Moving away from a familiar dance studio and starting somewhere new can be daunting – for both students and teachers. Midwesterner Heatherly Ahern graduated with a dance degree from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and a few years later, her husband’s military service relocated them to the southern Japanese island, Okinawa.

In this interview, Heatherly shares her experience of teaching dance in Okinawa at the FootLoose Dance studio.

A dance teacher congratulations student on stage

Teaching Dance in Okinawa

How did you find your job as a dance teacher at Footloose Dance when you moved to Okinawa?

I knew upon moving to Okinawa that I wanted to teach, and that I wanted to teach multiple genres. FootLoose was the only studio (I could find at that time) that provided this opportunity – and to instruct in English. They also held their students to a competitive standard.

I sought a studio with similar traits to the studio I came from in the States. It was important that the curriculum was strict and that the ultimate goal was to groom dancers for professional careers.

You had such a clear vision of where you wanted to teach. That’s great you found an opportunity to fit that fit you and your own educational goals so well!

Do you teach a mix of children from local and expat families?

Most of our students are children of US military service members. Every semester we have about 2% of local Japanese students – such as one of our most dedicated students, who is also a teacher’s assistant. I also had a little 3 -year-old in my ballet/tap class who is Japanese.

That’s interesting that many of your dance students come from military families. Expat communities can be quite segregated from the general population.

Young ballet students pose on stage

How does teaching dance help you to feel more connected to the local community?

I walk a short distance to work every day, and it is one of my favorite parts of my day. I see aspects of the community I wouldn’t have otherwise seen had I just driven.

We also participate in competitions around the island. The other studios are all primarily Japanese; so we are different, but we do our best to follow Japanese customs, since we want to portray a positive example of Americans.

The award ceremonies are in Japanese; most of the judges are Japanese; the competition heads are Japanese. One thing I have noticed and hope my students have noticed is that these Japanese dancers are extremely dedicated to their art.

Have you noticed a difference between teaching children in the US and in Japan?

Yes. After teaching at a studio that has had the same students for a few years and then moving to a studio that has a constant turnover of students due to parents’ job relocation, it is interesting to see the variance in dancers’ technical training. Even if the dancer is proficiently trained from a previous studio, it takes around 1-3 months to get them looking like the rest of the group, which can be challenging when receiving a handful of new students.

Emotionally, some of these children are trying to make new friends and to adjust to a new country and lifestyle. Some children have parents that are deployed. Typically, in the US, only a few students may be dealing with these challenges, but here it is the majority. In addition new students moving in, they may have friends moving away.

Some students use the studio as on outlet from the many challenges that come with being a military dependent or expat.

– Heatherly Ahern
Two young girls dance on stage in jazz routine

Making those adjustments as a child certainly does sound challenging. Can you describe the expectations the students have of class?

One of the most commonly phrases from our new students is “At my old studio…” It is understandable they expect us to be like their former studio since that is all many of them know. We have new dancers that were star dancers at their previous studios and are placed a lower level than they had anticipated.

Regardless of past experience, we require all of our dancers to be evaluated in our Beginning Level classes, although some students do struggle with this.

Have you found that the parents have similar expectations of the studio?

On the island, our studio is the most similar to an American studio. However, this does not mean we are 100% like the studios in the United States. We are in the Japanese community, so many things are different: our parking, our lobby situation, our payment methods, our location.

We find that our happiest customers are the ones that want to be a part of the Japanese community and are looking for those experiences. Typically our clientele are parents who want their children to learn multiple genres, and who want their children to someday have professional careers.

Is the community more or less supportive of your dancers’ performances?

For the most part, yes. We have been invited to perform at various locations. Recently our dancers received scholarships at a fraternity’s talent show. We also participate in various cultural events around the island;

One of my favorite events is the International Parade, where we dance with other groups celebrating culture.

– Heatherly Ahern

The International Parade sounds like a lovely event. There’s nothing like dance and music (and maybe food) to bring people together!

FootLoose Dance students in Okinawa team photo

How would you describe the dance scene in Okinawa?

Hip Hop is incredibly popular on Okinawa. It is not just artful imitation. These dancers perfect technique. Our Hip Hop instructor at our studio teaches multiple genres within Hip Hop. We also compete at an International Ballet Competition on island. The ballerinas we compete with are some of the most proficiently trained dancers I have ever seen.

Have you picked up any teaching tips since you’ve moved to Okinawa? Or can you share dance education advice, in general?

Be open minded to new teaching methods and styles, know your ballet terminology, explore choreographic elements and get away from “your style”.

Educate yourself as much as possible. Find the balance between being pride and humility.

Learn to love each student, and know that everyone, everyone has the ability to dance and become a dancer. Make the beginners feel as valued and as amazing as your technically proficient dancers.

– Heatherly Ahern

Take care of yourself and your family first. Teaching dance can consume you if you let it, so set healthy boundaries. We teach our students to take care of themselves and to love themselves, and we need to be a product of what we preach.

Dance teacher on stage with students at recital

Those are wonderful tips for dance educators – whatever their dance genre, wherever they live! It’s clear that you’re passionate about sharing dance with the next generation.

Before we sign off, can you share how teaching dance is rewarding for you?

I always want dance to remain a part of my life. Teaching dance provides me with the opportunity to serve others and to create: creating dancers, creating dances and creating art.

One of the most satisfying things for me has been to see the transformations: the shy student smiling, the dancer who struggled immensely to remember choreography performing an entire routine at recital, a dancer executing a trick they have practicd months.

It’s especially rewarding to see the overall confidence that accompanies dancers when they realize they can overcome obstacles.

Thank you so much for your time, Heatherly. Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher. We hear that you’ll move from Okinawa shortly, and we wish you all the best, wherever you land!

Heatherly gave some great insights into teaching dance abroad along with some wonderful tips. What was the best tidbit that you picked out of the interview?

Let us know in the comments below!

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