The Bellydance Certification Craze

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 Suhaila Salimpour’s certifications for both her’s and her mother’s Suhaila Certification
technique, which expects aspiring teachers to demonstrate mastery of four or more levels of technique. This is a feat which takes years of study, and it’s clear that Suhaila doesn’t entrust others with the responsibility of sharing her techniques lightly.  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.

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 Salimpour technique and 8 Elements essentially weed out beginner 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.         


15 thoughts on “The Bellydance Certification Craze

  1. I’m not much “in the scene” anymore but I did notice an obsession with certification last year during Tribal Fest. At one point there was 15 or so girls sitting around and all of them had some (or multiple!) teacher trainings under their belt. Oddly I never pay attention to a dance teachers certification…..but I would only study Pilates or Yoga from someone who’s certified! Funny how my mind doesn’t correlate dance and certification-required. 🙂

    1. The dance world is definitely behind when it comes to quantifiable certification. To be frank, there are dance teachers in all genres of dance that get away with fraud. They wouldn’t know technique if it hit them in the face, and yet they take people’s money, tell them what they want to hear, and give students false hopes and dreams. And it’s strange because bad dance technique can permanently damage your body just as badly as a poorly executed asana. I certainly hope for change!

  2. Firstly, awesome post! Really enjoyed reading it and felt myself nodding along to a lot of what you were saying – you have a great voice and a way of writing that’s so easy to read.

    I agree with you to a huge extent on a lot of the points you mentioned in your post. Unfortunately I have heard that a lot of certification courses often pass out ALL of the students, regardless of whether they actually did well or not – kind of a “You paid for the certification” attitude. Which is clearly wrong, you pay for the course, the certification is something you EARN.

    When I started dance classes, there were 2 teachers. They took turns in teaching us week by week. One of them I could watch for HOURS and I admired her dancing so much, but she was a true artist – forgetful, creative and ambitious (which is scary for a beginner!). The other teacher took her time and taught us well, with carefully planned classes and good choreography, I wasn’t very enamored with her dancing though. They balanced each other out VERY well in the studio and learning from both of them was such a great experience. The problem (regarding this) in certification is that the great teachers are almost never known compared to the great dancers. I have very rarely heard “She’s such an amazing teacher!” with no comment on her dancing.

    The only place I would like to add in my 2 cents is with regards to the application process. In the USA something like that could work well – handing in a dance resumé of things you have done. The USA is very lucky that it boasts a lot of the worlds TOP fusion dancers. Being able to travel to another state for a week intensive is something I would do in a heartbeat, but instead here I sit in South Africa, a million miles and a VERY expensive plane ticket away. If the application process is something that is done, I might never get in to any courses. My dance career has been going since I was 16. I am now 20. No 16-20 year old can afford a certification course as well as accommodation and a plane ticket (with the plane ticket alone being close to R20 000). A lovely dancer from NYC sent me her dance resumé for me to get an idea of what a dance resumé might look like. I was immediately disheartened – she had trained extensively with many famous teachers and travelled all over the world doing dance-related things. How could I compare to somebody like that?

    I guess what I’m saying (in short) is that as a first world country its easy to try and set standards when it is all easily and readily available to you, when I live in a third world country (thank goodness not too bad) and that kind of thing is out of my reach, at least for the next few years while I try to get my business off the ground and still keep dancing.

    Sorry for the REALLY long comment, but I spent all day brooding and thinking about this. 🙂 I’m sure there is more I could say, but I think I’m just going to shut up now. 😛

    1. I’m sure any reasonable program director would take your situation into consideration. You dance in a small, distant bellydance community. Naturally, you won’t have had the same opportunities to workshop with well-known dancers. Also, program directors understand that younger dancers don’t have the money to trot all over the globe. They’re not going to dock you points, because of your situation. If anything, your international status makes you MORE desirable. You’d be bringing their techniques to a community that wouldn’t be able to get them otherwise. You’re spreading your teacher’s name in a community she wouldn’t otherwise access. Put a positive spin on your international angle, and trust me, you’ll get into your first choice programs.

      But third world vs. first world debate aside, I KNOW you have a strong dance resume. Four years of training with multiple teachers is nothing to scoff at. Plus you’ve have a lot of performance experience at bellydance festivals, student haflas, and a few professional gigs (if I’m remembering correctly). Plus, you’ve developed some great choreographies and think critically about your dance practice on your blog (you’re blog SHOULD go on your dance resume, btw). When you put all of these factors together you have a VERY STRONG dance resume, and if you still have doubts, I’m happy to help you put one together (I’ve been working with my college dance advisor on this exact thing) so that you’re really highlighting your strengths rather than leading with your weaknesses.

      As always, thanks for reading! ❤

      1. Also if I might add there are great online courses / skype online lessons ect. That make it possible to prepare/ become familiar with the material in advance before traveling to study.. i.e.
        Where everyone in her program even the local students train/study for the certs bcause one week long or 1-2 classes a week would not be enough for most to be successful in some of the more challenging programs. Im not sure about others programs but I’ve also seen private lessons offered via Skype that you could possibly check out! Good luck!!! And great article @ Jenna shear!

  3. Very well written! I too am excited about the standards that we as a community are attempting to push forth. I have been teaching Middle Eastern dance in NYC for about 10 years now and that is my main job. I perform at commemorative events and in theaters, but teaching is what I enjoy the most. The feminist in me does not not allow me to overlook what is so blatant in many cabaret style dance venues. I find that I can empower and really share what this dance means to me more effectively in a studio and I really do hope that we see an emergence of caring and qualified instructors in the city. On my end, i am working on it…… 🙂
    Very refreshing to have you in our community! Keep up the honest/good work!

  4. I think much of this has to do with the requirements of certain teaching venues…if you want to teach at gyms, fitness centers, and sometimes even universities, you generally need to hold certifications (or really fight to prove why you’re still a good candidate without one). Generic fitness or training certifications don’t fit this dance, so a new market was born. It’s like many fields; to some, you have to earn those letters and that shiny piece of paper to prove your worth or proficiency.

    1. Now that I’m graduating, I’ve been thinking a lot about expanding my teaching into the fitness/gym world, and the whole fitness certification issue has been weighing on my mind. If you have any advice, please let me know! I’m planning on reaching out to Mimi Fontana about this (she’s got all sorts of fitness certs and does a lot of work in the fitness world), so I’ll let you know what she says!

      Thanks for reading, and it was awesome seeing you and your beau at the Met the other night. I think I drooled all over the exhibit!

  5. I appreciated reading your post…I think this whole bellydancing thing has become ridiculous…I decided to take up bellydancing on my own at home as a form of fitness and losing weight and have quite a collection of different dvds. I almost didn’t do this, why??? because unfortunately there are a lot of snobs out there who say it has to be done this way and that way…what did women do before there was a “right way” and wrong way” to do this? lol They just writhed their gorgeous bodies in motion and it didn’t matter…it was a celebration regardless. Not everybody’s bodies move the same because we are all individuals with different physiological parts. Some move a certain way and some don’t. I encourage all women and even some men if they so wish to bellydance. Some of these men I have seen are awesome at it! Don’t over think the process to it. Just enjoy it.

    1. Just to play devil’s advocate here, I think those “snobs” are really just attempting to maintain professional standards within the community. Many amateur dancers make the decision to “go pro” way too early in their careers. For professional caliber dancers who have poured thousands of dollars and hours into their training, it’s very frustrating to lose a gig to some newbie dancer who bought herself a bedlah and some business cards after two months of training. Of course bellydance is going to look different on every woman’s body, but you shouldn’t be reaping the rewards without putting in the hours and hours of behind-the-scenes work. They aren’t trying to suck the celebratory aspects out of bellydance, they’re just trying to make a living and keep bellydance professional like any other art form. I’m sure the women you’re referring to could phrase their opinions much much more politely, but it’s important to see both sides.

      Either way, congratulations on joining the fun regardless of what other people say! Not everyone has that kind of confidence and determination.

    2. Nicole, there is a BIG difference between bellydancing just for fun and a hobby, and quite another to teach it and perform it. There is room for both in the community for sure! You sound like you want to do it for fun, and good or bad technique doesn’t concern you. As a hobbyist, it doesn’t have to. But once you get into performing for the public, or teaching others to dance, then you have a greater responsibility and should train more to attain and retain certain standards.

      More power to you in your dance!

  6. Great topic and great comments too. I also feel that the belly dance certification craze is starting to get out of control and at one point, too many certification programs will cheapen the whole system no matter how noble the initial certification programs are/were. I believe these certification programs (and competitions, which have also been popping up more and more) are in-part the result of the bad economy forcing instructors to become more creative with income earning.

    People interested in these programs should be careful with the certification details to make sure they are getting a good belly dance education from a quality instructor that is worth the certification fee.

  7. Enjoyed reading your post!

    Just an aside, ATS training does not remand “four levels of training” or “demonstrated skill”. It is a certification of participation. You show up for all the hours, you get the certificate.

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