While scrolling through social media feeds lately, I have noticed yet another new trend: young teens being promoted by conventions and competitions as “Guest Teachers” teaching “Master Classes”. Now, I don’t want to turn this discussion into a discourse on the terms “Master Class” and “Master Teacher“ as I have already addressed this topic. Suffice it to say that the term “Master Class” is now synonymous with “Special Class”. I also do not want to drone on discussing pedagogy and what makes a great teacher as I have already exhausted this topic as well.
Recently, Dance Magazine published an article titled: “Being a Great Dancer Doesn’t Automatically Mean You’re a Gifted Teacher” (https://www.dancemagazine.com/teaching-dance-2646191253.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1). I assumed that the professionals in our field understood this. Perhaps they do not. Perhaps they do, but they see these classes as a way to earn more money; and after all they are running a business. My concern here is the message they are sending to our young dancers.
There have always been, in the dance industry, uber-talented kids who from a very young age, dance like adults. In the Musical Theater, Marilyn D’Honau (who I have had the honor of working with and who I consider a dear friend) and Cynthia Onrubia were both dancing on Broadway, in adult roles, at the age of 14. Joyce Cuoco and Darci Kistler both had professional ballet careers and great fame in their teens. These dancers were all clearly very talented and worked very hard; but after more than 30 years in this industry one thing that I have realized is that, for the most part, these extraordinary young talents don’t really know how they do what they do. And it is the knowledge of HOW the work is done; an in depth and rich understanding of exactly how the skills and artistry are acquired, that is the first prerequisite for great teaching.
Perhaps these youngsters can choreograph fun combinations and perhaps our young dancers would enjoy learning and performing these combinations. But this is NOT teaching; at least not in the way that I was taught. The assumption is that these classes are offering something MORE, something SPECIAL, something that they CAN’T GET at their home studio. And by putting these children on display, in front of our young students, and calling them “Teacher”, we are once again reinforcing the “anyone can do it / insta-famous” culture that is steadily breaking down our industry. We are teaching our young dancers that there is no need to study for years, there is no need to dedicate their life to their art, there is no need to to have the richness of experience to be a great teacher because anyone, even a kid like them, can do it. And what is even sadder, is that they are being robbed of the opportunity to experience truly masterful teaching.
I have had some colleagues comment (enviously) that these classes should be given to “an adult who needs the work”. Well I am an adult, and I certainly could use the work (this is a brutal business) but any organization that will hand a master class over to a 14 year old is not going to be interested in the academic approach and intimate connection to the great teaching of the past that I bring to the table. But certainly there are teachers who can bring the excitement and youthfulness of current choreography with the knowledge and experience of skillful teaching. And perhaps our students will learn a fun and exciting combination; but they will also be learning MORE. And maybe this more experienced, more knowledgeable teacher will stand before a group of convention/competition kids and pull back the curtain and give them a glimpse of the professional world and the way a professional works and trains. Isn’t this our ultimate goal; to prepare our students for a career? So often I have heard “Well most of them aren’t going to be professionals anyway.” And sadly, that is true; even for those who want a professional career with all of their heart. But shouldn’t they at least be given a fighting chance?