Empowering Our Ballet Students, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts on building empowered dancers in the ballet studio. You can read the continuation of this series by checking out Part 2 and Part 3. 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, as does the trope of the silent (usually female) ballerina, molded by the (usually male) director/choreographer. 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.

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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. To begin, lack of exposure to 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. While it is true that the intermediate years require an intense focus on repetition, precision, and acquisition of basic (and sometimes boring) skills, this rigorous kind of training does not always allow for the personal expression and self-determination that pre-teens crave.

Too often the focus of ballet training, especially in the intermediate years, 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.

However, I am a firm believer that this does not have to be the way forward for our art form.  Making some simple changes to the way I teach technique, incorporate artistry, and interact with students in the studio has helped my students find personal empowerment through 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!

1.) Teach movement that goes beyond ballet technique: It is crucial that we expose our ballet students to a range of movement styles, as current choreographic trends require that dancers be adaptable and able to move in a variety of ways. Therefore, I try to make sure that my students understand basic movement principles applicable to all dance styles like coordination, use of weight, core support, and body and spatial awareness. Developmental movement patterns, principles from Laban Movement Analysis, somatic practices, and Anne Green Gilbert’s Brain Dance can all go a long way in helping students understand movement beyond ballet technique.  Some ideas for incorporating these into ballet class include:

  • Start the class with a 5 minute Brain Dance warm-up to prepare students physically and mentally for the challenges to come. An example of what this can look like at the barre can be found here.
  • For students who appear uncoordinated or disconnected from their bodies, I  guide them through a Bartenieff Fundamentals-based movement sequence on the floor.
  • At the barre, students work in both parallel and turned out positions to help them access their rotator muscles and true turnout.
  • I sometimes have students perform a movement the “wrong” way, and then have them correct themselves 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. An example can be found here.
  • Contexting ballet steps, sequences, and traditions in 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.

2.) Teach lifelong healthy habits: The old stereotype of ballerinas surviving on Diet Coke and cigarettes is, thankfully, slowly becoming 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 healthier culture. 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:
    • Look for body-positive ways to give alignment corrections. For example, rather than telling my students 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.
    •  Avoid commenting directly on a dancer’s physical attributes when making alignment corrections. “You have a sway back” can make the dancer feel inherently deficient and damaged. 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 to adjust it in the student’s hands. 
    • Think about how you describe your dancers. Do you 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.
    • Use proper terminology for anatomical features from an early age, and encourage your students to do so as well.
    • Provide visuals of bones, joints, muscles, and connective tissue.
    • Describe how bodies function as accurately as possible. No more implying that the quads should not be used during a developpe devant, as that is just physically impossible!
  • Encourage dancers to adopt good nutrition and cross-training practices. 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 it’s trendy? 

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!

If you want to read more ways to help your students find personal empowerment through ballet, read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series. To join the movement toward empowerment for all through dance education, check out my Resources page and join us at The Holistic Dance Teacher on Facebook!


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