Summer Teaching Diaries: Challenges of Being a Ballet Teacher

Posted by on 08.11.2014

There are so few teaching opportunities out there at any given time, and even less for teachers who are young and not yet established.  Becoming a ballet teacher is a natural and common career transition for dancers as their careers come to a close.  Yet, so few dancers are able to really get a taste for teaching leading up to the inevitable transition.  So having the opportunity to start giving class as a current dancer, is a rare one.

I learned long ago that just because you are, or used, to be a good dancer, does not make you a good teacher.  Please do not misunderstand, I am by no means calling myself a good dancer or a good teacher for that matter. I am just illustrating that dancing ability and teaching ability do not go hand in hand.  They are completely separate.  So it really feels like embarking on a whole different realm of the ballet world.  And it comes with it’s challenges.

As a fairly organized (and generally OCD person), I obviously could never walk into a studio unprepared.  I quickly found that well thought out lesson plans not only make my life easier, but also greatly benefit my students.  One of my teachers at Miami City Ballet School always constructed his classes backwards: this way he choose a few steps that he wanted to work on in the center and he prepared us for these steps throughout barre.  Then he would ask us what steps we already worked on that will help us with the execution of the step in center.  I always thought that this was the perfect way to strategically improve our dancing and allow us to think in a more analytical way.  I found this to be a great help in lesson planning.

1548eed0af4b792141c2a7168c0603baMy very early training did not offer me a concrete foundation of technique on which to build my artistry.  This is something I have always struggled with, and I expect to continue working to overcome throughout my career.  As a teacher, I want to do everything I can do to avoid this obstacle for my students.   Therefore, my instinct is to give combinations that were slow in order to focus on very specific elements of technique.  My biggest challenge was finding a way to make this fun.  At this point in my career I know how truly valuable these technique lessons are, but these young dancers can’t tell yet.  All they want to do is have fun dancing.  This defines a good teacher: disguising your “ballet vitamins” among fun combinations.  I’ll let you know if I ever figure out the trick.

At any given time a dancer is thinking about no less than two-dozen things while executing a step.  So as a teacher, I felt like I wanted to throw those two-dozen corrections at my students constantly.  But it’s important to remember that sometimes you need to focus on one thing at a time and once they get that one concept move onto the next one down the list.  I have found that it’s important to encourage while not over challenging.  I often have to remind myself to hold back.

Because of my refusal to enter the studio unprepared, I did some browsing on one of my favorite dance/teaching blogs: Dance Advantage. I soon realized that success in the studio is not just about your combinations or your corrections, but how you interact with the students.  Dance Advantage’s founder, Nichelle, published a great article entitled “The Value of Praise” where she discusses the psychology behind praising children effectively.  The biggest discovery I made after putting these ideas to the test, is that saying “thank you” goes a long way.  I found that thanking my students when they were obviously thinking about corrections from previous days, went a long way.  It makes sense: no one wants to work hard, only to not have their hard work acknowledged.

My biggest lesson learned is that the student who holds the most potential is not always the student who deserves the most attention.  The hard workers are the ones really looking for your praise and attention.  The best part about teaching is seeing students take your corrections and improve their dancing.  This is ultimately the goal.  Seeing them learn something and put it to use is such a treat.  That’s why we do this.

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