“Teaching Belly Dance” by Sara Shrapnell: A Review

“Teaching Belly Dance” by Sara Shrapnell: A Review

Published in issue 52 of Bellydance Oasis

Teaching Belly Dance by Sara Shrapnell aims to be a comprehensive book about setting up, planning, teaching and running belly dance classes. At 257 large-size pages, it contains loads of material and it’s evident that the author has many years and thousands of hours of experience (in the UK and USA).

The structure is intuitive. It begins with sections on how to decide whether teaching is for you, how to choose venues, advertise, prepare and present yourself; as well as dealing with students of various personalities. Later segments look at basic business and accounting skills, insurance and ethics. These are all aspects of running a school which you may not have thought of if you have only ever been a student or performer, but they can make or break your business!

The bulk of the book is dedicated to creating curriculum. Importantly, Sara does not attempt to tell the reader what to teach; instead, she offers suggestions and questions to help you decide. What do you want your students to achieve – overall, this year, this term? Do you want them to learn lots of moves, or a choreography to perform? Are you going to focus on teaching them to improvise, or maybe the history and different styles of belly dance? From these overall goals, she offers examples and advice on breaking it down into a week by week plan, and from there into individual lesson plans and music selection. There are many tips on how to structure your class time, as well as detailed examples.

The book contains suggestions for safe warm-ups and cool-downs, and even considers which way the teacher should face. It considers the different styles of class plans that you may need for continuous as opposed to term-based classes, workshops and fill-in classes for other teachers. Stagecraft and emotion in performance are discussed, as well as fun activities for the end of term. There’s a whole section on producing events such as haflas and student showcases. The appendix even includes templates for waivers, performance contracts, teaching contracts and student handouts. There’s a short glossary in the back, but to be honest I would be worried about anyone who thinks they’re ready to teach if they aren’t already very familiar with all of the terms.

One section that I really appreciated looked at different learning styles. Although I am already aware of this as a psychologist, it’s always great to be reminded and hear another perspective. Sara gives step by step explanations of how you could teach a particular move to students with various learning styles – some requiring a detailed breakdown, others needing a story or visual imagery to help them. We each have our approach to dance, which is the one that works for us personally, but when we teach it’s important to remember that our students are diverse in their needs and learning styles. I also enjoyed her character sketches of some of the many personalities that teachers may encounter over the years. It’s entertaining, but also a sobering reminder of the potential significance of what we teachers do.

Overall the book is well structured and well written, with no obvious omissions. The author’s voice is clear and has personality and gravitas, but is never big-noting herself: it really feels like advice from an older, wiser colleague / mentor. There’s no index unfortunately, and the table of contents could be formatted better, but the layout is generally quite clear and easy to read. As a self-confessed pedant, I was glad to see that the proofreading was thorough: no frustrating spelling or grammatical errors!

Of course, no book can make you a brilliant teacher, just as no book can make you a brilliant dancer. You need many years of dance experience with a variety of teachers, plus a swathe of organisational and interpersonal skills, and the willingness to start small and keep learning. It takes motivation, dedication and lots of practice! Having a real life mentor to help you will make a huge difference to your development as a teacher. However, this book will certainly offer you many tools and wise guidance along the path. It’s essential for anybody just starting out, and would be a valuable resource even for those who are established in their teaching, because we can always learn new skills and approaches to bring into the classroom.

Teaching Belly Dance by Sara Shrapnell retails for US$28.95 on Amazon. More information: http://www.teachingbellydance.com

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