Is Your Teacher Toxic?

Image via Wikimedia Commons by Keith Ellwood

Toxic people exist in every walk of life, but the bellydance world seems to have more than its fair share. When the topic arises, online discussion groups light up with dancers from around the world who have survived Toxic Teachers.

What is a ‘Toxic Teacher?” A toxic person is someone so filled with negativity that they damage the psyche of those around them. Interacting with toxic people leaves you feeling drained, used, or even abused.

Toxic personalities come in several varieties.Some are critical and destroy your self-esteem over time. Others are hotheaded and do their damage in bursts, but keep you around by treating you well in between. Many are ‘victim’ types who drag you into their negative viewpoint or manipulate you into their service. Generally,  toxic people are takers; people with little to give who have very unbalanced relationships.

Identifying the Toxic Teacher

No one is perfect, of course; even great teachers might display one or two of these characteristics, and even a teacher who is extremely toxic might have many good qualities.

Characteristics of A Toxic Teacher:

  • Discourages students from taking classes or workshops with other teachers or attending events that others sponsor.
  • Has negative things to say about other dancers constantly. Her opinion of other dancers may also be very fluid, as her relationships with them are highly volatile
  • Displays rampant and unpredictable mood swings.
  • Adopts a flunky/understudy to do all of her dirty work. This person is unpaid and should feel lucky to be involved. (Apprenticeships or work-study relationships should always benefit both parties and should be characterized by mutual respect.)
  • Has clear and obvious ‘favorites’ who are given a great deal of power and may be left in control of classes or events (Hiring advanced students to teach classes or staff the studio is different from institutionalizing a pecking order.)
  • Is very needy. She wants to know that everyone thinks she is the prettiest, the best, the nicest…
  • Manipulates others into doing things because they “feel sorry for her.”
  • Leaves you emotionally drained rather than inspired.
  • Tries to isolate students by not sharing community event information or even disparaging other instructors’ events. If your teacher warns you about another teacher in the community, she may be doing you a favor, but if she doesn’t respect any other teachers in the community, be alert for other signs of toxicity.
  • Doesn’t encourage interactions with the broader dance community
  • Never takes responsibility or apologizes. Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault.
  • Constantly portrays herself as a victim.
  • Tries to hold back students who are ready to go pro or teach. This one is tricky because even great teachers often feel their students are trying to advance their careers prematurely and will try to protect the art form in that case. But if a teacher has never mentored any students into careers, that’s a bad sign.
  • Insists her students buy costumes and props through her or book all gigs through her. She may even send them out to dance professionally for little or no pay or keep their pay for herself. Again, this one is a little tricky. Some terrific teachers also run booking agencies and are entitled to a reasonable reimbursement for advertising, handling phones, etc. (20% is a common agent fee).
  • Is generally ruled by anger, fear, anxiety, gossip, or attention-seeking behaviors.
  • Has unhealthy relationships with nearly everyone in her life outside of dance.

Ticking just one box on this list doesn’t mean your teacher is abusive. A teacher is a flawed human being and won’t exhibit perfect behavior at all time.  The bottom line is how you feel after interacting with your teacher. You should feel uplifted and joyful, excited about the next performance or event.

What to do if your teacher is toxic

Obviously, if your teacher is eating your soul, you want to leave. But that’s not always easy.

Sometimes, the only teacher in an area is a toxic character. In fact, the role of ‘only available bellydance teacher’ seems to be particularly attractive to toxic types, as it offers them the control they crave.

Other times, the toxic teacher is the very best teacher in your area, or the best one in the style you want to learn. Unfortunately, the performing arts and fragile egos often go hand in hand, so it’s not uncommon for a spectacular dancer to also be a very difficult individual.

If you decide to remain in class with a toxic character, here are some ideas to reduce your vulnerability:

  • Keep your distance. Come to class, dance, leave. Don’t get socially involved with your instructor, and remember that anything negative you say will probably get back to her somehow. Avoid group socializing organized by the teacher and if you socialize with fellow students on your own, try to avoid talking about class or the teacher. You may  need to tell your friends, ‘“Honestly, I’d rather not talk about [our teacher, the dance community gossip, other students]. There’s so much drama there. Let’s have a drama-free zone here.” T
  • Refuse to receive gossip. If you find yourself in situations where mean gossip is happening, you may need to gently tell the speaker that you’re not interested in all that drama and negativity, then change the subject. Yes, even if the speaker is your teacher, but only if the conversation is private. Avoid challenging her in public.
  • Be aware of your own negativity. One reason we get drawn in by toxic folks is that we love to be part of the “in crowd” and we like to indulge our own secret ‘mean girl.’ If your teacher  builds up her class by mocking the rest of the dance community, you might enjoy feeling like you’re sitting at the ‘cool kids table’ — until you realize it was actually the ‘mean girls’ table’ all along. You can’t resist until you acknowledge what’s drawing you in. Own your role in the gossip and move past it. You don’t need to be part of a group that’s tearing others down.
  • Let go of the need to ‘help’ if your teacher is needy or a constant victim. You can’t save anyone, and you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself. If you’ve been volunteering too much time around the studio, or you’ve spent too much time listening to negative rants that leave you feeling helpless and drained…just stop. Tell your teacher  that you are going to be overwhelmed with personal issues going forward. Let know you’ll be making time to come to class but you won’t be as available as you were before to socialize or help out.
  • Become a very careful listener. Know that everything you hear is being slanted, filtered and distorted whether the speaker realizes it or not. The more neurotic (or desperate) the speaker is, the more she will involuntary distort the truth without recognizing her speech as ‘lying’
  • Use your own compassion as a shield to keep you from feeling angry. Anger will devour you. This person is behaving this way because she is needy and in pain. You can do your best not to contribute to her pain, but you can’t fix it for her. Release your anger by silently hoping she finds the help she needs.

When you have to leave

Often a dancer is ready to leave a Toxic Teacher long before she actually makes that move. Why? Fear keeps her in class. If your teacher is negative, critical, moody and scary when she likes you, how will she act when you try to leave?

Sadly, being able to leave one instructor for another without drama can be considered a sign that your teacher is NOT toxic. The toxic ones will feel threatened, angry, frightened and confused by your move. Simple explanations like ‘this class is closer to my home’ or ‘this teacher is more my style’ make perfect sense to a mentally healthy instructor. But to a toxic character is more likely to take your move to another class as a personal attack and try to “fight back.”

Know this: Whatever drama happens when you leave is inevitable. There are ways to minimize it, but you cannot prevent it. There will never be a good time for drama in your life, so putting it off until after the next hafla or after you start your new job is just sentencing yourself to more weeks of torture.

Here are some tips for handling your departure:

  • Leave quietly. If possible, just stop coming to class without having any conversation about it at all.
  • Take a hiatus. Let your teach know you’re taking a break from dance. Wait a few weeks before signing up with a new instructor.
  • Be brief. If you must explain, keep it to a single sentence, like “I just want to try something new for a while” or “Teacher B is offering something I want to try.” If your instructor engages you in conversation, say as little as possible. Everything you say will be used against you later. Let her talk, keep neutral demeanor, quietly repeat your sentence, and get out of there as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t air your grievances. It may be tempting to tell your teacher everything she’s ever done that made you feel angry or hurt, either privately or in front of the whole class. Ask yourself what that conversation would accomplish, and how it would affect your future.
  • When you see your instructor at events, be friendly. Wave, stop by her table to say hello and compliment her after she dances. But keep it short. If she knows that you’re not angry at her, she’ll be far less defensive. If she’s rude, stick to smiling and waving from across the room.
  • Take your sail out of her wind. She’s going to keep blowing, but the less you respond, the sooner it will be over. Your friends from class will want to tell you about mean things she says about you. Resist the temptation to listen or defend yourself; you’ll only be keeping the toxic relationship alive through these third parties. Tell your friends you genuinely don’t want to know if your former teacher says anything about you, as it only hurts you and there’s nothing you can do about it. What kind of friend wants to tell you things that will hurt you? Tell them you trust that those who know you won’t believe any of it anyway.

Sadly, some students leave dance altogether. Says one former dancer, “All of these things are … why I gave up on [belly] dance. Too many fragile egos and too much drama…” It’s tragic to have to give up something you love because of a neurotic teacher. Here’s hoping your situation doesn’t end that way!

2 thoughts on “Is Your Teacher Toxic?”

  1. This is an excellent article. I’m a belly dancer who survived cancer. I believe that life is too short to deal with toxic people. A teacher who is dedicated to teaching this art will not discourage their students. A teacher who makes others feel bad about themselves is not worth the time. I would leave that teacher and never look back. There are enough good teachers. Positive energy is everything !

  2. I love this article. When I first started to go pro I was pretty young. I was practically blacklisted because I didn’t pay certain dancers to teach me, and still became successful. Alicia Clover, and Renee Larrabee from Colorado were absolutely vicious, and had no problem trash talking me to their students. These women would have their students come to my performances to harass me. They spread lies, and tried saying that I was undercutting other dancers (I was actually undercut by my former dance partner). I was informed by one student of theirs about this. Lots of belly dance teachers pretend to be “pro-women” but have no problem tearing down a young woman. It boils down to insecurity, and jealousy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *