Cha-Cha-Cha_Vodicar_Bychkova_0686 Courtesy of Ailura, Wikimedia

Professional dancers, chacha-ing (Ailura, n.d)

What does learning to dance have to do with teaching in a higher education classroom??? This is the first in a series of blog posts about how learning to dance as an adult is teaching me about learning to teach in a higher education context. 

I am not a showy person, and to be honest, I am very uncomfortable with anything that can be seen as overtly alluring*. Despite this, I take latin dance classes and, for anyone who’s missed it, Latin dancing is very showy and very alluring! My regular teacher, let’s call him Teacher 1, focuses, often very technically, on what I’m meant to be doing with my feet – position, pointing, weight and so on. But the other day, we had a different teacher.  Teacher 2, who is delightful, funny and very passionate about his dancing, is all about the hips and expression – the showiness and the allure.

I really struggled in that class. I didn’t laugh as much.  I stumbled a bit more. Teacher 1 gets me to do what I need to by focusing my attention in a place I am comfortable. He reduces the levels of discomfort to the point that they don’t inhibit my learning.  They’re still there but they’re manageable. Teacher 2 doesn’t know me as well and doesn’t understand quite how much I struggle with the showmanship of dance. In a dance space, for now, if I am not at least a little uncomfortable, I’m not learning. But I can’t be too uncomfortable or my fears and inhibitions get the better of me, I freeze up and can’t learn.

This experience has made me think a lot about how comfortable or uncomfortable students are or should be in learning spaces. I work in staff development with emerging and aspiring academics, and have always worked to make my classrooms feel like very safe spaces, to minimize the discomfort. My sessions are voluntary and I’ve feared that if participants don’t feel safe, they’ll drop out.  But there’s a distinct tension here – too much comfort and none of us will grow, too much discomfort and they’ll run for the hills.

So, how to create uncomfortable moments in safe spaces? At first glance I quite like the rules offered by Arao and Clemens (2013):

  • Rule 1: Agree to disagree
  • Rule 2: Don’t take things personally
  • Rule 3: Challenge by choice
  • Rule 4: Respect
  • Rule 5: No attacks

Not all of these rules are as obvious as they first seem, so I encourage you to read Arao and Clemen’s article, “From safe spaces to brave spaces”, referenced below.

Coming up in the Lessons from the Dance floor series: Speaking the unspeakable!

Further Reading

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces. The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, 135.

Boys, J. (2008). Between unsafe spaces and the comfort zone? Exploring the impact of learning environments on ‘doing’learning.

Hardwick, J. (2014). A Safe Space for Dangerous Ideas; a Dangerous Space for Safe Thinking. Hybrid Pedagogy.

Stengel, B. S. (2010). The complex case of fear and safe space. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(6), 523-540.

Image attribution

Aluria, n.d. Austrian Open Championships Vienna, 2012 WDSF World Dancesport Championships Latin 16.-18. November 2012 Cha-Cha-Cha performed by Miha Vodicar and Nadiya Bychkova, Slovenia. Online:

*Let’s be frank for a moment, and point out that by alluring I really just mean sexy.