Teaching Ballet and Demonstrating in the Studio

A discussion was started in a chat group on the internet about ballet teachers demonstrating steps and choreography “full-out” in class. Apparently there are teachers who have faced discrimination by employers if they are no longer able to demonstrate everything full-out. There are also teachers who have faced complaints from parents when they do not demonstrate full-out. And these teachers have become wracked with embarrassment, insecurities and self doubt when the time comes that they are no longer able to demonstrate everything full-out.

This actually comes as a shock to me. It never occurred to me that someone would expect a ballet teacher to dance full-out. I have been in this industry for over 30 years. I have studied with many ballet teachers, and at 57 I am still studying; still taking class regularly. I have studied with some very famous teachers, and some truly great but not so famous teachers. And in all of those 30 some-odd years and through all of those teachers, I have never, not once, taken a ballet class where the teacher demonstrated everything full-out. I would like to share a quote from The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet by Cyril W. Beaumont & Stanislas Idzikowski:

“Remember also that a distinguished dancer is not necessarily a good teacher, particularly if he still performs in public, because he may not possess the gift of imparting his knowledge in a clear and simple manner. Again, because he may have neither the time nor the desire to study seriously the good and bad points of his pupils. Lastly, because he may consider his class as a whole and, therefore, is indifferent to the fact that each pupil is constructed differently, both physically and temperamentally, so that each requires adaptations of the lesson in order to supply his own particular needs.”

Ballet can not really be TAUGHT by “showing”. If ballet could be taught by showing we would all be out of a job. If showing and demonstrating was the primary necessary skill and talent, then one could simply learn to dance by watching videos of dancers… and we all know that isn’t possible. Many newer and younger teachers (of course not all) tend to “show”. Clearly they explain while they show but they tend to rely on “this is how you do it” and then demonstrate the step or combination. Of course they will give some “how-to” information and offer some corrections, but in my experience with many newer teachers, they tend to rely on their technical prowess to make their point. I know that I did.

Then the years start creeping on (and it tends to happen when we aren’t looking). And one day, no matter how hard we work at the barre, no matter how many hours we put into the studio, our bodies start to betray us.

I have always believed that dancing is more about “what it feels like” than “what it looks like”. This idea has always informed my teaching, but as my body declined it became more and more apparent that I was going to need to become a more skillful explainer if I was going to have a career. Of course, when teaching beginners, a certain amount of demonstration is helpful; and perhaps even necessary. But one does not need to tendu like Baryshnikov to teach a student tendu.

I remember Luigi talking about what he “felt” in class. Although not a ballet teacher, Luigi was the finest, most brilliant dance teacher that I had the good fortune to study with. He continued to demonstrate in class, as best he could, as his body aged. Clearly in his advanced years he couldn’t dance like he did in his youth. No one can. But he could still, though his teaching, take an absolute beginner and guide a dancer into a career. He explained everything from the point of view of what it felt like to him. He explained these feelings in excruciating detail. He explained what he did and how he did it with brilliant clarity. It was a painstaking, time-consuming process. And it took a student who was very hungry and very patient to “get it”. But once the student “got it” they had a depth of knowledge and understanding of dance that was richer, more profound, more expressive and more interesting than the students of the other methods that I encountered. He so often said to me “I don’t teach chorus dancers, I make stars”. And to a certain degree he did. Every student that passed through his studio was brought up and nurtured, through his technique, to become profoundly unique artist with a solid technique that supported their artistic expression. He was 63 years old when I started studying with him. In many, many ways he was single-handedly responsible for my career. There certainly are young, fit, still performing dancers who are excellent teachers. But to think that a studio owner or parent would prefer a young teacher, still in “performing shape” to a seasoned and experienced professional simply because they can demonstrate “full-out” is disappointingly short sighted.

Building a ballet technique and cultivating an artist is not a quick process. It takes endless hours of maddening repetition under the guidance of a teacher who knows how to impart the information. I implore studio owners and parents to weigh their choices very carefully. Careers can be made by a teacher and careers can be destroyed by a teacher. Do not select a teacher based on what they can show, because these teachers will create dancers who can “do”. Rather, select a teacher based on what they can teach, because these teachers will create dancers who can soar.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Ballet and Demonstrating in the Studio

  1. So true. I think one of the key points here is to identify the student who is “hungry and patient” to get it. There are not many out there. Not enough to create a sustainable income in this field. I got out. Too bad… 40 years teaching experience including 10 years daily class with some of NYC’s finest. Parents and some studio owners are very impressed by college dance majors who will dance full out with their students. Seems many dance majors have focused on choreography and performance and have received very little training in pedagogy. On the other hand I have seen some young teachers who danced professionally and are wonderful teachers. They have an understanding of the development of the student and a very different perspective on teaching based on their career and class experience.

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  2. About to read the 2nd post 🙂 The students that feel rather than do, I find have a truer connection with their teacher and Ballet and are looking beyond the visual instinctively. That deeper layer that is eager to listen and understand, surely thinking back to my youthful years if I was dancing full out my attention was on myself, and demonstrating now may just be a minute section of a process, and below 90, Terre a terre, without music to emphasise…..although with my juniors on a good day they love to see us on our feet and moving, and the odd allegro keeps my connection with movement x P.s I agree you should do a 📖 book

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