Wannabe Circle Dance Teachers Should Read This

by Debby Flavell

I wrote this in 1989. I was working towards a teaching diploma and had to observe an experienced teacher in action. I was blessed to be dancing with Andy on a weekly basis at that time. It was an interesting experience to analyse the way that he teaches dance. As you read the following you may be interested to learn that its not just knowing the steps, rhythms and background of a dance (although this is mighty helpful) that determines who and who isn't conveying their message, there is something subtle that differentiates a good teacher from an inspirational one. It is my sincere wish that I may be able to illustrate just a little of why I believe Andy is one of the most incredible dance teachers... no...TEACHER I have had the good fortune to encounter on my journey through life.. and dance!

I attend a weekly circle dance class. It is held on a Thursday evening in the Parish Hall at White Waltham in Berkshire. The group itself is quite an experienced one, but it is not unusual to have beginners or experienced 'new' people join the group at any time. There is a hard core of regulars which form the nucleus, the circle is complemented by others who for varying reasons are unable to come on a regular basis. This immediately creates a teaching challenge - very ably overcome by Andy Bettis (our Fearless Leader - a man who dares to dance where others have never dared to dance before!!)

The evenings quite often have a theme to them, varying from Greek, Russian, Macedonian or Israeli, such occasions as the winter and summer solstice, equinoxes, candlemas etc. are also used as themes at the appropriate times. Circle dance works on many different levels, mind, body and spirit, not to mention the connection we have with each other as a form of non-verbal communication. This communication is not be under rated, it can be extremely powerful. There is also a belief that we hold the energy of the dance for those who have danced before us and for those who will dance in the future. It is our way of manifesting in the physical the energetic form of many old dances. Whoever participates enters on which level or combination of levels that is right for them.

The evening I am writing about was a Greek evening. Here were 20 people taking part, mostly experienced with a couple of beginners. Andy was the first to arrive, he made sure that the heating and lights were switched on. He also checked that the floor was clear of anything that would be likely to cause injury to bare-footed dancers. While he was busy setting up the music and player, individuals started arriving. He kept a careful watch on everyone to make sure that the newcomers were not left standing on their own feeling 'out' of it.

This part of the evening is used mainly to socialise and greet members of the group - Andy was positioned near the door, so he was able to meet everyone as they arrived.

Some people were a little late in arriving. In order not to waste time and penalise those who had turned up on time, a simple line dance was taught to start the evening off. This allowed latecomers to join on the end of line when they arrived, an elegant solution wouldn't you agree?

When Andy was satisfied that all were assembled the group spent a couple of minutes 'arriving' physically, mentally and emotionally in the hall. We were then able to start the evening feeling grounded. Due to the presence of some newcomers a circle of names went around, so that already the group was coming together and everyone felt part of the circle.

The evening was then 'officially' started with a greeting dance from Kos, this was a very simple dance that enabled each member to acknowledge everyone else in the circle. This was done by either a smile, eye contact or a simple inclination of the head. This effectively bought the group together as a dancing community that just happened to be made up of individuals.

Eight dances were taught. Three completely new ones, three that had been included in previous evenings and two that were familiar old friends, known and loved. Careful thought had gone into the selection of the dances as they all flowed beautifully into one another. The mood of one dance complimenting the next. The speed built up with each dance and then slowed down again, the final dancing being of a meditative nature.

Two of the new dances were quite challenging - a good workout for our brain cells. The third new dance was relatively simple which gave us respite from concentration. The two familiar dances were good for increasing group confidence.

Andy's trademark humour was evident. He had a wonderfully light and humorous approach to teaching. He was aware that one or two people were having problems learning the steps. In order to put them at their ease and boost flagging morale, he announced that the only way to do circle dance incorrectly was not to enjoy it. He also said that if anyone got the steps wrong they were just doing a variation no-one had ever seen before. These observations helped to make everyone feel relaxed and prevented anyone from feeling inadequate or embarrassed.

Andy's method of teaching was to first give the name of the dance and a little history of it's origin. He was able to tell us whether a dance was for males, females or children and the appropriate style. He was able to explain the symbolism of the steps helping to de-code some of these very old dances.

He broke the dances down into parts which made it easier to assimilate. He first demonstrated explaining what he was doing. The group then had the opportunity to walk through it slowly with him, practising each component and then putting them together. Andy taught in the rhythm of the dance. This was a big help with the trickier rhythms. At all times Andy exhibited endless patience and welcomed queries. He was always more than happy to cover points not grasped initially. Once he was sure that everyone felt confident and happy he then mentioned finer points and occasionally a variation or two for those who were feeling adventurous.

Then is was on with the music... he talked everyone through at first, and then once he was sure things were going smoothly, he only mentioned the beginning of each different part of the dance. Each one was then repeated. He explained that the first time though was 'merely a rehearsal'. At all times Andy had gentle but firm control of the group. This was necessary because at times helpless laughter or discussion would break out at the end. His quiet leadership enabled us to hold and absorb the energy as a group.

Andy's teaching style catered for everyone's learning style. Demonstration for the visuals, walking through the steps for the kinesthetics, teaching in rhythm for the auditories, he even on a couple of occasions talked about 'smelling the sea air' and 'tasting the retsina'... all modalities were catered for! He also changed his position in the circle frequently, often dancing next to someone who felt a little unsure. Dancing next to Andy was a real confidence injection, his sure footedness could untangle the most confused feet.

Half way through we took a break for refreshments. Andy made a point of getting to know the newcomers which made them feel valued and respected. Being responsible and caring for his students was obviously important to him.

The second half had quite a different tone to it. Teaching was kept to a minimum. He walked the group through the steps as a reminder and then we danced the dance twice. This really allowed us to imbed the dance in our bodies. As mentioned earlier the evening was put together sensitively, the atmosphere changed subtly culminating in the meditation dance.

At the end of the evening there was an atmosphere of great peace and calm. Each person enveloped in their own experience, but at the same time being aware of the group dynamic and the healing energy of the dance. The blessing basket was passed around and blessed indeed we were. This also gave us the opportunity to share with the group any insights we had gained from our experience together. On a practical note it had the effect of grounding us, making our drive home a safe one.

Andy ensured the hall was left safe and secure... hugs all around under the starry skies of White Waltham.