[CONTINUED FROM PART 1]
In Part 2 of this blog I will go into more things to look for in a great Kizomba instructor. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you can read it here: https://kizombaharmony.com/separatingthewheatfromthechaffpart1/.
As I mentioned in Part 1, dance ability is important, but dance ability does not always equate to teaching ability. In fact, there are many excellent dancers/performers whose teaching ability doesn’t compare at all. So the next thing to look for in an instructor is… wait for it… teaching ability!
Now how can you tell who is a great teacher? I’m glad you asked! One of the most straightforward ways to start research is to ask around about who is a great teacher. Doing this may get you some decent information. However, much of this information will be second-hand, and can often be colored by personal feelings, preferences, or opinions. Not everyone learns the same way, as we are all unique individuals; it pays to do your own research when it comes to finding a good teacher.
One of the easiest ways to check out someone’s teaching ability is to… you probably guessed it… take one of their classes or workshops (I’m knocking out the more obvious ways first)! This is the simplest way to get first-hand knowledge of someone’s teaching ability. Some teachers offer a free first class or something similar to potential new students, so that potentially minimizes upfront investment. While taking the class, here are some things to look at. Do you like the way he/she explains or demonstrates things? Is he or she able to effectively control the flow of the class? Does he or she allow for questions? Do you like his or her personality and/or way of speaking to students? Does he/she teach technique or just patterns? Does the class address both leads and follows? If a partnership is teaching, do both partners speak and add to the class, or does only one person get to talk? If the instructor is solo, can he/she teach both leading and following? Does he/she try to cater to different learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.), or is the teaching one-dimensional? And last but not least, DID YOU LEARN SOMETHING FROM THE CLASS? I often like to say that you can learn something from most teachers, even if it’s what NOT to do, but if what NOT to do is what is all that you’re learning from a teacher, it probably isn’t a good idea to keep investing your resources in that particular instructor. Now, time and resources don’t always allow us to invest in teachers before we have an idea of their teaching ability, so I will point out some things you can look at without having to take a class.
In my opinion, the best way to get an idea of an instructor’s teaching ability without taking a class is to take a look at their students. I often say that a dance instructor’s product is his or her students. If an instructor has been teaching a dedicated student for say, 6 months or so, that student should have been taught enough to at the very least have some solid basics. So dancing with or watching an instructor’s student’s dance is a very educational experience. You can use some of the same criteria that I mentioned in Part 1: lead/follow ability, ability to dance well to actual Kizomba music (not just Ghetto Zouk, Tarraxinha etc.), so on and so forth. Sometimes you will see instructors who are excellent dancers, and yet none of their students are even close to being decent dancers! This is a huge red flag. Of course you generally wouldn’t expect a student to be on the same level as an instructor, but if a student has been taking lessons from an instructor for more than 6 months or so with a relatively low increase in said student’s skill level… this is definitely not a good sign, and certainly worth looking into further. There are instructors who believe that as they only need to be “a little bit better than their students”, rapidly increasing the level of their students isn’t in their best interest, as it would put added pressure on the instructor to actually invest in their own development as a dancer… which leads me to my next topic.
In my opinion, arguably the most important characteristic for a great instructor to have over the long term is COMMITMENT TO CONTINUE LEARNING THE DANCE HE OR SHE ACTUALLY TEACHES.
COMMITMENT TO CONTINUE LEARNING KIZOMBA/SEMBA
So for Kizomba, it is a Kizomba instructor’s duty to his or her students to continually invest in their own development as a KIZOMBA/SEMBA dancer so as to provide value to their students, as generally people can’t teach what they don’t know. So many instructors these days talk about “always remaining a student first” or posting social media posts with #neverstoplearning, #alwaysastudent or the like, but how many of them practice what they preach? Not as many as any of us would prefer.
Now, before I go deeper into this topic, I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t as applicable to those who have been dancing Kizomba/Semba their whole lives or something to that effect. Of course, nobody knows everything about Kizomba/Semba, and there’s always something new to learn, but this topic is mainly geared to those who, like me, did not grow up dancing Kizomba/Semba.
A great instructor should be very invested in training with and learning from those who are more advanced IN THE DANCE THE INSTRUCTOR TEACHES in order to develop themselves as dancers and instructors. For the sake of clarity, I will describe what will not count as “training” for purposes of this topic.
For purposes of this topic, watching YouTube videos does NOT count as “training”. Although I understand the advantages of trying to use YouTube to learn, since it’s free and relatively accessible, it is not a substitute for training in person. You can learn steps from YouTube, but Kizomba isn’t really about steps or moves, it’s about HOW YOU MOVE, and you simply cannot learn that from YouTube. And as instructors, our understanding of how to MOVE and utilize proper technique needs to be rock-solid, and this cannot be developed without investing ample time training with more advanced instructors. Unfortunately, YouTube seems to be the basis for many instructors’ training, and this is a pretty sad state of affairs, as this is truly a disservice to students who pay instructors to learn. If all a student gets from an instructor is badly regurgitated from YouTube, the student might as well just save their money and watch the YouTube videos themselves! I am not saying, however, that an instructor must be perfect before teaching, as very few of us in places like the US were perfect when we started teaching (or are perfect now lol), but there should be a significant effort to continue training while teaching. I only have an issue with instructors who stop learning once they start teaching, but more on that later.
In addition to YouTube learning, learning dances other than what the instructor actually teaches (specifically non-African dances) doesn’t count as “training” for purposes of this topic either. So for a Kizomba instructor, in this instance, learning from instructors who teach dances other than Kizomba, Semba (since Kizomba comes from Semba), or African dance, does not count as “training” for a Kizomba instructor. So Tango, Bachata, Zouk, poorly executed Tarraxinha (or Tangoxinhazoukchata as I like to call them collectively), etc. do NOT count. While it is true that learning elements of these other dances can and does help make one a better overall dancer (and I have had instruction in Salsa, Bachata, Tango, Cha Cha, Zouk, etc., enjoyed it all, and have found it useful), it is more important for a teacher to actually learn more about the dance that said teacher purports to teach. Tango, Bachata, Zouk, etc., although they are fun and often combined with Kizomba in “evolutions”, “fusions” and “new styles”, are NOT KIZOMBA. The best and only true way to master a dance is to procure extensive instruction IN THAT DANCE. But as Kizomba doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and other African dances have had a major influence on Angolans, it is important to note that learning other AFRICAN DANCES such an Angolan tribal dances, as Soukous (Congo), Mutuashi (Congo), Chakacha (Kenya), and the like is an excellent way to condition your body and develop African body movement. Learning these dances have actually helped us develop our strength and movement quality considerably. But none of this is a substitute for extensive training in Kizomba and Semba.
It is also a good idea to differentiate between training via group/festival classes versus private lessons. Although it is possible to learn a lot from group classes (and my partner and II enjoy taking group classes when we can), for an instructor private lessons generally enable one to go deeper and gain a more complete understanding of techniques, culture, etc., or in other words, both the “how” and the “why” of Kizomba/Semba. Group classes, by their very nature, usually have more students, and therefore instructors will adjust the level and/or pace of the class to accommodate the differing levels in the room. And many group/festival classes these days focus more on patterns and steps and rarely go deeper than that. An instructor, however, needs to know more than simply how to do a bunch of choreographed steps. To be able to teach effectively, an instructor’s understanding of the dance and how it relates to the music should be much deeper and more complete than mere choreographed steps, and the best way to achieve this understanding is through private instruction.
HOW TO TELL WHICH INSTRUCTORS ARE COMMITTED TO LEARNING
So, the million dollar question… how can one tell which instructors are truly committed to their development as Kizomba/Semba dancers and instructors? Well, the easiest way is pretty straightforward… just ask them who they have trained with or currently train with and who their mentors are. Be sure to ask whether the training was in Kizomba/Semba, and whether the training was via group lessons or private instruction. Any instructor worth their salt should be more than happy to discuss who they have learned from and who their mentors are. Not all instructors are quite as open as my partner Monica Kay and I are about whom we train with, but if an instructor refuses to answer a direct question about their training/lineage, then that’s a HUGE red flag.
Now, there might be a few reasons an instructor might be hesitant to respond to such a question. There are some instructors who never take group classes but do seek out private instruction in part because they do not want to publicize the fact that they are still learning. Why? Well, perhaps such instructors are worried that their “status” as an “expert”, “founder”, “master”, etc. might be questioned or undermined if people knew that they were still taking lessons and/or who they were learning from. Or perhaps they worry that if students knew, they might forego taking lessons from them, instead opting to take lessons with the higher level instructor. But since very few of us, particularly in younger scenes like the US, are skilled enough to be considered “experts” of Kizomba, this should not be a concern, as any instructor who isn’t an expert SHOULD be investing in developing and honing their craft. In fact, I don’t think there are any instructors in the US right now that can accurately consider themselves so expert that they don’t need to learn anymore, so we should ALL be striving to continue learning. There is no shame in seeking to better oneself as a dancer and instructor, but the same can’t be said for those who neglect to do so, which brings me to the next reason.
Another reason an instructor might not want to answer is that they realize deep down that they haven’t invested much at all in their development as a dancer. Because of the relatively low level/knowledge of Kizomba students in younger scenes like the US, quite a few instructors see an opportunity and seek to exploit it, so they go to a few festivals, take a few classes, and MAYBE a private lesson or two, and then start teaching, at which point they start neglecting their own development in favor of more commercial aspects, such as marketing, etc. Instructors who believe that they only need to be “a bit better than their students” don’t prioritize leveling up unless they absolutely have to, which of course doesn’t incentivize them to level their students up rapidly because this would force said instructors to continue investing in their own development to stay ahead of their students. This is part of the reason why you sometimes will see students who have been learning from an instructor for six months or more yet have little to show for it by way of skill level.
Sometimes instructors will seek to sidestep the admittedly tough path to really mastering the fundamentals of Kizomba/Semba by creating “fusions”, “new styles”, “evolutions”, etc. And as I stated in my blog post “Putting the Cart before the Horse”, I have no problem with personal styles, fusions or dancing differently to different music, as I have my own personal style and dance differently to different music, but if you’re going to teach “fusions” or “new styles”, you should first learn and teach the fundamentals of Kizomba as it is traditionally danced BEFORE adding things. There are some fun newer styles of dancing out there, such as what is erroneously collectively called the “French Style”, but these styles were created by people who have been dancing Kizomba/Semba for YEARS and had a STRONG grasp of the basics BEFORE adding things and creating the new style. So if in your research, you find that an instructor created or founded a “new style” before they fully got a grasp of the basics (which takes years to really have down), that’s a huge red flag.
As a fictional example, let’s say you found in your research that I’ve created and now promote “BillyKiz” as a “new style” of Kizomba although when I created it I had only been dancing for less than two years. If this was accurate (don’t worry it’s not, I won’t be inflicting “BillyKiz” on anyone just yet haha), you should definitely be very careful about looking further into my background before investing a lot of resources in my instruction. As I’ve said many times, creating “new styles” works best when you FIRST master the original, and that takes time and effort that many instructors would rather not invest.
If the instructor does answer the question, then analyze the answer. How many different instructors has he/she trained with? Privates or group classes? Just one class or multiple? Were they Kizomba/Semba instructors or something else like hip-hop, tango, zouk, etc.? Ideally a Kizomba instructor should have trained, or should be training with instructors who can dance well to actual Kizomba music and/or Semba, the more hours invested in learning the better. So if an instructor says he/she took a few festival classes but no privates, then that’s a red flag. If he or she did take some privates, but only a few hours or less of Kizomba/Semba instruction over the course of six months to a year or so, that’s a red flag. If he/she mentions taking hip-hop, tango, zouk, bachata, etc. but mentions relatively little Kizomba/Semba instruction, that’s a red flag. If none of the instructors he/she names can dance well to actual Kizomba music (NOT Ghetto Zouk) or Semba, also a red flag. If the instructor has mostly learned from YouTube, of course that’s a huge red flag haha. Now, if the instructor has spent significant time training with top talents who have mastered the fundamentals of Kizomba as it is traditionally danced, that is a very good sign. If the instructor has current active plans to seek out and learn from such talents, also a good sign.
Now, on a sad note, it’s possible that an instructor might lie about how much training they have had (especially after reading a blog post like this haha), so you might need to do further research to confirm. You can reach out to those who the instructor has named as teachers and mentors and ask them about the instructor in question. If they confirm, that’s a good sign. If not, that’s a red flag that will necessitate further research. If you find out an instructor has lied about their training, than this is the ultimate red flag and you should not only refrain from investing in said instructor, you should also call them out to the community. Unethical irresponsible behavior like this should not be tolerated in instructors, as we are the ones who shape the scene. But for the record, I must state that when it comes to asking for personal accounts, as with all human interactions, there may be issues with competition, bad blood, disputes, etc. that could color an instructor’s response or opinion of another instructor, so it is prudent to be as objective and fact-oriented as possible.
Another way to gauge an instructor’s commitment to learning is to watch videos of them dancing over a period of time. Many instructors have YouTube channels where they post demos, freestyles, choreographies, etc. If a teacher has been teaching for 6 months or more, you should be able to see a number of videos of them dancing online. So for example, if you look at a video of an instructor dancing a year ago and compare it to a video from today, and there isn’t much improvement in the more recent video, then this is a red flag. If you see a steady improvement, then this is a very good sign, as an instructor should definitely be improving at a reasonable pace if they are investing in their development as a dancer. I know that since I started teaching I have improved at a very rapid pace, and I work hard to continue to do so. One final note on the videos, as I went over in Part 1, try not to be distracted by cool editing tricks, fancy locales, theatrics, “sexy” body movements, etc. when you watch the videos.
You may not find old videos of some instructors, as they may have deleted their old videos, perhaps because they are embarrassed by them or don’t want the public to see them dancing at a lower level than their current level (or maybe they read this blog and quickly deleted their videos to hide their lack of progress haha, just kidding!), but my partner and I make it a point to keep our old videos because they are like a video diary of our progress as a dance couple. And with each new video we post, we look to make sure that we are improving. We believe that using videos to track progress is a good idea for any dancer, whether via YouTube, or private videos on a cell phone.
Lastly, something worth looking at in a great instructor is his or her attitude. It may not seem like a big deal, but the personality of instructors and others in positions of influence have a profound effect on the vibe of a dance scene and the attitude of its members, so it is worth looking into. Is the instructor kind and humble? And I don’t mean “Facebook kind” or “Facebook humble”, which refers folks who carefully craft their social media presence to reflect a certain persona that they wish to portray but that doesn’t match their dealings in real life. When possible, look to see how the instructor actually behaves in real life. Does the instructor treat students with respect? If not, red flag. For instructors who are part of a partnership, does the instructor treat his/her partner with respect and show appreciation and give recognition to his/her partner, or does the instructor treat the partner like a glorified assistant or never even mention him/her at all? If an instructor does not show adequate appreciation and respect for his/her partner, this is a big red flag. When social dancing, does the instructor dance with beginners or those who aren’t getting dances and make them feel welcome, or does he/she spend the whole time dancing with elite dancers and hot young thangs? This will determine the vibe of socials and parties hosted by said instructor.
Does the instructor respect that Kizomba/Semba, both the dance and the music are a cherished part of Angolan culture? Many people say the respect the culture and history of Kizomba, but how many make an effort to learn more about actual Kizomba music (not Ghetto Zouk), about Semba, and how to dance appropriately to this music? If a Kizomba instructor only really ever dances or teaches to Ghetto Zouk and Ghetto Zouk English remix type music, and encourages the same in his or her students either directly or indirectly, then in my opinion he or she does not truly respect Kizomba and its culture. To paraphrase something one of our students said, “If someone can’t dance to actual Kizomba music with an Angolan and put a smile on their face, then they shouldn’t call themselves a Kizomba dancer. Period.” I’d change “dancer” and replace it with “instructor” and it’d work well for this blog post.
When the instructor is questioned, challenged, or given constructive criticism, how does he/she respond? Does the instructor graciously listen and respond to questions and accept constructive criticism? If so, this is a good sign. However if an instructor responds in a haughty, defensive, or arrogant way, or starts mentioning “people who follow me” or other not-so-humble brag-type stuff, BIG red flag. Instructors, whether we like it or not, are public figures, and leaders, and should not get all sensitive if we are questioned or challenged, whether by students or colleagues. If we aren’t prepared to defend our product in a mature way, then we should consider doing something other than teaching. True humility is a highly desirable trait in a dance teacher, and so we should be very careful to ensure that our egos never start to outstrip our skill level.
Don’t get me wrong my people, I understand that learning Kizomba/Semba the right way takes a huge investment of time and resources, often without an immediate financial return. I realize that training is generally more resource-intensive for instructors than for students. I also get that it is very tempting to focus on the more commercial aspects of being an instructor, especially if this is how you earn your living. But as instructors, we have a responsibility and a duty to our students to offer a quality product, and we should be held to a high standard, as this can only benefit the scene long term. I doubt folks would be so quick to start teaching without making an appropriate investment in their development if they knew that they will be called out on it immediately.
I must reiterate that I do not want to discourage new teachers who want to share Kizomba in cities with an undeveloped scene. I am not asserting that one has to be a master of Kizomba/Semba, have historian-level knowledge of Angolan culture, be able to speak Portuguese and Kimbundu fluently, and have bathed thoroughly in the waters of Luanda Bay to even THINK of teaching Kizomba, that would be silly, especially in places with less-developed scenes like the US. I do believe that if you have access to quality instruction, you should take full advantage of it BEFORE teaching, but if you do not have ready access to quality instruction in your area, then go ahead and start teaching, but actively seek to increase your knowledge and ability while doing so. You don’t have to be a master to teach the basics of Kizomba to beginners, just as you don’t need Picasso to teach you how to clean a paintbrush. But for students looking for a long term instructor, or looking for an instructor to help them get to the next level, it is important to look for an instructor who aspires to achieve mastery of their craft.
I want to thank all who have taken the time to read yet another of my long posts. I know this one might have hurt some feelings, but I didn’t write this post just to ruffle feathers, I wrote it 1) to be a resource that will hopefully help to protect the interests of students and, to the extent possible, insulate them from the potential waste of their resources on inadequate instruction due to a lack of knowledge on their part or misleading marketing, and 2) to influence the continued development of the quality scene I described in Part 1, where teachers are held to a high standard so as to provide value to students. Feel free to comment and share this blog post if you’d like, and I look forward to seeing you all on the dance floor!