The Difficult Student

I’ve sometimes imagined that there is a student union somewhere that sends one challenging student to each workshop – the one that when you say “find a partner,” everyone flees that person. Because they are often the last one left they frequently end up partnering with the teacher. Advice? What strategies do you have with these individuals?

  • Work in small groups rather than in pairs to dilute the experience with the person.
  • Demo with them so that people can see how you work with this individual.
  • Sometimes I use ways to pick partners like eye color that is not about choice but about destiny.
  • Change partners often.
  • If someone keeps ending up with the “student union” student, have people find a partner and then right away have people find a partner again.
  • And sometimes choose your partner before you tell people to find a partner so you as the teacher don’t always end up dancing with the student union representative.
  • There is a saying: “A person does not rub backs with a porcupine.” If a student is consistently disruptive to the group it’s OK to ask that person to not return to class.

8 thoughts on “The Difficult Student

  1. keith

    Thanks for taking this conversation from shadow to blog. Of course there is much to learn from the “difficult student” but those lessons are not always on the agenda of the teacher or the other students in the room. I use all of your tactics except that I’ve never asked a student not to return. I generally think that job belongs to the locals. I will sometimes try to talk to the student and/or to local dancers who know the person, to bring the issue into engagement. Too often the difficult student is male, heterosexual, older, and not very experienced. CI is amazing for being welcoming to all kinds of people but I am consistently aware that older hetero white men with no dance experience come in to the practice much more than any other older people with no dance experience. As you catalogue tactics for dealing with difficult students it might be interesting to catalogue what makes a student difficult, or what traits in a dancer/human do most others try to avoid. The designated difficult person is often a repository for the difficulties that we all share, often in lesser intensities. Avoiding the awkward person simply makes them more awkward, no? I’m just thinking aloud here… thanks.

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  2. martinkeogh

    Thanks Keith for expanding the question and for laying down the gauntlet asking for more definition. What makes for a “difficult” student? Here are a few possibilities: bad hygiene, vastly different skill level than the group, not embodied, underlying tone of anger, unstable boundaries, an overflowing sexual subtext, and/or a cloying neediness.

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  3. Sadetanssija

    Interesting. I sometimes find myself being this “difficult” student – not for the teacher in a sense that I would be difficult to teach, but “difficult” maybe in a sense that somehow the partnering seems to have happened before I even realised – sometimes the laws of social behaviour are complex. I find it a bit annoying especially in CI where people are _maybe_ a bit more accustomed to dancing with people they don’t know than in some other dance style. However, now I’m writing in a bit more general level about what I’ve experienced, since I don’t have this problem of being “difficult” in the current CI class I’m attending. Perhaps the existing social hierarchies and relationships are transferred to (a CI) class as well. It has two sides – either I’m not chosen as a partner (or I’m not quick enough to grab the person closest to me) because people know me, or, similarly, nobody knows me.
    I’m almost the opposite to a white, unexperienced hetero male. Maybe I just stink too much? I don’t have a problem to be partnering with the teacher, but if it happens too many times, I start to feel a bit awkward because not knowing the reason why it happened again, as I definitely haven’t insulted anyone or behaved inappropriately. I also think what the teacher thinks about me and why I was again the one who didn’t partner up. “Avoiding the awkward person simply makes them more awkward, no?” Exactly. I consider myself being a rather normal, slightly shy human being who wants to interact with and respect fellow dancers.

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  4. Miki Mappin

    Martin, I’m glad you brought this up. It’s a subject i wanted to talk with you about after the last workshop I attended with you, but we didn’t find the opportunity, and I haven’t managed to find the time since. I’ve seen the phenomenon of people being the last to be chosen many times in dance classes, and sometimes I have been that person. I’m surprised at your rather simplistic analysis that places the blame for this on the student, and not the choosers, or sometimes the instructor. Perhaps this reflects your experience, but not mine, and not for example that of the previous contributor Sadetanssija, with whom I doubt, somehow, that the problem is one of them being ‘smelly’.

    The first workshop I attended with you was life changing for me. At that time I was, or appeared to be, an older white male with little experience. I was not aware of it at the time, but one of the reasons that workshop was so good for me had to do with the techniques you used for partnering. You mention a couple of those techniques in your blog, but I remember there were others, such as games that ended with people being partnered as a random outcome of the game, reciprocal exercises where pairs were surprised by not simply reversing roles with the same partners but being given other partners, and occasional intervention where chance brought two people together more times than was probable. At the time I noticed and noted these techniques, but it was only later, after many more workshops with other instructors, that I realized how rare and important this approach of yours was.

    I would often be the excluded one. As I was not the sexual predator type, but focussed on the work, not difficult, not inexperienced, not exceptionally tall and not heavy, and always took great care to clean my body, mouth and clothes before class, it was clear clear that there were other factors at play. Sometimes they were obvious, such as a preference by a group of mostly younger women to partner with other younger women, and not an older man. Reasons based on difference. I have seen it with other participants being excluded because they were a different race from the majority, because they were socially awkward, and sadly, often just because they were judged as less physically attractive according to stereotypical ideas about appearance. And unfortunately, the practice of the vast majority of instructors of allowing participants to choose their own partners does not help.

    This all became devastatingly clear to me in 2007, when I had arranged to attend one of your workshops at Harlequí, in Catalonia. Your workshop was cancelled, so I took the next one, 10 days with a respected and eminent practitioner and instructor of the art. The work was demanding; physically, but especially emotionally. A faction of the group, centered around a charismatic white male, knew one another and the instructor from before. It soon became apparent that a few of us in the group; an older woman, a younger woman who was ‘plain’ in appearance, a woman who was a bit ‘loud’, opinionated and inexperienced and myself were being excluded and consistently partnered together. The reasons for my exclusion soon became apparent. I am transgender, and was at that time transitioning to presenting as female; an awkward student indeed. The greatest problem for me was that the older alpha male was extremely transphobic, and the in group and the instructor did nothing to ameliorate his hostility, which was not limited to exclusion, but also included other hurtful behavior such as using information shared in some of our emotional work to ridicule me in later sessions. I ended up leaving the workshop in great distress after 8 days.

    At the most recent workshop I attended with you this spring, I did not have these problems. Having now transitioned, it is clear to me that the fulfillment and joy I have found in finally being true to my inner nature is infectious, and most people do not shun me. The group was wonderfully supportive and loving, and I felt a healthy acceptance of the diversity of ages, ethnic groups, appearance, and genders represented. However, I was struck by the fact that you, Martin, allowed far more self-choosing of partners that I remembered in that first wonderful workshop I attended with you. Is it because you saw that with this particular group it was not so necessary? Or has your awareness of the need for the brilliant techniques for pairing you used in my first class been dulled over time? I feel my personal experience has shown that the problem of exclusion of the ‘difficult’ student is often a problem of an instructor not being aware of the techniques that can be employed to avoid these destructive situations.

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  5. martinkeogh

    Miki, thanks for writing with such candor. And it was great to see you again in Calgary after so many years. I think three of the most interesting words in contact improvisation are, “find a partner.” These words can bring up people’s issues about inclusion, exclusion, attractiveness, and hierarchy. I find that this all gets bypassed if I give a particular task to find a partner like, “find someone with a piece of clothing that is the same color as yours.” I have many of these that I will write a blog post about one day. Some people hear “find a partner” and they are quick on their feet and grab a person. Some look to meet eyes. And some rock back on their heals and drop their eyes and wait to be found. I like to get people aware of their default strategy and to try other strategies. There is a difference between the issues that come up around “find a partner” and when a class full of students flee from someone when those words are spoken. This was an image to give an idea of what I mean by a difficult student. I hope the list of qualities I put above is helpful.

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  6. mariana casares

    Hola, me resulta muy interesante esta conversación, muchas gracias a todos por sus intervenciones. Justamente pensaba en esto, tengo en mis clases un estudiante dificil, y utilizo estas técnicas que decía Martín, ropa del mismo color, ropa interior (que no se ve para que no se elijan los iguales) bebidas que tomaron en el desayuno, fruta que más te gusta y otras. Sin embargo, noto que el estudiante dificil logra quedar sólo una y otra vez. Es el úlitmo en encontrar su duo, siempre. ¿Por qué ocurre? Hay algo de ponerse en el lugar de la vícitma, muchas veces son pares… y éste me mira como diciendo “estoy solo otra vez” cuando también hay otra persona en el salón que no tiene compañero. ¿Hay algo de querer responsabilizar al docente? ¿o de ser el “mimado” del docente, el especial?. Son preguntas que me hago, porque todavía no encuentro la forma de que se mueva de lugar. Muchas veces les digo, si siempre esperás a que te elijan serás el primero en elegir esta vez, y si siempre elegís te quedarás esperando.. y de todas manera no funciona, en ese momento queda quieto y parece no haber entendido lo que le digo.
    Todo lo que puedas seguir aportando a este tema me interesa y mucho. Ya saber que hay otros pensando en esto me alivia. Gracias… y espero entiendan algo de español…

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