An unknown author said “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” I have embraced this belief during my journey through an MFA dance program by taking several grand jetés beyond the edge of my comfort zone. The first massive leap out of that beautiful place happened when I joined a student organization with the intentions of traveling to teach dance at orphanages and a university in Panamá City. Now, let me explain why this was way out of my comfort zone: 1.) it had been many years since I taught anyone under the age of 18, 2.) my memory of high school Spanish lessons was practically non-existent, and 3.) I had never left the US. But none of this stopped me, thankfully, for I have carried the lessons learned from this experience with me into my college classrooms. I think of these lessons as a hidden syllabus that I attempt to embody daily in the classroom.
The greatest lesson I learned, was to let go of my own agenda. Despite however many hours I may have prepped, the time with them was their time. Although I wished they learned how to point their toe or spin on one leg, it really wasn’t about the technique. It was about having time to dance because they loved it. It was about forgetting about whatever stress they may have in their young lives and being able to be playful kids. It was a beautiful reminder to be present with them as they used the time to express themselves freely.
Another important lesson I learned was the value of maximizing all forms of expression when teaching. I utilized non-verbals and sounds to lead a classroom since my Spanish was less than adequate. While doing this, I realized how effective and efficient it is to teach in this way. I didn’t need words to explain a correction; I just had to show it. This fast and efficient approach gave the students permission to take the basic movement to the next level without having to instruct them to do so.
Finally, I learned to find confidence and courage when facing obstacles in a classroom through improvisation. Throughout the experience in Panamá, my inner monologue was constantly searching the recesses of my brain in how I could successfully navigate each classroom. “Fake it ‘til you make it” was one I returned to often, but it felt like work to do that. Instead, I thought about the skills gained from improvisation. Trusting an attitude of “yes, and…” gave me all that I needed to continuously move forward in the classroom. It allowed me to acknowledge that I have plenty of experience as a dancer to draw upon to make my way through a class.
I have found a great ease in teaching at a college level since returning from Panamá by habitually reminding myself to let go of my agenda when necessary, use an embodied form of expression when teaching, and trust that I have the skills to work with students in any classroom. If someone had told me teaching 3-year olds in Panamá would make me a stronger instructor in higher education in the U.S. prior to going, I would have told them that was an absurd statement. But absurd ideas are often perfection when exiting ones comfort zone. I am grateful for my experience in Panamá to dance with children who have unknowingly changed my pedagogical approach with college students.