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.
This mentality is not solely from the students either; much of it comes from the parents. I’ll get comments like, ‘Work her hard in there!’ Ummm…I cannot make your child work, that’s on her. Just a few weeks ago I got a question from a mother about a child having to repeat a level of ballet. I explained to the mother that the child lacked focus and didn’t work to her potential. The parent then said, ‘Well maybe she isn’t doing those things because she’s bored and needs pushed. Putting her in the next level could help.’ That’s not how this works! I do not reward lazy behavior. She needs to work in the level she’s in and prove to me she’s earned a spot in a more advanced class where focus and work ethic are even more of a requirement. I don’t remember my parents ever questioning my teachers’ judgments, and if they had heard what I told that parent about me, I would have gotten a stern talking to about work ethic.
Speaking of work ethic, this is also something that’s sadly lacking from many of this new generation. The problem is they aren’t trying to be lazy; they actually think they’re working when they aren’t even coming close. For instance, I asked a student to get his leg up in developpé. His leg went up a whole foot! If he were really working to his full potential, it would go up less than an inch, not a whole foot…that’s lazy! This happens over and over again in my classes. I have to ask a student why they are doing a single pirouette when I know they can do a double. I have to yell at them to jump higher and, all of the sudden, they’re flying through the air. Why do I have to ask for their best? When I was kid, no one’s leg in the room was going to be higher than mine, no one was going to balance longer than me and no one’s feet were going to be as pointed as mine. I wasn’t mean about it with the other students, but I wasn’t going to let them be better than me either. I would stand behind the best person in the room and work to emulate everything about them. I would go across the floor with the tallest person in the room and try to keep up. (I have always been short, but refused to move that way). Where are the students that are willing to fight to improve? They are becoming fewer and more far between with every passing year. Maybe Balanchine was right and these kids need to think of working at 200% in order to work to their full capacity.
I love when my students themselves realize they have not been working to their potential. I had a senior graduate last year that confided to me that she wished she would have learned how to work harder sooner. She told me that she knew she was one of the most diligent workers in class for her last two years, but then lamented to me that she wished she had figured it out sooner. She wondered how much further along in her dance training she would have been. I reminded her that the important thing was that she understood it now and that she continues on that path during her college training. I also had a mother tell me that her daughter was coming home a lot sweatier and more tired than usual lately and I laughed and told her that her daughter had finally figured out how to work. The next day the mother came in and told me that at first she was offended by comment and shared it with her daughter. Her daughter laughed and said, ‘Yep, I guess it finally just clicked with me that I could be doing a heck of a lot more than I have been. Wait until you see me during parent observation next week; I’m getting really good at this!’
While we are talking about differences in the generations, I can tell you that students also complain a lot more than they did in the past. Maybe we didn’t complain to our teachers because we knew they didn’t care if our baby toe hurt or if we were tired or had a bad day at school. There seems to be a real disconnect between discomfort and fatigue and actual pain with today’s children. One of my favorite stories to tell about this is when another one of my colleagues was fixing an arabesque on a 10 year old girl. When he was done, the child complained that her back hurt. He then asked the whole class if they had discussed pain yet. They all shook their heads no. He then asked them all if they liked figure skating. They all nodded an enthusiastic yes. He then said, ‘Well you know when a figure skater lands on the edge of her skate, falls and SLAMS her head on the ice?! That’s pain!’ The whole class’ eyes got wide. I think this is a brilliant way of explaining to young students the difference between being uncomfortable and sharp dangerous pain. Though, I have to admit when I was their age, I don’t remember anyone having to explain to me the difference between the two. He then asked the little girl how her back felt after his explanation and she replied, ‘It’s fine.’ That’s right, it’s fine! You are sore, you are uncomfortable, you are not in pain.
From my Musical Theatre college students, many of whom are beginners, I hear many times, ‘Why can’t I get this?’ or, ‘Why doesn’t my leg look like yours?’ For the most part, my college students are wonderful, highly motivated, hardworking, focused and want to do well. I try to explain to them ballet is a process that takes many years and that professional dancers are still trying to perfect their technique. Also, that I have been dancing ballet all my life, of course my technique will be good, it would be sad if it wasn’t! The thing I see from them is this idea of instant gratification that is so rampant in this generation. They think that if they work hard, it will just come. To them, ballet isn’t boring, it’s frustrating. They too don’t always find joy in the work and just want results they haven’t earned quite yet. Maybe they need to be reminded that, ‘one tendu takes years of hard work and will never be perfect. Everything in ballet is a challenge.’
As a teacher, I want to see my students succeed beyond their expectations, and even mine for that matter. I cannot make them work hard, that’s something they have to do for themselves. I can only give them all my knowledge, information and time and try to inspire them to do their best. What they do with all of it afterwards is totally up to them. One of the lessons I try my very best to teach them is that ballet is certainly not boring, especially if you’re doing it properly. In the meantime, enjoy the work!