What Makes A Successful Student?


A successful student can learn from multiple sources, sustain an open mind ready for new information, and reap the maximum benefit from their time in class.

In my previous post, “What Makes A Great Teacher?”, I listed just a few of the things that turn a belly dance instructor into a great belly dance teacher. In this post, I want to discuss some of the things that can turn an eager learner into a successful student.

We are all students, whether we have just started taking classes, or whether we have been teaching for decades. Here are a few things that can help us all succeed!

Successful Student

No One Knows Everything

We have probably all heard some form of the old wisdom, “Anyone who says they know everything, doesn’t”. This is important for students to remember!

The more time you spend studying an unregulated, non-standardized dance form like “belly dance”, the more you should begin to realize that there is far more information out there than any one person can possibly learn in their lifetime. This dance, while having very old roots that are still practiced today, is still growing and changing in it’s cultures of origin, not to mention in North America where it has found new forms and offshoots even in just the past few decades. To make things even more confusing, much of what we put under the “belly dance” umbrella isn’t actually belly dance at all, so there are a lot of mixed messages out there.

Yes, we can become very knowledgable and experienced in certain areas, and there are definitely some genre-specific experts out there, but no one will ever know everything about everything.

As soon as we decide we know-it-all, we have stunted our own growth within a dance form that has been changing and growing for decades, if not centuries.

What does this mean for students? Well for one thing, we shouldn’t become overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s available to us. Try out different styles to see what you are most interested in, and expand from there. We also shouldn’t ever fall in to the trap of thinking there isn’t anything left to learn. If you don’t feel you are growing in your classes anymore, talk to your teacher about what to do next. They can recommend whether you should move on, or maybe go back and review something you thought you already knew. Sometimes taking a lower-level class from a different teacher can challenge and surprise you.

Learn As Much As You Can, From Everyone You Can

I can’t tell you exactly how many teachers I have learned from over the years, because thanks to week-long festival binges and last-minute workshop acquisitions, I have lost track. What I can tell you is that many of these teachers have different terminology for the same movement, and different ways of explaining how that movement is done. Some of these differences come from cultural variations on the same topic, which is to be expected.

Some teachers use different mechanics or explanations to create the common movements of the dance, and that is where students often become conflicted, especially if teachers insist on labeling anything they personally don’t teach as “wrong”. 

The fact is, when we study any of the dances that fall under the “belly dance” umbrella, we are learning what our teachers learned from their teachers, and so on. It can be like a game of telephone! Many of us have had multiple teachers over the years, and what they teach is usually an amalgamation of what they have either heard and learned the most often, or a generally accepted term that still has some variation in some circles.

  • A shimmy to a student of one style involves active glutes and passive knees. A shimmy to a student of another style does not involve glutes at all. Who is “wrong”?
  • One teacher refers to a rolling wave of the arm as an “arm undulation”. Another calls it a “snake arm”. The movement is the same to the viewer. Who is “wrong”?
  • One teacher says “DOOM TEKKA TEK” and another says “DUM TAK A TAK”. Who is “wrong”?

Who has the right to claim dominion over how to explain a folk dance/social dance/performance art that has no universal standardization? How do students decide who to listen to?

My advice to students out there is this: The only thing that should be considered “wrong” is when movement is not done safely, or when it is culturally insensitive or misinformed. Other than that, it is up to you as the student to take as much information as possible and add it to your reservoir of knowledge. There should always be room in your “cup” for more information to be poured in. If not, potentially useful stuff just spills out.

You are going to come across many different ways of explaining movements, and many different terms or names for those movements. Some teachers even have formats, which is a very organized way to learn & measure success, but formats do not speak for the entire dance form, they are one teacher’s interpretation of what they believe is important to know.

If a teacher claims that anything other than their explanation is “wrong” – safety and cultural caveats aside – you shouldn’t let that person’s limitations determine your capacity for new information. As both a teacher and a student, I have found that multiple explanations of how to execute or understand a movement have allowed me to find what works best for my body and brain while still keeping the quality of the movement intact.

By studying with as many teachers as possible and remaining open to learning as much as you can, you will soon be able to distinguish the difference between “wrong” and “explained in a way you haven’t heard before”. Don’t cut yourself off from new information – no single teacher knows everything!

Idol Worship Is Idle Worship

You may also be familiar with the old saying, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” No, this does not mean that we need to assault the wise people in our lives by tossing zils at their heads, choking them out with our veils, or swinging our scimitars at our favourite teachers.

For seekers of wisdom, this old koan means that as soon as we focus all our attention on something outside of ourselves, we have become distracted by a false truth. If our only focus is what we hope to attain instead of the transformative process of the study itself, we have missed the point. To find true wisdom we need to eliminate the distraction, and get our focus back on our own path. The wisdom lies in the journey, not the destination.

It is very tempting to dedicate ourselves to the style of our favourite dancer. When we admire someone, we tend to want to “collect” everything they do, so as to become more like them ourselves. I want to be clear here – there is nothing wrong with learning from people whose work you admire, especially if that person is very skilled and knowledgeable.

The danger for students who admire and emulate dance celebrities is that they may begin to see their “favourite” teacher as the one and only source of information, and this can destroy creativity and personal growth.

While we can seek information from teachers and experienced people in our lives, we are the ones who are walking our path, and our path is our own. The dance will eventually become a genuinely creative expression when we have collected enough information and experience to dance and create from the heart, just as our personality develops as we age through various life experiences.

We are who we are because of what we have experienced in our lives, and we dance the way we dance because of all the different things we have learned. That’s why there are so many beautiful dancers out there, and why we gravitate towards certain performers. There is no one else like them! But the reason why they are unique is because their style comes from within. Their unique style is a mosaic of their interests, their technique, their creativity, and their personality. It is who they truly are, not their best impression of someone else.

If we put all of our hopes of growth and success into following celebrities blindly down a path that is not our own, we are wasting our time on imitation rather than education. Idol worship is idle worship. Appreciate and admire, but don’t follow blindly.

Successful Student

Take Responsibility For Your Growth

If you are only attending classes and never practicing, you are neglecting half of your training. If you expect the teacher to provide notes for you on every class, you are not taking responsibility for your own retention of information. If you don’t ask questions about something that doesn’t make sense yet, you can’t expect the teacher to read your mind. If you are chatting with your classmates during the explanation of a movement, don’t be surprised when you don’t know how to do the drill. A successful student has a deep respect for the time spent on the transmission of information during class, and uses it to their fullest advantage.

If you are a student who is serious about real growth and improvement, here are some tips:

  • Take a class that is appropriate for your level. Don’t be afraid to speak with the teacher about where you would get the most benefit. Time spent in class doesn’t necessarily mean you are of a certain level – it all comes down to skill and understanding.
  • Seek out multiple resources and methods of learning. Ask your teachers & peers for book recommendations (I’ve included some links to some great resources at the end of this section!). Join social media groups that discuss the forms of dance you are interested in. Practice and create with people from other communities and classes. Attend workshops and festivals if you can.
  • Use class time wisely – take notes, ask questions, and for the sake of your teacher and your classmates, don’t chat while the teacher is talking! Teachers are there to provide information, and you are there to receive it, so write things down if you need to. Teachers aren’t mind readers, so you need to ask about what isn’t clear. Teachers are there for the benefit of the entire class, so respect their time and the time of the rest of the class by saving your personal conversations for later.
  • Stay positive. Words have power, and negative self talk during class or practice is not going to help you, or anyone around you. I’ve been there – a wrong turn in rehearsal can result in a fountain of profanity leaving my lips. It’s natural to feel frustrated now and then, but don’t let negativity become your narrative. Re-frame your “I can’t do it” as “I’m working on it”.
  • Practice on your own time. Teachers are not responsible for your practice, they are responsible for providing information and delivering it effectively. When you were in school, you probably didn’t do as well on tests you didn’t study for, and you didn’t get marks for homework you didn’t complete. Put in the time, and make use of the tools given to you in class. It’s up to you to decide how much work to put in, and your resulting skill & understanding will reflect that.
  • Do the work. If your teacher is providing classes, attend them all, and arrive on time. If you are given material to read or complete, don’t skip it. If you are asked to practice at home, it’s for good reason. What you put in to a course is proportionate what you will get out of it.

We are ultimately the ones responsible for the success of our learning experience – our teachers are there to bring out our potential, but we are the ones who must turn that potential into reality. Teachers give us the tools – it’s up to us to use them.

Speaking of resources, here are a few you can start with!

In short…

A successful student should never stop seeking out new information, should take every lesson as an opportunity, and should make good use of the time and tools they are given by their teachers. A successful student knows they are ultimately responsible for their own growth, and will see their learning process as a long term commitment to themselves. A successful student knows that they will always be learning, and looks forward to a future of exploration driven by their passion for the dance!

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