Dancer's Diary February '17

Where did February go?!  It disappeared in a flurry of dancing.

Here are a few thoughts and tips I have to share with you from the last month in the dance world...

  • Top Tip for pupils ~ how to identify a bad dance teacher
  • Top Tip for teachers ~ not a tip as such, more an invitation
  • Video of the month ~ Alvin Ailey does it again
  • My dance story for the month is ~ gross.  The gross-est.  It has a warning
  • Pic of The Month ~ there's always a good one from Carnival in Rio
  • Reader's question of the month ~ where are all the dance teachers?
  • And finally ~ massive news of the Rudolf Nureyev type

How not to mess up your first dance class

Each month, I choose one topic for pupils and one for teachers directly related to getting the most from adult dance classes...

Top tip for pupils ~
how to spot a bad dancer teacher

How can you tell if you’re in a bad dance class?

It’s simple.  Do you ever feel uncomfortable?  Yes?  Then get away.
Physically and emotionally, you should always feel comfortable in your class.

Now, what one person finds comfortable, another person won’t.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to say ‘this teaching is good, this teaching is bad’.  Let me explain.

Personally, I don’t think negative reinforcement is ever good.  A teacher who shouts at you in front of the whole class for doing something wrong fills me with horror.  But it has to be said that some pupils actually respond well to this type of teaching, and in fact can thrive in a hyper-strict environment, claiming that it pushes them and challenges them and forces them to do better.

Do you need a firm hand?  Do you only respond or learn from someone strict and shout-y?  If so, there are dance teachers out there who will ‘put you through your paces’ and be strict, firm, loud and possibly into negative reinforcement.  If you honestly work best in this kind of environment, then go for it – it suits some pupils and I do understand that. 

I was speaking about this very subject recently and was approached by a woman who was very happy in her adult beginner’s classes.  She told me about her teacher “She’s very hard on us, she doesn’t put up with any nonsense”. 

Now, this approach clearly worked for this woman – she enjoyed the strictness.  But in my world, ‘doesn’t put up with any nonsense’ can be code for ‘a bit of a bitch’, and straight-talking should never be an excuse for bad manners.

Have you ever come across a person who says…

  • I’m a straight-talker
  • I pull no punches
  • I say it like it is
  • I don’t mess around
  • I don’t suffer fools

Often this is shorthand for I’m rude, full of my own self-importance, always right, and think empathy is for idiots.

Look, I can be straight, no-nonsense, direct and truthful.  But never ever at the expense of being approachable, fair and above all, kind.  I’m sure you’re the same.  And therefore deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

This is what I know from my many, many years of studying dance classes for adult beginners and seeing what has success and what doesn’t: The vast majority of adult beginners are going to classes for fun, for relaxation, for physical exercise that’s elegant and graceful, and to be treated as grown-ups.  Not to be yelled at or humiliated – in fact it’s the very fear of this that keeps most people from signing up in the first place.

There is no rule that says if you want to learn to dance, you have to put up with being screamed at or embarrassed.
I believe that you should be encouraged, invited and inspired to dance, not commanded or threatened or ashamed into it.

So, to sum up:

If you find that you are ever uncomfortable in a class, then that’s a bad class for you, a bad teacher for you and you should simply leave.  Don’t ever put up with discomfort in the name of dance, it just isn’t necessary. 

If straight-talking and a very strict teacher suits you, find one.  Just don’t let that attitude tip over into bad manners – you’re the customer, after all.  And it isn’t the only way to teach dance.

If you want and need a gentler approach to feel comfortable, don’t tolerate anything less – there are warm, fun, calm teachers out there who will suit you perfectly.

Find what makes you comfortable and don’t accept anything else.

Top Tip for teachers ~
not a tip actually, but an invitation

It's time for our annual shout-out when we accept applications from guest editors to have their own section on

Our partner dances are taught by an ex-DWTS pro dancer
Our Ballet section by an ex-teacher at The Royal Ballet.
Is this your standard?

So let’s assume you’re one of the good teachers.  In fact, one of the best.  You put careful thought and attention into your classes and into inspiring your pupils.  Their success is your success and you love for them to be happy, realizing that people dance best when they’re happy and that it’s nearly impossible to make a good dancer out of an unhappy or unwilling pupil.

So why not then become a guest editor for  You get to have your very own section on the site, about your own specialist dance style.  This year, to complement information that we already have, we're looking for excellent dance teachers to add their own stamp to our following sections:-

  • Flamenco
  • Tap
  • Jazz
  • Belly / Egyptian
  • Pole dance

If you specialize in one of these styles, and (this is important) have good quality original video that's aimed at adult beginners, then we will post your videos on, and will help you write a whole section about your teaching methods and your advice to adult beginners, and promote your classes or studio too.  You could capture a whole new audience for your teaching.

The brilliant Emeroy Bernardo wrote our very popular guest section on Breakdancing.  Check it out for an idea of what makes a great guest editor.

Thank you to everybody who applied last time.  You are welcome to re-apply for the 2017 intake.

All you have to do is make initial contact via the form below.

Include which dance style you specialize in, your teaching credentials, outline your work with adult beginners and include a link or two to your videos.  And we'll be in touch.

Contact form for dance teachers

Please note that all fields followed by an asterisk must be filled in.

Please enter the word that you see below.


Contact form for dance teachers

Please note that all fields followed by an asterisk must be filled in.

Please enter the word that you see below.


Video of the month ~

Let's set aside the hot mess that was the Oscar's ceremony this year, and focus on the (eventual) winner, Moonlight. 
Alvin Ailey, in their own beautiful, classy way, have danced their response to the film's themes.  Gorgeous.

My story of the month ~


If you are of a nervous disposition, have a weak stomach or are just sensitive to other peoples’ pain, do not read this.
And if you are going to read it, please don’t eat while you do.  I won’t be held responsible for any damage caused by you vomiting over your keyboard / phone / whatever.
Ready?  OK, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

First, we’re going to talk about pointe shoes.  Ever seen the first 10 minutes or so of the movie ‘Black Swan’?  In it, there’s an early scene where the main dancer takes a brand new pair of pointe shoes and basically rips them apart in order to make them comfortable for her style of dancing and for her precious feet.
Well, it’s mainly true.  Professional dancers don’t just slip on a brand new pair of pointes and dance perfectly in them.  They customize them so that the shoes hug the toes better (the idea being that the shoe has to feel part of the foot, a natural extension of the foot, and not an appendage).  Most dancers do quite a bit to their shoes to get them just right.
And you’ve probably heard the stories of how young dancers new to pointe work steam the inside of the box area (that’s the area immediately around the toe) over a boiling kettle to make it more malleable and then wear the shoes (sometimes sleeping with them on) while the box area cools and forms around the dancers’ toes, thus making them a custom fit.

OK, so far, so normal.

Next, we’re going to talk about toenails.  You’ll know (or at least can guess) that professional dancers need to keep their toenails very short and well cared for as their toes and feet are put through so much. 
But have you ever thought about what, exactly, toenails are for?  It’s the job of a toenail to protect the end of your toes, and also to give them shape (as your fingernails do for your fingers).  Without toenails, the end of your toes would be very vulnerable to damage from the rigors of supporting all your weight and from you dropping things on them from time to time.  And without them holding the end of your toes in shape, your toes would just end up squidgy and mis-formed. So toenails do a couple of important jobs; protection and shape.

Here’s where it gets really weird.

Some years ago (about 40 or so), a national ballet company took things way, way too far in their demands that their dancers’ pointe shoes fit well.  I won’t mention the ballet company by name – I’m sure they are much kinder to their dancers these days.

In their quest for dancing perfection, they came up with a novel (and as it turned out, horrific) idea.  What if they did away with toenails altogether? Hey, yeah, that’s a great idea.  Do that.

And so they did.

They instructed all the females in the ballet company to remove their toenails – that doing so would make the end of their toes much softer and therefore better to smush into pointe shoes, which would (allegedly) give the pointed foot a better line. 

Now, of course, this is patently nonsense.  We need our toenails for the reasons I’ve discussed above.

But think about the fear and commitment that those dancers must have been feeling.  Fear, as the dance world at this level can be cut-throat competitive and no-one wants to lose their hard-won place.  And competitive as every dancer wants the solo, the principle, the finest role.  So they did it.

They helped each other.  Oh, did I not mention that this wasn’t to be a medical procedure carried out by a professional doctor under anesthetic?  That would have been bad enough, but it wasn’t.  It was just an order to do it themselves.  So, like I said, they did.  With pliers and pocket knives. 

OK, look, up to this point I’ve been writing this in a half jokey way, giving you the ‘vomit’ warnings and all.  But I’ve just typed that ‘with pliers’ bit, and I’ve actually now got tears in my eyes.  Not just out of empathetic pain, but more out of big-sisterly concern for these vulnerable young women who felt they had to mutilate themselves to such an extent just to follow their dreams.  My heart absolutely goes out to them.  And then I’m overwhelmed with a desire to go and scream in the faces of the people who come up with this degrading and hideously painful dictat.  Complete, utter twits.

Now, the reason I know this story is true is because a trusted friend of has seen the evidence herself, when an ex-member of this ballet company showed her.  “I’ve never seen such a mangled mess in my life.  The toes have spread into a soggy mass of flesh.  None have any definition and where the toenails should be is a mess of scar tissue, calluses and deformed regrowth.  They are the most repulsive thing I’ve ever seen.”  Poor, poor woman.  Imagine walking around with that legacy on the end of your feet.

So, as a totally gross ‘OMG you’ll never guess what professional ballet dancers put their feet through’ story, I think this is as dramatic as you’ll get.  But it’s not just a story.  People really did this, and suffered that much for their art.

Thankfully, national ballet companies have moved on a lot in recent years, and the health, safety and well-being of their dancers are of paramount importance, as they should be.

But spare a thought for what the professional dancers of years gone by did.  They paved the way for the young dancers of today, in some of the most hideous and heart-breaking ways.  We owe them a debt of gratitude for their extraordinary dedication.  Because I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done that.  Could you?

Pic of the month ~

Credit: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

It's a little fuzzy, but it's still an amazing image of dancers from the Portela Samba School performing at the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 
A sea of costumes, dancers and sheer joy.

Question of the month ~

I received an impassioned plea from a reader this month:

"Help!  I've just moved to a new area, and can't find any belly dance classes near me.  This is how I workout and I love it, and now I've had to stop because of the move I feel like I'm piling on weight.  How can I find a suitable class, and quickly?"

And my answer?  The world of dance teaching can be a small one – a lot of dance teachers know (or at least know of) each other.
So your quickest and best route to finding a local one who suits you is to ask any of them.  Arthur Murray has a branch in most towns – why not go in and have a quick chat to them?  Even though it’s not partner dance you’re after, I’m betting that at least one of their teachers will know of a belly dance teacher nearby.
The thing is, not all dance teachers advertise or actively run classes.  But if there’s interest, they can fairly easily run a small class for a few interested souls.  A fellow dance teacher is more likely to know how and where to find such people. 
Check our Dance Directory listing for your state, find someone, ANYONE close to you and then just ask.

And finally... huge news

Oh, I'm ridiculously excited about this...  Sorry, Ralph Fiennes, but my expectations are already off the scale and I'm looking at you to deliver.

It's been announced that Fiennes is to direct a biopic of Rudolf Nureyev based on the superb biography by Julie Kavanagh, Rudolf Nureyev: The Life. 
If you haven't read it, do.  It's masterful.

The screenplay, called The White Crow, will be written by David Hare, who was Oscar nominated for his screenplays for The Reader and The Hours (one of my favorites...). 

So, it'll be written by a guy whose work I love, from a book I admire, filmed by a great actor/director and will be about one of my all-time dance heroes.  No pressure then.

Filming commences this summer, so it looks like it's slated for a 2018 release. 
I'll keep you posted.

P.S. Rudest tip ever ~ Rudi in the nude-y

If you're ever in the mood to have your eyes stand out on stalks, Google 'rudolf nureyev nude'.
You won't be disappointed.

Coming up...

I spotted this on a forum about the curse of 'mansplaining' ~

"I was in a dance class once with a guy who insisted on pointing out everything that was wrong with everyone else's dancing... and couldn't perform any of the same moves himself."

So I think that next month I'll spend a bit of time discussing etiquette and attitudes in dance classes and how to handle them (whether you're a pupil or a teacher).  And do let me know if you've come across this yourself.

Of course there'll be all the usual features: pic, video, Q&A, and stories from my travels around the dance world.

Until then, take care and happy dancing

Just so you know...

On some of my diary pages, there will be featured items that you can buy.  I do a lot of research into items to recommend - I don't just fling any old crap at my readers.  The things I recommend are things I genuinely use, or can see that have been well-received by their target audience via reviews and feedback.  When I post links to products, I generally try to find the product on Amazon for you, so you know you're dealing with a reputable supplier and that their customer service policies will cover you in case anything goes wrong, or you're unhappy for any reason.

If you follow a link that I've posted to products and do go on to buy something, Amazon pays me a tiny percentage of the profit of that sale.  It helps to keep free and keep me researching and writing about dance for adult beginners in a way that I hope you find useful and insightful.  I think that's fair and hope you do too.

Dancer's diary › February 2017