Assisting…what does it actually mean? What is their actual role?
by Emily Bufferd
The term ‘assistant’ is used in a lot of facets in dance these days. There are teachers who have assistants (myself being one of them), there are convention assistants, there are dancers who get called out in class or up on stage, but who aren’t actually assisting, but then they kind of function as assistants… there is a lot of disparity in how someone gets the job title, and what the expectation of them is.
In my training, I was an assistant for several well-known and very highly regarded Master Teachers. Assisting them taught me a lot of things… to ‘be on’ all the time, to remember choreography/spacing/timing/chargers/water/coffee/etc, to communicate effectively, to show up looking presentable, to handle an emergency, and most importantly (for what I wanted to pursue), assisting them taught me how to be a teacher. This is the type of work I innately think of when I think of a dancer saying they are an assistant, and these are the expectations I have of mine.
To risk sounding like I’m reminiscing of days gone by… I remember growing up and going to conventions, and the assistants (or demonstrators) who were with the teachers were dancers they were actively training. It was not a prize that had been won as part of a title, or a one-off where the dancer may or may not be familiar with the teacher/choreographer’s style, needs, or verbal/non-verbal queuing. While I absolutely think this is a wonderful opportunity for the dancers who win being an assistant as a prize, it has also opened a can of worms for the amount of time now deemed appropriate by a dancer (or their parent) coming to open classes who may want to work with you in this capacity to ask for the opportunity. Taking one or two classes with someone and then asking if you can be their assistant feels incredibly forward to me. Perhaps I am stuck in a tradition that is not as relevant as it once was, but that relationship between Teacher and Assistant is a deep investment… one that couldn’t possibly be built in one class, or even two, or three, or four. Assisting someone is a job, but it is also a level of trust between the student (assistant) and the teacher.
To elaborate on that idea of trust between a student who is an assistant and teacher, let’s dive into why a teacher might have an assistant in the first place. For me, as a still young-ish and very able-bodied educator, I have assistants for several reasons… first and foremost being that it enables me to do my job better – my assistants are able to stand in the front of class as a visual representation of what each element of my warm-up or phrase might be, which enables me to walk around and offer corrections… thus allowing me to actually ‘teach’ class as opposed to having to be a visual. They are also well equipped to start my warm-up if needed, and also keep the class moving if I have a dancer in class who has gotten injured that warrants me stepping out of the room. For some, having an assistant is a necessity as they are no longer as able-bodied and need a demonstrator. In either circumstance, being an assistant is a badge of honor that is earned - may the dancers who wear it forever know its value.