One of the stranger aspects to my current teaching arrangements is that I do not yet have any dance studios from which to teach. I haven’t started renting space (and time on the schedule) at any formal dance studios. I haven’t made arrangements at community centers or rec centers. I haven’t joined any college staff or continuing education offerings. But I teach between 3-4 times per week.

At first, I started teaching as a “guest lecturer” in a park where my SCA friends had been dancing for years at their weekly fighter practice. We are in a public park, next to a tennis court, near some picnic benches, along side our SCA friends in heavy armor or with rapiers. They were already in the habit of dancing on the sidewalk with muted or no finger cymbals (neighborhood noise issues), and without concern for nice studio floors and mirrors.

Another friend invited me to teach her in her home. She has a fantastic floor in her living room, just enough room for the two of us (and maybe one other some time). And there’s a mirror at the end of her dining room so we can occasionally look at form and technique in the mirror together.

Two more friends invited me to teach in their home, making it possible for them to keep track of the 4- and 9-yr-old as well as make (or order) dinner for everyone at the same time as dance for fun.

Then another friend wanted me to bring my dance-in-the-park method to her local fighter practice. So now I have two weekly outdoor, in public, on cement rehearsals / teaching opportunities.

This is not typical.

photo by Flint Weiss on Flickr

From this, however, some really interesting things have started to develop.

The first practice-in-the-park group has now been through a full session of fundamentals. On occasion, I can start introducing new vocabulary and new moves into their instructional time. (This also requires me to keep very detailed records so I know which dancer has learned which move.) We usually have a great turn-out, so I can work with group formations and develop their abilities to interact with one another. As for scheduling innovation, we have access to the park for several hours. I wanted to have more time dancing but without intimidating the dancers who didn’t have the endurance to work as many hours as I enjoy dancing. So I started hosting 30-minute blocks of dance time. There is always a warm-up at the top of every half an hour, and we switch between Fast and Slow moves in every block, alternating every week. If someone always arrived for the 7pm block, one week they would dance Fast moves, the following week they would dance the Slow moves. And dancers now have the freedom to choose whether to arrive early or late, stay for as many or as few blocks as they like, and even participate in some of the concurrently hosted arts and sciences classes by dancing a little and going to another class for the remainder of the time.

What I didn’t expect is that now modern (non-SCA) people who are just meandering through the park (it is a public park, after all) would be interested in dancing. Since each dance block is a discreet section that anyone can participate in, we just had new drop-in participants recently. They loved it, and one of them stayed for an hour (two blocks in a row). This could never happen in a formal studio, and I feel really fortunate that I can make dance more and more accessible to more people.

There are also SCA friends who enjoy coming to the park every week but are not really interested in dancing that much. But they join in respectfully during the stretching sections, sometimes more than once in an evening. Several of these folks have told me that the stretches are really helping them regain mobility. I’m so grateful they feel safe to join us and are able to improve their own mobility, flexibility, and fitness—even in such incremental portions.

The two friends who have me teach in their home also entertain guests on a regular basis. This past week, one of their visiting friends joined us for the hour of our lessons. She exclaimed at the end of the hour that, “this is exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise! I would do this!” I have a similar experience when I dance: I love the movement and I love pushing my body further than the last time I danced. I don’t mind sweating and finding myself breathless. The activity is so enjoyable, it is almost like exercising on accident.

The new dance-in-the-park arrangement includes several participants who’ve never done bellydance at all or haven’t danced like this in years and years. This local fighter practice also typically starts later than the other one, and many folks are already in the habit of meeting for dinner and socializing before heading to the park. But since I needed more time to drill and workout, I had to innovate differently for this evening’s rehearsals. I’ve started arriving more than an hour before the regular fighter practice, giving me plenty of time to get dressed, prepare my class notes, set up my music, etc. Then it’s drill time for me: Fast, slow, endurance sessions with longer songs, advanced moves, fundamental moves, and everything in between. I find myself smiling and laughing to myself as I drill because just next to me is a tennis court, behind me is a basketball court and a roller hockey rink, and to the other side is the baseball diamond. Families wander through, walking their dogs, escorting their kids to and from practices, or just to get to their own softball games on time. And there I am, a lone dancer working on drills.

My fellow dancers arrive and then we all work together for about an hour. The fighters arrive, arm up, and take to the grassy areas for their own practices. Friends and family hang out on the picnic tables, sometimes studying, working on sewing projects, or just socializing. When our instruction time is done, I open up the after-class time for drills again. Sometimes a handful of dancers still have some energy left so we will work together, dancing without stopping to continue building endurance and stamina (rather than stopping to focus on breaking down the details of the technique). And when they are done, it’s still time for me to do one last push. So I’ll put on another song and drill again, usually running the advanced moves to a fast song. Several of the other dancers had fun watching my  advanced drill last night, anticipating moves they’ll learn later.

I am so thankful for the space I have to dance in, the dancers I have to dance with, and those that I can dance for. The structure of my dance time is unusual, but it is affording me some wonderful and unexpected benefits. Thank you, dear community. You truly enrich my life.