On Teaching Beginners

We are now living in a world where it is apparently shameful to be a beginner. Aspiring dancers are becoming more and more reluctant to take beginner classes; struggling through classes that are far beyond their ability and thereby accomplishing essentially nothing. I have already addressed this topic twice and it is very much a sign of our times. The work, discipline and dedication that is required to really study a complex art form such as dance, is something that is disappearing in our instant-gratification / Instafamous world. But it has recently come to my attention that more and more prominent TEACHERS are reluctant to TEACH beginner classes and this is something that I am finding both surprising and puzzling.

My regular readers know that I started my dance training by studying jazz with Luigi. The legendary Luigi was, in his time, one of the most famous and renowned dance teachers in the WORLD. And he taught beginners. I studied ballet for most of my performing career with Gabriella Darvash. Madame Darvash, who produced principal dancers for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater taught eleven advanced-beginner classes every week. In fact, the list of brilliant master teachers in New York in the 1980’s and 1990’s when I was training, who regularly taught beginner and advanced-beginner classes, is staggering.

Luigi had a faculty of assistant teachers at his school; it would be impossible for him to teach every class himself. But, at least for the years that I studied with him, the classes that he almost always taught himself were the “style” class and the “technique class”. These classes were not the “advanced” classes. These classes were not filled with the working professionals (usually). These were the classes where he passed on the rich details of his brilliant technique to both beginner dancers and to dancers who were unfamiliar with his work. He felt a RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that the work was taught from the beginning, BY HIM, to ensure that the students were properly trained and were given a strong foundation. This responsibility to the beginner dancer was something that I recognized in many of the great teachers that I encountered during my training.

When I was almost 35 years old I left the dance industry for nine years. When I returned  to class nearly a decade older and 60 pounds heavier I noticed many changes. One of the most obvious changes that I noticed at the big studios in New York City, was that most teachers were no longer teaching multiple levels. Now, the more famous, notable teachers were teaching only the advanced and professional classes. With only a few exceptions, teachers teaching professional and aspiring professional dancers were rarely seen also teaching beginners. One of those exceptions was my beloved Luigi.

When I returned to Luigi’s Jazz Centre after that nine year absence, I found Luigi still teaching those lower level classes himself; painstakingly explaining the endless nuances in his work. What did change at his school, were the students. Fewer and fewer young dancers were willing to work in the way that he taught. It seemed that only a very few, very focused and diligent students were able and willing to undergo the the painstakingly slow, endlessly repetitive teaching method that had a 40-plus year history of yielding superior results; building some of the most stunning dancers the stage had ever seen. And so, this great master teacher, never once shirking his responsibility to the beginner dancer, continued to teach his work to the beginners who came to be taught.

I learned many things from Luigi and Madame Darvash. Many, many things. But one of the greatest lessons I learned from these two brilliant master teachers is to hold fast to my responsibility to the beginners. To this day, in addition to teaching advanced dancers in the preprofessional trainee program at The Joffrey Ballet School and in addition to the guest teaching engagements that I have at conservatories and ballet companies, I am regularly teaching beginners. I teach children at neighborhood studios. I teach absolute beginner dancers in colleges and musical theater programs. And I teach adult beginners in Joffrey’s open class program. Teaching beginners teaches me patience. Teaching beginners makes me more analytical. Teaching beginners presents me with endless challenges. And maybe, someday, teaching beginners will afford me the opportunity to do for some beginner what Luigi did for me: change the course of my life by opening a door and showing me a world that I never knew existed. 

7 thoughts on “On Teaching Beginners

  1. I love teaching beginners and I love being a beginner. Being a teacher to students who are stepping out of their comfort zone as well as continuing as a student of something new myself are both so fulfilling. I would add to your observations that many teachers stop being students as well. To me, my education will never be complete. I love the search for something new or something “old” said or done in a new way. I also feel that continually putting myself in the role of student makes it easier for me to relate to my own students, especially the wonderful beginners who more often than not are so extremely grateful. Thank you for being such an inspiration in both your writings and your dance classes, Crystal B

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