Ballet Training for the Musical Theater Student

Ballet training is part of all preprofessional college and conservatory musical theater programs. I am currently teaching in three such programs (one conservatory program, one associate’s degree program, and one bachelor’s degree program). I have come to realize, during the years that I have spent teaching in these programs, that there seems to be unrealistic levels of expectation that students have regarding their ballet training. There also seems to be different opinions (both of students and faculty) as to what this training should look like. I thought I would use this article to explore ballet training for the musical theater student.

Because I began ballet training as a young adult, and because many students enter these programs as beginner dancers, I feel that I am uniquely positioned to address training, goals, and expectations for these students. Most musical theater auditions do not have a dance component; applicants audition as singers and actors and are then, once accepted into a program, “leveled” into an appropriate dance class. Since some students come into these programs with absolutely no dance training, these students  are starting their ballet training at the very beginning. I am finding that more and more of these students have unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved during their years of ballet study within these programs, and more and more of these students have misinformation as to how this training should be done.

Musical theater curricula are complicated and extensive. The goal of such a program is to train the students in acting, singing, and dancing. Each of these three disciplines could be a field of study on its own, but now the time must be shared between the three. In the division of hours, dance is usually given the least amount of time. To train in ballet; to really TRAIN effectively in ballet one must train daily. In a musical theater program, this is impossible (I have taught at the Phoenix Performing Arts College in Dublin, Ireland where the students have ballet classes daily, but this is very rare). Most programs will provide one to two ballet classes per week. So let’s do a little bit of math. These students are getting two ballet classes per week, and these classes are on the average 85 minutes long. The typical college/conservatory semester is 13 weeks. By the end of the first year they have completed 74 hours of ballet training; by the end of the second year they have completed 148 hours of ballet training. To someone who is not familiar with how dance training works, this can seem like a lot of training. But let’s compare it to what a serious dance student might do. When I was studying to be a dancer, I typically trained in ballet three hours per day, six days per week. As a serious dance student, I completed 148 hours of training in two months. TWO MONTHS. What a musical theater student does in two years, I as a dance student did in two months.

Ballet pedagogy goes back over 400 years. There are many different schools of thought and many different methods of ballet training. But these systems all have certain things in common that ALL WELL-TRAINED AND KNOWLEDGEABLE TEACHERS agree upon: Ballet training must start at the beginning, there are absolutely no shortcuts, the technique is built by endless repetition, and the progress must be slow, carefully laying a technical foundation which will ultimately support the high level skills. Building a stage-worthy, professional dance technique will take between 5 and 10 years of DAILY training. This is a fact and, again, there are no shortcuts.

I have been asked by these musicals theater students, on more than one occasion: “When I finish this program, will I be ready to go to a dance audition on Broadway?“. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is “No”. Unless the student is coming into the program with extensive dance training, a musical theater training program will not be able to prepare a dancer for a professional dance audition, given the amount of training provided. This does not mean, however, that the dance training that these students is receiving is not valuable and important. We are teaching the students the necessary foundations. We are teaching the students how to learn how to dance. We are building the habits that all dancers need to have in order to succeed. We are setting them on the path to a lifetime of dance training that should continue throughout their careers.

I have also, in recent years, received many complaints that the training is progressing too slowly. Students seem to feel that if they are not progressing and are not doing as well as they would like to be doing, it means that they are not being challenged. This concept of “being challenged“ in order to push a student to work, seems to be popping up a lot recently. Perhaps in other fields, perhaps in other disciplines “challenging“ a student will help them progress. Ballet, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way. They WANT to do double pirouettes. They WANT to do big jumps across the floor. If we push our students to do a double pirouette before they have the required strength and technique, what they will learn to do is “spin around on one foot”. This is not a pirouette. This will not get them a job. If we push our students to do big jumps across the floor before they can successfully and correctly land a sauté in first position, they will get injured. I remember being a beginner dancer. I remember dropping into advanced open classes to “push myself“; to “challenge myself“. I also remember not improving. NOT IMPROVING. I also remember the resulting frustration. It wasn’t until I took daily “absolute beginner” classes with the brilliant Diane Bryan (AKA Debbie Cruz) and built a solid technique through relentless, grueling, repetitive work, that I became ready to correctly approach even a single pirouette. Was I able to do stage-worthy double pirouette after two months of training? Of course not. This is why the beginning musical theater student cannot (and should not) be able to do a stage-worthy double pirouette after two years of musical theater conservatory training; nor, for the proper development of their technique, should they be trying.

One of the best aspects of teaching in these programs is that, for the most part, there is no mandatory class by class syllabus; teachers are given the freedom to construct their own classes. One of the worst aspects of teaching in these programs is that, for the most part, there is no mandatory class by class syllabus; teachers are given the freedom to construct their own classes. There are teachers who do not agree with the conventional wisdom. There are teachers who are teaching ballet in these programs who are “pushing” their students; “challenging” their students. They feel that since we aren’t given sufficient time to make dancers out of them, why not expose them to as much as we can? Why not “challenge” them? Why not give them what they want? I don’t want to diverge toward a defense of my teaching practices. Suffice it to say that I know from personal experience that it doesn’t work and in the end, they learn nothing. And what sometimes happens is that other teachers expose MY students to this sort of teaching. They are “pushed” and “challenged” and they LIKE it. And they WANT it.

Sadly, these students don’t know what they don’t know. They simply don’t have the education and knowledge required to make these sorts of decisions about their own training. They are beginners in a very complex discipline and there is no shame in being a beginner; all great dancers were once beginners. But I am NOT interested in giving students what they like. I am NOT in interested in giving students what they want. I am interested in giving students what they need. I spend hours crafting lesson plans that will serve the needs of my students. Anyone who has ever been in a classroom with me knows what my career means to me. At this point in my life, my only concern is for my students’ progress.

We are training our musical theater students for a profession on the stage. Well any profession requires professional training. And I only know one way to train a professional dancer: slowly and methodically with maddening repetition. Some of my students may feel that I am holding them back; that I am not challenging them and they are, therefore, not progressing. All I can say to them is that if they do not feel challenged it is because they are not working hard enough and they aren’t demanding enough of themselves. I have been in this industry for over thirty years and I recently made a discovery about my tendu to the side. SIMPLE TENDU TO THE SIDE. Yes, I am still trying to get it just right.

When the student finds the joy in the process, a dancer is born.

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