This is the third and final entry in a series of posts on teaching ballet in a way that leads to more empowered students. For more on this topic, check out Part 1 and Part 2. 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
This third installment considers ways to build curious and imaginative dancers through the use of creative play and improvisation.
When I first realized I wanted to be a choreographer around age 14, I remember trying to sort of downplay and even outright hide the impulse, at least at first. After all, I was training to be a classical ballet dancer, and classical ballet dancers DANCED. They didn’t aspire to make the dances, they aspired to embody them – to become the swans and fairies and sylphs in works made hundreds of years ago, mostly by men, which had been preserved almost as sacred rites throughout the ages. I felt conditioned to think that choreography, like teaching, was something to be considered as a potential second-act career after the “golden ring” of a performance career with a professional company was reached.
Around the same time, I began to be exposed to more contemporary ballet work, which deepened my interest in how dance was made. I performed in an excerpt from George Balanchine’s Seranade staged by my teacher Kyra Nichols, and was immediately taken with the use of untraditional lines, lush port de bras, swirling patterns, and everyday gesture turned into dance movement. American Repertory Ballet, the company under which I trained, also began pushing the envelope with fierce programs by female choreographers and daringly contemporary pieces by then-director Graham Lustig. My eyes were increasingly opened to a fuller range of physical and expressive possibilities as seen in these works, and my desire to choreograph grew as a result.
When Lustig began offering choreographic workshops to students at the school, I jumped at the chance to try to my hand at dance-making. I loved being the one in charge of the entire artistic process: determining a theme for a piece, selecting music, developing the movement, determining the best groupings and stagings, choosing “costumes” (mostly just color-coordinated dance wear), and coaching the dancers on how to execute my vision. It was much more satisfying to me than dancing in someone else’s work.
The pieces I choreographed for these workshops were not very good, but the experiences themselves were life changing for me. Through the process of bringing my dance vision to fruition, I tapped into my creative potential, deepened my capacity for self-expression, and developed organizational skills that could be applied to other areas of my life. Teaching the movement to other dancers and coaching them on their performance of it helped me to grow as a communicator and awakened new leadership skills. Presenting the work to others taught me to accept both criticism and praise gracefully.
Most importantly, I began to develop more confidence in myself and in my goals for the future, even if they didn’t fit what I perceived to be the “right way” of doing things. I found myself less and less stuck on that “golden ring” of performing classical ballet and more interested in following my passion for choreography.
When I teach, I try to provide my students with the opportunity to experience some creative play and practice basic choreography skills, even in a simple ballet class. Incorporating activities that awaken creativity and movement exploration is vital to student success in and out of the studio. First, I believe these activities help students learn to truly embody technique and reach their movement potential, as they go beyond mimicking steps. They also set students up with the skills they need to work collaboratively with choreographers, which has become increasingly popular in the professional dance world. Perhaps most importantly, they instill skills that are beneficial for life, helping students become more expressive, creative, and bold!
Here are a few activities I try to incorporate into my ballet classes to encourage creativity:
- Dancer’s Choice: Allow students the opportunity to make their own decisions within the course of a classroom exercise. This might be choosing their own port de bras to accompany a combination, doing two 8-counts of their own stretches and combres at the end of a barre exercise, or selecting their own finishing pose or exit for an across the floor combination. This is a simple but effective way to help students begin making movement choices and gives them ownership of the combination.
- Change the Music: Have the dancers perform the same combination to different pieces of music, changing their performance quality to match the music.
- Improvisational Moments: I borrow this idea from Anne Green Gilbert, the creative movement genius of our time. In between sides on the barre, you can allow the students a few 8-counts to improvise with movement connected to a theme. For example, you can direct them to travel away from the barre on the low level for 16 counts, then travel back to the barre with high level movement. This will definitely keep the students on their toes, as it is not an expected activity for ballet class, and also help them to embody general movement concepts like level, energy, shape, and speed.
- Make It A Duet: Have dancers take a combination taught during class and make it a duet by playing with spacing, timing, levels, and contact. They can then combine duets to make a small group piece. This works very nicely with adagio, and is quite a challenge for petite allegro!
- Be The Teacher: Give the students specific parameters for making their own combination, such as the number of counts, the meter, the required steps to include, and the pathway. Students then work alone or in small groups to make up a combination that meets those requirements. Then, they must teach the phrase to the rest of the class. Teaching it helps students to take ownership of the movement, figure out the nuances, such as transitions, and find clarity in the details, such as port de bras.
- Story Dances: This works best with younger students, but older ones could enjoy it as well! Read aloud the story of a classical ballet. Discuss the characters and plot. Ask the students to improvise as if they were different characters, choosing movements and qualities that embody the character. Then, discuss their movement choices as a class and talk about how movement and gesture communicates. If time allows, have different dancers take on different characters and have them create interactive duets.
- Create Your Own Variation: Watch different classical variations and discuss the choreographic tools and patterns used. For example, Petipa used the pattern of “3 and a break’; repeating a phrase three times and finishing with a different phrase. Have the students create their own variation, inspired by a particular choreographer. You can also direct them to choose a character to embody through their movement.
I encourage you to always take some time for discussion after incorporating one of these activities into class. What did your students think and feel? How does it change the way they move and think about movement? How can your students take what they’ve learned through these experiences and apply to their dancing and in their lives? Allowing time for discussion helps students reflect on and process their experience, so that they can make the most of it!