Lately, I’ve seen a number of Teacher Certification programs spring up in the bellydance community. While this certainly isn’t a novel idea, “certification” certainly seems to be taking on a life of its own, which begs the question, what are we bellydancers supposed to make of all this?
We’re all familiar with longstanding programs such as Caroleena Nerrichio’s Teacher Training for American Tribal Style (ATS) and Suhaila Salimpour’s similar program for both her’s and her mother’s technique. Both programs expect aspiring teachers to demonstrate mastery of four or more levels of technique, a feat which takes years of study, before they are entrusted with passing on the technique to others. Rachel Brice recently introduced a similar certification program for her 8 Elements technique, which culminates in certification to teach after completing four weeklong intensives. But there are other programs which graduate students after only a day or more of training, such as Tamalyn Dallal’s two-day Teacher Training hosted annually in New York City through Bellyqueen. This is not to say that I think less of these teachers or their programs (I have only heard heaps of praise poured upon Tamalyn’s workshop), it’s just an interesting discrepancy that we need to explore and understand as a community so we can make educated decisions about when and where to get certified, if we decide to get certified at all.
On the one hand, I find this trend extremely exciting and promising. It tells me that bellydancers everywhere want to set standards in their communities to guarantee that students are learning from accomplished and knowledgeable teachers. But who is qualified to teach these programs? When I think back to my summers at ballet camp, I learned from some of the most amazing actively performing professional dancers, but they weren’t always the best teachers. In fact, the teachers I’ve loved the most in my career as a student often never had professional careers. They learned their art from the bottom up and were especially gifted at explaining the technique to others as well as assessing their students’ needs. My experience tells me that a widely acclaimed professional career doesn’t equate to a talent for teaching. For example, I worship the ground Dina walks on, but I’ve never heard anyone praise her teaching ability, and I’m not sure I’d sign up for her workshops even though I’d die for the opportunity to see her perform.
In terms of assessing the quality of the program (aside from the caliber of the teacher/organizer), I always find myself asking if the program ever fails anyone? Not all students are created equal, and while some students merit certification at the end of a program, others don’t. It’s a simple fact of reality. But are the program organizers willing to deny unqualified students a certificate, or are they satisfied taking other people’s money at the expense of their program’s and our community’s standards? In my opinion, handing in a big fat check should not guarantee you certification. Teachers should graduate a student only if the student is ready. This may require the teacher to allow retakes on exams or to give students additional time to study materials and practice their own technique. But a true teacher is always willing to find a solution for her students, even if it’s an extra hassle. While teaching is a business, certification programs should remember that teaching is also labor of love. If a student needs extra attention to complete a program, they should be given it free of charge.
If these programs want to minimize the risk of dealing with unqualified students, they should consider creating a thorough application process. By requiring potential students to complete multiple levels of training, the certification programs for ATS, Salimpour technique, and 8 Elements essentially weed out weak students and avoid making special arrangements for failing students at the level of teacher training. I think an application process is a great tool for shorter programs. Students can certainly learn a lot about good teaching methods in two days, but only if the entire group has a base level of expertise. If half the student body has been studying bellydance for under a year and has barely mastered intermediate technique, the quality of education for students who are actually ready to teach suffers greatly. I would recommend that certification organizers ask potential candidates for something akin to a dance resume, which describes the candidate’s dance education, performance experience, and choreographic accomplishments. This basic information will give organizers a good idea of who belongs in their program and who does not.
I’ve also heard arguments against all certification programs for teaching, but I have to disagree completely. Life is a learning process, and no one is born knowing everything about everything. Yes, the great bellydancers of past generations had nothing like certification programs and managed to have successful performing and teaching careers regardless. But is that because they didn’t need them or because those resources weren’t available at that time? I have great respect for people who actively pursue “continuing education” opportunities, and ideally, I would like to see all bellydance teachers have some sort of certification under their belt. Going through any teacher training program speaks volumes about your integrity as an educator and how much you care about the quality of your work.
At the end of the day, certification is certainly not something to be frowned upon. No one rolls their eyes at someone who has earned their 200-hr yoga certification. No one raises their eyebrows at someone who has gone through the American Ballet Theater’s National Training Curriculum. There is a concerted effort toward quantifiable professionalization in many movement disciplines, and the bellydance community would do well to join in this effort. Not only will it help us figure out who’s who in the community, but it will also give the public a safe and practical way to ensure that they’re getting what they pay for when it comes to dance education. That is something to which we can all look forward.