Empowering Our Ballet Students, Part 2

This is the second in a series of blog posts considering the ways we can teach ballet in a way that leads to greater student empowerment. 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
  • Able to apply their knowledge and skills in new situations
  • Capable of physical and verbal self-expression
  • Critical and creative thinkers
  • Conscious of and empathetic to those around them

 

The first post considered ways that we can incorporate “out of the box” teaching practices  into our ballet classes for a better understanding of technique and to foster skills for lifelong health and wellness. These practices, I think, will help students develop body-awareness, transfer their skills between dance genres and into their everyday activities, and come to appreciate their bodies and their own abilities. In this post, I offer some suggestions for helping our students develop strong communication and critical thinking skills. Read on…..

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Taking the time to discuss goals and answer questions in class can lead to more empowered students! Photo of Shannon teaching a guest class at CoExist Dance Company.

In my own memory, I was a very shy child. I remember cringing at the thought of greeting audience members after recitals and performances, and acting with characteristic awkwardness when complimented. (Of course, my parents might remember this differently, given my argumentative stage between ages 8 and 13….) One place I always felt comfortable was in the dance studio, particularly in ballet class. It was a place of quiet, of focused work, and of setting and achieving personal goals. I thrived in this environment.

As a teacher, I try to be sensitive to the fact that many students are drawn to ballet for this same reason. I also realize that the modern world demands certain skills of us, and even the shiest students need to adapt to these expectations over time. Ballet can be an important way to reach quiet students and help them develop the communication and critical thinking skills that have become so important in the 21st century. For more extroverted students, ballet can be a tool for focusing their energy and directing it in ways that encourage deliberate thought and speech. 

Through dance, we learn to communicate with our bodies and express ourselves without words.  This is one of the strongest arguments for including dance as part of a well-rounded education, especially for students who struggle with language. But non-verbal communication is not enough in the modern world; students must also develop strong verbal skills and the ability to think critically about what they learn and experience. As dance teachers, we can play an important role in helping our students master those skills. Being articulate and curious will serve students well, regardless of their ultimate goals. In the world outside of the studio, our students will need have to have strong verbal communication skills to succeed in school, business, and relationships, and they will face situations where they need to challenge assumptions and the status quo. Even in the concert dance world, performers are increasingly asked to speak up, either as collaborators in the artistic process, unofficial representatives for the company or their personal brand on social media, or even on-stage in dance-theatre hybrid pieces. We must help our ballet students develop strong communication and critical thinking skills, in spite of the fact that ballet has traditionally been a “silent” and at times even “obedient” discipline. How can we make this happen?

3.) Teach students to be curious and articulate: As an educator, sometimes there is nothing better than a quiet, well-behaved class of dancers doing whatever I ask of them without question. It leads to a peaceful, controlled studio environment, which can make me feel like a “good” teacher. But I am also a believer in the old quote, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Testing boundaries and pushing limits is an important part of child development, and one that all children must experience in order to become independent adults. It is our job as dance teachers to encourage our students through this stage in their development in a healthy way. One way we can do this is to help our students learn to be curious and articulate in the studio. We can empower our dancers to speak up, explain themselves, and even respectfully question what they are taught. Here are some simple ways I encourage this in the ballet studio:

    • Ask students about their goals: This is my favorite way to have students articulate themselves and think about the role they play in their own training. It is easily accomplished at the the beginning of the season, or at the beginning of each class. You’d be surprised how tough it can be for students to come up with specific goals for themselves! Not only does this exercise empower students to author their own vision of success, but it also gives them a sense of agency in their training – they are responsible for knowing what they want out of class and working to achieve it!
      • In September (or whenever your dance season starts), ask the students to list their goals for the coming year. These are long term goals that will take some time to achieve. For example, working on extension to place and hold the leg above 90 degrees in developpe, or developing proper placement and strength in the core, pelvis, knees and ankles so that they can be considered for pointe work the next season. Encourage them to be specific, to state the reason for setting each goal, and to outline steps they will take to achieve that goal throughout the year. You can make this a multi-step project to encourage critical thinking through feedback, reflection, and revision:
        • First, have the students write their goals for the year in a journal. This is a great time to encourage free-writing as an entry point, with some follow up time to turn their initial brainstorm into a clear statement of their goals.
        • Next, have a group share in which you ask each student to briefly summarize what they wrote for their classmates. (If they start rambling, be sure to direct them back to brevity – clarity and specificity will make the goal more achievable!)  
        • Then, allow students sometime to discuss their goals amongst themselves. The group should practice listening and responding by asking one another questions and providing feedback and suggestions. (Try to stay out of the conversation as much as you can, except to intervene if students are not listening or responding politely or the conversation is veering off track.)
        • Finally, schedule some time to talk to each student one-on-one about their personal goals. In these conversations, you can help them further refine their goals and describe them in an articulate way.
        • Remember to follow up throughout the year. Celebrate accomplishments and help the students manage setbacks if things don’t work out as planned.
      • Another approach is to ask the students at the beginning of a class to list their goals for that particular session. These goals should be short, simple, and easily achieved in a single class. For example, a student might make it a goal to not to talk between exercises, or to concentrate on articulating their feet at the barre then using that articulation to push from the floor in allegro. I like to have the students state their daily goal while we do some simple warm-up stretches at the beginning of class. I do this about once a month, to keep students on their toes and remind them that each class is a chance to accomplish something new!
    • Take the time to answer their questions: I know, I know, sometimes the last thing we want is to spend half the class answering questions (some of which might seem pretty inane, if we are being totally honest!). At our best, we know that we have limited time and much we want to help out students accomplish. At our most egocentric, we know that we have limited time and lots of cool combinations planned that we want to show off! There’s no time to explain why dance terms are presented in French or why a class of 7 year olds can’t work on fouette turns! Questions, however, are often our students’ way of taking control of their education. They are picking up on what is important to them, thinking critically about why it matters, and investing energy in learning more. We should encourage this curiosity – so long as the questions are genuine and not just designed to procrastinate having to do their least favorite exercises! (Most teachers will quickly learn to figure out which kinds of questions are which.)
      • Don’t be afraid to let a thoughtful question from a student take your class in a different direction. Sometimes the best learning experiences are spontaneous and nothing like what you planned!
      • Encourage students to figure out the answer first. The phrase “Well, what do you think?” can be our most powerful teaching tool! Allow other students to contribute their own ideas to the discussion as well.
      • Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know – and never make up an answer! There is nothing wrong with telling a student that you will do some research and get back to them as soon as you can with the answer.
    • Ask questions of your students, as well! Encourage students to make their own connections by asking questions throughout class. Here are some of my favorites:
      • “Why do you think we do (insert exercise here)?” For many younger students, the repetition of barre exercises can feel especially pointless. Asking them why they think we spend so much time on plie, tendue, and developpe can encourage them to connect what they are doing at the barre with what they might perceive as the “real” dancing in center practice.
      • “Do you feel that?” We often take for granted that students are activating a particular muscle group during an exercise, but we should never make such assumptions, especially for younger students. Asking students what they feel, physically, during a movement can be empowering for them and enlightening for you! The students will learn to pay attention to how it feels when their joints and muscles work in new ways, and you will discover whether or not students are “getting” the underlying physical principles of the technique.
      • “What changed?” I owe this question to my pedagogy mentor and guru, Karen Bradley. After you give a correction and students complete the exercise with that correction in mind, ask them to tell you what changed the second time around. The answer may be “nothing” at first, but eventually students will learn to pay attention to the physical changes they experience when performing movements in different ways.  

4.) Teach students to observe, analyze, think, and provide feedback: I always say that dancers have to be some of the smartest people on the planet. Think of everything that goes into successfully completing a degagge: engagement of the core, length in the spine, good rotation, activation of the ankle joint and muscles of the foot, arm and epaulment coordination, timing, etc. etc. etc. The problem is, most dancers don’t realize how much knowledge it takes to dance well – and how much work it takes to apply that knowledge! We ask a lot of our students in each and every exercise, and we need to give them the tools to understand and accomplish it all. Students need practice observing, analyzing, and giving themselves and others feedback in order to develop a true understanding of technique. They also need to be aware that there are many approaches to that technique, and that each one provides a valid perspective (so long as it is safe!). To be successful in and out of the studio, dancers need to take the best of what they are taught by the many teachers they will encounter during their training and make it work for themselves.

  • Provide opportunities for dancers to watch and analyze their own performances. With technology, this is easier than ever.
    • Start a private YouTube channel or Google Drive folder where you can drop informal videos of class exercises taken from your phone. (Get parent permission before videoing minors, of course!)
    • Have the students watch themselves and write down 2 things they do well and 2 things they need to improve. Be sure they also state why each one is good or needs improvement!
    • Discuss what you saw in the video, and how that may or may not differ from the students’ perspective. This will help them understand that every viewer will perceive their work differently.
    • Develop an action plan for working on the area that needs improvement to make the experience more empowering and positive! Always be sure that feedback sessions end with the student feeling in charge of their own improvement.
  • Have dancers watch one another in class exercises or rehearsals, and give feedback to their partner. Some tips:
    • This tends to work best if you give them something specific to watch for, such as the quality of port de bras or placement of the working leg in a tendue combination. Specificity encourages students to observe more acutely, and encourages a productive discussion, instead of generalities like, “You did good!”
    • Provide models for giving feedback constructively and tactfully before the start of the activity. Whenever you give your own feedback to students, be sure you are using the kind of language you want them to use in their discussions with one another!
    • After the students have time to share their observations with their partner, be sure to have each group share something that came up in their discussion. That way, you can incentivize students to keep their conversations on point and also monitor what kinds of feedback are being given!
  • Ask students to analyze what they are experiencing in different aspects of their training.
    • If students study more than one style of dance, ask them to list similarities and differences between the techniques. “What is the difference between a typical jazz pirouette and the way we pirouette in ballet class?” can be a really powerful question! Not only will you help students make connections between dance styles, but you will also encourage them to pay attention to the way they hold their bodies and move in each class!
    • Similarly, if students take the same style from more than one teacher, ask them how your approach might be different from your colleagues’. For example, you might ask how Mr. Smith directs students to spot in a chaine turn, and how that is similar or different from the direction you provide. You can even ask which one they find the most helpful – and be sure to let them know that their is no right or wrong answer! (Side note: You might want to let your fellow teachers know you are taking this approach, so that they don’t hear rumors that you are talking about them in your class!) This will help students understand that their are many different approaches to ballet technique, and that they will need to figure out which methodologies makes sense to them!

The final part of the series will look at ways we can help our students learn to collaborate with their peers and develop their own creative voices! What teaching techniques do you use to encourage empowerment in the dance studio? I’d love to hear your feedback and ideas in the comments! 

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