Empowering Our Ballet Students, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts on building empowered dancers in the ballet studio. What is an empowered dancer? In my opinion, students who are empowered are:

  • Self-aware and self-reliant (physically, cognitively, and emotionally)
  • Confident and able to make their own decisions
  • Adaptable and open to new ideas
  • Knowledgeable about their own bodies, their dance technique, and the historical context that influences how ballet is practiced today
  • Able to apply their knowledge and skills in new situations
  • Capable of physical and verbal self-expression
  • Critical and creative thinkers and movers
  • Conscious of and empathetic to those around them

I’m contexting this discussion of empowerment in the dance studio within the realm of ballet, because I think it has been the dance genre in which students have historically been trained to be a little less empowered. Balanchine’s motto of, “Don’t think, just dance” comes to mind. I see the tides changing, however, as contemporary ballet heroes like Misty Copeland, Wendy Whelan, and James Whiteside challenge historic notions of what it means to be a ballet dancer. I’m encouraged by this, and I want to contribute to the discussion by offering my own thoughts on how ballet (and all dance forms) can be taught in a way that leads to empowered dancers.

In part one, I’ll provide a bit of rationale for my thinking, as well as my first two ideas for teaching ballet in an empowered way. Read on ….

butterflies

I fell in love with ballet at an early age; in fact, I remember setting up my toy ironing board in the living room and using it as a makeshift barre to practice my plies and tendues as a five year old.  When taught correctly, ballet can be an incredibly empowering, transformative discipline. Students can learn self-respect, persistence and perseverance, teamwork, coordination, expression, and the value of hard work. I want every dance student to experience that power of ballet training.

Unfortunately, in many cases, students are not exposed to ballet in a  way that leads to empowerment and transformation. The lack of ballet in pop culture and on the competition circuit can make it less appealing for some students to begin with, so even getting them into a ballet class can be a challenge. As students advance from pre-ballet  to more formal classes, many teachers dramatically shift their teaching style away from imagination and play and toward technique exclusively. A level of maturity is required to handle this kind of training that many students, especially between the ages of 6 and 12, simply do not have yet. Inherently, these intermediate years require an intense focus on repetition, precision, and acquisition of basic (and sometimes boring) skills. This rigorous early training, while ripe with lessons in persistence and hard work, does not always allow for personal expression and self-determination. Too often the focus is on repeating the teacher’s movement and direction exactly, so students learn to copy without deeply understanding the underlying principles of the technique. Traditional ballet pedagogy, unlike other dance styles, does not allow for improvisation or self-generated movement within the usual class structure, and students are not usually taught to choreograph within their ballet training. Finally, students are not often asked to articulate their experiences; ballet dancers – especially women – have historically been stereotyped as silent, beautiful figures to be observed from a distance.

But I am a firm believer that it does not have to be like this. I have had many wonderful teachers who inspired me, challenged me, and encouraged me to discover technique for myself and make the art for my own. In their honor, it has been my goal to teach ballet – and all dance forms –  in a way that leads to empowerment for my students. Making some simple changes to the way I teach technique, incorporate artistry, and interact with students in the studio can help students get the full benefits of ballet training. While I think many of these ideas are especially beneficial for beginning and intermediate students age 6-12, they can be applied to classes for students of all ages and levels. They are also applicable for the teaching of other dance styles!

  • Teach movement that goes beyond ballet technique (even in ballet class): It is crucial that we provide our ballet students with movement experiences that will prepare them to study other dance styles, as current choreographic trends require that dancers be adaptable and able to move in a variety of ways. We also have to recognize that many students will not go on to professional careers, so providing tools for them to understand their bodies and move through everyday life in a safe and healthy way are just as valuable as pushing them to perform 32 fouettes. Therefore, I try to make sure that my students understand basic underlying movement principles like coordination, use of weight, core support, and body and spatial awareness. These concepts are applicable to all dance styles, as well as athletics and pedestrian movement. When students understand how they work in ballet, they can then apply them to other dance genres and in their everyday life. Incorporating developmental movement patterns, principles from Laban Movement Analysis, somatics practices, and Anne Green Gilbert’s Brain Dance can all go a long way in helping students understand movement beyond ballet technique.  With this in mind, I try not to be afraid to go a little “out of the box” when teaching a ballet class….
    • Starting the class with a 5 minute center warm-up incorporating the Brain Dance ideas can prepare students physically and mentally for the challenges to come. You can even “disguise” the principles of Brain Dance in traditional-looking stretches and exercises.
    • If I notice a class is looking particularly uncoordinated or disconnected from their bodies, I get the students on the floor and guide them through my Bartenieff-based modern dance warm-up.
    • To access their rotator muscles and true turnout, even my advanced dancers practice moving from parallel to turned out positions during barre work.
    • I sometimes have students begin by performing a movement the “wrong” way (sitting back in their hips during a barre exercise, for example), and then have them adjust it as part of the combination. Transitioning from incorrect to correct placement deliberately helps students to recognize what both feel like and helps them learn to make their own adjustments on the fly, without teacher correction.
    • Modern-based upper body work at the barre, including spirals, hinges, and contractions, allow students to develop upper-lower body and head-tail coordination and improve epaulement.
    • Contexting ballet steps, sequences, and traditions with their historic roots can help students develop a greater understanding of and appreciation for them. Videos, photos, and short readings or descriptions from historic texts can help bring these roots to life. This may lead to a greater engagement with the art form – and maybe even fewer choruses of “I’m bored!”

Adding work for rotation, as well as contractions and extension to a pile combination.

 

  • Teach lifelong healthy habits: The old stereotype of ballerinas surviving on Diet Coke and cigarettes is, thankfully, slowly becoming more and more a thing of the past. While the pressure to achieve an “ideal” ballet figure can still lead to eating disorders and other mental health issues, the field seems to be increasingly promoting a healthy culture. There is a focus on proper nutrition as a way to fuel the body for peak performance, and on conditioning and strength building as important forms of cross training. Today more than ever, ballet teachers have the responsibility to ensure that students are establishing healthy physical and mental habits that will serve them well in and out of the studio.
    • For me, this starts with how we talk about our students’ bodies in class, in any number of ways:
      • When instructing students to engage their core muscles, for example, we should look for more body-positive methods than telling them to “pull in” or “suck in.” My favorite metaphor to use for core engagement is to “zip up a pair of high cut, ‘skinny fit’  jeans.” This helps students to get the idea of both gently engaging and lifting from the pelvic floor to the rib cage, without the implication that they have “too much stomach” that needs to be out of sight.
      •  I try to avoid commenting on the dancer’s physical attributes when making alignment corrections. “You have a sway back” can make the dancer feel inherently deficient and damaged. But describing the imbalance as a movement habit, and focusing on the muscular-skeletal actions the dancer can take to adjust the imbalance, puts the power in the student’s hands. It is no longer an inherent negative physical attribute, but habitual muscular pattern and a challenge to overcome. (This all, of course, is providing that the dancer has no underlying injuries that need to be addressed by a physician and physical therapist.)
      • Finally, we have to think about how we discuss our dancers’ figures. Do we comment excessively on one dancer’s long legs or lithe figure, to the point where that student might feel like they are only as valuable as their physical attributes – and others might feel as though they are worthless without them?
    • In addition to changing how we talk about bodies, we need to be actively teaching students what they are made of and how they work. Using proper terminology for anatomical features, providing visuals of joints, and muscles, and describing how they work as accurately as possible are important ways that we can educate dancers about their bodies in an empowering way.
    • Finally, encouraging dancers to adopt good nutrition and cross-training practices are vital. We have to start by modeling these ourselves, and by monitoring how we address these topics in our interactions with students. 
      • Are we nourishing our bodies with good food during marathon teaching and rehearsal sessions?
      • What kind of snacks to we bring into the studio with us? Are we drinking enough water, or too many sugary coffee drinks?
      • How do we talk about our own bodies – as fat, old, and out of shape, or a capable, strong, and adaptable? (That one is a challenge for me!)
      • Do we incorporate conditioning into our classes as a way to build the strength necessary for success (rather than to change the body’s appearance)?
      • Do we encourage a healthy level of flexibility as a way of facilitating good technique, or do we push for oversplits and extreme extension because they “look good”? 

These seemingly simple practices can help our students to understand and value their own bodies in a lasting, empowering way. They can lead to more adaptable, more marketable dancers who enjoy a long and healthy career working with a range of choreographers and companies. They can reduce the mental health strain that comes with blindly working for idealism and aesthetic perfection at all costs. And hopefully, they can lead to healthy, capable individuals who will go out into the world with an appreciation for themselves …. and their ballet teachers!

In the coming weeks, I’ll offer more ideas for teaching ballet in ways that lead to greater student empowerment. I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comment section! 

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