A Master Class Teacher: On the Road

August 13, 2009

What does it mean to travel the world as a Master Class Teacher in Tap? It means sometimes you don’t sleep.

Over this past summer, within a period of 10 days, I traveled from NYC to Houston to teach a day-long workshop, flew back to New York, then without leaving the airport, boarded a plane to Finland for a week. Shuttling between my Helsinki hotel and the studio where I was teaching Tap classes took on a surreal dimension when I realized the sun literally never sets during the summer in Finland. But it was the contrast between the students in Houston and their Helsinki counterparts that would really keep me up nights.

Back in Houston, I’d arrived at the studio after a smooth plane ride and was greeted by huge smiles and an exuberant crowd. The kids were engaged, responsive and enthusiastic during class, which made my job a breeze.

The reality is, my teaching method relies as much on personality as it does on technique. Note to teachers: As long as you keep things exciting, your students will be engaged and open to learning. In fact, I’ll take energetic, responsive beginners over a reserved class of advanced perfectionists any day. In Texas, my method worked. I left for the airport feeling great. I touched down 8 bumpy hours later in Finland, which I’ve since decided was a sign of what was to come.

My first class in Helsinki was painful. The students were quiet, seemingly uninterested and refused to make eye contact. Speaking, either to me or to each other, was apparently out of the question. I saw only the faintest nods and it seemed the entire sun-drenched society was intent on poking holes through my teaching method. But I was determined to get through to these hole-pokers!

The question was how. How was I going to teach three classes a day, for six days? That’s 27 hours of classes (believe me, you’d be counting the hours too). Oh, and I failed to mention that my watch had broken on the trip over, so time had literally ceased to exist. Like Al Pacino in Insomnia–but with subtitles–I started to feel like I was hallucinating.

After the first day of teaching, I joined the studio owner for dinner, and she proceeded to tell me how excited the students were to have me there and how much they enjoyed my energy. Excited!?! Enjoyed!?! I couldn’t believe it. I was confused. She then explained that it’s simply Finnish custom for people to be reserved and polite in most situations.

Still, it didn’t add up. I was blasting The Rolling Stones and the students would not bring any energy to the dance floor. They were able to execute the steps though, which felt like a consolation prize at best. Dance in an expressive art—an idea for which I was determined to fight.  

After 6 days of screaming my brains out and jumping around tap class like an animal, straining to produce any response, I was exhausted. Finally, after one student performed a particularly hard pull-back step correctly, I saw something out of the corner of my eye: a swift, soundless high five. I almost fell over. When I told the owner about it, she was floored. Apparently, that had never happened before. I considered it a personal victory. And I wish I could say I slept that night.

Flying back home cross-eyed, I thought about how hard I’d had to work in Helsinki to get what came automatically in Houston. Then I wondered, isn’t it better to work hard for what you want? Wasn’t success earned sweeter than success given? In my sleep deprived state, I decided it wasn’t. But I plan to go back to that studio next year—with a back-up watch—and get myself a smile.