Monday, February 16, 2015


   I just had a very peculiar experience… on my way home from an afternoon walk, I passed my first dance teacher.  Initially, I didn’t realize it was her. It wasn’t until she jerked her head quickly in the other direction with a a familiar grimace on her face, that  it dawned on me who she was...because I haven’t spoken to her in over two decades.

This woman was abusive and such a supremely evil sociopath that over the years,  whenever I thought of her (and trust me, I did that as little as possible) it absolutely shocked me that I ever even entertained the thought of  continuing to dance!

 I will never mention her name, and  have never given her credit as being my first teacher, she was that bad. She was a decent dancer, but she was also pure poison to everyone who had the misfortune of taking her classes. It’s not like I a sensitive kid when I started taking from her either.  I started belly dancing at the age of thirty as an adult with a full life, as were many of her other students. At that point, it didn’t occur to me that I would ever turn professional; I just wanted to take a dance class. Twenty-five years later, I’m well into a dance career that  has been my number one passion and raison d’etre.  Bumping into my former teacher  actually unsettled me- and believe me, that’s not an easy thing to do!  Before I continue with this anecdote, I must tell you that this story has a happy ending.

She Who Has No Name wasn’t just a stern teacher, or one who had high standards and a no-nonsense personality.  She was, for lack of a better description, bat-shit crazy. This was in 1990, waaaay before the internet was commonplace and finding something as obscure as a belly dance teacher, even in a large city like Los Angeles, wasn’t easy, so I stuck it out. Even as a brand –newbie, belly dance was so important to me, I figured it’d be worth it, but her abuse still affected me big time.  She continually told me that I was clumsy, lacked talent, was ugly and would never be a dancer.  If I asked her to break down a step or combination, she’d roll her eyes as though I’d just demanded something impossible. And for the record, I wasn’t the only one she did this too, either- everyone was fair game! She was also insanely jealous. If any of her students started doing well or a little too well for her taste- she viewed them as competition, and did everything in her power to tear them down.  She was also a raving bitch over smaller, inconsequential things. If a student of hers happened to get a new hip scarf or bought a secondhand costume, she’s sniff derisively and roll her eyes. When any of her students tentatively started gigging, she’d badmouth us to our faces…and to anyone else who’d listen!

On one of many evenings that I cam home from her class upset, my boyfriend confronted me.

 “ I thought you said belly dance was your favorite thing that you’ve ever done,” he said compassionately,

 “So let me ask you a question: why are you crying?”

 It was then I knew I had to leave her, so I did.

  Finally, I met a decent teacher, a real teacher, someone who not only knew her technique, but also was a talented performer…and a well-adjusted human being. She also knew how to address students with different needs and learning styles, was encouraging of her pupils’ growth and gave them performing opportunities and professional advice.

 Though it would be another five years before I became an instructor myself, I immediately saw the difference in these two women, and vowed that if I ever taught dance classes, I would be  like my second instructor…the one I actually acknowledge as my first teacher, since She Who Has No Name was, at least chronologically, the “real” first teacher.

But she was so toxic that the only thing she ever really taught me was HOW NOT TO BE.

Sadly, I’m not alone in this experience. In the dance world, many of us have to deal with toxic teachers.

Toxic people are that way because they unhappy- and the only thing that brings them joy is making others feel  the same way.

 A toxic teacher actually delights in ruining the self-esteem of her pupils because she sees them as a threat.  Sometimes this abusive behavior is constant, other times there’s a Bi-Polar quality; your teacher will be nurturing and nice one moment, then turn on you. They play favorites and pit students against each other. Others are merely pessimistic, but their negative feelings and “glass half full” outlook on life is contagious.  They see themselves as victims of fate and circumstance, feel entitled and complain constantly. They gossip and never have anything nice to say- about anyone! They isolate their students and threaten them if they want to take classes with others or desire to join in on other activities in the dance community, like showcases or other performance or volunteering activities.
  Sadly, your toxic teacher might also be very talented.  Just because she is crazy doesn’t mean she’s not a gifted artist; she might be the best instructor in the area. And even worse, she may be the only teacher around- many of us live in smaller towns or places where there is only one local teacher and no other options!

 If your teacher is poison, here are some things you can do to stay sane.

First of all, don’t take anything your toxic instructor says to heart.  

 A healthy student/teacher relationship is built on equality- and it’s also a paying business relationship.  You are paying for your knowledge; therefore you are actually your teacher’s employer!  Remember that her main objective is to drag everyone down to her level. Shield yourself emotionally as much as you can. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, and that your own dance practice is just as valid as anyone else’s.  Don’t take anything personally.

If you need to discuss your feelings or vent about your teacher, do it with a non-dancer pal, significant other or a family member. The last thing you want to do is have something you said get back to the teacher herself.  Toxic people often have minions; spies that they employ to report back on the activities of other students. Don’t play into her web of craziness by making any sort of comments about her to anyone who might repeat them.

Obviously, if you have other options for classes in your area, leave your current class.  Do this as quickly and painlessly as possible; just stop attending class.  In case your teacher questions you about your decision, don’t make a big deal of it. So as not to make waves, offer a brief explanation that seems plausible, something like your work schedule won’t allow you to continue at this time slot, or you have family obligations.  Thank your teacher for the learning opportunity, and do not engage otherwise, just depart. If you are going to take with another instructor, keep it on the down low.  Any sane teacher welcomes her student studying with others, but if your crazy instructor gets wind of your departure she’ll do what she can to ruin your plans- an your reputation!

If your toxic teacher is the only instructor in your area, again, do whatever you can to protect yourself emotionally.  Remind yourself that you are here to learn, not to be abused. Rise above, and keep to yourself. Do not engage in her drama, and try not to let it affect you. Keep a healthy distance. Arrive at class, take class and leave. All business, all the time, you’re there to learn, period! 

 Take everything your teacher says with a grain of salt, because her negative opinions- about you, about other students, about the dance world in general- is just that, only opinions, not fact. And it’s already been established that they’re distorted, petty and mean-spirited.

If you live in a remote area, learning from DVDs  will tide you over. This is usually supplemental, but if your options for live instruction are limited, this is a good way to go- at least at first.  Also, a great option for you would be taking online classes- there are many available now, and you’ll be able to study with competent teachers who don’t live anywhere near you.  Many studios offer monthly discounts   for live, real time instruction or downloadable online classes.  Google your favorite dancers and see if they offer these kind of classes. You can also investigate taking a group or private Skype session every so often.

 If you happen to see your teacher at a local dance event, don’t get freaked out- this is bound to happen.   Be prepared for it. Make sure the interaction is impersonal and amiable.   Keep it brief. Compliment her on her performance, or just say hello. There’s a good chance she may get nasty- that is, after all, her M.O.  Brush it off and don’t engage.  You’ve done nothing wrong.   The last thing you want to do is get sucked in and involved with her again!

If you are starting to get gigs-or if you’ve already been gigging, your instructor might try to ruin your chances by gossiping about you.  If your teacher starts spreading rumors just ignore them!  Don’t feel the need to explain the situation   anyone, keep your mouth shut. Bullies delight in   their target’s reactions.  Don’t let anyone know this is affecting you. There’s a great chance she’s done this   to others… and an even better chance that everyone else sees her for what she is, and realizes she’s full of it!  As the Internet meme goes, just Keep Calm And Carry On.

 Hopefully, these tips will help you to break the chain of Toxic Teacher abuse. And now for the happy ending of my own story…

  Seconds after I running into my own toxic ex-instructor, I got a text from one of my students. She had just placed in a huge belly dance contest!  She was absolutely giddy.  The text thanked me  “for all your help and wonderful advice”.  Though I’ve trained many professional dancers and lots of champions over the years, their success never fails to touch me; it makes me ridiculously gratified to know that I’ve had a hand in the success of others.  It never gets old- as a dance teacher, this is what it’s all about, sharing   knowledge, love and passion for the dance with others.

With a little tear of happiness in my eye, I texted my student back congratulating her, and typed in so many hearts and flowers and smiley faces that I was definitely guilty of Emoji Abuse.

 It was also the best F**K YOU  possible to She Who Has No Name!

I delighted in knowing once and for all that I’d broken her chain of abuse…and you can do it with your  Toxic Teacher too!


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  1. Nice to know that I am not the only one who had a toxic teacher. Tanks for the post, very useful. Love from Denmark

  2. After reading your reminded me of my 1st was a class thru Parks/ Rec of the City I lived at...I thought it would be fun..I still remember her taking me to the side and lecturing me that , " Bellydance was a Sisterhood" and I needed to realize that to participate in her classes. Needless to say I "escaped" from her instruction. she is still around today and I remember her eye rolling and snears!