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?