Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stage Parents

I remember well the dreaded parent observation week at the studios where I used to teach.  Depending on the age of the students, having parents observing class could either be a help or a hindrance.  Usually the youngest children find it a distraction and the oldest ones tend to pull their acts together.  I never changed my method of teaching for the sake of the parents who were sitting along the sidelines, but it’s interesting to note the various types of parents with kids who dance.

The best parents are those that have done their homework prior to enrolling their children: they know the teachers are qualified and believe their manner of teaching is credible.  They don’t question the rules, the dress code, or the reason their child mostly stands in the back line during the performance at the end of the year.  They are concerned with progress and do their utmost to ensure their child comes to class prepared to work hard and focus on improving.  These are the best parents.

Then there are the “stage” parents.  These parents wonder aloud why their child is not yet dancing en pointe, why he or she doesn’t have a solo, and why his or her class is not working on more complicated steps yet.  Somehow these parents are more visible, and definitely more annoying, to the teacher of dance.  My advice if you have a child who is taking ballet is to make sure the teachers have some kind of background in dance.  You’d be surprised—just about anyone can open a dance studio.  Many people have a degree in dance from a university, and many have professional credits to their name which is just as important.  A dance school brochure should really be up front about their teachers’ credentials (unless they don’t have any worth mentioning, and then beware!).

When a cast list goes up and your child didn’t get the lead, don’t assume that means he or she doesn’t have talent.  And if you’re a dancer, understand that being cast in a corps de ballet or solo role can be just as wonderful a learning experience as being cast as the principal dancer.  One of my favorite roles to ever dance was the White Cat in Sleeping Beauty.  I loved that role and got to dance it while I was a student at Indiana University.  The steps were not so difficult, but it gave me a chance to work on characterization and not being me on stage.  It really was a liberating experience.  Learning to leave yourself behind and become your character can take a lot of stress out of dancing.

Sometimes the “lead” role is not even the leading role, so don’t be misled!  In an art form like dance where there is such a hierarchy going on (corps de ballet, soloists, principal dancers), it’s easy to forget that there are no small parts, only small actors (not sure where that quote originates, but I tend to agree with it).  And sometimes just because a role isn’t the “lead” doesn’t mean it isn’t the hardest role to dance.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Monday, October 26, 2009

Teaching Creative Movement

Ballet class with children ages 3-5 is often called “creative movement” rather than ballet class. Then at age 6 it is sometimes referred to as “pre-ballet”, which is when they are usually ready to stand at the barre and learn the mechanics of alignment and ballet positions. Creative movement can be taught many different ways—none better or more effective than another—so I will just share some of the things I did with this age group (and felt were effective) when I was teaching them dance.

First of all, kids this age don’t have a very long attention span! Two minutes is about as long as you can stretch one activity before moving on to something else. I always felt that a 45 minute class was the absolute longest these kids could handle, unless you are combining it with some tap, too. I’d also say that if you have more than eight children in the class then you should probably have an assistant there to help you out.

I structured my creative movement classes more or less the same way each week. Kids do like repetition and it helps them feel more comfortable if they have a good idea what to expect. We would begin sitting on the floor in a circle, wide enough that when they put their arms out to the sides they wouldn’t touch their neighbor. At the beginning you can have them sit cross legged or with the soles of their feet together or their legs stretched out straight in front of them. Sitting cross legged is easiest for them, and when you want them to focus attention on sitting up straight and using good posture through their backs, necks long, and shoulders down, this is helpful.

Still in the circle we would also sing a lot. There are several songs that some children may already know or can pick up quickly that you can easily add movements to. I liked “Open, Shut Them”. You sing Open, Shut Them, Open, Shut Them, Give a little clap clap clap, Open, Shut Them, Open Shut Them, Put them in your lap lap lap. You can do variations on this using your hands like in prayer position or using your legs to open to a straddle and close legs together straight in front of you. Then you can sing Creep Them, Creep Them, Creep Them, Creep Them Right down to your toes (crawling with fingers down outstretched legs in front and toward their toes) and repeat Creep Them, Creep Them, Creep Them, Creep Them, Right back to your nose.

In the circle you can also work on flexing and pointing the toes and flying like a butterfly using pretty arms with the soles of the feet together. They also enjoyed lying on their bellies with their heads towards the center of the circle, practicing pushing up onto their hands and keeping their necks long (like a cobra in yoga), and lifting their heads and their feet off the ground and flying like Superman.

Practicing little rhythmic patterns is a fun thing to do in the circle as well. You can have them help you make up four count or eight count phrases such as clap hands 2X, clap hands to knees 2X, clap hands to shoulders 2X, and put both hands on your head, hold count 8. You can repeat with only one clap in each position, etc. Adding head movements and even facial expressions is a great way to interact with them and get them working on putting together patterns.

In the center there are many activities you can do with this age group. Props are fun, too, especially if you have colorful scarves they can improvise with at the end of class. I tried to incorporate learning how to hop on one foot, gallop, skip, walk toe to heel across the floor like on a tightrope, and eventually even learning a small polka step on demi pointe and pliĆ© (step R, L on demi pointe, step R in pliĆ©, repeat LRL across the floor). You can reverse that polka, too, and do down, up, up…down, up, up. It’s amazing what children this age can pick up. When you feel like you’re losing them, go back to imitating an animal to get their attention again. Take light springy steps like a cat, heavy steps like a gorilla, etc.

At the end of class we’d always put a scarf or something down in the center that they could run and jump over one at a time. The idea would be to leap leading with their right leg the first time, and then starting at the other upstage diagonal leap leading with their left leg, but usually you are lucky if they manage to just leap and land on one leg instead of two. It’s a really fun age to teach. I think when I was teaching this level I was too worried about getting enough “technique” into each class. But really, having them move to music and count out rhythms and learn patterns is truly enough. At this stage it’s most important that they enjoy what they are doing.

Maybe other teachers of creative movement have more to add. And I think that never having danced at this age myself, it’s harder for me to say exactly what’s so important about it and what’s not. I don’t think it can make or break a dancer, unless you become too exacting and they tire of it before it’s really time to begin working on technique. Please share your thoughts!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Special Ballet Teacher

We entered the hall with solemn steps and took our seats. The group mostly comprised the beloved late ballet teacher's university students. At the front of the room was a table with a photograph of a beautiful young woman. Of course she'd been young once, but it was odd to see a photo of Mrs. Dorsey from her youth. She'd been a dazzling star at the age of fourteen with the Royal Ballet, and through the eulogy we learned she'd managed to pack her whole life into a mere sixty years. This, too, came as a shock.

She walked with a cane which she'd given the name Betsy. Her hair was quite grey and worn pulled back at the nape of her neck. She wore horn-rimmed glasses and unflattering dresses with knee high hose, and taught every class in a pair of terribly old-fashioned lady's shoes. If it weren't for her clever combinations of steps we never would have guessed she'd ever been a ballerina. Most of the time she sat in a red leather chair and gave vocal instructions, tapping out the tempo with Betsy and sipping from a cup of hot tea. It was a challenge for me, as I'd never had a teacher who didn't stand at the barre and demonstrate the exercises with grace and firmly accentuated calf muscles. Having to learn to translate the names of steps and positions of the arms into movement was, I realized later, a great opportunity for me. I began religiously writing down class combinations in dance journals, which I later used when I became a teacher myself. My desperate attempt to grasp the vocabulary in Mrs. Dorsey's class was a great aid.

I was shy, uncertain about myself and not at all convinced I had what it took to be a ballerina. All I knew was that I loved to dance, and I wanted to do nothing else with such a passion. My father's dream of going to London to study theater had been dashed by his parents when he was the age I'd been then, and I think he went out of his way to find opportunities for me. Mrs. Dorsey had been the one to write a letter of recommendation for me to attend Butler University as a high school student. I later saw her recommendation and was astonished it had been accepted (the student has 'adequate' ability), but I did have to endure an audition and I worked very hard and never gave up, even when I encountered a step I'd never seen before. Perhaps they saw potential, for I was enrolled in the program.

I worked with Mrs. Dorsey for a year and one summer. She'd told my father that the girls' dressing room could be brutal and she was worried about how I'd stand up to the pressure. No one was cruel to me, ever. I was quiet, arriving for the 2:00 ballet class after having spent the morning at high school, then thirty minutes driving on the interstate to Indianapolis. Many days I also stayed for pointe class, and I was cast in The Nutcracker so had to stay for rehearsals as well.

One day, late in the year, we were doing attitude devant en tournant. It was rare that Mrs. Dorsey taught pointe class, and I think she was surprised by my rapid improvement. I somehow had developed strength and confidence enough to do this particular turning step well. She stopped everyone, got up from her chair, walked over to me and kissed the top of my head. Then, she turned to the rest of the class and said over the top of her glasses in her English accent, "She's don't get kisses."

I will never forget that day. Never before or again did a teacher ever compliment me with a kiss. After having taught ballet for many years myself, it never occurred to me to do the same for any of my students either, so I consider myself quite fortunate to have been given such a gift. This gift was all the self-assurance I needed to get me through the next ten years of my dancing career.

There were several teachers who said I wasn't built right for ballet; my torso was too long and legs not long enough, or I just didn't have what it took emotionally to withstand the pressures of a professional life in the field. But never did their words affect me. I had Mrs. Dorsey most days the following summer for a two hour ballet class and an hour of pointe. When we did well, she praised us. When we did not do well, she would only look at us over the top of her glasses and raise her eyebrows. She had lost a tooth that summer and tried very hard not to smile too hugely, but a few times she would lose herself in a happy moment and we'd see the gaping hole at the side of her top gums. It was endearing. I loved her so.

She lived close to campus and on a couple of occasions she asked me to give her a ride home. It was a bit embarrassing for me because I was driving a big, baby blue Ford pickup truck. She had an awful time getting in and out, and I was not well-mannered enough to know to give her a hand. She would smile at me with great affection, regardless, and waved as I drove off. She had told us once that she didn't have much to do at her home. She would just look at the blank walls and choreograph combinations for our classes in her head.

After a break of a few weeks that summer, we returned to classes in the fall to find Mrs. Dorsey absent. We learned that she was in the hospital and she had cancer. News was that she cheered up all the nurses with her English humor, rather than being the one who was cheered. Only a few weeks later, she passed away.

And here we were, at a memorial service for our dear, sweet, Mrs. Dorsey. Probably an actual funeral had taken place already, or perhaps she was cremated. There was no casket, no trip to a cemetery for us that day. Her son was there and someone who offered words that didn't come near to catching her essence. We looked upon the framed photograph of a lovely young woman and we each remembered how she'd touched our individual lives. I don't believe there was a dry eye in the hall. I, for one, didn't have enough tissues on hand.

For many years after, I would call upon Mrs. Dorsey from the great beyond, asking for her assistance with this audition or that piece of choreography. She never failed me, and I truly do believe that her spirit lives on and she is at my side whenever summoned. Sometimes I wonder how she managed to continue carrying on the tradition of teaching ballet for so many years. I found an article online that said she'd choreographed a Dickens ballet at Butler in 1959. That was 25 years before I arrived there. How many lives she touched can only be imagined. I just know that she had a magical effect on mine.

Somehow my father managed to learn of an estate sale at Mrs. Dorsey's home near the university. He accompanied me there one day after class. We entered the small, brick home where she'd visualized ballet combinations while staring at her walls, and we walked among her things. It was strange to enter her personal world. Stranger still to find things of little value up for sale. We may not have been the only ones who went there for a sentimental trinket or two. I took home a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a cane, and a plaque with a gold rose attached that reads:

All hearts grow warmer

in the presence of one who

gave freely for the love of giving

a giving that deepens and grows

ever unfolding new sweetness

as the blossoming of a rose.

I still have the plaque on my dresser, though I've since lost the glasses and the cane. No doubt it was given to her from one of her many adoring students.

One time I remember being in her class when no accompanist was there to play the piano. There was a record player available and some well-worn records, but she quickly gave up trying to make that work and employed her cane, Betsy, to pound out the rhythm on the floor. I'm sure she was exhausted by the end of an hour and a half of doing that, but she never let on that she was tired and she always had a lovely, peaceful face.

Now that I'm older, with three children of my own, working in the completely unrelated field of computer technology, I look back at Mrs. Dorsey and think about what she had said about the dance world being a cruel place. I did manage to get my bachelor's and master's degrees in dance and I did dance professionally for a short period of time. Many years I taught ballet to young people and enjoyed it tremendously. When my back started giving me problems I was unable to teach the way I'd always taught: standing at the barre in my leotard and tights with a long, black skirt and pale pink teaching shoes, demonstrating the steps with the best technical ability I had left. I suppose I could have asked for a demonstrator, someone who would stand in front of the class and show the steps as I wanted them executed, following my verbal lead. But it was too hard for me. Once I could no longer show the steps, I felt my teaching began to suffer. Maybe I should have called on Mrs. Dorsey for assistance then, before it was too late. We moved to a new state where no one knew me as a dancer or a teacher, and my talent seemed to diminish into nothingness. I have my children who give me great happiness, and I've worked at the bank now for nine years.

I did try teaching again, about a year ago. My back and my foot both gave me a lot of pain. It's hard for me to do anything physical now, and I wonder if I'd been born in Russia if they would have filtered me out of the dance system before I'd ever started because my torso was too long, my legs too short. Still, I can't wish for anything different than the experiences I've had and the teachers I've studied with or the students I've had the opportunity of teaching.

I've outgrown my shyness. I asked my father at one point if he would mind too terribly if I quit dancing. I think he was surprised at such a question. He says I made it farther in my career dancing than he ever made it in theater, but I don't believe he's right. He made a career of teaching, even if he wasn't given the opportunities to perform himself at a professional level, and he has touched thousands of lives. I'm sure he would have been a fabulous actor, had he been given the right teachers and experience. Not all wonderful actors or dancers make wonderful teachers, either. I think Mrs. Dorsey's dancing career was short-lived, although I don't know this for certain. But I know she had a passion for teaching, as did my father. He never appeared to be disappointed in me, and I hope that she's not disappointed in me either, for not learning to find passion in teaching from a red leather chair.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Passion for Dancing

Why do dancers dance? Ballet class is rigorous, not to mention expensive, yet thousands of people send their children to ballet. As a dancer, I know that what keeps bringing us back to the barre, day in and day out, is passion. And I know as a parent (whose children lacked such passion) that it was easier to save my money and pull them out of ballet than to hear them whining and complaining that “ballet is boring”.

When I was ten years old, the girl next door showed me her tap and ballet shoes and introduced me to a few steps. For me, that was it. I practiced those steps everyday on my front porch and pretended my black patent leather shoes had taps on them. For reasons I couldn’t understand, I had to wait until school was starting the following year to begin lessons at the local studio with Debbie Wilkerson. It felt like an eternity! My mom said that she knew from my fervent activity in the womb that I was destined to either be a dancer or a football player. When my lessons finally started, I was hooked and couldn’t get enough.

The studio was three short blocks from my house, so I was allowed to walk there by myself. It was downtown in the upstairs of an old building. There was one huge studio and one smaller one, plus an office, waiting area, and a long room full of costumes that you had to walk through to get to the restroom. My teacher, Debbie, had lovely leotards and wore her long hair in beautiful braided buns. There was a raised area in the corner of the large studio where she had her record player, and I always dreamed of one day being the teacher so I could stand there, too. My dad helped me put up a barre and some mirrors in our attic and I had my own little studio up there, where I spent hours upon hours dancing and making up my own choreography.

If most dancers are like me, then they dance because they must. They can’t stand the thought of life without dance. Sure, they take the occasional break and vacation, but dance is always there on the horizon waiting for them to pick up again. Debbie was a special teacher, because she recognized my passion for ballet and encouraged my parents to send me to the Jordan Academy of Dance in Indianapolis where I could get more intensive training than she offered at her studio. I went there on Saturdays and dreaded it every single week. Looking back, I’m grateful for my parents’ diligence in making me go, because from my contacts there I was able to apply to Butler University’s early enrollment program as a high school student.

At Jordan Academy all the girls knew each other and took class several times a week together. I came in only on Saturdays and was too shy to make friends with anyone. They did a lot of steps that I’d never seen before, too, so I was confused a lot. And I simply hated grand allegro, when we had to dance across the floor two at a time and I almost always had no idea what to do. Still, I loved dancing at Debbie’s studio, and when I was accepted as a student at Butler my sophomore year in high school, I loved that as well. My teacher at Jordan Academy, Peggy Dorsey, warned my father that it could be tough at the university (where she also taught) and that there was a lot of competition among the girls. However, since I went there everyday I was able to make friends with many of the girls in my classes, and my dancing improved by leaps and bounds (pardon the pun!).

When I became the mother of two young girls, they enrolled in dance at the studio where I taught in Paris, Kentucky. They had a cute class for two year olds called Jack Be Nimble, and my girls both loved that. Then we moved to North Carolina and I stopped teaching so I could work at a job that would give our family benefits and enough pay to live on until my husband found work. We enrolled them in creative movement and they enjoyed it, for the most part, but to be honest they would rather be at home playing in mud or riding their bikes. They took a break from dance, since they were still rather young, I thought, to be expected to have a spark of passion for it yet. When they came back to it a few years later it was drudgery getting them to class. I could see that they were the ones who were left out of the cliques made up of girls who were there several days a week, and they just didn’t love it as I’d hoped they would.

I didn’t have dreams of them becoming professional dancers. I just wanted them to have something they could love doing, as I had when I was their age. But it wasn’t meant to be. And I realize that the kids who show up and are eager to learn new steps and tricky combinations are the ones who are passionate about dancing. They are the ones who can’t imagine life without dance. As a side note, my girls are now teenagers who play soccer, piano, guitar, and violin. They are also whizzes on the computer. I’m not sure either of them has found their passion in life, but I still hold out hope that they will. There’s nothing quite like it, is there?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Influencing Lives by Teaching Ballet

Ballet teachers have a unique opportunity to instill self confidence and to encourage creative expression in their ballet students. The task should never be taken lightly, and it's important for parents of young children to fully investigate the qualifications of their child's prospective teachers before beginning lessons. There are two sides of this coin: it can be looked at from the teacher's point of view as well as from the parent's point of view. This post will focus on the teacher, and how his or her classroom environment can affect the development of a child. In general, all teachers are aware of the influence they may have over impressionable children, but I believe that a ballet teacher's influence is ever so slightly different than that of a school teacher's. The ballet class is a place where the child is forced to look upon their bodies in a mirror and scrutinize that reflection. How much emphasis is placed on that image should be relative to the age of the student.

Ideally, children who begin pre-ballet or creative movement at around four years of age will not need to think too much about technique. At this stage, instilling a joy of movement is vital. Teaching musicality and approaches to moving creatively will be the main focus. Simple stretching exercises in the guise of games will be introduced. This is a very special age and quite fun to teach. Having colorful and flowing scarves, various types of musical instruments, and other props in your arsenal helps keep a child of this age engaged. Experimenting without using particular steps, but with movements that are heavy, soft, light, sharp, dull, long, short, or what have you will enable them to express themselves using their bodies in new ways. Later, when more formal technique is introduced, they will be more open to trying new things if they’ve been given a chance to experiment on their own a bit first.

Skipping ahead now to the pre-teen and teenage years, I think it’s especially important for a teacher to understand what is happening developmentally, emotionally, and intellectually to these students. This is a critical age (between 11 and 15) where they are coming into their own selves, learning how they are the same and different from their peers, and beginning to shape who they will be as adults. This is a fascinating article about the growth of the brain in these formative years, and how physical activity can have an effect on that growth.

Socially, we know that adolescents are going through a difficult time at this stage. They are morphing out of the childhood phase and moving into the adult phase, having to navigate their way sometimes alone and sometimes with the help of peers, and sometimes they are lucky enough to have the loving guidance of a teacher helping them along this new territory. I think ballet teachers could easily forget this is happening. I’m not saying that we should relax our standards by any means; I think the fact that there are clear expectations in a ballet class (see my post on ballet etiquette) can be comforting to a pre-teen. Here is a place they can come and know exactly how to behave. I’m just saying that it’s important for teachers to be aware of what these kids are going through developmentally at this stage in their lives.

One way we can effect a positive influence on pre-teens through ballet is by offering plenty of praise when they get things right. At this age students should already understand that getting a correction is not a criticism for them to take personally and feel badly about. They should know that getting a correction means they are worthy of the attention of the teacher and it’s a means to improve their technique. For a teacher, I think once a correction has been given to a student it is of vital importance to note when that student incorporates it and makes the adjustment. It’s a two-part thing here: give a correction, and watch to see (and praise) when the correction has been made in the future by that same student. This sort of confirmation encourages the student to seek corrections, even when not given to them directly, and implement the improvements in their technique because they know that the effort will be noticed.

I’m not really finished with my thoughts on the powerful influence a ballet teacher can have on his or her students, but this is enough for one post. Any other thoughts from other teachers out there? I plan to write more in detail about how we can work with kids at various stages of their training to get the most out of them, avoid burn out, and build their self esteem right along with their technique. Even for those who study ballet for a year and never come back, it can have a positive influence on their lives.

Classical Ballet: Combinations for Ten Complete Advanced Classes

by Tamara Stanwood, 2009