For Love of Teaching

There's a question that's been dogging my mind a lot lately when it comes to spinning and more specifically spinning for a living. It's a very simple question that's disarming at first but can lead to a good amount of navel-gazing to answer: why am I doing this? What is it about spinning that makes me want to do it to the exclusion of having a stable day job and the financial security I enjoyed up until so recently? I think I got part of my answer last night.

For the past month or two, a woman has been coming to my weekly poi class who we'll call "T". T heard about my classes from a friend at work and came in on a lark. She'd never spun before and near as I can tell has never had any exposure either to the Burner or Fire Spinner culture. How she came to be aware of poi is still a mystery to me, but I've appreciated her coming in so regularly. Thus far, however, it's been a struggle to figure out how best to teach her. Everybody has certain approaches that work best for them and I'm a strong believer in the concept of teaching to temperament. I nearly failed out of high school before realizing I was a kinesthetic learner and that lesson has stuck with me as I've struck out as a teacher in various capacities ever since.

Most people that walk into my classes are auditory or social learners, benefitting from an environment where other people are working on the same concepts that they are and having me describe to them the basis of the motion in question or the theory of why it works (this also, incidentally, is why I always narrate my tech blog--it might be shorter or more engaging if I just demonstrated the trick, but I want poi to be accessible to people of all learning styles). T didn't learn this way, however. If I described a visualization or mnemonic trick to her to help put a move together, again and again she would make the same mistake as though I'd said nothing at all. It was hugely frustrating for both of us.

A couple weeks ago, three students showed up for class in addition to T who had vastly more experience spinning and I could tell that in comparing herself to them, T was wondering if she had any capacity at all for spinning. I've talked before about how destructive the concept of framing talent could be and I did my best to try and convince her that she was in a great place in her learning curve. Nonetheless, I was afraid she wouldn't come back. When she texted me a week later to say she couldn't make it to class that night, my fears seemed confirmed.

Yesterday, though, she text me to say she intended to come that evening. I was both relieved and slightly apprehensive. What if this week turned out like that last lesson? It turned out that she was the only student who showed up for class that night and I thought it would make for a good opportunity to work more intensively with her to bring her up to speed. But there was still the lingering question of how best to make that happen. She mentioned as we opened up class that she was really interested in poi/dance fusion, so I ran her through a couple of dance warmups that I'd been occasionally tossing into class to encourage spinners to engage their whole bodies rather than just their arms and shoulders. Turns using extensions in all the four combinations of timing and direction seemed to click for her then for the first time--opposites split-time had seemed impossible the last class we had together but when combined with an emphasis on footwork and shifting the hips she got the turns right away.

We reviewed the forwards weave, which she'd learned from me nearly a month ago and we hadn't taken much time to review. She had nearly lost the muscle memory of how to perform it and asked me to video her performing it with her camera phone so she could remember what she was doing back at home. As I videoed her performing the trick, something clicked for me and I changed my approach. I began working on teaching her the reverse weave, but this time instead of just describing how it was performed and giving her a series of exercises to perform to get to the weave step-by-step, I made sure to continue to perform the drill and/or movement as I talked to her. As long as she was working on the move, I was demonstrating it. And that's when things began to change.

T chattered about how clean my spinning looked and how she wished her spinning looked that way, never looking at her own spinning. I thought it was a little odd, but realized with a start that this was exactly how I'd spent my first two years learning Modern Dance--always studying the moves of the other dancers and avoiding looking at my own movements in the mirror at all cost. As I would respond, there inevitably came a point in which she would concentrate so hard she'd tune out what I was saying to her--and that's always when she nailed the movement. It happened time and time again as we worked our way through each reverse 2-beat. Every time she claimed she'd have to finish working on it at home. Studying her closely, I insisted, "No, you're going to get it before you leave tonight...probably within the next 5 minutes." Each time she broke down a wall, I whooped in glee and showered her with praise...and there would always be a next step.

What I was teaching her here was not just the movements, but the love of unlocking them. The endless hours spent breaking down barriers in the mind and in the body to make a beautiful pattern happen is a fundamental desire that I feel drives most poi spinners and object manipulators. And more importantly: it's an attitude that should be a given in our lives. All too often we avoid working hard on a task, believing that difficulty we have in taming it is a sign we're no good at it rather than looking at the process itself as the reward. The greatest thing poi has taught me is to see the process as the reward rather than the end itself...and slowly I came to realize that this was what T was learning this evening. With every wall broken down, she resisted tackling the next wall less and less.

An hour into class, T had learned the reverse weave from scratch and she was elated. She had me video the move as she performed it so she could remember how to enter it and maintain it. With a half-hour left of class, I contemplated what I could teach her and briefly entertained moving onto an unrelated concept such as isolations that I'd advertised on my Twitter feed that I'd be teaching that night. Then I stopped myself...I remembered a speech by Steve Jobs that I'd been taking a lot of inspiration from lately and asked myself a rather bizarre question: if I knew that this was my last day of life...and this the last lesson I'd ever teach, what would I teach T?

That's a little heavy a question for a nearly empty class on at Thursday night, isn't it? Well...yes and no. T has been putting in a pretty solid commitment to learning poi these past few weeks and I felt like I owed it to her to give her my all. But more than that, I felt like asking that question was necessary for me to be the best teacher for her I could be. To not think of this class as an opportunity to teach her what I thought mattered, but to teach her the things that would be important to her. Ultimately, it is my job when she or any student walks through the door to give them the tools they need to become the best spinner they can be. Put simply: it took the ego out of the equation. My effectiveness as a teacher was not determined by how difficult a trick she'd be able to perform when she walked out of class, but by the joy she experienced both in taking class and what she took away from it...and it made the rest of the lesson crystal clear. I wanted her to leave that room feeling proud of herself and having something to do she wouldn't stop playing with until the next time I saw her. We weren't going to move onto a new concept, we were going to link together all the pieces she'd just learned.

I took T through a lesson on how to turn between the forwards and backwards weave. There were a couple of starts and stops as I realized I needed to keep her orientation in the room consistent for her to remember how to perform each, but just as she had with all the other moves we'd worked on that night, she worked at it again and again as I demonstrated it for her, nailing each turn individually before figuring out how to chain them together. Again, I videoed her performing the move and when I showed it to her she gasped. "It looks so cool!" she exclaimed. Watching the video had forced her to watch herself in action and she was shocked to find that her movements had become clean and controlled over the course of the evening. That rather than looking like the clumsy creature she had envisioned in her head, she was spinning in a way that looked beautiful to her. She was delighted.

I decided at that point that rather than throwing something else at her, I would turn her loose from class just a couple minutes early. She'd plowed through a lot of hard work that night and made some exceptional gains. I have an awful habit as a teacher that once a student has gotten something to then see what else I can fit into their head that same night and I felt a little tug in my brain telling me she needed to rest and digest all we'd worked on that evening. She felt like she'd just tackled Everest and I wanted for her to leave with that feeling rather than diving into something else she may or may not finish that night.

As she picked up her things and worked her way to the door, she bubbled with joy over all she'd done that night. She was proud of herself for doing something just hours earlier she'd clearly been questioning whether she was any good at. After I said my farewells and locked up the doors after her, I waved my fist wildly in victory as I walked the hallway back to the dance studio. I love poi. I love tech poi--I love the hard shit and I love theorizing about it. I love challenging people with the hard shit and pushing all our boundaries to further our art. Last night T learned some stuff most of us would consider simple, but that wasn't the point. Last night I taught T to love spinning. And I realized, I love that way more than I love tech or any of the rest of it.

So why did I decide to spin for a living? Yeah...I think that's a big part of it. :)

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