About the “Empowering Our Ballet Students” Blog Series
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. You can explore more by reading Part 1 and Part 3 of the series. 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 help our students develop a better understanding of technique and skills for lifelong health and wellness. These practices 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.
Why it is important to teach communication and critical thinking skills in the ballet studio?
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 whenever complimented. 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. However, I also realize that the to succeed in the modern world, one must have strong communication and critical thinking skills. Ballet can be an important way to reach quiet students and help them develop these skills in a safe and comfortable atmosphere. For more extroverted students, ballet can be a tool for focusing their energy and directing it in ways that encourage deliberate thought and speech.
How can we teach communication and critical thinking skills in ballet class?
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 these skills. Being articulate and curious will serve students well, regardless of their professional 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. In the concert dance world, performers are increasingly asked to speak up: as collaborators in the artistic process, as ambassadors of 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?
Teach ballet 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. 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
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! The Holistic Guide to Goal-Setting for Dancers can easily facilitate this process. After the students use the guide to determine their goals, you can facilitate group discussions in which students further reflect on and refine their goals and plan to achieve them.
Take time to answer their questions
I know, I know, as dance teachers the last thing we want is to spend half the class talking. 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.
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. When students ask a question, a good practice can be to encourage them to figure out the answer first. The phrase “Well, what do you think?” can be our most powerful teaching tool! And of course, 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?” 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.
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.
- Have the students watch themselves on video taken during class 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 performance 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 looks at ways we can help our students learn to collaborate with their peers and develop their own creative voices. For ideas and encouragement to support your empowered teaching practice all year long, visit my Resources page or find us on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.