Dance teachers wear many hats. The obvious is teaching technique. That’s really just the very basic hat. It’s our cover - our façade. What we really do is counsel, parent, analyze, extinguish fires, encourage, mold artists, discipline, sew, organize crowds, privately coach, teach life lessons, provide a safe place to fall, pay the bills, pray hard to pay more bills, trust, hide our devastation, discern talent, get crushed, rise to the top, clean, sanitize…then repeat. Many of you can add to this list. We also do something else that we don’t like to admit: we make mistakes. Some of those mistakes involve boring administrative errors; calculators and adding machines don’t really help me much. But the big mistakes are the ones that involve a student. Those mistakes notoriously immortalize a teacher in such a negative way that they can be the topic of dinner conversation for YEARS! 

I recently made the mother of all teacher mistakes. It was thankfully resolvable, but it wasn’t an administrative error. It was a mistake that hurt a student’s heart. I had made a casting mistake. It not only made her question her ability, but it brought me back to the years when I was a student, and my entire vision for the future hung on every word, decision, and facial expression my teacher made in my direction. 

If a student is truly not capable of dancing a particular role, it becomes a teachable moment for the student. But if a student is misperceived or not considered because of a teacher’s mistake, it should be a teachable moment for the teacher. That all depends on how it’s handled. The horror stories I’ve heard from former dancers about how they were treated by their teachers FAR outnumber the stories of teachers who own up to and fix their mistakes. 

Human is human, and we will all make mistakes now and then. We are also all still students, no matter how many years we have been professional dancers and teachers. If teachers stop learning from their students, then there isn’t much more to teach. There’s nowhere else to go but… well…nowhere. 

Admitting, apologizing to the student, and trying to rectify a mistake not only lifts the student, but it lifts the production, and it demonstrates wise leadership. Students are less afraid to approach their teacher with their concerns when they can see that the teacher is human and truly cares about quality, excellence, and integrity. We all have grown up hearing the adage, “Learn from your mistakes!” How can we learn if we fail to recognize when we have done anything wrong? 

Learning is a group effort that involves mutual admiration. We work, we try something new, we take chances, we make mistakes, we apologize, we move on. 

And then we can dance on. 

Robin Conrad Sturm is the primary ballet instructor and Executive and Artistic Director of the Northern Virginia Dance Academy and the Asaph Dance Ensemble. Robin recently won InsideNoVa’s Best Author in Prince William honors and also writes a blog. Contact her at Northern Virginia Dance Ensemble: www. or call (703) 330-5227. 

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