By Grace Edwards
How can teachers keep kids interested in ballet? Aware of the benefits of a strong classical foundation, many teachers are dismayed to watch their young jazz/commercial dance students avoid ballet at all costs. So what works? What doesn’t? And does skipping ballet really matter in the long run? Dance Informa goes in search for answers from renowned dance teachers working in Australia and the United States.
Growing up, did you ever relate to the kids who hated
ballet classes and gave up?
Rebecca Brown, Co-Director, Perimeter Academy of the Arts Ballet, Atlanta: I had one year as a young child when I begged my mother to let me quit. She made me stick with it until the recital, and after being on stage and wearing lipstick, I was hooked! Kids today often want to quit because of the discipline, structure, and hard work required. They often find activities more fun that are fast-paced with quick results and that involve social time, when they are allowed to talk in class.
Julie Brown, Director, Urban Dance Centre, Sydney: I think you are very influenced by the people who teach you and how you are taught. I was very fortunate to have John Field as a teacher — a truly inspirational person who taught with so much love, it was easy to be inspired.
Barbara Everson, Director, Australian Dance Performance Institute, Brisbane: Because I started late (ten yrs old), I really don’t remember people dropping out of class. We were very committed to achieving. I know that in my first year I sat Grade Two, then in the second, Grade Five, and the third, Elementary. This was expected of us and we certainly didn’t question the decision or the number of classes that we did. I personally could not wait to get to dance classes.
In your own experience, have you found it difficult to get kids to sign up for ballet classes?
Julie: At Urban Dance Centre we don’t insist that the children do ballet (unless they are in the performances groups) and we have noticed that because of this a lot of children choose to do ballet. Also, our faculty cross-references their work to other styles of dance, thus providing continuity in teaching. For example, the jazz faculty will discuss posture, placement, alignment and how classical training helps to achieve these things. Similarly, the classical faculty will talk about pirouettes and adage, and how they relate to jazz and musical theatre.
Liza Pollok, Co-Director, Excelsior School of Dance, Houston: We have a very strong classical school and we use a syllabus. The kids that sign up for ballet with us have a goal to work towards and exams to do each year, so they are challenged and they love it. Most of the students we get are very serious little dancers right from the beginning.
Nicole Bunnell, Director, The Edge Performers School, Melbourne: Often it is difficult to fill positions in ballet classes and the reasons for this are — children find it boring; the music is not of a high and exciting tempo, and children prefer bright and stimulating expression. The exercises are repetitive and slow to develop correct placement and control, and it can be hard for children to maintain focus and appreciate the benefits of the techniques being taught.
Many teachers and dancers believe that it is nearly impossible to attain a professional standard of technique without a classical background. Do you believe this is true?
Liza: Yes, I do believe this is true, as ballet is the basis of all dance. Ballet helps with posture, control, strength and dedication.
Rebecca: Definitely! Classical ballet is the foundation and basic building-block for all popular dance styles. A well-trained classical ballet dancer can typically transition to jazz or hip hop relatively easily given a little time, but this process does not seem to work in reverse.
Julie: I think it is extremely difficult to achieve a professional level as a dancer without classical training, although obviously not impossible. I do think it’s wonderful to see hip hop dancers performing perfect pirouettes in the middle of a routine.
Barbara: We do have students who audition for our full time courses in musical theater and commercial dance without having done classical ballet. On discussing this with them, they have said that their teachers told them that classical ballet was not necessary. They do not realise how wrong they are. For students who wish to go into commercial dance, it is totally essential. All Disney auditions commence with a ballet class; if they get cut at this stage, then it really doesn’t matter how good they are at the other genre. It is interesting to listen to the adjudicators at the City of Sydney Jazz Finals at the Opera House who nearly always comment on the importance of classical training to a dancer. They believe that it is imperative for any student who wishes to gain employment.
What, in your opinion, is the ideal ratio of ballet classes to popular dance classes for career-track kids more inclined towards popular dance styles?
Julie: At Urban Dance Centre our full-time students do three hours of ballet per week, but they also have a technique class every day, i.e. jazz, kicks/turns/jumps, contemporary etc.
Nicole: For students under ten years of age we recommend 1½ hours per week of ballet. After ten years of age, the minimum is set at 2½ hrs per week and the recommendation is three hours per week, but we do not have a set ratio that we expect students to adhere to when selecting classes.
Rebecca: I believe the ideal ratio would be to take two ballet classes for each popular dance class.
Barbara: They should have at least two ballet classes per week, because without it their career-track will be very limited.
Of course, technique is not only the domain of ballet. Do you think that there is enough of a focus on technique in popular dance classes?
Nicole: Our jazz classes have a very strong technical base. As most ballet is set to a syllabus, there are minimum expectations for each class. Unfortunately, not all schools uphold the same level of training or are monitored for teacher development and training in styles other than the ballet syllabus they are implementing.
Rebecca: My observation is that it all depends on the teacher. A teacher who has a strong background in ballet technique is much more likely to focus on and understand the importance of technique in popular dance classes.
Keeping kids in ballet class is only one part of the equation. How do you keep your students motivated to do their very best in ballet class? What works for you?
Julie: I teach ballet to our full time students and find that constantly cross-referencing the work keeps the students engaged, as this allows them to fully understand and appreciate WHY they are doing the work they do. The speed of a frappé, for instance, can be related to isolations, dynamic quality, and core strength, whilst the correct placement in an arabesque is extremely important when we are working on a variety of lifts, as the boys need to know that the girl can hold her alignment herself.
We can work through the whole class in this manner and if the students are focused on a career in commercial dance it is easy for them to understand the WHY. I recently overheard one of our new Certificate IV in Performing Arts students say, “I never thought I’d actually enjoy ballet, but it’s really good”!
Liza: What has helped us is the exam system we have and use; they are working the entire year on their syllabus grade level and getting it in their bodies so they can build on it the next year. They all look forward to their exams, the results they get, and how much they improve.
Barbara: All students have to have goals, and we encourage them to achieve these. With continual positive reinforcement and nurturing we find that our students respond well. I use a lot of imagery in my teaching that stimulates them. I encourage them to research solos on YouTube and discuss what they find with them. I always include an anatomical approach explaining the use of the body during exercises in every class no matter how young the students are.
I work to weave dance history in as well so that they understand where dance comes from. It is heart-breaking when teenage students have no idea who Nureyev, Fonteyn and Baryshnikov are. This is when the old VCR comes out and movies such as “Turning Point” and “I am A Dancer” are shown.
Rebecca: This is definitely an ongoing challenge! I believe that personal encouragement and one-on-one contact with each student is critical to make them feel valued and good about themselves. Careful class planning is also very valuable for the teacher. Students seem to be most motivated when the teacher is confident and energetic, moves at a consistent pace, has a structured format, and requires students to discover the joy and rewards of hard work and self-discipline. Always with passion, love, and a smile!