The Adult Beginner-a few quick thoughts

I spend a lot of my professional life teaching adult beginners. During my years of serious training, I had two main teachers and most of my readers know who they were: Luigi and Gabriella Taub Darvash. I am very fortunate in that I never had a teacher who did anything to hinder my training; I never had a bad teacher. But these two “main teachers” had very different teaching styles: one corrected relentlessly, one never corrected. One lavished compliments, the other almost never complimemted-only criticized. But the one thing that they had in common, and that I am so very grateful for, is that neither ever dismissed me as “just an adult beginner”. These two very famous teachers took me on as an adult beginner, and guided me into a career in dance (something that I, myself, didn’t think was possible). I will forever be in their debt, and I will NEVER dismiss a student as not being worth my time and attention, for any reason. This past week was Luigi’s birthday; the brilliant Luigi, who recovered from a devastating and paralyzing car accident and used that recovery to forever change the way dancers are trained. Every day I bring him into the studio with me. Every day I hear his words in my head: “Dance from the inside, feel first-then do, dance the sound…and of course NEVER STOP MOVING”. I will never forget the day he whispered in my ear during class “It isn’t too late for you”. That day changed my life forever. And as each new adult beginner walks into my classroom I remind myself that there are two kinds of dancers: those who ARE, and those who ARE NOT. It has nothing to do with age, or body type or ability, or disability for that matter. We as teachers can not MAKE a dancer- dancers are BORN. We can only show them the way. I am so fortunate that these two teachers opened that door for me and showed me the way. I only hope that I can guide my adult beginners into their dancing futures, what ever that future may hold.

4 thoughts on “The Adult Beginner-a few quick thoughts

  1. Hi, I’m enjoying your blog, and getting a lot out of it. I’m also glad I’m finally finding some people who talk about teaching adult ballet dancers. I’ve been teaching adults ballet for almost a year and a half, and still feel like I’m on a steep learning curve. There isn’t much information on it out there unlike for teaching children beginners.
    On the subject of not dismissing adult dancers, I’m finding that whether a student is ‘a dancer’ or not doesn’t matter too much. They’re all in my classes, and coming back week after week for reasons of their own that may or may not have anything to do with the traditional reasons people do ballet. And defining them in my mind as ‘a dancer’ or a ‘not-dancer’ isn’t particularly helpful on the studio floor teaching them.

    I’m curious as to how you differ or not differ in your teaching approach to different kinds of adult students? Obviously you don’t dismiss any, but are there differences beyond that?

    Regards, Imogheena

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    • Imogheena,
      I’m sorry it took me so long to respond. It’s been a busy day. I don’t try to differentiate different kinds of adult students. It’s impossible to know why they are there without asking them, and quite frankly I’m not sure it would make a difference as to how I approach the teaching. I pretty much teach them all the same. Obviously the commitment level is going to be different for each student, and the talent level is going to be different for each student. One of the things that I’ve noticed a lot is that many adult students don’t take well to being corrected. One of the things that I’ve started doing when I have a new adult student is say something like: ” I find that as adults we all know how we learn best. Do you want me to give you individual corrections? Or would you prefer me to allow you to find things on your own? Every time I asked the question adult student has enthusiastically said that they wanted to be corrected… And once they have made that decision for themselves they are receptive to the corrections. The other thing that I have done for students who are slow to learn is use myself as an example. I was an adult beginner. I used to hide this fact because I always felt that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a teacher. But the fact of the matter is, I WAS an adult beginner. And now I am regular faculty at the Joffrey ballet school and I will be starting to teach at Broadway Dance Center next month… And I was very slow to “pick up” choreography. So whenever I have a student who seems to be having difficulty learning I will say ” I was the adult beginner in the back of the room going ‘WHAT?'”… So please be patient, Learning ballet is a process. Otherwise I teach them pretty much the same. Not sure this response is been helpful. Any thoughts?
      Bill

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      • No worries re the time to reply, I’m in Australia so your busy day was my nighttime, I was asleep 🙂

        Yes, interesting, thanks for your thoughts, I’m seeing in them what I’ve found helpful too, such as asking my students for feedback on what’s working for them and what isn’t, and why.
        Not wanting corrections isn’t something I’ve come across to often, but I am aware that I may need to reframe them for some students from being assumed to be ‘critisism’ to ‘Helpful.’ Also of feedback on the length of time it generally takes people to learn also seems to help. That learning is an ongoing process so if they don’t get something yet, they will soon. So your response has been helpful in giving me more confidence in those approaches!

        I would love to use you as an example of how starting as an adult doesn’t have to stop you advancing far in ballet! I started at 15 but my own teacher never once assumed it wasn’t worth bothering to teach me. I was so grateful, I do the same with my adults. They want to dance, I’m there to teach them.
        I would also love to use your example that that being slow to learn isn’t an indicator of your actual ability.

        I have a few other questions, if you’re willing to answer…

        How are your adult classes graded? Are beginners in a class on their own? Open classes? Other structure? How long are classes for different levels (if you have them)? How do you handle making sure the students are in the right level for them? You mentioned some tactics for children in a different post but is it different with adults, if so how?

        And how do you handle things like body image and other insecurities that hold people back (or just distract them from learning!). Do you have mirrors? If so, for all levels? For beginners? Or have you found it best not to? Do you do much conditioning with adults or leave it to them to find their way with that?

        Imogheena

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  2. Hi!
    And thanks so much for your participation.

    How are the adult classes graded?

    That varies from school to school. I do not own my own school, nor am I a program director. I’m a free-lance teacher in NYC teaching at a number of different schools, each with its own program and structure. Here is a breakdown of how adult classes are handled at the three schools at which I am teaching that offer “adult” classes.

    At The Joffrey Ballet School we have absolute beginner workshops that meet two or three times a week for a specified number of weeks. Then the students may progress to “drop in classes” which are leveled “Beginner 1, Beginner 2, Intermediate.

    At another school (very small neighborhood studio) we offer Ballet at only one “open level”. It is approximately at the level of “advanced beginner” classes at a school like Steps on Broadway or Broadway Dance Center (I’m not sure if that means anything to you). There are students with a wide range of experience and ability…this is a very difficult class to teach.

    Next week I start teaching at Broadway Dance Center in NYC, and they recently instituted a system of grading their classes in 7 levels; Level 1 being “Basic” and level 7 being “professional” and they give a suggested number of years of training for each level….of course this will vary greatly from person to person.

    At all of the schools at which I am involved, students are permitted to take any level they choose. Many, many adult students are dancing at levels that are too high; too difficult for,them. Teachers in NY will typically NOT suggest that a student move down to a lower level class, as the student will more likely than not be insulted and not come back at all; the economics of dance studios in NYC (and everywhere, I would think) is that every student is important…and we can’t afford to loose any. It is unfortunate, but that is the nature of the business. One thing that I always tell my adult students is that I took beginner classes a few times a week all through my performing career in order to keep everything clean and correct (this is true). I seems to encourage some dancers to not be ashamed of being in the beginner class.

    All of the Adult classes at every school at which I have ever taught are 90 minutes.

    With respect to body type/body image. I will often mention that I firmly believe that every Body should have the right to ballet training and that I train and celebrate all body types. I often reference Alexandra Bellar. She and I trained together in open classes in NYC in the 1980’s. She took a lot of ballet classes. She was large by any standard (not just dancer standards) and she has enjoyed a marvelous career in modern dance, including being a company member with Bill T. Jones.

    I have always had mirrors in every studio at which I have taught. I can’t imagine teaching without them. And I do not do any “conditioning” in my classes. All of the schools offer some sort of conditioning classes…many students are also training at gyms.

    Please feel free to use me as an example; I never thought that I would have a career in dance, starting as late as I did. I don’t often talk about it in class (and only recently started discussing it on social media) for fear of being judged. To think that I started as an adult, danced professionally, and now teach at The Joffrey Ballet School and Broadway Dance Center surprises me every day. When I do discuss it with students I also tell them that I was in the unique position of being able to take two to three classes a day, 6 days a week…a schedule that most adult beginners today could not afford or make work. I was lucky. Very Lucky. I had the time, the finances, a ferocious work ethic and legendary teachers…and I am grateful. Very grateful.

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