My Journey as a Teacher

By Alana Isiguen

Alana Isiguen headshot

When I was 16 years old, I was pushed into a classroom of young girls and boys ready for a jazz dance class. My dance teacher, Rebecca Wiley, had asked me to cover for her at the last minute, and though I had never taught before, she told me there’s no better way to learn how than to just do! As off the cuff as it was, I was not anxious in that first class, and we all ended up having a great time. I felt invigorated in a new and different way than when I danced and performed myself. Something had sparked inside me, and I was curious to explore this new world of teaching.

In my younger years I attended a dance school affiliated with a professional company where I learned so much by simply looking up to the professional dancers. The majority of my technique in classes however was “monkey see, monkey do”. My main teacher was a Balanchine ballerina; she basically came out of the womb with her natural facility. While she taught me a lot about style, epaulment, and performance, there was little to no explanation on how to accomplish the ballet vocabulary that is most unnatural to a body like mine – not naturally turned out and extra muscular. I needed more.

When I left that school and started studying privately with Rebecca, I finally experienced personalized and passionate teaching. In our lessons, she would spend 30 minutes breaking down the smallest of details to figure out how I could achieve a particular shape or step with my own body. We looked at my facility, my anatomical structure, my natural inklings and what felt foreign. Then she would do it in her own body and explain what she felt and what muscles and energy she was activating. We always did a lot of trial and error, but in the end Rebecca helped me find a way to refine my technique for my own body – always with humor, positivity, encouragement, and most importantly we worked together as a team.

We are all shaped by our experiences, and I feel privileged and honored to have studied with some amazing teachers. And I know without a doubt that I am a better teacher when I’m consistently taking classes and being exposed to new information. This could come from an incredibly mind-blowing class, where I can’t wait to share all my revelations with my students, or an uninspiring class where I reaffirm my own teaching style: my tone, the pacing of my class, the ideas I choose to explore, my energy, etc.

To reverse the role as a teacher and become the student keeps me grounded.  Not being in the place of authority all the time reminds me how vulnerable people are when they dance. As a dancer one is constantly being pushed to take risks, whether internally or from teachers and peers. In order for students to reach that edge, it is essential to create an environment that is supportive, challenging, and always open to exploration from both sides. Both student and teacher have to be willing to guess and check, finding out what works and what doesn’t many different times and in many different ways. The beautiful thing about learning is that it never stops. There is always something new to gain, but the students must be open to that idea of change.

It is that openness, or rather the lack thereof, that has been a major wall I have come up against in my teaching. When students come in with a fixed mindset – either they only like one style or they’re attached to only one way of accomplishing something – it is very hard to get them to relax their grip and see outside of it. I’ve always valued myself as the teacher who brings something for everyone and tries to individually connect, who offers suggestions and corrections by letting students know that if it doesn’t work for them, then let it go and let’s try to find a way that does work. My main goal is always to get the students excited about dance by working hard and having fun.  However, there will still be those students who you will not be able to get through to, no matter how many different ways you try to reach them. It is very disheartening and frustrating. It feels like failure, but what I’ve realized is like in any relationship, it can never be one-sided. It’s a definite give and take, and both teacher and student have to be willing and open to working together.

When I was a young student I was always inspired by my teachers, and never thought about us doing the same for them until the year I graduated college. I found a job teaching a small group of kids, mostly 12 to 18 year-olds. To this day, I have never been as inspired by a group of students.  Not only were they technicians and mature beyond their years, but they were incredibly passionate. It was so moving to watch their intense determination and drive to succeed. They impressed upon me the value of the give-and-take relationship between teacher and student, and inspired me every day with their new ideas and desire to explore.


I’m not the teacher to collect favorites based on talent, or boast about which students have gone on to do amazing things. Rather, I’ve always been interested in what each student can bring to the class, their work ethic, and their passion.  Dance is my one true love and my life’s work. I don’t expect every single student to feel as strongly as I do, but I do expect them to take pride in their work and in themselves, to have self-respect and dignity, and to put effort into the tasks they take on in their classes and rehearsals. There are those days when you look around a classroom of students, and they could care less, minds being anywhere but the present, giving -2% of their energy, and all you want to do is get up and walk out of the class.

But then there are those small gleaming moments that remind me why I do this.  I’ve been working with a group of students, about ages 12 to 14, on how to be present in their dancing and in life. To not contrive an emotion or rush a section of steps, but to really listen – to the music, to the energy of the other dancers around them, and to themselves. It has proved particularly difficult for this age group, who are extremely self-conscious to begin with, as all they’ve known in their short performance careers is to do what they’re told – to smile, show their teeth, and give energy no matter what’s happening. It was tough to warm them up to the idea of ‘just being present’. Yet in our last class before their recital, I started to really see them slow down and listen, not faking their expressions, but taking a risk by letting themselves be enough. Watching those layers melt away and really seeing them – their 12 year-old selves and what they wanted to express – tears welled up in my eyes. Sounds corny I know, but it is when I see a student take an idea, explore it, and watch it really blossom inside them that all my hard work day in and day out feels worth it.

Dance is such a gift. I cannot imagine my life without it, and I feel this strong urge to share it. All I hope for along this journey as a teacher is that I get to bring the wonderful joy of movement to many students, and that we will continue to learn and inspire one another for a long time to come.

Alana Isiguen is originally from North Carolina where she trained and apprenticed with North Carolina Dance Theater. She later studied privately with Rebecca Massey Wiley, formerly of American Ballet Theater, who mentored her in dance pedagogy. In 2008 she received her BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and studied abroad on full scholarship at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria. Ms. Isiguen has presented her own choreography at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan, and helped found East Coast Movement, a performing youth company in New Jersey where she served as Rehearsal Director and taught ballet and improvisation.  She currently teaches ballet, contemporary, and Pilates in the San Francisco Bay Area, and will be entering the MFA dance program at UC Irvine in the fall through a full tuition teaching fellowship.