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, ballet 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 historically ballet students have been trained to be a little less personally 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 and at the service of the (usually male) director/choreographer. I see the tides changing, however, as contemporary ballet dancers 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.

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 tendus as a five year old.  I do believe that ballet has the potential to be incredibly empowering and transformative. 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, many students are not exposed to ballet technique in a way that leads to personal empowerment and transformation.Too often the focus of ballet training is on repeating the teacher’s movement and direction exactly, so students learn to copy technique without deeply understanding the underlying principles and how they best work for their own bodies. 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 as part of their ballet training. While it is true that mastery of ballet technique does 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 self-expression and self-determination that can lead to personal empowerment.

However, I know that this does not have to be the way forward for ballet.  I believe that 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. Here are a few practical ways that I try to help my students become personally empowered through their ballet training:

1.) Teach movement that goes beyond ballet technique: It is crucial that we expose our ballet students to a range of movement styles. Doing so can help students develop a deep and rich understanding of how their bodies work,  rather than just imitating what they see their teachers doing. It can also prepare them for the professional world. choreographic trends require that dancers be adaptable and able to move in a variety of ways. 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.
  • If students appear uncoordinated or disconnected from their bodies, try guiding them through a Bartenieff Fundamentals-based movement sequence on the floor.
  • At the barre, have students work in both parallel and turned out positions to help them access their rotator muscles and true turnout.
  • Ask students to perform a movement the “wrong” way, and then correct themselves or their peers. 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.
  • Try incorporating 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 epaulementAn example can be found here.
  • Context 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.
  • Draw parallels between ballet technique and concepts and other dance forms, so that students can see how basic movement principles can apply in all or most dance genres. For more on this, check out this blog post: 5 Technique and Movement Skills to Teach Your Dance Students
  • Help your ballet students set goals and achieve them in a healthy, positive way with The Holistic Guide to Goal-Setting for Dance Students!

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 slowly 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  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. What are your favorite body-positive alignment cues? Let us know in the comments! 
    •  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 break the habit and 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 coffee drinks?
    • How do we talk about our own bodies – as fat, old, and out of shape, or a capable, strong, and adaptable – no matter how we actually feel? For more on this, check out this blog post: On Superwomen and Body Image.
    • 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? 
  • Help your students reflect on their habits in and out of the studio with The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Dance Students

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 employable 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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