Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do you really want to teach?

There's a standard track that polers and other aerialists tend to follow. Sign up for classes. Take beginner classes. Take intermediate classes. Take advanced classes. Take instructor training. Teach classes. Maybe open a studio.

The track seems so natural, so almost automatic, that I wonder how many students stop and ask themselves if teaching is something they REALLY want to do, or if it just seems like the next logical step in their hobby/career. I mean, I'm a teacher on purpose--I decided early on that I was more interested in teaching than performing or competing. And I have something of a pedagogical background--I've been a private music instructor on and off (and took classes in that direction in college), and my first jobs after graduation were teaching ESL (which I am certified to do). So I knew what I was getting into, and made the decision deliberately. And there are others like me, of course. But there are many people who seem to fall into the business almost accidentally, and are surprised when it turns out to be more pain and less gain than they expected.

So before you shell out for a training program, ask yourself: "Why do I want to teach?" Because here are a few wake-up calls.

Because I want to finally make money on my passion instead of spending it!
A lot of teachers go into the business hoping to finally profit, but find themselves struggling to break even on their hobby. Sure, the studio will pay you for a class or two instead of you paying them, but for most of us the math doesn't add up. Even if you never had to pay for another class at your place of employment again, you'd still have workshops, grip aids, workout clothes (now that you're at the studio more, you need more outfits!), and any other community events, such as competitions or conventions, you want to attend. And keep in mind that teaching doesn't pay that well. I've been offered as low as $25 a class (for OVER an hour of teaching) even for advanced classes. Add in travel time, money spent on gas, and time spent outside of class prepping, and you'll find that few people are even recouping their expenses.

Because I'll get so much better at my craft when I'm a teacher!
It's true that there are some skills that will improve as you start teaching--mostly, your teaching skills. You'll find that when you have to teach something to someone, it makes you understand it better yourself. This comes in handy for things like breaking down new moves you want to teach yourself. However, it does NOT make you a better poler/aerialist overall. Almost without exception, every teacher I talk to complains that they spend all their time teaching and preparing to teach, and no time on their own art. Sure, teaching beginners to fireman multiple times a week will make your firemans REALLY solid. But your goal moves, your routines, your polishing and perfecting will likely be neglected.

Because I got skills and I should put them to use!
What sort of skills do you got? You can do a fonji and a Marion Amber and even know how to break them down into step-by-step instructions? That's great, but it's not going to help you when facing a roomful of students who can't hold up their own bodyweight. If you are an advanced poler or aerialist, you may be disappointed at how little you get to teach your advanced skills. The majority of your students are just not going to have the ability to do what you can do, and they still might not after years of classes. And when you DO have truly advanced students, hang onto your hats! They're going to want to learn the "flavor of the month" moves before you have time to master them.

Because I want to share my passion with others!
There are many ways to spread the love besides dragging yourself to another bachelorette party after an exhausting week at the day job. Convert. Evangelize. Get your friends INTO the classroom, then let someone else worry about what to do with them when they get there.

Because I think I have what it takes to be a great teacher.
You probably do. You probably have SOME of what it takes to be a great teacher. Almost everyone exhibits at least a few of the following: empathy, enthusiasm, the ability to break things down, the ability to put things together, challenging the top of the class, lifting up the bottom of the class, inventing new moves and combos, mastering existing moves and combos, spotting students with your body, spotting problems with your eyes, approaching a problem from multiple angles, accentuating the positive, drawing out individual potential, drawing out individual muscles.

If this grocery list of skills makes you feel inspired rather than overwhelmed, then maybe you DO have what it takes to be a great teacher.

So maybe teaching's not right for me. Now what?
I'm a musician, and I always find it funny when people say apologetically, "I have no musical skill whatsoever. I mean, I LOVE MUSIC! But I can't make it." My response is: GOOD! We need people like you! Musicians couldn't survive if someone didn't love what we did and made up the base audience (see Pole, where is thy audience?). Likewise, there is plenty of room in this industry for those who want to be the BEST THEY CAN BE by putting their energy into getting training, and for those who want to FUCKING HAVE FUN.  Why do you have to interfere with those processes by throwing business into the mix?

And if you're still convinced that you want to teach, some final pearls of wisdom:

Teaching is EXHAUSTING.
Even if you're teaching moves that you mastered years ago, you'll find yourself wiped after that last schoolbell rings. Don't overextend yourself. Teaching a few classes in a row is normal, but don't assume you're going to be up for an intensive training session afterwards. I mean, if you are, god bless ya, but I feel like naptime after a single private.

Studios like to hire from their own flock.
Even small studios offer instructor training courses, so they basically groom their own students to take the reigns. That means self-teachers and other non-studio students, as well as newcomers from out of town, are on their own. Unless you have already made a big name for yourself, or you teach something different than what is locally offered (for example, if you're a poler who also teaches lyra, the local studios will probably eat that up), you might be too far outside of the clique to get a gig.

Your boss might be batshit crazy.
I don't know what it is about the pole/aerial arts that draws such personalities, but it's amazing how many pieces of work are out there running businesses. I mean, of course there are highly professional, sane people who own studios. But there are as many horror stories as there are instructors. No matter how OK a situation seems at a distance, decide ahead of time what kind of antics you will and will not put up with.

Teaching is awesome.
Despite all of the above, there are plenty of us. Why? Because we love it. We, the teachers, have sacrificed our weekends, our evenings, at times our day jobs, our own aerial ambitions--because the students make it worthwhile. If this sounds like you, by golly get in there and teach! And just as you want your students to be the best performers they can be, make yourself the best teacher you can be.

Image from everydaycareer.com.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Teachers teaching teachers

If you're an even moderately advanced pole instructor (less so for other aerialists), you're going to spend part of your teaching career instructing other instructors. Polers, at least advanced ones, are very goal-oriented, and if they think you can teach them something, they have no qualms with taking a class or a private with you. They don't care if you are both instructors, they don't care if they are advanced as you--they don't even care if you have a pulse, as long as you can help them reach their pole goals. And as dedicated polers tend to jump into instructor training quite soon after falling in love with our art (there are plenty of instructors who can't do even low-intermediate moves), there are plenty of instructors who will fill the ranks of an advanced class or workshop you may be teaching.

This willingness of us polers to go to each other for help and instruction is one of the things I think makes our community great. But at the same time, it can be awkward. Offering constructive criticism without bruising egos is a delicate wire to walk. As a teacher who has regularly taught classes, privates, and workshops to other teachers AND been on the receiving end of the instruction, I have my own philosopies that help me balance this, and since they seem to be working (they keep comin' back!), I thought I'd share them.

We can all learn something from each other. I keep saying this, but it bears repeating. No matter how advanced you are or how basic your instructor is, they can probably do something you can't, or do something better than you can, or just be able to use their instructor eagle-eye to spot ways to optimize your performance.

Just last week I dropped into a class with an instructor who basically only taught beginner-level spins (see Studio Review: Gypsy Rose Exotic and Pole Dancing). She still helped me with my reverse grab. Don't be a snob.

Avoid hierarchy like the plague. A poler who is clearly not as advanced as you can have a standard teacher-student relationship with you, but in many cases, the person you're teaching is just as advanced as you are. If they have come to you for instruction, they have shown their willingness to "submit" to your "superiority" for an hour or two. But that doesn't mean that their skills ARE inferior, or that, if they are, they want to feel belittled. Most instructors that I've taught can do things that I can't. It's respectful to approach them as equals who happen to be in your class, rather than as students looking up to you.

Don't offer criticism unless its asked for. Of course, if they are taking your class, that means they ARE asking for criticism. But if it's a situation where you encounter someone at a pole jam or watch a performance you think could have been improved, do not offer feedback unless the person asks for it, or at least seems genuinely interested in your opinion. I know you mean well, but egos are fragile and giving unsolicited instruction can give off an implied hierarchy vibe: "I'm the teacher here, you're the student."

Exceptions, of course, for if someone is doing something that could hurt them. Even then, tread carefully.

Respect that the student/instructor has their own opinions. A pure student-student will pretty much do anything you tell them (see The Stages of Learning), but an instructor has their own methodology worked out. While they are temporarily submitting to your authority, you should respect their preferences when possible. Instructors are more aware of their limitations and what works well on their bodies, because they are constantly sussing out these facts about their own students.

Don't let your student become the teacher. If you see your teacher-student do something amazing and you want to learn it, don't ask them to take away from their class time to teach it to you. Compliment them, and book a private lesson with them. Similarly, don't let a teacher-student in your class take over teaching the class. Of course they should help other students if the students ask, and you should let them demo moves for the class, but don't let them get carried away and hijack your class.

Don't use class time to gossip. Well, generally, don't gossip ever. But specifically, we are a small and drama-prone community, and you probably know the same people and institutions. If you must chatter, go out for drinks after class. Don't let their class time slip away because you're gabbing, and try not to let them get you off-subject. It's easier to talk to a friend (you) than to hoist one's body weight into the air. We are all in danger of stalling instead of sweating.

When the class is over, you are no longer the teacher. Refrain from trying to offer criticism and pointers after the fact. Don't be quick to refer to them as your "student" in front of other polers (especially not their own students!). The student-teacher relationship has ended, and you are now equals--and, if you handled things well, still friends.

Our community is as sensitive as it is beautiful. Take every opportunity to compliment your fellow teachers and to lift them up. We all benefit when we help each other--even moreso when we like each other.
Image from money.cnn.com

Friday, July 5, 2013

Studio Review: Gypsy Rose Exotic & Pole Dancing, Boston

There's an unassuming storefront on Boylston St, right off the Public Gardens, with an unassuming door and an unassuming foyer and a flag out front that unmistakably says "Gypsy Rose Pole Dance." I know it's been there for years, because I remember seeing it years ago, back when I lived in New York but used to come to Boston frequently to visit friends. Truth be told, Gypsy Rose wasn't at the top of my list of places to check out. I'm a tech-savvy girl and I Google things and their website is something of a hot mess. You can see for yourself, but let's just say it has a lot of personality (and a class called "Poultry in Motion"...?). It seemed to be mostly focused on bachelorette parties and otherwise on what we call "stripper style" pole, and those are not really my focus. But, I'm open-minded, so I thought it was finally time I give Gypsy Rose a try!

I struggled quite a bit with their mindbody site, but on the 3rd or 4th try was able to book a class called "Open Pole," although it was described not as an open workout but more of a small group class for non-beginners where rep is decided based on who's in class and what they want to learn. I figured I'd either get there and the company would be as much of a jumble as the website, or it would be some more serious polers who just needed a website redesign.

Coincidentally, the night before my class I got together with a poling buddy. She suggested going out to a bar and I protested that I had to wake up early the next morning to get to a pole class. She's a serious poler/aerialist, so when she asked what studio, I said "Oh, you've probably never heard of it--Gypsy Rose?" She laughed out loud. Turns out she used to teach there. Her input was simply "Wendy is crazy!" But she smiled when she said it and didn't seem to mean it in a bad way.

So I was ready for anything when I arrived for class on Sunday morning. Except the studio not being open; I wasn't quite ready for that. There was a sign up that said Gypsy Rose clients should take the elevator to the 3rd floor (there was a yoga studio on the 2nd), but the elevator wouldn't go to 3--like someone hadn't turned the key to unlock the floor. I tried to take the stairs, but the 3rd floor door was locked. I asked a friendly lady in the yoga studio on my way back down, and she said "They're probably not there yet."

So I sat on the floor in the foyer and watched all the yoga people come in and asked a few people if they were Wendy and they all said no. About half an hour in I was reading a boring business book when a passer-by asked, "Are you waiting for me?" Wendy apologized for being late, explaining that she'd had a 14-hour day the day/night before and had overslept. She came in with a student--I'm guessing they carpooled. (Not unheard of, as bad boy pole icon Philip Deal does occasionally pick me up from Salem to go to North Shore Pole Fitness. That shows how committed these instructors are to their students!)

Wendy was exactly like I expected from the website and the descriptions. She talked a million miles a minute, cracking jokes and just generally being a boisterous person. Since she talked so much, I can tell you a lot about her: Wendy is a proud ex-stripper, 42 years old, specializes in teaching beginners, likes to teach mostly spins, has been in this location for 6 years and in business for 10 making hers the first pole studio in New England, her studio is haunted... She asked a lot about me, too, and seemed intimidated when she found out how much experience I had, but I assured her that I was just there to have fun and she promised me she could deliver on that. :)

True to the website, this studio has a LOT of character. There is a door knocker shaped like big brass balls (yeah, like that). There are various sticks and other implements of torture in the corner that Wendy claims to use for punishment. And there is a costume closet.
Dressing up in outfits is not really my thing, but in restrospect I should have tried it to get the "full experience." Would have made for some nice photos! Oh, and they have thigh-high stripper boots which would have been nice to play in. I've never owned a pair because I am too cheap.

After getting changed, we went right into class, and Wendy checked with us that we could stay late because we had started late, and my classmate Sara and I said sure.

Then class started. As if the experience wasn't already so different from other pole studios, instead of starting with a warm-up, we started by sitting against the wall. Wendy put on some music, and she freestyled a song for us. She danced a whole stripper-style song right in front of us. I gotta say, girlfriend has some moves! She didn't do anything advanced, but what she did was spot-on and sexy. I know a lot of sexy-style pole dancers from the studio world who could really learn a thing or two from watching Wendy.

Then we got onto the poles. Warning: there is no warm-up in this class; as with many hour-long aerial classes I've taken you're expected to warm yourself up beforehand so as not to cut into instruction time. That's a good thing to know before you get there. Also, it was horribly muggy outside and the AC in the studio was blasting. This would have made it hard if we were doing more aerial-style pole (cold poles + cold bodies = impossible to stick to the pole), but since we were sticking with spins, it was fine. Doing spins on static pole when it's too grippy leads to pole burn.

Wendy had me run through every spin I knew, and even though I don't know a million spins for static pole, I was winded pretty fast--but she'd learned what she needed to. She correctly divined that I don't do a reverse grab spin. I have a good excuse: I categorically reject swinging on one arm because I think it's too hard on the shoulders. BUT, as long as I stay on my good shoulder it's fine in moderation, so I took the opportunity to have an expert spinner clean up my technique.

I always say this but it bears repeating: we can all learn from each other. Even though I'm an advanced poler and Wendy doesn't do advanced moves, she was able to help me with my spin.

My classmate, Sara, was doing as well as I was with the spin and had a solid aerial invert, which is something you don't always expect to see in an "exotic" style class.

Wendy used a variety of teaching techniques, such as drawing on the floor in chalk and holding her hand out for us to try to kick as we flung around. I get the impression that she teaches a limited number of moves, but the ones she does teach she has her pedagogy worked out to a T.

We spent pretty much the whole class working on this one spin, and then segueing another spin onto the end of it. I start to feel kinked up if I do a move/routine on just one side for a long time, but in this case I just can't do a reverse grab spin on my other side because of shoulder issues, so I went ahead and worked through it.

As it was getting to be the end of class, Wendy told us we could just work on whatever we wanted. She had another student coming in afterwards though, so after awhile she offered to move us to the other studio so we could keep practicing. I hadn't even known there was another studio! It was smaller, with just 3 poles (the main studio had 5 or so and was more spacious). I would have loved to stay and play, but I was suffering from some overtraining-induced pain from the day before because I can't take my own advice apparently (see Are you overtraining?), so I bailed. It was nice of her to let us stay and use the studio for free after class was over, though!

I was a kinda bummed that I got out too late to go shopping before I caught my train home. But even though I was doing pretty simple moves and wasn't aware of getting a workout, I left exhausted and starving, so I guess I was working pretty hard after all!

In summary, I've been to several different studios in my pole career, and Gypsy Rose was different from any of them. It's almost like a response from the universe to last week's post about authenticity. Yes, most of the pole community has moved on from its stripper roots, turning towards competition and aerial athleticism. But not everyone. There is still a faction. There is still someone like Wendy who considers her years in the adult industry a bragging right, who wants you to dress up in costumes and turn the lights down and laugh and just have fun.

Gypsy Rose is going through some major business changes. They've been bought out or something, or otherwise have a team of investors advising. They'll be moving to a new studio in Allston, and adding more fitness-based classes. I wonder how things will change. Will this tiny enclave of true stripper-style pole lose its character as it makes room for Zumba and corporate sponsors? Probably not if Wendy has anything to say about it.

Gypsy Rose Exotic & Pole Dancing, Boston
Equipment: 1 pole room with 5 or more 50mm stainless steel (?) static poles, 1 pole room with 3 of the same. Not sure of make--I think my friend had mentioned they were X-Poles, but they don't have a spin mode.
Amenities: COSTUME CLOSET!! Bathroom in hallway, lounge/reception area, implements of torture.
Drop-in price: $25

NOTE: The studio will be moving to a new location and making major changes, so all of the above could be out of date by the time you go.

Photos of studio by me!