How We Correct Our Students

If you’ve been following my blog, read my posts on social media or listened to Edwin Olvera’s interview with me on YouTube, you know that I started my dance training extremely late, and my path to a career in dance was in no way “usual”. During those early years of training, I received many detailed, individual corrections. From where I stood as an absolute beginner in my twenties, working to incorporate every correction into my growing technique was one more step toward my impossible goal of building a professional career. But to me, as an adult absolute beginner who was training in New York City under some legendary world-class teachers, every individual correction carried additional meaning: if these teachers are taking their time and talents to work with ME, then I must be “worth working with”… and so each correction pushed me to work even harder, with even more determination and confidence. I was not aware at this time, that not every student viewed individual corrections in the same way that I did.

About a year into my training I became roommates with a brilliant dancer and teacher named Harriet Wilson. During one of our 2:00 AM marathon conversations about dance, I learned that she had always viewed individual corrections as a personal attack. Intellectually, she understood that the teachers were trying to help, but emotionally she was not in a place where she could accept or incorporate anything negative that a teacher might have to say about her work. She listened intently, scrutinized herself in the mirror, and took every correction given in the class as if it was meant for her. But any direct correction given to her was seen as an affront. Years later, when I started teaching, I became very aware of how teachers correct, who teachers correct, and how students accept these corrections.

Since I trained in “open classes”, and I continue to take open classes, I’d like to first address the issue of “student corrections” in open classes. I began my training with Luigi. The legendary Luigi, father of jazz dance training, almost never gave individual corrections. Privately, Luigi once said to me, “If I correct them they don’t come back”. Luigi was brilliant, Luigi was an innovator, Luigi was warm, welcoming, kind, and generous, and Luigi was running a business. In his experience, correcting students in open classes drove them away. No students=no Luigi’s Jazz Centre. Now clearly this is not true 100% of the time. I was an adult student in open classes and I craved individual corrections; and obviously there are others like me. But figuring out who those students are is not always easy. As I continue to take open classes I have become keenly aware of which teachers are getting the best results and have the busiest classes. (these two things do not necessarily go hand in hand.) It appears to me that the teachers who are teaching busy classes filled with steadily improving students, are the teachers who are able to make their students feel welcome and important. They are the teachers who can explain the technical and artistic information necessary for their students to grow, in as concise a way as possible, not letting the class get too “talky”. They are the teachers who compliment their students a lot, giving much encouragement and positive reinforcement. And they are the teachers who give very few, judiciously selected, individual corrections to dancers they KNOW will want and benefit from these corrections. And this is not always easy. (I have often said to an new adult student “You really seem to know what you are doing. If I see something that could use a little tweak would you want a correction, or do you prefer to work on your own?” – (They always say that they want the corrections, but I have come to realize that often they do not.) One of the open classes that I take regularly is taught by a “relentless corrector”. This teacher is one of the finest teachers I have ever met and this teacher gives a lot of corrections. He has confided in me that he doesn’t quite understand why his classes aren’t busier. I have seen this teacher drive away professionals, only to see these dancers in classes where absolutely no corrections are given. Figuring out WHO to correct can be more important and more difficult than WHAT and HOW two correct. I think we also need to be aware of WHY we correct. I sometimes get the sense that some teachers are correcting in open classes not so much to help the student but to impress everyone with their superior knowledge and keen eye. We all need to be very careful how we correct.

When we teach children and preprofessional/conservatory students the situation is somewhat different. Here we get the same students consistently over an extended period of time. We are typically assigned to teach a class that is part of a program, and the students do not have the choice of teacher as they do in open classes. For some time I have been treating these students rather firmly. I have been a bit tough on them…and offered many corrections and few compliments. I believed that this was the way to get a result. Here is a quote from an earlier post:

“I have started telling my students that I am not going to compliment them every time they do something right or there will be no time for teaching. I have even stopped for the most part saying “good” or “right” unless it is REALLY GOOD or REALLY RIGHT. Instead I Say “Better”. But I truly believe that this has to come from a place of love. And the students can tell the difference. If I give this sort of speech, and stop complimenting, and sometimes talk to them more harshly than I would have in the past, my students still know that I love them (because I do). I often tell them that I am desperately trying to given them the opportunity that I didn’t have; because my parents didn’t support the idea of me dancing. And that their success was what was important to me. And so I stopped coddling, I stopped complimenting, and I started encouraging students to WORK.”

And this seemed to be working for the most part; until I met “Kelly”. Kelly, at 10 years old, was the most challenging student I had encountered in a good number of years. She seemed to love ballet but there would be many, many classes where her behavior was just horrible. Without going into the details of the bad behavior, because they aren’t relevant, I can say that I was at my wit’s end and had no idea how to manage her. And there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when the problems would occur or why they would occur. And then, after 8 1/2 months of dreading those classes twice a week, every week, a pattern emerged: the bad behavior occurred during classes in which she received an individual correction. What was so confusing was that the problem didn’t occur immediately after the correction but a good while later, sometimes 30-40 minutes later. It seemed almost as if she saw the correction as an attack, allowed her anger to stew, and then lashed out sometime later. Well I learned something that day. Over time, things change. Parenting Styles change. Parents change. And due to all of these changes, children change.

One of my goals in teaching the traditional technique of my mentor Luigi, is to make the work relevant to dancers today. I don’t change WHAT I teach. I essentially teach what he taught. But I teach the technique, filtered through my time and experience spent on the stage and in the studio. And I am always looking for ways to make the work relevant and useful to today’s dancers. In the same way I am always looking for ways to make my teaching style and correcting style something that will work for today’s dancers. They are a product of their time. It is not their fault. And I do believe that we need to toughen them up. But if every class and every correction is yet another attack we will never be able to have an impact. I learned that from Kelly that afternoon in April when the pattern emerged. And so now I am looking for a way to reach her, and help her, and yes…toughen her up. But how?

….Another relentless pursuit.

Teaching Dancers To Turn

I recently came across two posts on social media that started me thinking about turning and how we teach dancers to turn. In the first post, a teacher linked a short video clip of a student unsuccessfully attempting a pirouette. The teacher then asked for suggestions of notes she could give the student to help her improve and hopefully master the pirouette. In the second post, a teacher had the idea of starting a “turning class” to help tap dancers turn better.

I think that most of us would agree that well-trained ballet dancers are among the best “turners”. I would like to share a very popular video clip that has made its way around the Internet. These boys in this clip are ballet students, competing in the YAGP. Now I’m not suggesting that these boys are finished artists, nor am I extolling the merits of competitions, but these boys are STUDENTS, and I think we can agree that they turn very well.

Turning is not an isolated skill. We cannot, as teachers, simply teach our students to turn. A foundational technique must be built from the ground up. Ballet training is structured in a very specific way. And the rigorous training that goes into producing a high-level ballet dancer, produces the technique, strength and skill necessary to turn well. The struggling student in the video that was posted by the well meaning teacher, was not even close to being ready to attempt a pirouette. She was not able to plié with both heels on the ground, she was not strong enough to press up to the highest possible half point, she did not have sufficient strength or balance to maintain the turning position, she was unable to maintain her turn out, she could not keep her shoulders down on her back, she could not maintain a neutral pelvis, she could not spot… And I’m just getting started.

When ballet dancers train, the techniques required for plié, releve, balance, turnout, and placement are built gradually and slowly from the beginning. Only after all of the technical requirements are starting to fall into place does the student begin to turn…and usually they begin with “quarter turns”; slowly progressing to single pirouettes, multiple pirouettes and more complicated turns in various positions. It is the technical foundation that ballet builds that allows for the dazzling turns. Without the foundation, the turns of that quality are impossible.

I often say that the idea of “Taking ballet to make everything better” doesn’t work. Taking ballet doesn’t make anything better. In order for ballet to help a dancer improve, the dancer must STUDY ballet the same way a ballet dancer does; with the same level of attention to detail, artistry, musicality and nuance…or it is a waste of time. And as teachers, we must try inspire our students to love the ritual of the ballet class and the rigors of the training. I have taught a lot of “required ballet classes”. I have taught them in neighborhood studios, colleges, conservatories, preprofessional programs and I have traveled to competition studios across the country. In these class rooms, inspiring dancers for whom ballet is not their primary discipline is at the top of my “to-do list”. Dancers must learn that their body is their instrument. They can play a poorly made, klunky and out of tune keyboard…or they can play the finest hand-built Steinway. And if they want their body to be as responsive and expressive as a Steinway, then they must build their instrument with the same care and meticulous attention to detail that goes into a Steinway. There is really no other way.

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

 

The Serious Adult Student

Occasionally we come across a dancer who is a serious adult student. This dancer is most certainly not a beginner; in fact he or she may have undergone years of serious training. But due to a late start, or halted, interrupted training, this serious adult dancer is not YET dancing at a professional level.

I have such a student. And teaching her, and getting to know her, has been one of the more interesting and educational experiences of my career. She has opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the adult student.

I first met Imani a number of years ago in an open class in New York City. She appeared to be a typical, well trained, “adult” intermediate dancer; the kind of dancer one sees in open classes all the time. She was warm and friendly and we chatted for a while after the class. She expressed to me her dismay at not being able to find a ballet teacher who would really take an interest in her, because, you see, “I am going to be a professional ballet dancer”.

Well, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know how old she was, but she appeared to be past thirty. She was quite a lovely dancer, but certainly not dancing at a professional level. She was still years away from having the goods to secure a contract. And who STARTS a ballet career that late? I thought to myself “She’s sweet but a bit crazy and delusional”, I finished our chat, said good bye and figured I’d never see her again. But the universe had other plans.

I kept running into her. I kept chatting with her. I taught her some private lessons. I got to know her better and better and I came to realize that she isn’t crazy or delusional at all. She is on a quest; a quest that SHE KNOWS is crazy. Who trains as an adult for a career in ballet? NO ONE. So, as she simply stated: “How do we know that it absolutely can’t be done?” She is without a doubt the most educated student I have ever met. She has read everything that has ever been written on ballet. She has an encyclopedic grasp of ballet history, music and repertoire. She has a comprehensive knowledge of all the major training systems; and she has an exhaustive knowledge and deep understanding of how the Vaganova method is constructed and works. I wish my pre-professional students had this kind of interest, this kind of drive. She has studied with all of the finest teachers in New York. In fact she has traveled to Cuba for months at a time to study with the legendary Cuban teachers. And all of this, is part of her quest. Like Don Quixote who looked at a windmill and saw a giant, or looked at the kitchen wench Aldonza and saw the highborn lady Dulcinea, Imani looks at her future and sees a ballerina. And like the noble Don Quixote, and all dreamers who are on a quest, this dream, this quest, consumes their lives. And what could be more beautiful, or more fulfilling for a dancer, than a life consumed by the study of ballet? And also, like Don Quixote, these dreamers are surrounded by voices that say “It can’t be done.”. And they must not listen to those voices. They must not let those voices win. There is no way to know where these quests may lead. And Imani’s quest is taking her down uncharted paths. These are paths that she must follow because the pain of failure is not nearly as bad, as deep or as profound as the pain of wondering what might have been. And sadly, that is something that I have learned through personal experience.

So just as Don Quixote’s quest deeply touched and changed the life of the kitchen wench, Imani’s journey will touch the lives of countless dancers and teachers. And there is no way to foresee what effect she may have, what impact she may make along the way. There is also no way to foresee where her path may ultimately lead; but this path, this life, is a life filled with the love of art, the discipline of study, and the passion for an unachievable goal. And perhaps it may lead to the stage because as she so eloquently stated “How do we know that it absolutely can’t be done?”

Visit Imani’s website/blog:

http://www.freeyourdreamproject.blogspot.com/

 

Class Levels and Moving Students Up- Another Point of View


There has been some talk in the “Teachers’ Groups” again about students being moved up a level before they are ready. I have written about class levels in a previous post (https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2016/12/06/class-levels/) but I recently heard about a colleague’s experience that is making me look at the situation from a very different point of view.

This colleague owns a beautifully run recreational dance studio. The school provides three levels of ballet, and they are structured as follows:
Ballet I – ages 7, 8, 9
Ballet II – ages 10,11,12
Ballet III – ages 13, 14, 15
These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Exceptions are often made (in both directions) for children who advance very rapidly, for children who start late or for many other reasons. But it is typically expected that a child will stay in each level for three years.

I would now like to relate to you what happened this year, at this beautiful studio, when a student was moved up to the next level before she was ready. Every word of this story is true.

This student (we can call her Laura) begin studying ballet at the studio in September 2015. She was almost 8 years old, had no previous ballet experience, and was placed in Ballet 1, where she belonged. Laura was in no way a remarkable talent, and most definitely had behavior issues. But she came to class, did the best that she could, learned a little bit of technique, learned some choreography and performed in the year-end recital. This past September (September 2016), Laura returned to the studio to continue studying ballet. She was again placed in Ballet 1, where she belonged. After the first class of the season, the studio owner received a phone call. Laura’s mother would like her to be moved up to Ballet 2. It was explained to the mom that Laura was in no way ready to be moved up. The studio owner explained that if a student trains in a class that is too advanced for them, what ends up happening is the student learns next to nothing. The student will learn steps; not how to dance. It was explained that building a dance technique requires rigorous training in a methodical way. One has to build the foundation in order for the house to stand. Laura’s mom responded as so many moms in the past have in this situation: “I know my child, and I know that my child will thrive when she is challenged. Besides, she is very mature for her age and she always does better with older children. If you aren’t going to move her up I am going to have to rethink idea of her taking ballet classes.”

In previous years the studio owner would have allowed this mom to walk out of the studio… But this has been a difficult year and she was in a situation where every student counted. So against her better judgment she agreed to move her up.

One week later She receives a call from “Susan’s” mom. Susan’s mom said that if Laura has been moved up to Ballet 2 she wants Susan to be moved up as well.” Like Laura, Susan has only completed One year of ballet. With Susan and Laura being moved up to the second level, there were only two students left in Level 1 who were not seven-year-old absolute beginners. So the studio owner decided to move them up as well. She also decided to not lower the level of the work presented in Ballet 2, simply because these four dancers were moved up.

And here is how it all played out: This very fine teacher is now attempting to teach a class that ranges in age from 8 years old to 12 years old. She has dancers who are in their second year of training, and dancers who are in their sixth year of training. This is a class that is impossible to teach effectively. Now some of the older students started dropping out. They didn’t want to take class with students who were four years younger than they were, and felt that these younger students were holding them back. Each time a student left, an enormous amount of time was spent reconfiguring choreographic formations to accommodate the fewer number of students. Countless hours of classroom time was lost to re-setting recital choreography. And now as she approaches the recital, she has a group of dancers with a wide range of ages, who have learned very little this year, and are about to perform in a recital for which they are not ready, a piece of choreography that simply looks like a mess.

As an experienced teacher she knew it was a mistake to move Laura up to the next level. What she never could have imagined was the impact it would have on the so many other children in the class, causing several others to drop out, and pretty much ruining the educational experience of the dancers that remained.  A lesson was learned here. A really big lesson…and it wasn’t the students who did the learning this time.

I receive emails regularly from studio owners asking about how to deal with this very situation. None of us are perfect; we all make mistakes. Laura’s mother’s insistence that her daughter was special, and needed to be moved up, lead a wonderful teacher to make this mistake; a mistake that impacted many many children.

I received a phone call from a student’s father a few days ago, asking if his daughter would be moved up to the next level next year. Without missing a beat I said “NO”.

Lesson learned.

The Notorious Tours a la Seconde and Competiton Dance

One of the benefits of the Internet is that it affords us the opportunity to discuss our profession with a multitude colleagues all over the world. In addition to my blog, I am a regular contributor to a number of websites and teachers’ groups. And a topic that has surfaced a lot lately is the use and execution in Competition Dance of the notorious “Grand Pirouette a la Seconde”. This step has also been called “Tour a la Seconde”, “Turns in Second”, “A la Seconde’s”, and I once met a dancer who thought the step was named for its creator “Alex Seccond”. The following post started a discuss on this topic. The post was made by a very fine and accomplished ballet teacher who I have had the great good fortune to “meet” over the Internet, and subsequently meet in person. I want to say that I agree with what she stated, in theory…but art is never simply “black and white”. Here is what she wrote:

“May we please discuss tours a la seconde for a moment? As a ballet teacher, I tend not to spend a lot of time at competitions as I only have one girl competing in ballet right now, but I have done a LOT of observing this season. Tours a la seconde are traditionally a male virtuoso skill performed in a variation. The correct execution includes a turned out preparation, a fully engaged leg turned out from the hip at 90 degrees and arms that remain in the second position during the execution of the turns which are usually performed consecutively, with the leg turned out in retire on the pirouette that follows. What I am seeing is a gross abomination of said skill.”

The post spurred a long list of comments focusing on the following topics:

1) The origin of the step.
2) The correct execution of the step.
3) the correct preparation for the step.
4) The appropriateness of the step in Jazz combinations.
5) The appropriateness of the step for the female dancer.
6) The execution of the step while wearing only one shoe.

I think, that as dance professionals, we all can agree that the step is part of the standard classical ballet vocabulary, and there is a “correct” preparation and execution as far as the ballet vocabulary is concerned. However, there is a long tradition of dance steps originally created as part of a particular genre of Dance being absorbed into another genre of Dance (very often Jazz), and going through some changes during that process. Jack Cole borrowed quite a lot from East Indian Dance; and certainly did not keep it purely East Indian, Having spent many years under the tutelage of Luigi, I am most familiar with his work. His technique is filled with ballet terminology, and although the steps only barely resemble their “ballet cousins”, no one ever said that what he was doing was in anyway “wrong”. The terms glissade, dégagé, renverse, faille and many others were heard in his classes daily, but a ballet teacher would find very little in a “Luigi Glissade” or a “Luigi Dégagé” that resembles anything that is part of the ballet vocabulary.

When it comes to the “correct preparation” of the step, the typical ballet preparation for Grand Pirouette a la Seconde would be a tendu (usually to the side) closing back into a well turned out fourth position, both heels on the floor, demi plié, with (depending on the style/technique) the weight evenly distributed between the two feet OR all the weight on the front foot OR with the back knee straight. And this is how the step is taught. But it is not the ONLY way to prepare the turn, especially when the turn is part of a complex piece of choreography. That standard preparation is how the turns are usually executed in class; giving students a supportive preparation from which to accomplish the turn. But that is class and that is training. That is not choreography. Madame Darvash used to say “A dancer should be able to turn IN any position FROM any position. Luigi reported that his teacher Madame Nijinska said of her brother (the legendary Nijinsky) “He could do 10 pirouettes and you would never see the preparation”. The pirouettes that are part of Luigi’s technique are certainly pirouettes, but they bear little resemblance to a ballet pirouette. The “preparation” is usually a lunge to the side, the passé is parallel and the standing leg has a slightly bent knee/forced arch. Is it “wrong”? Not to me. Is it how the pirouette is done in ballet class? No. Is it a pirouette? Most definitely. So if Competition choreography employs a “different” preparation, why do we need to label it as wrong.

As far as the appropriateness of the step in Jazz choreography. My feeling is…if it works, then it works. I hate it when turns are used as a vulgar display of technical prowess. When these turns are part of a 19th century Men’s Variation, that’s pretty much what they are…a display. But in more modern choreography, if you are going to use them, in my opinion, they need to have an artistic purpose. An if you can find a way to make them work within the context of Jazz- Great! Jack Cole made East Indian Dance work within the context of Jazz. This is how art grows. And with respect to ladies performing the step…why not? We no longer tell girls they can’t play football, should we be telling them they can’t/shouldn’t execute a ballet step?

With respect to performing/competing with one shoe… It is not an artistic choice that I would ever make. But I recently was made aware of a piece that was choreographed for dancers wearing one pointe shoe and one stiletto heal. Another choice I would have never made.

Part of the disagreement seems to stem from the fact that teachers working in the pre-professional world, especially pre-professional ballet, want competition dance to work the way they work and do what they do. But much (not all) of competition dance is simply DIFFERENT. Not worse, not better…different. I see very little choreography in competition dance that would be “at home” on the Broadway Stage or in a Concert Dance Company. And similarly, a piece like Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug”, brilliant as it is, would not do well at a competition due to its lack of technical difficulty despite its incredibly challenging artistic demands. And let me state, that when competition dancers come to Joffrey and join the pre-professional programs, they typically do very well. VERY WELL. There is an adjustment, for sure, but their discipline and training serve them well.

I am not part of the competition dance world, per se. I am, however, often invited to guest teach at completion studios with greater and greater frequency. Perhaps they feel they want to expose their dancers to something different, perhaps they feel it will give them a competitive edge, perhaps they are looking to help competition dance grow and evolve. After a full day at a beautiful school in Michigan, the teacher who engaged me wrote to me and told me that she started implementing some of what I taught the very next day. It’s not my place to tell the competition schools what and how to do what they do. It is my job to bring what I do to them. And perhaps it will influence what they do and perhaps it won’t. And perhaps one day there will be a new “Grand Pirouette a la Seconde” that is part of the vocabulary of competitive dance. It won’t be a ballet step. It won’t be worse, and it won’t be better. It will be something exciting and astonishing and unique to competitive dance.

Our Students And The Connections We Make


I am very fortunate, in that I get to teach in just about every aspect of dance education. And one of the things that I truly love is guest teaching. I always welcome the opportunity to travel to a different part of the country, work at a New school, meet new colleagues and teach new students. I would like to share with you an experience that I had during a recent guest teaching engagement.

I was engaged by a ballet based studio as a guest artist, teaching ballet for a week-long intensive. I taught many classes (4-5 classes per day) at various levels to various groups of students. For the most part they were beautifully trained, attentive and hard-working. And for the most part, looked the way “preprofessional ballet students” are expected to “look”. The classes were leveled pretty much by age; but there were a few “more advanced” younger dancers dancing with older students. There was also one “less advanced” older dancer dancing with the younger students. And it was this dancer (we will call her “Susan”) that caught my eye. Susan was not blessed with what one might consider “ideal equipment” for ballet. She was stocky, long in the torso-short in the leg, neither particularly flexible nor turned out. I commend this beautiful little school for encouraging students with less than ideal bodies to train. Like my beloved Joffrey Ballet School, they believe that every “body” has the right to train, and if you can pass the audition you will be accepted, encouraged and nurtured, regardless of physique. But it wasn’t Susan’s body that caught my attention; it was her attitude and her demeanor.

To start with, Susan lacked the teenage exuberance that her classmates exhibited. And although all of the dancers at the school were serious and hard-working, Susan exhibited a ferocious drive. But even more than that, there was something troubling about her. I noticed, right from the beginning of class, her relationship with the mirror. I find that many serious teenage dance students love the mirror; they love watching themselves dance. But it almost appeared as if Susan was going to battle with the mirror. I watched her judge, evaluate, scrutinize and criticize every line that wasn’t perfect, every extension that wasn’t soaringly high, every body part that was too short, or too curvy, or too inflexible. I could see the exasperation in her face as we progressed through the barre and into the centre. I also saw a darkness; a sadness; almost a sense of despair in her carriage and in her work.

When we progressed to the adagio, however, I saw something very different. I taught the combination, we all marked the choreography and we divided into groups. When Susan’s group took their spots on the floor, she hid in the back of this large classroom, taking a spot toward the side of the last row. The music started and as the melancholy chords of “Scheherazade” filled the room, I saw Susan transform into an artist. Now I don’t mean to say that this “less advanced” dancer miraculously transformed her technique into that of a world-class professional. Her technical limitations were obviously still there. But what was also there was a stunning quality of movement, a very professional sense of phrasing and what seemed to be a deep connection to the music. And there was that sadness, and that sense of despair that brought something to the work that was both troubling and beautiful and transcended her obvious technical limitations.

As the class continued, through centre combinations, turns, jumps, petite allegro, grand allegro, I saw a dancer, struggling with the mirror, judging every moment. But I also saw flashes of great beauty and artistry. Buried at the core of this flawed body and judgmental eye was a mature artist of enormous depth and an aching sense of melancholy.

At the end of class, all of the dancers lined up to shake my hand, curtesy, and offer their thanks. Susan was one of the last. I offered her the following suggestion: “Try to use the mirror for INFORMATION rather than JUDGEMENT”. I also suggested that, sometimes, she try working in the front of the room. She smiled, thanked me, and left the studio.

At the end of the first, grueling teaching day, I asked the studio owner about Susan. She told me that Susan has a very difficult home-life and is dealing with some very trying situations (I can’t divulge the details, but trust me…its heart-breaking). She told me that the school is doing everything they can to keep her in class.

Over the next couple of days I had a few chats with Susan after class. I certainly didn’t tell her that the studio owner explained her situation…but she did confide to me that she was dealing with some personal problems. I asked her, although we didn’t know each other all that well, to make me two promises. I asked her: 1. To promise to try to find some happiness in the process of training (as I ask of all my students). And 2. If she TRULY wanted to dance, to the best of her ability not to let anything get in the way of her training. I explained that I was a dancer who had a family and a situation and a life that prevented me from dancing until I was an adult…and I just “let it be”. I allowed all of it to get in the way of my training. And when, as an adult, I discussed this with my mother, her response was: “Well, you should have been stronger”. So I implored her to be diligent, relentless and strong. I implored her to take advantage of every opportunity and to try to find her joy in the studio, in class, in the process. She burst into tears, she thanked me, she composed herself, she went home.

Now, I wish that I could say that by the end of the week Susan was front in center with a big smile and an even bigger sense of confidence. But that would be a lie. By the end of the week Susan was still dancing in the back row, off to the side…and battling that mirror. And of course there was that stocky and poorly proportioned body. But there were still those flashes of great depth of feeling, nuance, musicality and beauty. And she seemed to be a bit happier and a bit kinder to herself. And maybe that will last…and maybe it won’t. And maybe she’ll dance for the rest of her life…and maybe she won’t. But what ever her path will be, and whether the school will invite me back or not, it is this kind of student, this kind of connection that makes what I get to do every day a great privilege. Why do I teach? I teach for many reasons. And one of the most important reasons for me is a student like Susan.

When the Pressure is Off…can the pressures of ballet training interfere with a dancer’s growth?

Pre-professional ballet training is brutal. And for those dancers who have their sights set on a contract with a major ballet company, the pressure can be enormous and the competition fierce. Most dancers who are lucky enough to secure such a contract have, for the most part, followed a similar route: starting to train at a high quality school at a very young age (usually before the age of 9), followed by full time training in a prestigious pre-professional training program, perhaps doing well in international competitions, and beginning the audition process by the late teens or very early twenties. There are certainly dancers who have not followed this path and have had very successful careers, and for them the pressures can be even greater. These dancers have additional obstacles to overcome: a late start, poor early training, or any other of a multitude of factors, all of which make their road to a professional career even more difficult.
I would like to share the story of a former student of mine. She was a dancer who set out to become a professional ballet dancer without having the benefits of following the “traditional” path to a career. Watching her study, train, navigate the ballet world and make life-changing decisions shed some light on this process of pre-professional ballet training; a process that has consumed much of my professional life as I try to guide, help, nurture and support my students.
“Maria” (I would like to protect my student’s privacy) began dancing as a child at an excellent neighborhood ballet studio. This was a “one studio” school. The studio owner had danced with a world class company and she worked together with a handful of excellent teachers, providing quality training in a “recreational” setting. It is the kind of school where a young dancer can take three to five classes a week and learn to dance. It is not, however, the type of school where there is the time or the resources to provide the kind of training that will guide a dancer into a career. Maria danced, quite happily, at this studio for a number of years, but at the age of 17 she made a life changing decision: She was going to be a professional ballet dancer. It was clear that this school, as beautiful as it was, was not going to be enough. So she started adding open classes with some of the excellent teachers available in New York City and her growth was apparent. I would see her in these classes and her focus, her work ethic, her ferocious drive were inspiring. And I thought to myself: “If anyone can do this…”.
But high school was coming to an end and her parents were not supportive of this dream…REALLY NOT SUPPORTIVE. She was expected to go to college and on this point, at this time, there would be no compromising. She enrolled in an excellent liberal arts college, majored in Ballet, and continued supplementing her classes at school with the open classes in New York. And she realized that this was not going to enough. Here comes the next life changing decision: She was going to leave college. After much family discussion this is the compromise that was agreed upon: She would leave college at the end of the first semester, audition for pre-professional ballet programs, and if she could get accepted to one (not so easy at the age of 19) she would train in this program full-time, for one year. At the end of the year she would start auditioning, and if she could secure a job dancing she would sign the contract and not return to college. But, if after a while, if she could not secure a performing contract, she would return to college. And so Maria started auditioning for programs.
She was accepted to a prestigious program for the following school year. She continued her drop-in classes until the following September when the program started, and then she threw herself into this full-time training. And she was pressured…really pressured to succeed. Her career path, her entire life (as far as she could see) was going to be determined by the progress that she could make in one year in this program. She continued to take occasional open classes and I would see her there. I would see her work, study, correct, examine and worry. The work ethic was there, the ferocity was there, but the joy seemed to be fading and was being replaced by desperation. I went to see her in Nutcracker that Christmas. She was lovely, and the improvement was remarkable…but the joy was gone. She was feeling the pressure; the pressure of the clock. She had one school year to train full time, reach a professional level and secure a contract. Clearly, a near impossible challenge…but if anyone can do this…
Well she couldn’t do it. And so when the next September rolled around she re-enrolled in college; this time in an academic program. She resumed her open classes when ever she had time, and I ran into her before class one day. I hadn’t seen her for several months. She told me that she realized something while in the full time program. She realized that as much as she liked performing, what she loved was the study of ballet. And coming to that realization allowed her to return to college with excitement and anticipation, knowing that her passion for the ballet studio (rather than the stage) would always be there for her. And so we went into the studio to take class together. We took our spots at the barre. The pianist started to play and what I saw shocked me: She was absolutely stunning. In just a few months, training daily in open classes, she became a beautiful, polished, nuanced ARTIST. The pressure was off, the clock was no longer chasing her, the parental disapproval was gone. What I saw across the room was a dancer who now had the time and the space to train and to blossom. The teacher (a dear friend and colleague) saw me looking at her, caught my eye, and smiled knowingly. When the class was over I remarked to her how beautifully she was dancing. She said, with no false modesty: “I just love taking class”. I later commented to the teacher that I was stunned by Maria’s progress in such a short time. The teacher’s response: “Maria is going to be a ballet dancer in a company, she is just on an unusual path..and she just doesn’t know it yet.”
When the student finds the joy in the process, a dancer is born.