Mentor, sensei, coach, guru.

A few of my colleagues in belly dance and I have talked about and agree that our community rarely seems to value or seek out a mentor/student relationship.  We very rarely have the equivalents of gurus, senseis, or athletic coaches.  Belly dancers take classes and workshops and all of a sudden – tada! – they’re performing and teaching.  But to have a teacher who we truly trust to guide us throughout our training and learning?  That’s very special and often quite rare.

In my past life, as some of you know, I was a competitive figure skater for 14 years.  Through most of those 14 years, I had a primary coach who was my teacher, my friend, and a mentor.  Of course, I trained with other coaches as well, but I would say that of all of my teachers, I would only call two of them mentors. They looked out for what was best for me, and guided me through tough times, worked with me and my strengths and pushed me when I needed pushing.  I trusted them, even when I had bad days, when I fell on every jump, and when I didn’t even want to be at the rink.  And in the figure skating world, if you are competing and you don’t have a coach (something that usually only happens at the Senior/International/Olympic level), it’s a very odd thing indeed.

Why do we lack this phenomenon in belly dance? It’s certainly not as if we don’t have dancers and instructors who have decades of experience to impart on newer and younger generations of dancers.

First of all, I don’t think it’s in our community’s culture.  We aren’t told from the beginning that such a relationship is important or valuable.  We take classes with a local instructor, and they are our teacher, but usually not a mentor. Second, many teachers in this community aren’t trained as teachers, so many teachers haven’t had concrete guidance on how to impart their knowledge to their students.  (I know I had to wing it for a long time before I even felt I had a handle on the teaching thing, and I even had past experience teaching skating.)  Third, we have a culture of “workshop learning”, where we take lots of workshops from different teachers (which is awesome, and I wholly support this!), but rarely do we connect with just one teacher and go to her for personal guidance.  And fourth, I believe that because so many of us come into this dance as adults that we are less likely to seek out a mentor or think that we might need one.  It might be more natural for a child or young adult to find a mentoring relationship natural or acceptable than for a grown woman who already has children or is married or has been living on her own for many years.

And not every teacher has to be a mentor, but I think a mentoring relationship is incredibly important to a dancer’s technical, professional, and emotional development as an artist and performer.  The mentor is an archetype in all cultures and societies because in order to grow, we must find our guru, someone whom we can trust, even when she puts us in uncomfortable situations.  The mentor appears throughout mythology, ancient and contemporary. One of our earlier mentor characters is, of course, Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey, who guided and taught Odysseus’ son Telemachus while Odysseus struggled to find his way home to his wife and child.  The mentor also appears in contemporary myths, such as Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker seeks the guidance of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, even if he doubts himself in the process of becoming a Jedi and even when Yoda puts him through what seem to be impossible tasks.

We can all benefit from such a relationship, regardless of our age or experience… Even mentors have mentors.  Having a mentor teaches us not only more about our art and its history and culture, but also gratitude, humbleness, and respect.

Of course, my advice to all of you would be to find a mentor.  Find a wise instructor not only whom you trust, but also will take you under their wing and guide you.  Your mentor doesn’t even need to live in the same area as you; many of us have mentors who live quite far away, but of course learning from them in person is imperative.  And remember, everyone has different needs and goals in this dance form, so make sure you find a mentor who understands what you seek but will also guide you in directions of which you might not have previously considered.  A true mentor will look out for what is truly best for you, even if that means being in uncomfortable situations or being a bit scared.  How else would Luke Skywalker have become a Jedi if it weren’t for Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda?

 

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I love this piece. I am a baby dancer of 2 1/2 years that is trying to grasp the origins of belly dance. It is a much bigger Universe than I ever knew and I still have a ton of questions. My instructor thus far has listened to my goals and intentions of performing and I feel she has done a great job in guiding me along the way. She even recommended your upcoming lecture on the Salimpour Legacy and learning the roots of tribal. It’s so much easier to guide someone in life rather than burn in jealous competition, isn’t it?

 

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I happy I stumbled across this article today!
Is this a service that you offer Asharah?

 

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    Kandice – I’m honored that you ask… But I’m not sure I’m experienced enough to offer mentoring services. I have mentored my own students, dancers who have worked with me on a weekly basis when I was teaching regular classes in Washington, DC. In order to mentor, I think I’d need to work with someone either in person or through video lessons (via Skype or similar) to really feel like I can guide any dancer to being the best she can be.

     

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Seriously, thank you for this post! I’ve been arguing for more mentorship in our community for a while, and it’s very reassuring to see my ideas reflected in the opinions of someone I respect. I think mentorship would go a long way toward preventing young dancers from going pro too early in their careers as well as preventing uninformed folkloric and fusion pieces.

However, in terms of finding my own mentor, I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. As an undergrad, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on regular classes, and instead opt for a deep at-home practice. I find that many teachers aren’t willing to take you under their wing if you aren’t “supporting” them financially via classes and workshops. So while I attend performances with my favorite dancers/teachers and support them at least as a regular audience member, I don’t know how to take the relationship to a deeper mentor-like level. I know they want me in their regular classes, but that just isn’t in the cards for me. Is there any advice you could give me?

 

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    Jenna – I wish I had a good answer. I know money is tight, but really, I think the only way to find a teacher that you can work with is to go out and take classes. You’re lucky, being in NYC, where there are so many instructors. Working at home is fabulous, but I really think that taking regular classes is the way to go, but everyone’s financial situation is different. Ideally, I’d love to see dancers who can take classes from reputable teachers in their area do it. I know there are dancers in areas where there just aren’t qualified teachers, but girl! You’re in NYC! You’ve got Sera and Mimi Fontana and Dalia Carella and Elena Lentini and the ladies of BellyQueen and so many others! You might even be able to work out something with these instructors by emailing them and telling them, “Hey, look, I’m a student and finances are tight, but I want to work with a teacher. Can we meet once or twice a month, or can I work out a payment plan?”

    Then from there, the mentorship can begin, but it takes time. I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing that can be formed instantaneously, but I do know that it takes work on the part of the student and the teacher… and not all teachers want to do the work of being a mentor either.

     

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I feel like I have lots of mentor-acquaintances but no really solid mentors, if that makes sense… The community where I live is very supportive–maybe more of an “it takes a village to raise a belly dancer” mentality? 😉 But I think I’m afraid of forming a mentor relationship…what if I want someone to be my Jedi master, but she doesn’t want me as a padawan? Being rejected by someone you admire is hard to take…

 

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    Ali: It’s tricky… I wish I had an answer. I am encouraged, though, that the response to this blog has been a lot of dancers saying, “I would love a mentor if they would have me.” I wish there were mentors for them all… Right now I feel like I don’t have enough experience to mentor, but maybe in another 10 years. I love teaching and watching my students grow.

    Also, you have one of the best e-mail addresses I’ve seen in a while. I <3 Delirium.

     

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Haaaaaaaahahahaha thank you!!!! I spend sooo much time explaining it to people, but when someone gets it, it’s totally worth it. ;D Delirium is my favorite.

 

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Hey Asharah,
Thanks for the responding. I’ve studied in DC with you and really Love your teaching style. Once I get a new computer maybe we can follow up about the skype sessions. I do have a video online and would Love your feedback on that one in particular. You are a busy woman so no pressure. Hope all is well!
Light and Love,
Kandice

 

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