Male Student, Now What?
You're not quite sure how it happened. You've been Belly Dancing for several years, been teaching for a few, are loved by your students, admired by your audiences, and watched enviously by your peers. Then one day your entire world is seemingly turned upside down. There is a male invading the hitherto feminine refuge of your beginner's Belly Dance class!
Since you've been dancing for more than six weeks, you certainly know about male dancers. But you've never had a male student before, and you're not quite sure what to do with him!
This brief article is intended to help. I asked for input from both teachers and male students on the discussion board at Bhuz.com so I could present more than just my viewpoint. As I have a wonderful teacher myself who had never had a male before, I felt such an article might benefit others.
I won't tell you whether or not you should accept a male in your class, it is your class after all. I'm a male Belly Dancer, of course I think Belly Dancing should be open to all!
The first two thoughts that might cross your mind are "Is this guy for real?" and "How do I teach him?". For the first, don't be afraid to ask "careful" questions, my teacher did. She wanted to know the what and the why I was interested in this dance form. So I told her my story. Still, she wasn't quite convinced I was for real until I made a point of taking my wife to one of her (my instructor's) performance venues.
If a male student causes problems in class, bounce him out, just like you would anyone else. I only ask that you not judge all male students by any bad apples you may encounter!
One male student told me that his teacher was very reluctant to accept him in her class - she had apparently had a particularly bad experience with a male student before. Much to her credit, she did give the male a chance despite her misgivings, and it has worked out.
I've had numerous teachers tell me that they have had multiple male students and have never had a problem with any of them. But one bad apple spoils the whole barrel, the stories spread rapidly and grow in the telling!
For the second question ("How do I teach him?"), you'll be relieved to hear that the first answer and the last is "Teach him just like any other student". My poor teacher confessed to me once that when I started in her class that she "didn't have a clue!!" So she defaulted to teaching me just like anyone else. And it worked out fine! I also found out much later that she actually asked around among her dance sisters in the pro troupe she's in for advice - bless her! Apparently they all told her to teach me just like anyone else!
The male physiology (generally) means that certain movements look different on a male body (See Male Belly Dancers, are we Feminine? in reference to Maias as a for instance), but as it is the same body parts and the same muscles involved as with a female student, the actual technique is the same and can be taught your "usual" way!
As I explain to the guys in my Belly Dance Tips section, having narrow hips sucks in this dance form. And again, your probable experience with narrow hipped gals will play well here - have your male do the old "hip enhancement" trick with trailing veil ends or other do-dads tucked in at the hips.
Most males are absolutely terrified of anything they perceive as "feminine". While I pontificate about the "why" of this elsewhere on this WebSite, at the end of the day there is only so much you as a teacher can do about this and ultimately it is HIS problem, not yours. So take a deep breath and relax if this factoid is bothering you.
We all know males and females are built different. Males will have a harder time with certain moves, such as side-to-side hip movements. This doesn't mean that they cannot learn/do them, just that they will be harder. On the other hand, males will have an easier time with other movements than most of the gals. Veilwork is a great example - the male upper body strength can be an asset here. I say "can be" as there will be a tendency to overpower the veil movements in most males. Many guys can do incredible belly rolls "right out of the box" (unfortunately, I'm not one of them), and many can shimmy like crazy too. Guys often excel at hip twists.
Speaking of side-to-side hip movements, this offpage article purports that side to side hip movements can cause injury in a male's back if a the pelvis is tucked. With the STRONG caveat that I'm not a medical doctor, chiropractor, etc., both myself and my personal chiropractor disagree. In fact, if I do side to side hip movements WITHOUT tucking my pelvis, I hurt my back - the exact opposite of what this article says. I bring this up as this article has been around forever, is often quoted on the subject of male Belly Dance, and frankly, is 95% hokum as far as this author - as well as certain Belly Dance authorities who know far more than I - are concerned.
The "Take Home" lesson from all this is to make sure your male doesn't tweak his back doing any Belly Dance moves, so make sure he uses caution until he figures out what works for him, and reports any discomfort immediately - which is what you should have been doing all along for all your students anyway!
The important thing for you as a teacher to remember is that the male learning curve will be different, strengths and weaknesses will have a different distribution than you may be used to. This should not be used as justification, as it is in some quarters, for a so called "male form" of the dance - the guys can do it, they just need to be given permission and shown how. Muscles are muscles, and as "Aunt Rocky" says: "The movement vocabulary is the movement vocabulary". So once again, teaching him just like any other student will work just fine!
During a recent conversation on bhuz.com on this subject, one teacher proclaimed:
It has been common for my male students over the years to have difficulty releasing their hips to movement. They often have more difficulty getting any range of motion than female students do. And it takes them longer to start loosening up. With practice and persistence, they can get there, but be prepared to be patient.
To which I can only add: Absolutely! This was certainly my experience.
Where the physiological differences may very well show up is in warm-up/cool down stretches. Most of my teachers have had one or more stretches involving a spread legged seated pose of one sort or another - sometimes with ankles crossed or feet sole-to-sole, sometimes with legs out and spread. In all of these, the torso is then lifted up and forward to open the pelvis. While some women (my wife is one) can lay flat down on the floor in this pose, others can only lean forward about halfway. Males on the other hand, just flat cannot do these exercises past a bolt upright position (in the vast majority of men). This is NOT a reason that the guys shouldn't be doing these stretches - they are even MORE crucial than they are for the women! Encourage the guys to do them to their physical comfort level.
A yoga teacher passes this wisdom on to us regarding such stretches:
If someone is unable to sit in the cross-legged or straddled or soles-together position with a straight spine and their weight ON their sitting bones (IOW, if their weight rolls back toward their tailbone and their lower back folds forward) they should NOT try to stretch forward! The intended stretch of the hips or thighs will not happen, but the person could injure their back.
She continues with:
If sitting cross-legged, the knees come up higher than the waist, have the student sit on something (I'd use a yoga block or folded blanket or sturdy cushion) and see if that helps. [Note: This helps with me! -ed] If that isn't enough help, I'd have that individual lie down and stretch the legs by bringing one leg straight toward the ceiling, supporting with the hands locked behind the thigh and flexing/pointing the foot. This way the back is protected and the thighs still get stretched.
She means this to apply to ALL students, not just males. In other words, adapt to the circumstances!
The higher center of gravity in most men may cause some problems in certain aspects of floorwork - especially if they have weak abs. Its nothing that cannot be overcome (although flexibility or lack thereof may be an issue also), but may take more work on his part. I have the darndest time getting up from a "Turkish Fold" for all of the above reasons. Speaking of floorwork, men often have bony knees, ankles, and feet which may need padding for floorwork to be do-able! Ask me how I know this...
Expectations, Yours and His.
The rest really amounts to philosophy and expectations, both yours and your male's. They might include:
- Differences between "masculine" and "feminine" dancing - maybe your male has no idea or sees little or no differences (such as myself), or thinks there are major differences! Opinions vary widely on this subject, among both male and female dancers.
- Your viewpoint. Do male dancers employ "feminine energy"? "Masculine energy"? Both? No real difference? These philosophies will color your relationship far more than with your female students.
- It has been my observation that males generally learn far slower than females. Exceptions exist, but most males are klutzes! Goddess knows I am.
- However, quite a few teachers told me that their males learned at about the same speed as their females - so "your mileage may vary".
- He'll either wash out in short order, or he's hooked for life! Just like a female student. I've seen a number of males come, and all too soon go, usually lasting only 1 or 2 classes. Again, most males have real problems with anything they perceive as "feminine". You can only give them a warm welcome, the rest is up to them.
- You'll be used to presenting things in a feminine context. Don't over-compensate for the sake of your male. Most likely, he expects you to present things in a feminine context - and will be embarrassed if you are obviously "bending over backwards" for his sake.
- On the other hand, your male would like to have some alternatives to veil wraps that involve bra straps!
- Your male will most likely be anywhere from slightly nervous, to (as one male confided to me) downright terrified the first few times he comes to class. A warm welcome will help him overcome his discomfiture.
- Many male dancers I've heard from, including myself, make an extra effort to put their dance sisters at ease. See my "Getting Started" for male dancers for more.
- When it comes time to perform, your male may, or may not have "baggage" about being a male in a "feminine environment". I did, and did for quite a while: "Will I be accepted by the audience?". This gets easier with time, for every ignorant guffaw I hear, I hear ten voices of praise.
- Last, but not least, why is he there? "The man driven to be a Belly Dancer is a man driven indeed." I came up with this saying after one of my instructors told me that I was obviously "driven". She's right, I am driven, but by what I don't totally understand myself. Your male may not either!
Una's Troupe Nijmeh, seamless integration of a male dancer.
Thanx to Karri Duke for this picture!
A last word about your male student and your student troupe. This can be, but doesn't have to be, problematic. Regardless of how well a male dances, and how well loved he is by his dance sisters, the problem often remains of what to do with him!! Sometimes a male ends up looking like a fifth-wheel in an otherwise all female troupe!
Certainly if, as I've seen all too often, the gals are wearing two piece cabaret outfits with bare midriffs while the guy is wearing a shirt (of all things); the look is unbalanced, to say the least!
But say he's suddenly "good enough" to dance in your student troupe, which was "ok" for student nite performances, but now he's even better and wants to dance with the troupe in "semi-professional" situations.
It is unfortunate, but absolutely true, that a male in your troupe cannot be your weakest dancer - all eyes will be on him!
Oh, what to do? The teachers at Bhuz.com all stated that they did, or would, put the male in the troupe alongside his dance sisters just like any other student - appearances be darned, and have him dance just like everyone else. Usually in the middle to balance the troupe.
Frankly, from this male dancer's perspective, this is the way it should be.
However, elsewhere I've heard of other approaches. One teacher wouldn't put the male in her troupe at all - interfered with the 'flow'. As regrettable as this attitude is, I can understand her point. So how do you get the male to not change the flow?
Assuming the male is a good dancer (and is NOT "masculinizing" the dance), the real "problem" lies with costuming. As pontificated elsewhere on this WebSite, costuming is a very personal thing to any dancer, particularly a male Belly Dancer. And troupes come in two flavors: Ones that use identical or similar costuming, and those whose dancers all more or less do their own thing.
This said, options you may wish to explore with your male, and that I've seen or heard of elsewhere include:
- 1. Both he and his dance sisters do their own thing. Perhaps the easiest, but has little cohesion in appearance. Still, regardless of male/female issues, this can be a very nice troupe look as it gives maximum variety for the audience.
- 2. Costuming him in similar colors and style to his dance sisters, but he wears a costume that is his and your interpretation of "masculine". Una's Troupe Nijmeh has used this technique to perfection. When I first saw them at Rakkasah 2002, it took me quite a while to realize one of the dancers was male! The integration of the male was seamless (he did great veilwork too!). I understand that there are now two males in Troupe Nijmeh!
- 3. Maybe he "crosses the line" slightly and wears traditionally "feminine" fashion cues, thus blending in even better, but still presents as male. This is my own approach more-or-less (I don't really believe in differences between "feminine" and "masculine" in clothing other than the obvious anatomically driven ones.).
- 4. The androgynous look. This can be very effective if the male is the right build, ridiculous if he isn't. This wouldn't work for me.
- 5. Varying degrees of drag (If #4 won't work, this one definitely won't!). One male dancer told me this was his teacher's choice. Some males will go along with this, most won't!
A couple of questions that may come up - a teacher suggested I cover the following:
How should I go about preparing my female students to accept their new & unusual classmate? Should I just plunk him down matter-of-factly in their midst as if it's the most normal thing on earth? OR should I fill them in on the pre-screening I've done, etc?
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for this. Much of it depends on your students, yourself, and mutual experience and the local dance scene. Both of the above are valid approaches - and indeed, I've been the subject of both.
- Discuss with your class well-known male Belly Dancers such as John Compton, Kamaal, Bert Baladine, Tarik Sultan, Horacio, etc.
- Discuss things like "This dance enhances our femininity - AND our masculinity". Or similar thoughts that fit with your philosophies.
- Perhaps this would be a good time for a "video hafla" or in-class video viewing of some male dancers.
- A common thought/feeling among the gals isn't so much trepidation (although there can certainly be that too), but rather confusion. "What's *he* doing here?" If you can get the male to open up to his new dance sisters without putting him on the spot (hard for the "new guy", I know), it may be a worthwhile exercise.
My class has always included some rated PG and occasionally rated R humor that has depended on us being all women. Is it better to just cool that stuff for a few weeks until everyone is comfortable with each other? Or should I pretend he's not in the room and make my usual types of silly comments? I'm afraid it might make him or my female students uncomfortable if I make wisecracks about boobs & such.
We all know this is part of the culture of the typical Belly Dance class. I warn the guys about "girl talk" in my "Getting Started for Male Dancers" article. You must use your best judgment here - but anything other than a very short term "cool it" period (if that) is going to ruin the class for everyone else.
My view is that while Belly Dance is a gender neutral dance, it does reside in a feminine context, at least in the current age. Like it or not, ANY male who enters this world must learn how to deal with the femininity. Some embrace it, some ignore it, many reject it, but they all must come to terms with it. In other words, boobage is a fact of life among Belly Dancers, even if he doesn't have any. I've learned more about bra construction and problems with same than I ever dreamed possible. Makes me glad I'm a guy and don't have to deal with a pair of "girls" on my chest.
I recently surpassed one of my teacher's previous records with male students - I am now her longest running male. When I asked her why she had lost her previous long runner after 4+ years, she replied "He ultimately couldn't deal with the femininity."
I've been party to all kinds of explicit, feminine discussions - once the gals knew and trusted me. In this context, I'm just "one of the girls", and I cherish that. I have a saying, "What happens in the 'harem', stays in the 'harem'.". A male needs to learn this, and learn it fast. He's finding himself in the probable very unique and awkward situation of being in the minority. Help him as best you can, but don't lose sight of the fact that it is, at the end of the day, up to him.
If you, as a teacher, want more input on my experiences, please do feel free to contact me. I'm not putting any more detail on this subject here as I don't want this site to be search engine fodder for pervs.
A last point is that I've had to learn how to communicate all over again - a group of women has a very different group dynamic than a group of guys. I'm still figuring it all out, but a new male student may not be entirely comfortable until he has come to at least a partial realization of this. I now can flip back and forth between the guys in the garage yakking about cars and "guy stuff", and the Belly Dance hen party. I draw significantly from my wife's experiences to guide me.