“I Was Taught That…“, The WHY Behind the WHAT

As teachers, we often discuss what and how we teach. We have these discussions in faculty rooms, we have these discussions on the telephone and now, more than ever, we have these discussions on the internet. A question might be posed, or a topic is brought up, and we will very often begin our thoughts with “I was taught that…”.

I have always believed that there is something very special about the way our art form is passed down from teacher to student. The real truth of the work is not kept In a book or on a video, it is kept in our bodies and in our hearts. And we pass this work, from teacher to student, for generations. I believe that all dance teachers are part of a distinguished line of teaching and I have always felt extremely fortunate and honored that I was trained by Luigi and can trace my ballet lineage directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova.

Recently I found myself embroiled in a discussion on grand plié in fourth position. Each of the participants explained what they had been taught about grand plié in fourth. Many explained when, and under what circumstances they used grand plié in fourth. Many expressed concerns about injury risks related to grand plié in fourth. But almost nobody explained or discussed WHY they taught it. Few seemed to have a reason that went deeper than “I was taught that…”.
I have already written an article on the different paths to becoming a dance teacher (https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2017/02/27/pedagogy-the-art-science-or-profession-of-teaching/). Regardless of the path that we take to this career, I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to examine the “why”. Even with extensive pedagogical training, the exploration of the “why” will enrich what we bring to the classroom.

As I look back on the teaching I received from the great teachers under whom I studied, I realize that none of these teachers, even those with extensive pedagogical knowledge, relied solely on what they had been taught. Each of them deeply examined what they taught and why they taught it. And often what they taught was fluid, and changed over time, as that examination of the work grew deeper year by year. Even Gabriella Darvash told me recently that what she taught and how she taught drastically changed since the time when I was her student. And along with this ever changing approach comes a realization that what is “correct” also has some fluidity. I am constantly surprised by the number of teachers who are very quick to exclaim “that is wrong!” when faced with something they have never seen before; simply because it is not how they were taught. I think, in this respect, we have a responsibility to keep an open mind. I have had so many thrilling  “ah ha!” moments since my days with Madame Darvash, when teachers presented different ideas to which I was at first resistant. Deeper exploration of these ideas changed me as a teacher, helped me grow my knowledge and understanding and greatly benefitted my students. I realized that to have a deep understanding, and a real understanding of HOW technique works, one must explore and analyze the work of many great teachers. It is nearly impossible to learn it all from one source.

Recently, a colleague remarked to me that she felt that I was irresponsible. She believes that teaching ballet experientially was doing my students a great disservice. She believes that the only way to effectively train a dancer is to undergo some sort of codified teacher training and then, essentially, regurgitate this teaching method to the students. Codified methods work. They produce results. The Luigi technique is a codified Jazz method in which I was trained and I now teach. But if I simply parroted to my students, exactly what Luigi said, without examining how and why it worked, THAT would be, in my opinion, irresponsible. No great teacher has ever worked in that manner.

Every day I go into the studio. Every day I bring with me the work of the great teachers with whom I was fortunate to study: Gabriella Darvash, David Howard, Elena Kunikova, Lisa Lockwood, Zvi Gotheiner, Diane Bryan (the finest adult beginner ballet teacher I’ve ever encountered), David Storey, Richard Pierlon and of course the legendary Luigi. And every day I look at the work, I examine how it feels and I analyze what each step, exercise and component brings to the training. I try to see what enriches the work and above all, how I can bring both technique and artistry to to the student. I will never have the knowledge, insight or instincts of a Luigi or a Madame Darvash because that level of genius is very rare. But what I did learn from them is the importance of examining the work and the exploration of the “why”.

THAT is what I was taught.

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