I recently read a Facebook post that focused on ballet teachers who teach in recreational or competition studios where the students tend to believe that “ballet is boring”. Many of these teachers find it very difficult to motivate these students to work to their fullest potential and these teachers are finding it more and more difficult to get a satisfactory result out of these dancers; dancers who think that “ballet is boring”. The post suggested that the problem lie in the teaching. The thrust of the argument is that if the teachers would simply bring ballet to these students with passion, with love, with enthusiasm and just make ballet as engaging and important to the students as it is to the teacher then the students would love it too. Problem solved.
I have had, during my career, similar opinions.
And then I was charged with teaching “required ballet classes” to students who thought “ballet was boring”.
Now I LOVE what I do. I have worked harder than I ever thought possible and I have made many sacrifices to have the career that I have. I have walked away from a very lucrative career to spend my life teaching ballet. I have been told that I am an inspiring teacher. I have packed open classes at Joffrey. I have had countless studios bring me at great cost to teach and inspire their students. But I was now facing five classes a week of students who, for the most part, thought “ballet was boring”. And I found myself at a loss. There was nothing I could do to get these kids onboard. Nothing.
I take my work very seriously and I never pretend to have all the answers. I am also not afraid to admit (both publicly and in print) when I am having trouble, when something isn’t going perfectly. So I started searching. I looked for new ways to construct exercises. I looked for new and interesting ways to approach the discussion of technique. I searched for music. I took as many classes as I could…and I watched other teachers teach. And I was at a loss because I was unable to motivate these students. The teacher who wrote the article professed that the problem lie in the teaching; that she was able to motivate her students who thought “ballet was boring” and get a beautiful result out of all of them. And maybe she was able. And maybe she wasn’t. And maybe these kids weren’t really all that bored by ballet. One of the things I’ve learned about social media is that most people present what they WANT THE WORLD TO SEE. It’s hard sometimes to remember that.
I was distraught because I was unable to do what this teacher did. I was unable to motivate these students. I had hit a dead end. I had this shortcoming that I couldn’t seem to fix. And I was very distressed.
Then one day I opened my email and there was a “friend request” from someone with whom I had gone to summer camp some 45 years ago. This was not an arts camp. This was your typical “sleep in a cabin, play baseball and go swim in a lake” summer camp. And I opened that friend request and I had a sort of epiphany.
Everything about that camp came flooding back. And one of the most vivid memories I had was how BORED I was by sports and how poorly I did athletically. I also remember a wonderful coach who loved baseball and worked so very hard to help me improve. I was bored. He worked harder…with even more enthusiasm. I was still bored. I hated baseball and I never improved. One day, by sheer luck, I had a game winning hit. Everyone cheered. And I was bored. I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. And looking back on those years, all those years during my childhood when I was compelled to participate in athletics, I know in my heart of hearts that there is nothing anyone could have done to get me to love sports. I remember my mother saying: “People like to do what they are good at. If you would just work harder and get better then you would like baseball”. I’m sorry, mom, but I’ve loved ballet from the moment I placed my hand on the barre. No, actually, I’ve loved ballet since before I knew the barre existed.
At that moment I realized that we all love to do what we love to do. And there is no accounting for it. And I am now cutting myself a little slack. I am clearly never going to abandon my students who are bored by ballet, just like that wonderful coach in summer camp who never abandoned me. I will still do my best to inspire these kids (perhaps to no avail) and I will still look for new ideas to help reach them. These challenges are why I love what I do. But I will also be kind to myself when faced with roadblocks that I can’t seem to get around. And I will not go on social media and proclaim to have all the answers when I know that I don’t, because in the end that will only serve to undermine what I know I do have.
So twice a week I faced these students who were disinterested. Twice a week I did everything I could to bring them the joy that I get from ballet. And twice a week I watched these kids “take their required ballet class” (which we all know is not the same thing as studying ballet).
And then, one afternoon, “Julie’s” mother inquired about private lessons. It seems that Julie had decided to audition for some of the most competitive performing arts high schools in New York City. Julie doubled up her ballet classes at the studio, took a 90 minute private lesson with me every Saturday morning and her progress was staggering. After 9 months of this schedule she attended the auditions. In September, Julie will be attending a prestigious performing arts high school in a ballet focused program.
So to all of my colleagues facing these challenges; to all of my fellow teachers who have students that you can not seem to reach: please be kind to yourself. You may encounter these students that you can’t inspire but I would encourage you to keep searching for new ways, because it will only serve to make you a better teacher. And I implore you to not give up on these students, because there might be a “Julie” in your class for whom you unknowingly open a door.
THIS is why I do what I do.