Grades in Dance

Abby LeithartA student just tagged me in an article from dance magazine and I just read through it and found it very much worth the reading.  My student asked for my opinion about what I read.  It is funny for this article to come out at this time considering I’m in the process of reviewing and altering my syllabi for my college performance classes for the new year and am thinking about very similar things.

I like to think of a syllabus as a contract between my dancers and myself as the instructor.  I try to be very clear about my expectations as well as how I’m going to figure out their final grade.  Attendance is a huge part of it as is following the dress code, the etiquette, the artistry, concentration, interest in learning, having a good attitude and completion of the papers and tests.  What do I really look to on determining final grades though?  One answer and that’s improvement.

I really analyze the dancers during their first classes of a semester.  Where are they technically and artistically?  At the end of the semester, I look for progress.  Has the dancer fixed the corrections that I have given her?  Is his alignment better?  What about her muscle control?  Are her in-between steps cleaner?  Is he picking up combinations more quickly and accurately?  Does she have more stamina? Is he continuing to push himself and ask more and more of his body?

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Dancing with Joy and Inspiration

Dancer: Maggie Carey Photo by: Geek With a Lens

Dancer: Maggie Carey
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

I don’t know about everyone else, but lately it seems like I have been surrounded by negativity.  It’s coming from everywhere: parents, colleagues, students, and the world in general. One day a younger colleague and I were discussing this latest disturbing trend that seemed to be making its way into our classrooms at an alarming rate.  When I asked her where she felt it was coming from, her answer was social media.  She laughed and told me,

‘I guess before Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, we knew we had opinions, but we were certain no one cared about what they were.  Now, everyone has all these outlets and it makes them feel overly self-important, entitled and that everyone wants to know what they are thinking and feeling when really the opposite is true.  Negativity is like a cancer; it’s contagious and it grows and it steals their joy as well as those around them. I was very negative when I was a teenager and one day I woke up and realized, I was miserable and I was the one making myself that way.  I made a decision to change and I wish my students could learn from my experience.’

Pretty astute observation from such an inspiring young colleague.

Her answer really gave me a wakeup call that was long overdue.  It’s funny, but I guess I have gotten too used to this glass half empty mentality to the point where I have become anesthetized to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t let grumpy students have their way, quite the opposite, but I realized I had given up on trying to change their attitudes and just told myself this was now the new norm.  In this way, I’m failing my students. It doesn’t have to be this way and it shouldn’t be this way.  Something has to change and it starts with me. As a teacher, it’s my job to help them to break this cycle and focus on the positives and it starts now.  I’m turning over a new leaf and here are some of my thoughts of what I’m going to do to accomplish it.

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Understanding Understudying

Amy Holihan-061-Edit

Photo by Geek With a Lens with dancer Amy Holihan of Pennsylvania Ballet

I remember the thrill of being asked to understudy Snowflakes in The Nutcracker at the age of twelve in the small, pre-professional company in which I grew up.   I also remember the terror of realizing that one doesn’t have to just know the steps, but the floor patterns as well.  The first time I went in, I almost took out three older dancers because I wasn’t sure of the paths to take.  Lesson learned.   I was also asked at thirteen to understudy the lead in one of our major ballets because the choreographer wanted a ‘little girl’ that the guest male dancer could practice lifts with easily.  I was on cloud nine being able to understudy such a role and under a dancer I really admired.  Three years later when we danced the ballet again, I got the opportunity to perform that lead role.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I remembered how technically difficult it had been for me just three years earlier and now how much fun I could have with developing the character instead of just worrying about the steps. It showed me how far I had come, not only in my technique, but as an artist.

As I got older, the definition and role of understudy didn’t change, but the connotation did.  Being told that I was an understudy as I aged suddenly stopped meaning, ‘I believe in you and so I’m going to give you this opportunity,’ but rather, ‘you’re good, but still not good enough.’  I remember the frustration that came with this change.  I know my teachers felt this and tried to bolster us with stories of how understudying is really just an opportunity in disguise.  I specifically remember two stories, one from Melinda Jones Howe about Tina LeBlanc, a former student of hers that ended her professional career as a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and still works there on staff, and Jeri Mcburney-Rodgers about Paul Gibson, an alumni of our school who ended his professional career as principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet and who is still working as their Ballet Master today.    The stories were basically the same.  As young dancers in professional companies, they would watch the rehearsals of the more advanced dancers in the company instead of going home early or taking a break.  When those advanced dancers got injured, the artistic director asked who knew their roles and felt sure they could perform them.  Both of them knew the roles even though they weren’t official understudies for them and it helped to launch their careers.  Because I knew these people and admired them, it helped and I stopped getting that hopeless feeling when I’d see a cast list posted with my name in the understudy column.   It also inspired me to ask to understudy roles that I wanted and to learn solos of every work I was in even if I wasn’t chosen as the official understudy.   

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When Your Child’s Abilities Don’t Meet Your Expectations

When Your Child’s Abilities Don’t Meet Your Expectations
(And What You Can Do About It)


Every year at about this time, I find myself having the same discussion with many parents.  Every time casting goes up, every time certain dancers get pointe shoes and others do not, every time level placements come out, I receive the same phone calls from distraught and disgruntled parents.  Their child is mortified and so disappointed.  All his or her friends got better roles, got moved up or got pointe shoes and now he or she is feeling left behind and left out.  Everyone has experienced disappointment and everyone has wanted something very much that they couldn’t yet achieve and it never gets any easier.  What I find after talking more than five minutes with some of these parents is that yes, their child is disappointed, but the parents themselves are sometimes even more so.

I find myself using a line from a dear friend of mine, Diane Cypher, who also owns a studio, ‘I am so sorry your child’s abilities don’t meet your expectations.’  The point being, it is important to celebrate your child’s strengths, but to also be aware of their weaknesses and be realistic with your expectations so your child can be realistic with his or hers.

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10 Secrets to a Successful Dance Audition

GWL_0290-EditThe New Year is not the only thing that’s fast approaching, so is audition season.  Summer programs, college programs and companies alike are making ready to tour throughout the United States and will be looking at some of the best dancers in the country.  How can a dancer stand out amongst the scores of other dancers vying for the same opportunities and positions?  Well, here are some helpful hints as you all venture out on the sometimes scary, sometimes exhilarating, audition trail.

1.  Arrive early. This gives you time to relax and stretch and mentally prepare yourself for the work ahead.  It also gives you a lower number which can increase the chances of you being seen in an audition that can have hundreds of people in it.

2. Dress appropriately and professionally.  Over the years, certain things have changed.  Years ago when you went to a ballet summer program or company audition, it was black leotards only, but now dancers are using colored leotards to stand out. (Beware, some auditioners like this trend and some of the more old fashioned ones do not.  Your best bet might be a black leotard with an interesting back and maybe something in your hair like a yellow flower.)  At Broadway auditions, people recommend ‘dressing the role.’  If it’s a Fosse show you’re going for, you are going to dress a certain way.  The biggest thing is to be neatly dressed: clean tights with no holes or runs, a clean leotard that maybe has a special back to it, ribbons and strings on your shoes tucked in, hair neat, slicked and professional looking, no gaudy jewelry and no finger nail or toe nail polish.

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Lessons Learned From Injury

Alexis_2014-185-EditIt always amazes me to say this, but I’ve been dancing and teaching for over 30 years now.  I teach 24 classes a week.  I teach 9 classes at the University, 4 classes at the Community College, once a week for the local professional modern company and 10 classes a week for the studio I co-own as well as help run the rehearsals and choreograph for our many productions; we just finished mounting our Nutcracker production.  Through all of it, I have never had a major injury.  That is, until about a month and a half ago.

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Bones versus Muscles

Maggie_Rachel-60-Edit-2As a teacher, I’m always looking at different ways of saying the same thing.  We all know as teachers that what resonates with one dancer might not resonate with another.  Recently, I have been getting tired of finding different ways to talk about what I, in my mind, refer to as the ‘fabulous four’ of dance:  turnout muscles (the external rotators), inner thigh muscles (the adductors), the hamstrings and the abdominal muscles.  If a dancer can master all of these, their body placement, their level of bodily control and therefore their successful execution of ballet or any other form of dance, goes up exponentially. So how do you get your students to understand these complicated and sometimes deeply located muscles and harness their power?  I have been finding it difficult lately, so I decided to switch gears.

A few months ago I was reading an article on teaching that mentioned abstract versus concrete concepts.   That’s when it hit me that for most students, as odd as it might seem to me, muscles might be an abstract concept.  What if I switched gears and talked about bones rather than muscles? Would bone structure be more of a concrete concept to them? I figured it was worth a shot. I found that for many of my students, I was finally seeing those light bulb moments that I’ve been waiting for months to see and, in some cases, years.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Stupid Question?

Being Smart Dancers (and Helping to Create Them)

DCDC_William_Mem-498There are many ways to be a smart dancer, but one of the biggest factors is, surprisingly enough, actually asking fewer questions and making sure the questions you do ask are intelligent ones.

Let me start by saying this article has little to do with my younger students.  The youngest age I teach is six, but even with them, they know that we only ask questions about ballet in ballet class.  I love to hear about their day and what they think and how they feel, but they have to talk to me before or after class.  Every time they raise their hand during class, I ask, ‘Does this have to do with ballet?’  Nine times out of ten, they then put their hand down.  I laugh and tell them to tell me all about it after class.  This article, however, has to do with my students ten years of age and up.

Some teachers and parents today tell children that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ.  I think this type of teaching has weakened children’s deductive reasoning and their ability to critically think and problem solve for themselves. It also has lessened their observation and listening skills, both of which are essential when it comes to picking up movement and choreography.

I love when a student asks questions about a complicated concept like rotators or inner thigh muscles.  I love when they ask me to clarify or reword a correction.  I even love when the younger ones ask me the stories of the great ballets and we have story time while we stretch.  These are all good questions and help them further their body awareness and understanding of their art form.

So what am I talking about when I say stupid questions?  I mean asking the question I just answered when I demonstrated, but they didn’t hear or see because they one, weren’t paying attention, or two, had their hand up in the air thinking about the question they were going to ask instead of listening when I was explaining what I wanted.  I mean asking the same question someone asked a few minutes before, but the student was too busy talking or staring out the window and so didn’t hear the answer.   I mean asking about details when, if they had watched closely during the three plus times I demonstrated the combination, he or she would have known.  I mean asking a question that, if they had thought about it for 60 seconds, the student could have answered for themselves with the information that had already been given to them.

It’s gotten to the point with some students and classes that every time I see their hand up, I have to ask, ‘Have you thought about your question and tried to answer it yourself?’   Nine times out of ten, they think about it, laugh, nod and then put their hand down.  They can figure it out themselves, but they are so used to some teachers and parents doing the thinking for them, that they find it easier to just ask and get the answer rather than to think for themselves.

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Ballet is Boring


A friend and colleague recently posted a quote on her Facebook page and it got me thinking.  Mr. Balanchine once said: “If you don’t feel challenged, it’s because you’re not doing enough. Ballet should never feel comfortable. Comfortable is lazy!  If you’re comfortable when you dance, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.  100% is not enough.  You have to give 200%.  One tendu takes years of hard work and will never be perfect.  Everything in ballet is a challenge.”

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard from my students, ‘Ballet is boring.’  Now, I’m going to get up on my soap box and give one of those, ‘in my day,’ speeches that is sadly, long overdue.  I never remember feeling this way and I never remember any of the kids I grew up with ever feeling this way, let alone saying it to an instructor.   In fact, I wouldn’t want to imagine what would happen to us if we had.  The world is definitely changing.  Students today think that a challenge is doing multiple, badly performed pirouettes, fouetté turns and big jumps.  They want to perform the steps, but they have no care about how well they execute them.

I highly dislike and get frustrated when I hear students say a class is not challenging enough for them.  Margot Fonteyn notoriously took beginner classes several times a week in order to perfect her technique. She challenged herself in the lowest class levels even though she was at the top of her profession.  I’m sorry to say that none of my students that have told me this is a Margot Fonteyn and never will be with that attitude. 

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9 Clean Eating Principles for a Ballerina’s Diet


If you ask most dancers, they will tell you they’re on a diet.  There are so many different diets out there from Atkins to Paleo.  There are diets that are of a specific global region like the Mediterranean or French Women Don’t Get Fat diets.  There are diets that center on certain foods like the cabbage soup and grapefruit diets.  There are cleanses, pills and supplements.  There are whole industries centered on dieting from Slim Quick to Jenny Craig.  It’s exhausting.

Here’s the thing, I don’t really believe in diets.  Any time people are told to cut out whole food groups, count calories, eat prepackaged meals or only drink shakes, I think there’s a good chance that it will lead to malnutrition, exhaustion, frustration and failure.  There is one thing that’s trending however that I think is amazing.  I guess I’ve always pretty much believed in it and more or less lived by most of its principles even though I didn’t have a name for it.  I guess I would call it a lifestyle and not a diet and it’s something I’ve been recommending to my dancers for years without even knowing it…it’s called Clean Eating.  Clean Eating is not exactly a new concept, but is gaining a lot of momentum, and for good reason, it makes a lot of sense.

What we’re really talking about here is instead of eating the banana nut muffin, eating the banana and nuts.  It’s about simplifying what you eat.  It’s about making things that you can yourself, not buying them from a store.  Here are some of the main principles behind Clean Eating: 

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