thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Post- “Dance Academy” Reflections on Teaching, from a Former Gymnast

In Dance Academy, gender, Teaching, teen soaps, Television on May 14, 2012 at 10:54 am

Phoebe B.

I am a teacher, and I have just about always known that I wanted to be one. I have selfish reasons aplenty for why I love to teach, and there are just as many political reasons why I think teaching is important. But this post is about more than just my teaching experience or thoughts on teaching, rather it’s about teaching style and the teachers we see represented and reflected in popular culture. That said, my own experiences as a teacher and a student certainly provide the lens through which I understand and negotiate teaching. I am, as described by my students at various points, fun and funny, awkward, difficult and rigorous with high expectations, goofy, helpful, young-seeming, and tough. I’m sure there are many more adjectives that might describe my teaching, from my students’ perspectives or even mine for that matter, but I want to stick, at least for the moment, on the descriptions of difficult, rigorous, and tough.

I grew up doing competitive gymnastics, a sport I began at 3 or 4 and left at 17, right before my junior prom (the prom pictures still reveal quite a few left-over, and impressive, gymnastics muscles). Gymnastics, from the time I was in third grade through the time I left at 17, was my whole life or at least a giant part of it. In that sport, you learn to push yourself all the time. Your harshest critics are your biggest fans, your coaches push you beyond your perceived limits to find new limits, they spot you until they trust you can do it on your own, and they sometimes cause you pain to push you further that you thought possible or even productive. The gym was a space where all the girls on my team both suffered and triumphed together: there were tears, frustrated storming out, yelling, time outs, extra strength exercises because you talked back, and hugs and congratulations when you stuck your landing.

I was never the best gymnast or best gymnastics student, nor was I the best school student. I didn’t stand out a particular amount, but I worked really hard, often surrounded by people that were better than me. This continually pushed me to be better–to be more like them. But the tough coaches were also crucial, although it has taken me quite some years to realize and appreciate this fact. They treated us like family, we were like their kids. When we traveled together, they set our bed times, made sure that we ate enough when we went out to eat, set rules and regulations for acceptable forms of behavior and instilled in us the idea that we were responsible for ourselves, our success, and our failures.

These coaches were, and probably still are, really demanding. But their toughness made me strong and responsible and sometimes even resilient. And I would venture to say that this is true of just about all the gymnastics girls I grew up with. They were the kinds of teachers whose methods I did not always like, but whose lessons have stuck with me. They were the teachers, along with some crucial writing teachers in high school, that influenced my own teaching. They are the teachers that lead my students to label me as tough, rigorous, and demanding. But that rigor, those rules, that discipline, also allowed crucial space for fun, for experimentation, for creativity, and for self-expression.

The Dance Academy crew

This phenomenon, the tough yet caring teacher, is not one I often find reflected in pop culture. But then there was Dance Academy, the marvelous Australian TV show available on Netflix. As GLG co-founder and partner in crime Sarah T. will tell you (she is the one that convinced me to watch it), Dance Academy is amazing. And it is amazing for SO many reasons. But for now I’ll just stick to one, which is the relationship between students and teachers at the Australian National Dance Academy. There is one teacher (and by the second season she is the principal of the school), Miss Raine, who particularly strikes my fancy.

Miss Raine, who you might recognize as the struggling ballroom dancer from Strictly Ballroom (I love that movie so much!), is incredibly tough, strict, and demanding, and she sometimes seems almost mean. She is at times even cold with her students at moments where they seem like they could use a hug. (I’m looking at you, Tara Webster.) But, as the series goes on, Miss Raine’s coldness is revealed as caring. She pushes her students because she sees potential, promise, and talent. She understands herself as responsible for their health, well-being, and future careers as dancers. When they are at school, she is alternatively parent, coach, and teacher. And those are some serious shoes to fill.

The incomparable Miss Raine

In Season 2, Tara, the darling of the show and its central character, has trouble with a new teacher and prima ballerina, Saskia Duncan, who seemingly has it out for Tara. In the interactions between Saskia and Tara, we see Saskia’s cruelty, her jealousy, and her inability to give constructive, fair, or even decent criticism. It is here that the show distinguishes between tough, yet good, teachers and those teachers who are just plain mean with no greater purpose. In juxtaposition to Saskia, even the students at the school begin to understand Miss Raine more clearly. She is not just mean, but rather all about their best interests, helping them, and caring for them. She is, despite what many of the students think initially, not out to get them.

Miss Raine is familiar to me, as is some of the madness, pleasure, and pain of Dance Academy. Among many other reasons, this is why I am drawn to the show. American television rarely features teachers that are real, or at least real to me. Miss Raine represents the kind of teacher that many of us fear to be, because she risks dislike from her students, because she is so hard, and because she is willing to punish them. The flip side is, though, that she is there for them, that she is proud of them, that she is emotionally invested in their success, and that she can find pleasure in their triumphs, but also pain in their failures. And her students respect and trust her for it.

There is a distinct difference between mean teachers and demanding teachers, something gymnastics taught me quite clearly (I had some mean coaches) and that Dance Academy reminded me. And, it is rare to see representations of that distinction in pop culture, where teachers are frequently labeled as lazy, bad, only teaching because they could not do whatever profession they now teach, or even mean. This is not to say that there aren’t teachers out there who fit into one of those labels. But I would contend that those labels, and fear of being labeled along those lines, place teachers in a bind where being critical is too easily misunderstood as unkindness, when they are in fact two very different things. For example, in Dance Academy Saskia’s cruelty emerges out of her jealousy of Tara and her criticisms indicate this. She continually tells Tara, and often in a patronizing tone, that she is terrible, just a kid, arrogant, and the list goes on. She does it to knock Tara down, rather than to help her.

Miss Raine on the other hand, as Tara points out to her later in the season, criticizes her students and is tough on them but only in service of their betterment in ballet. She demands respect from them, which she is given (although not always) because while harsh, her comments, if followed, will make them each better. She continually demands, as have my best teachers, that her students push beyond the limits they set for themselves. She demands that they continually question their own ideas, their comfort zones, and provides support for them if and when they need it. Being tough, in the way Miss Rainde does it, is hard work. What Saskia does, however, is not work at all.

Being tough, and particularly as a woman in U.S. culture, is sometimes labeled as mean or b*tchy or irrational or unfair. And, those labels, which are dismissive, are something I worry about fairly often. I imagine that many teachers do. Being tough means our students might not like us (so we have been told) and being liked is something we have been taught to value. This is something I feel myself negotiating all the time. That is where Miss Raine provides, at least for me, an uncommon and inspiring representation. She embodies many things I believe to be true about teaching, including that being tough and demanding is often appreciated by students. Ultimately, it is not important that they like us, so much as it is important that they learn from us.

I’ve noticed in the last few years of teaching college classes (while a grad student that is), that many students come into my class expecting a good grade, expecting that college shouldn’t actually be that hard. (Not all students are like this; many of them–and many of mine–are not.) I often hear from them that I am too tough a grader or that it is unfair that I am so hard on them. But I keep going even though it means that they perhaps will hate me, be frustrated by me, or even resent me, because my job is not to make them to like me. Although, so far my experience has taught me otherwise and that if I can show them that being tough is a means of investing in their education that they often, although not always, work with me. My job is to help them to do better, learn more, think more critically, and engage more productively with the material. And, in that space too, there can be pleasure and fun and excitement.

Me at 15 or 16 competing

Gymnastics was far from a rosy experience for me, but it wasn’t all bad either. What it taught me was to always push both myself and those around me to do better. This drive is not meant to be competitive; rather, it is about pushing your own limits and your own levels of comfort. But within that rather demanding space, there is also extraordinary pleasure. And sometimes, if you are lucky and have worked hard, you can feel like you’re flying (something that like Tara drew me to gymnastics). In the classroom, it might feel less like flying, but it is still pretty amazing when students realize how much they understood from a difficult reading, or that when they work together to grapple with hard concepts, only to realize that they might not even need me. And for me, that is the most exciting part of teaching: hopefully they will stop needing my help or guidance and push themselves. That is perhaps the best lesson learned from my many years on the mat, and one that Dance Academy delightfully reminded me: being tough, yet supportive, even when it is hard and not so fun, can be the most rewarding for students and teachers alike.

  1. I love that picture of you so much, Phoebes! And this article too.

  2. Awesome…inspiring. Here’s to tough teachers.

  3. I am a teacher, who used to be a dancer and what you have written here is EXACTLY how I feel about teaching and teachers. <33

  4. Also Phoebes I was just thinking more about this essay and Miss Raine, and I thought: Professor McGonagall! Totally in the club of tough, caring, awesome teachers with you and Miss Raine, yeah??

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