Although I am known for teaching the Luigi Jazz Technique, the majority of my work is in the teaching of ballet technique classes. A particular topic of discussion has come up many times amongst my colleagues. It often starts with me, or someone of my generation, saying something like: “When I was their age, I would spend hours in the mirror at home, trying to get my tendu just right. Why won’t my students work like that today?” I think we all agree that most of our students are NOT lazy. What they are is impatient.
We are all aware that we are living in a “YouTube Star” – “Instant Gratification World” and I am sorry to say, that in my opinion, the “every child gets a trophy” culture that we are living in has created part of the problem.
So, now we are faced with teaching an ART FORM, not an activity, to a group of wonderfully talented students who on some level, expect to be able to do everything perfectly on the first try; to a kid who expects to post a video on line and become a super star; to a kid who never really worked to get a compliment. IT’S NOT EASY. I spent 10 years studying with a student of Madame Vagaonava herself. 10 years. I never once was complimented.
I have started saying things like “No one in this room is ever going to be good enough; in fact NO ONE is ever good enough. Your dancing can always be improved, there is always something to work for, something to strive for. I want to open doors for you, doors to new ways of working. I am not going to teach you steps. I am not going to teach you a dance. I am going to teach you HOW to dance. And learning to dance is a process that lasts a lifetime. And anyone in this room who thinks otherwise is sadly mistaken. THE STUDY OF BALLET IS THE RELENTLESS PERSUIT OF AN UNACHIEVABLE PERFECTION. I have told students that I am not going to compliment them every time they do something right or there will be no time for teaching. I have even stopped for the most part saying “good” or “right” unless it is REALLY GOOD or REALLY RIGHT. Instead I Say “Better”. But I truly believe that this has to come from a place of love. And the students can tell the difference. If I give this sort of speech, and stop complimenting, and sometimes talk to them more harshly than I would have in the past, my students still know that I love them (because I do). I often tell them that I am desperately trying to given them the opportunity that I didn’t have; because my parents didn’t support the idea of me dancing. And that their success was what was important to me.
And so I stopped coddling, I stopped complimenting, and I started encouraging students to WORK. I often talk about how much the process means to me. How at 55 I still take class three to five times a week, and I still work to get better. How I’m still finding nuances, and how exciting that is for me.WHEN THE STUDENT FINDS THE JOY IN THE PROCESS, THE DANCER IS BORN.
So often I feel like students are TAKING class. And that is where I feel the students are falling short. They are taking class and not studying ballet. The study of ballet is steeped in ritual. There is the centuries-old tradition of walking into the studio every morning and placing your left hand on the barre. During technique class I teach about the history of ballet (in small doses), because the history is intimately intertwined with the technique. I can trace my educational lineage directly to Vaganova and Cecchetti and my ballet students know and understand that what I am teaching them came from these great masters, from teacher to student to them.
Learning to embrace and love the process is the key to improvement. We must strive every day to make each tendu longer, each plié more supple and elastic, each rond de jamb more majestic, each arabesque more expansive. We must make our adagio more expressive, our epaulment more nuanced, our petite allegro more crystalline and bright, our grand allegro more explosive and joyous.
And it will never be good enough. And that is the challenge, and that is the beauty. When the student finds the joy in the process, the dancer is born.