Ballet Class

Dance Teacher with Joffrey Ballet School (and many others!), Bill Waldinger, shares his insight into the teacher-student relationship.

As teachers, we pour out our hearts and souls into our students; and every student is precious to us. But nearly every teacher-student relationship will eventually come to an end.

For many of my colleagues, the departure of a student can be difficult, traumatic, heart breaking; conjuring up emotions that range from indifference to grief and to anger.

During the thirty-plus years that I have spent in the dance industry, I have studied with many, many different teachers. I remember, only too well, the guilt that some of those teachers placed upon me in order to keep me coming.

I remember the jealousy that some of these teachers expressed when I added additional teachers to my training schedule. And I remember the hard feelings that were directed toward me when I finally and permanently severed the teacher-student bond.

Boys Ballet Class
Boys Ballet Class

My mentor, Luigi, was undoubtedly the most brilliant teacher with whom I had the good fortune to study. He was paralyzed in a car accident, figured out a way to rehabilitate his paralyzed body and then turned that rehabilitation into a completely new philosophy of movement and a completely new way to train dancers – BRILLIANT.

He also had a very compelling and charismatic personality that made everyone in his studio feel that they were uniquely special to him – again, BRILLIANT. But along with the brilliance of the teaching and that magical quality that made me feel special came enormous guilt when I felt that I was ready for new teachers, different philosophies and other styles and ideas.

It wasn’t that Luigi set out to make me feel guilty, but because he made me feel special, I felt guilty leaving. (I fully admit that I did this to myself). But no matter how brilliant a teacher may be, there is no one teacher that can provide a student with everything they need.

Street Jazz
Street Jazz

I wanted to dance and I knew I needed more. So despite the guilt, I moved on. I always came back to Luigi, but the “two class a day/5-6 days a week” schedule that comprised the first few years of my time with Luigi were a thing of the past.

When I started teaching, I made the conscious decision NEVER to do that to a student. I have endeavoured never to place any guilt on a student to keep them coming.

If a student wants to study with me, I am thrilled. If what I teach, or how I teach, is not working for a student, is not helping them grow, or is not contributing to THEIR process, then I would expect the student to leave.

And even a student who thrives and grows under my tutelage may one day, for many reasons, move on. I may not like it, but my BIGGEST concern is my students’ growth and my students’ needs. Thankfully, there have always been more students.

I think that what many of my colleagues lose sight of is that THE STUDENTS ARE NOT THERE FOR US. They are not there for the purpose of filling our studios. They are not there to be the instruments upon which we choreograph. They are not there to win competitions for us. And they are not their to put dollars in our purses. The students are there to be trained.

In fact, WE ARE THERE FOR THE STUDENTS. We are there to train, guide, mold and mentor tomorrow’s dancers. The teacher-student relationship is about the STUDENT.

Of course we love our students, but when a beloved student leaves, we must continue to love them; and with that love, and freedom from guilt, we hope that our students will soar.

I know a wonderful studio owner who once discovered a TRULY remarkable young dancer in her class. Knowing that her little neighbourhood studio could not provide the full-time training that this dancer would need in order to have a career, she suggested to the mom that she bring her child to a full time pre-professional program.

When this mom investigated programs, she discovered that the family could not afford full-time training. So this studio owner, who could barely make her rent and payroll every month, PAID for this remarkable student to train at a major NY summer intensive.

At the end of the intensive, that school took this student on as a full-time scholarship student and launched this dancer into a career that landed her in a major internationally known company.

Not only did this teacher send away the most talented student she had ever encountered, she PAID FOR IT. And what did she get for her money? The knowledge that she got to make a dancer, to make a career, and to give a talented dancer her life.

THAT is what it means to be a dance teacher and I am proud to call her my colleague and dear, dear friend. It is about the student.