In 2012, I had the opportunity to I had a chance to present my research on a new method of teaching ballet to “recreational” dance students at the National Dance Education Organization’s National Conference.  For the purpose of my study, the term recreational was used to describe a group of my students, age 6-10, who took a single one-hour ballet class weekly and had no professional dance ambitions at the time. I realized that the traditional ballet syllabus was not working for this group: it was too slow and repetitive, too gendered and Eurocentric, and did not help students understand and access the basic underlying movement principles that would help them in variety of dance and other movement forms in addition to ballet.

So, I searched for new ways to engage the class.  I first turned to play: games, creative exercises, etc. This worked well to get students interested in class, but did not fully engage their minds and bodies, and their technique suffered  – the emphasis on fun began to distract us at time from our class goals.  I had to decide what exactly I wanted the students to gain from their dance experience. They needed good technique, yes, but there had to be something more. Considering the fact that these were recreational students, I decided that the outcomes should be revised to include twenty-first century skills like creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Though play often seems opposed to Higher Order Thinking (analysis, evaluation, synthesis), I hypothesized that they could be in fact closely related.  Play offers several unique ways for students to engage critically. Friendly competitions encourage work ethic, imaginary scenarios enable creativity, play of all kinds served as an equalizer in mixed-level classes – allowing those who had more dance experience to deepen their relationship to the movement without overwhelming students with less experience, and through games students could learn to collaborate as well as discover and challenge their place in group dynamics.

Here are some sample exercises I have been working with to teach sautes, temps levees, and jetes:

D.S.I.: Dance Step Investigation
  • Goal: Discover/Remember how our body moves
  • Have students “investigate” their partner – where are their joints, and how do they move?
  • Introduce plié – what joints need to move in what ways to successfully plié?
Ballet Tic Tac Toe
  • Goal: Understand the parallels between pedestrian and ballet movement
  • Make one set of 9 cards for each student or team: jump, hop, leap, saute, temps levé , jeté , 2 feet, 1 foot, 1 foot to the other
  • Have students practice jumping, hopping, and leaping – Freeze Dance and Follow the Leader work well
  • Introduce saute, temps levé , jeté
  • Place cards in a pile on the floor, face down. The first student or team to organize the cards (jump, saute,  and 2 feet in one row, for example) wins!
Jumping Beans
  • Goal: Apply lessons about anatomy to movement
  • Have students divide into two teams. One team jumps, hops, and leaps with straight legs, the other is allowed to bend their knees.
  • Discussion: Which group goes higher, and why? If we want to jump, hop, or leap higher what joints need to move, and how?
Jumping Machines
  • Goal: Analyze  the components of a movement in order to perform it successfully
  • Explain to students that as Jumping Machines, their job is to jump high with pointed feet, land softly, and keep their posture upright. What do they need to do to successfully complete this job?
  • Have each student “break” one part of their machine (Ex: don’t push with feet). Does it still work?

Interviews, Critics, Coaches, Directors

  • Goal: Have students engage in self-evaluation or peer feedback
  • Self-evaluation: Students are interviewed about their performance as an athlete might be before a big game
  • Peer feedback: Students take on the role of a critic (thumbs up or thumbs down, and why), a coach (what should you  do to improve your performance), or a director of a game (Simon Says, for example)

Create-Your-Own-Ballet and Create-Your-Own-Step

  • Goal: Synthesize class experiences and create something new based on them
  • After time for creative play, teacher sets structure for final product (Ex: Ballet must be based on a story with a beginning, middle, end; Step must incorporate proper preparation and finishing)

This approach to ballet in the recreational studio classroom proved to be pretty successful in it’s first few months! The students rocked their first recital with confidence, tapped into their inner choreographers in our “Create Your Own Ballet” unit, and the retention rate for the class going into our second year together was extremely high. As I continue to investigate, explore, and implement new ideas and methods, I will continue to share what I discover! If you are ready to start planning your own play-based ballet lessons, check out The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning. This is a digital tool that helps you to plan a year’s worth of lessons for any age group, level, or dance style, with a focus on holistic student growth in dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional skills – and it’s available for only $5!  I would love to hear from other dance educators about your own approaches, feedback, and ideas!

Visit my Resources page for tools that support a holistic teaching and creative practice, including journaling guides, class observation worksheets, and studio management tools. Keep in touch by signing up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.