How to Teach a Dance Style That’s Foreign to Your Culture
March 16, 2022

Before one of my flamenco classes at Cleveland State University, several students reviewed a step they had learned in the previous class—a subida step, which is used to speed up the tempo. But just like a language, if students place the accent on the wrong sound, the step doesn’t line up musically and it won’t communicate what it’s meant to communicate.

I approached a student who seemed frustrated. She said her usual approach to learning movement wasn’t working. And so we started talking about how flamenco, being from a different culture, must also be learned in a different way, as well. I began to realize that to teach a dance foreign to one’s own culture, one must use a wealth of perspectives and be open to learning in a new way, not just learning of new material. This one-on-one discussion flowed into a full-class discussion where I candidly shared my experience learning flamenco.

Although I grew up very much immersed in a flamenco community in New Mexico, it took me years to realize that some of my own challenges in flamenco were of my own making—by trying to learn my way and not flamenco’s way. I remember asking my mentor, Nélida Tirado, about this during my first extended trip to Spain, and she said that what I really needed was to experience the compás (rhythm) of everyday life in Andalucía—the streets, the way people interact, and so on. But studying in a foreign country is not an option for everyone, especially right now, with the uncertainty of travel and limitations on who can travel. In fact, I don’t think there even needs to be a paradigm shift in how we learn something from another culture. Here are some tips to consider no matter when and where you choose to study:

Learn the Language

Language has structures that shape our logic and reasoning and how we reason and express ourselves. You will have access to a lot more information on a dance form if you speak the language of the culture from which it comes. You can start with apps like Duolingo, find someone trying to learn English you could do a language exchange with, or enroll in continuing education classes at a local community college. 

Find a Teacher/Mentor

Just because a teacher is from the country/culture of origin doesn’t mean they know everything about the dance style or are “authentic.” So, how do you choose a mentor? Look at who the teacher/mentor studied with and their professional experience. Ask them how they teach: Do they teach the culture and musical structures along with the dance technique and choreography? Do they acknowledge their lineage? Are they continuing to grow and learn too? Observe them teaching. It’s very clear what an artist values when you see them teaching and how they interact with students and what they emphasize.  

Get Multiple Perspectives

This goes for teachers as well as resources. Devour books on the history and culture (there will be more written resources in the original language). Watch videos. Take workshops online or in person when possible. Dance must be learned not just by doing, but also by understanding the context. Talk to experts in history, anthropology or economics to understand how or why a form developed as it did and the meaning embedded and embodied in the movements.

Seek Out Stories

Talk to people from the culture and the profession. Hear the stories that surround the dance. Whether it’s myths about important figures or stories from a weekly dance class, these stories will help you understand the culture, atmosphere and lineage of a form. And be sure to listen to the elders who have years of experiences and wisdom to share. When attending festivals or competitions, ask performers or teachers questions about personal career lineage or how they learned the form.

Analyze Videos

It’s easy to sit back and get wowed by fancy steps or technical prowess. But make sure you question and analyze why, when and where certain steps are used. Techniques develop as efficient or ideal ways to carry out a movement, and the “ideal” is shaped by cultural context. In flamenco, sudden explosions of footwork or even the nuance of a wrist circle reflect what’s happening in the music. I always ask myself: Why did that dancer choose to put that step there? And what was happening within the community of performers in that moment?

Listen to and Understand the Music

Most dance forms are deeply entwined with music. From my own experience, studying music theory with American flamenco artist Marija Temo was when things finally started to click. Marija was able to explain why and how flamenco evoked certain emotions and pushed me to choreograph in new ways from the music. I had to let go of prior ways of dancing that had been “good enough” for years but weren’t fully acknowledging flamenco’s structures. Another way to understand the music is to learn to play the musical instruments used to accompany a dance form.

Take the Time to Understand the Movement

I’ve seen many “class” dancers— they’re in every class, but they’re following and swept up in the energy of the class and may not actually understand what’s happening. Make sure you understand the technique on your body with somatic awareness. Practice slowly, articulating each gesture. In flamenco, I see many dancers who want to do fast footwork and fast arm circles. If they never slow down, they don’t build the correct musicality or sound of the feet. The slower you move, the more conscious you can be of each cell in your body.

Find a Community

Community is often essential to studying dance from other cultures, whether it’s because the form depends on community or to share challenges, resources and ideas with others. The internet allows you to make connections with others who are studying the same form, or you could also look at creating a weekly or monthly get-together or jam session (if that makes sense with the form) to discuss the form you’re studying.

Remember: You never arrive. There’s no end to learning any dance form, especially since it’s tied to learning about ourselves and our relationship to the world. Even dance forms from our own cultures never cease to provide an expanding horizon.

What I hope you will do, however, is dissect how you approach learning and analyze your own learning styles. We often question whether someone is right- or left-brained, or is a visual, aural or experiential learner. But we often leave out the question about how our own cultural values might affect how we learn and what we value.

As dance teachers, we need to ask ourselves: How do we create cultural elements in the classroom when teaching culturally rooted forms? How do we encourage students to learn in a different way than what they’re used to? Apart from asking what you need to learn, start asking how you need to learn.

I think a great place to start is having these conversations and discussions between your colleagues and your students. By letting go of your usual learning or teaching methods in order to grasp a different culture’s logic, sense and meaning, you can let go of imitating and truly begin to understand a dance form from the inside out.

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