It 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.
Being Smart Dancers (and Helping to Create Them)
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.
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.
Inevitably, every summer I run into parents outside of the dance school who tell me that their child is miserable because they, the parents, have decided it was a good thing for their child to take the summer off from dance. These are, by the way, usually the same parents that end up complaining that their child did not get moved up a level when all his/her friends did. When I then explain it was because all of his/her friends had taken classes over the summer, I usually hear, ‘well it’s not my child’s fault that he/she didn’t take classes. I made him/her take the summer off.’ I then explained that we are not punishing the child at all, but we are also not going to punish the kids that took summer classes and improved while their child stayed home and regressed.
The above annual conversations started me writing an article on the importance of summer study: To Take Summer Classes or Not. In the middle of writing that article; I began to think about exactly what these parents were saying. I also began thinking about a recent question I received from a former student of mine who is now teaching herself, ‘How do you feel about parents that refuse to let their child use their talents and make a career out of dance? ’ Before I knew it, I was writing a whole other article.
It always amazes me how many parents and students ask the question, ‘Is it really necessary to take summer classes?’ YESSSS!!!!!
I tell all my students to take at least a few summer classes and no, I do not tell my students that they should take advantage of summer study opportunities in order to make money! In fact, I prefer and encourage all my older dancers to go away for summer study if they can afford to do so.
The truth is summer is the best time for school aged students to achieve real progress in their dance education. Without the stress of academic school, they are more focused and less tired and therefore can make a huge amount of progress in a small amount of time.