on that day at that peculiar studio.

It was almost like viewing, from the deck of The Great Bear, which would sail our family to America, the chalk cliffs of Dover. I was nine years old and the cliffs would be our first glimpse of a foreign land. They would appear at about 3:30 a.m., and only for a few minutes as we passed through the thick fog of the turbulent English Channel. At the appointed time, we arose reverently to view the distant cliffs and trembled. This magical reaction, like to the skirt, I've never been able to recapture as an adult traveler.

"Show me what you already know," said Aquarius Melchior, and then proceeded to watch me dance around the room. "Step, lift, " she screamed, as I went through my paces. Soon, however, Aquarius had different ideas. "But now, something very important dear, I must show you some yoga." She then proceeded to straddle and put her face on the floor and perform some other contortions I was unfamiliar with.

I visited Aquarius Melchior a number of times, charmed as much by her strangeness as by the costumes and the instruction. I suspected that yoga was more important to her and the dance offerings a colorful peripheral interest. I, on the other hand, was interested more in the dance and her skirts. On occasion she accompanied me to a local Armenian restaurant to watch the dancers and inform me with absolute certainty what movement was right and what was wrong, which skirts had correct splits and which incorrect.

I don't imagine Aquarius Melchior is around any longer, but in her fierce eccentricity, I see her now as a sort of role model. And oh, perhaps one small regret. I might have paid closer attention, because the old lady was right about the importance of yoga.




About the Author

Thea became enchanted with belly dance in the mid-seventies while living in Pasadena, California. She continued to study and perform after moving to San Diego in 1978, concurrently pursuing a career as a technical writer.

Although she still maintains a lively interest in belly dance and has written articles, poems, and commentaries for several dance publications, nowadays Thea's performance goals are more focused towards music. Trained in classical violin since her childhood in Holland, she holds a degree in music from Stanford University. After graduation, she expanded her musical interests to include recorder study and performance.




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