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As I mentioned in Part 1, dance ability is important, but dance ability does not always equate to teaching ability. In fact, there are many excellent dancers/performers whose teaching ability doesn’t compare at all. So the next thing to look for in an instructor is… wait for it… teaching ability!
Now how can you tell who is a great teacher? I’m glad you asked! One of the most straightforward ways to start research is to ask around about who is a great teacher. Doing this may get you some decent information. However, much of this information will be second-hand, and can often be colored by personal feelings, preferences, or opinions. Not everyone learns the same way, as we are all unique individuals; it pays to do your own research when it comes to finding a good teacher.
One of the easiest ways to check out someone’s teaching ability is to… you probably guessed it… take one of their classes or workshops (I’m knocking out the more obvious ways first)! This is the simplest way to get first-hand knowledge of someone’s teaching ability. Some teachers offer a free first class or something similar to potential new students, so that potentially minimizes upfront investment. While taking the class, here are some things to look at. Do you like the way he/she explains or demonstrates things? Is he or she able to effectively control the flow of the class? Does he or she allow for questions? Do you like his or her personality and/or way of speaking to students? Does he/she teach technique or just patterns? Does the class address both leads and follows? If a partnership is teaching, do both partners speak and add to the class, or does only one person get to talk? If the instructor is solo, can he/she teach both leading and following? Does he/she try to cater to different learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.), or is the teaching one-dimensional? And last but not least,
DID YOU LEARN SOMETHING FROM THE CLASS?
I often like to say that you can learn something from most teachers, even if it’s what NOT to do, but if what NOT to do is what is all that you’re learning from a teacher, it probably isn’t a good idea to keep investing your resources in that particular instructor. Now, time and resources don’t always allow us to invest in teachers before we have an idea of their teaching ability, so I will point out some things you can look at without having to take a class.
In my opinion, the best way to get an idea of an instructor’s teaching ability without taking a class is to take a look at their students. I often say that a dance instructor’s product is his or her students. If an instructor has been teaching a dedicated student for say, 6 months or so, that student should have been taught enough to at the very least have some solid basics. So dancing with or watching an instructor’s student’s dance is a very educational experience. You can use some of the same criteria that I mentioned in Part 1: lead/follow ability, ability to dance well to actual Kizomba music (not just Ghetto Zouk, Tarraxinha etc.), so on and so forth. Sometimes you will see instructors who are excellent dancers, and yet none of their students are even close to being decent dancers! This is a huge red flag.
Of course you generally wouldn’t expect a student to be on the same level as an instructor, but if a student has been taking lessons from an instructor for more than 6 months or so with a relatively low increase in said student’s skill level… this is definitely not a good sign, and certainly worth looking into further. There are instructors who believe that as they only need to be “a little bit better than their students”, rapidly increasing the level of their students isn’t in their best interest, as it would put added pressure on the instructor to actually invest in their own development as a dancer… which leads me to my next topic.
In my opinion, arguably the most important characteristic for a great instructor to have over the long term is
COMMITMENT TO CONTINUE LEARNING THE DANCE HE OR SHE ACTUALLY TEACHES.
So for Kizomba, it is a Kizomba instructor’s duty to his or her students to continually invest in their own development as a KIZOMBA/SEMBA dancer so as to provide value to their students, as generally people can’t teach what they don’t know. So many instructors these days talk about “always remaining a student first” or posting social media posts with #neverstoplearning, #alwaysastudent or the like, but how many of them practice what they preach? Not as many as any of us would prefer.
Now, before I go deeper into this topic, I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t as applicable to those who have been dancing Kizomba/Semba their whole lives or something to that effect. Of course, nobody knows everything about Kizomba/Semba, and there’s always something new to learn, but this topic is mainly geared to those who, like me, did not grow up dancing Kizomba/Semba.
A great instructor should be very invested in training with and learning from those who are more advanced IN THE DANCE THE INSTRUCTOR TEACHES in order to develop themselves as dancers and instructors. For the sake of clarity, I will describe what will not count as “training” for purposes of this topic.
For purposes of this topic, watching YouTube videos does NOT count as “training”. Although I understand the advantages of trying to use YouTube to learn, since it’s free and relatively accessible, it is not a substitute for training in person. You can learn steps from YouTube, but Kizomba isn’t really about steps or moves, it’s about HOW YOU MOVE, and you simply cannot learn that from YouTube. And as instructors, our understanding of how to MOVE and utilize proper technique needs to be rock-solid, and this cannot be developed without investing ample time training with more advanced instructors. Unfortunately, YouTube seems to be the basis for many instructors’ training, and this is a pretty sad state of affairs, as this is truly a disservice to students who pay instructors to learn. If all a student gets from an instructor is badly regurgitated from YouTube, the student might as well just save their money and watch the YouTube videos themselves! I am not saying, however, that an instructor must be perfect before teaching, as very few of us in places like the US were perfect when we started teaching (or are perfect now lol), but there should be a significant effort to continue training while teaching. I only have an issue with instructors who stop learning once they start teaching, but more on that later.
In addition to YouTube learning, learning dances other than what the instructor actually teaches doesn’t count as “training” for purposes of this topic either. So for a Kizomba instructor, in this instance, learning from instructors who teach dances other than Kizomba or Semba (since Kizomba comes from Semba) does not count as “training” for a Kizomba instructor. So Tango, Bachata, Zouk, Tarraxinha (or Tangoxinhazoukchata as I like to call them collectively), etc. do NOT count. While it is true that learning elements of other dances can and does help make one a better overall dancer (and I have had instruction in Salsa, Bachata, Tango, Cha Cha, Zouk, etc., enjoyed it all, and have found it useful), it is more important for a teacher to actually learn more about the dance that said teacher purports to teach. Tango, Bachata, Zouk, etc., although they are fun and often combined with Kizomba in “evolutions”, “fusions” and “new styles”, are NOT KIZOMBA. Even Tarraxinha, though it is also from Angola and when learned properly can be a great addition to Kizomba when certain music is played, is NOT KIZOMBA. The best and only true way to master a dance is to procure extensive instruction IN THAT DANCE.
It is also a good idea to differentiate between training via group/festival classes versus private lessons. Although it is possible to learn a lot from group classes (and my partner and II enjoy taking group classes when we can), for an instructor private lessons generally enable one to go deeper and gain a more complete understanding of techniques, culture, etc., or in other words, both the “how” and the “why” of Kizomba/Semba. Group classes, by their very nature, usually have more students, and therefore instructors will adjust the level and/or pace of the class to accommodate the differing levels in the room. And many group/festival classes these days focus more on patterns and steps and rarely go deeper than that. An instructor, however, needs to know more than simply how to do a bunch of choreographed steps. To be able to teach effectively, an instructor’s understanding of the dance and how it relates to the music should be much deeper and more complete than mere choreographed steps, and the best way to achieve this understanding is through private instruction.
HOW TO TELL WHICH INSTRUCTORS ARE COMMITTED TO LEARNING
So, the million dollar question… how can one tell which instructors are truly committed to their development as Kizomba/Semba dancers and instructors? Well, the easiest way is pretty straightforward… just ask them who they have trained with or currently train with and who their mentors are. Be sure to ask whether the training was in Kizomba/Semba, and whether the training was via group lessons or private instruction. Any instructor worth their salt should be more than happy to discuss who they have learned from and who their mentors are. Not all instructors are quite as open as my partner Monica Kay and I are about whom we train with, but if an instructor refuses to answer a direct question about their training/lineage, then that’s a HUGE red flag.
Now, there might be a few reasons an instructor might be hesitant to respond to such a question. There are some instructors who never take group classes but do seek out private instruction in part because they do not want to publicize the fact that they are still learning. Why? Well, perhaps such instructors are worried that their “status” as an “expert”, “founder”, “master”, etc. might be questioned or undermined if people knew that they were still taking lessons and/or who they were learning from. Or perhaps they worry that if students knew, they might forego taking lessons from them, instead opting to take lessons with the higher level instructor. But since very few of us, particularly in younger scenes like the US, are skilled enough to be considered “experts” of Kizomba, this should not be a concern, as any instructor who isn’t an expert SHOULD be investing in developing and honing their craft. In fact, I don’t think there are any instructors in the US right now that can accurately consider themselves so expert that they don’t need to learn anymore, so we should ALL be striving to continue learning. There is no shame in seeking to better oneself as a dancer and instructor, but the same can’t be said for those who neglect to do so, which brings me to the next reason.
Another reason an instructor might not want to answer is that they realize deep down that they haven’t invested much at all in their development as a dancer. Because of the relatively low level/knowledge of Kizomba students in younger scenes like the US, quite a few instructors see an opportunity and seek to exploit it, so they go to a few festivals, take a few classes, and MAYBE a private lesson or two, and then start teaching, at which point they start neglecting their own development in favor of more commercial aspects, such as marketing, etc. Instructors who believe that they only need to be “a bit better than their students” don’t prioritize leveling up unless they absolutely have to, which of course doesn’t incentivize them to level their students up rapidly because this would force said instructors to continue investing in their own development to stay ahead of their students. This is part of the reason why you sometimes will see students who have been learning from an instructor for six months or more yet have little to show for it by way of skill level.
Sometimes instructors will seek to sidestep the admittedly tough path to really mastering the fundamentals of Kizomba/Semba by creating “fusions”, “new styles”, “evolutions”, etc. And as I stated in my blog post “Putting the Cart before the Horse”, I have no problem with personal styles, fusions or dancing differently to different music, as I have my own personal style and dance differently to different music, but if you’re going to teach “fusions” or “new styles”, you should first learn and teach the fun