Merche Esmeralda–where to begin!? After my first class with her, I was flipping out; she walks in with her poofy short hair, ties it up in a scrunchy, sits down with a bastón (cane), closes her eyes and thinks through some steps, marking the feet. Once class begins she’s strict–old school strict, yelling at the students, demanding 100% concentration and respect, and she’s not afraid to touch or tap students to help bring awareness to misalignment–yet her choreographies and her class strike me as very contemporary. I found her approach to teaching refreshing, even though it comes from an old fashioned approach.

Merche has so much knowledge in her body; sometimes I think her body knows more than her mind in some way. Watching her set the choreographies, she has to try out the steps a few times, and it looks as if her body tells her brain what the steps are, and not the other way around (and there’s an example of the power of muscle memory!)

Her elegance, control, precision, and nearly perfect alignment astound me. And her musicality! Who needs a metronome when you have Merche with her cane marking time? Counting does not work so well for her, because, as she says, she carries the rhythm inside; putting numbers on each movement detracts from that….I want to be Merche when I’m her age (almost 70)! 
Inherent in her teaching exists the idea that dance is simply a work of mind over matter, and each student has the ability to dance perfectly (or as close to that as possible), when applying 100% concentration and working hard on a daily basis. Listening, concentrating, and controlling every detail make the foundation for a good dancer. (Easier said than done.) Dance class is a battle, learning to dance means fighting yourself, pushing yourself. Merche instills a respect for the art form, for those professionals that have, and continue, to fight that battle.

When a student clearly attempted to hold back tears and another student tried to console her (the latter overstepping her bounds, as you should not talk in class), Merche took the opportunity to explain in detail her teaching philosophy. She explained she could teach exercise after exercise and never say anything to correct the students, and she would keep charging money, and really that would just benefit her. But she does not keep quiet because she feels an obligation to help the students; that’s why we pay her, not so that we can continue to dance as we already do, but to improve and learn. I’ve spoken with several students in Madrid who don’t like her class because they feel Merche’s directness, which often come off as anger, makes her overstep her bounds as teacher and leaves her less effective as a teacher. Yes, she gives harshly honest corrections, and she expects discipline and concentration from the moment the class begins to the moment it ends, but that’s what I want in a teacher. 

I remember my first ballet teacher, Karen Alwin, explaining that when a teacher gives a correction, it’s a good thing–signifying the teacher believes you can improve. If a teacher ignores you, they have no hope for you. Ouch! Ms. Karen told a story of a teacher who never gave her a correction and she would go home sobbing, feeling entirely worthless. I gravitate to teachers that “tell it like it is,” because there’s just no other way to improve. I’ve encountered many dance teachers that sugar-coat their corrections (and I am guilty of that), or just teach lots of exercises, steps, and choreographies–but you don’t learn how to actually dance that way–quality of movement and correct technique cannot be learned without corrections from knowledgeable teachers.

Should this approach be any different for students who dance as a hobby with no aspirations to dance professionally? I don’t think so; dance requires discipline and a hunger for improvement, no matter where you want to go. Merche explained in one class that we should never feel satisfied with our capacities, we need to say “I want to get just a little bit further today” and we may not get there that day, but we work towards that; once we get further, we have to push ourselves to get a step further…over and over again; dance is a long and never-ending journey. 

I can’t imagine ever hitting a student, even gently, that’s outside my teaching philosophy. However, it did not bother me that Merche applies that technique. Tapping an arm because it’s not in the right position ensures the student remembers not to do that again, it brings awareness to that part of your body. In Merche’s and Ms. Karen’s era, hitting students wasn’t outside the norm. Physical touch can help students learn, though it’s become controversial in recent years.

Yelling at students; I’m not sure if that is the most effective way to bring about improvement, but instilling a sense of “‘just do it’ because you have the ability, you just need to apply yourself,” I think, is essential. It’s not yelling out of anger so much as disappointment, which means the teacher believes you can do it. Merche’s yelling cannot be taken personally; it cannot affect your perception of self-worth (another “easier said than done”).

We had moments of laughter and joked around in class too. Yes, it’s a bit terrifying to be in her class–nothing slips past her–nothing. But you’re there to learn, and I learned a lot from her in just a couple of weeks. What a privilege to be able to study with such a master.

For more on her life, spoken from her, here is a link to an interview (in spanish):*/merche-esmeralda-presencias-flamencas/ver