For Laura Young, a former Boston Ballet principal who teaches at the Boston Ballet School in Newton, Massachusetts, the request to substitute often occurs in the form of an emergency phone call. Instantly, her mind begins to race. If possible, she tries to schedule some huddle time with the teacher to discuss where they are in the curriculum. But that kind of preparation isn’t always an option. And even if it is—and even after decades of teaching—she can’t help feeling a little nervous every time she steps into an unfamiliar classroom.
Covering for another instructor can be daunting. “There’s a sub today, ugh,” is not an uncommon refrain for a substitute dance teacher to overhear. But whether it’s a last-minute save or part of a long-term plan, substitute teaching is an inevitable part of a teacher’s career—and, with the right preparation and approach, often an enlightening one, too.
Do Some Homework
Many subs would gladly transform into the proverbial fly on the wall to gain insight on the classes they cover. Maria Breza has taken that desire one step further. She studied ballet with Dawn Hillen at Broadway Dance Center in New York before substitute teaching for her. “You can see the class level, how she interacts with students, and the themes she finds most important,” she says. And though you can’t always study with the teacher you’re replacing, if you’re on the same faculty, take advantage of “informal opportunities to regularly discuss what you’re all doing in class,” Young says. That way, you’ll never be completely out of the loop.
But you might not have the luxury of familiarity with the teacher you’re subbing for, or even her school. A former dancer with Cleveland Ballet and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Ginger Thatcher has substitute teaching experience as varied as her dancing career. “I am very adaptable,” she says. “I am happy to do my own thing, but when I sub for Ballet Academy East’s graded, very striated program, they hand me a sheet with a specific lesson plan, and that’s great, too.” Keep an open mind about different teaching strategies. You may have tried-and-true methods of your own, but when subbing, it’s often better to put those aside in order to stay in line with a school’s program.
Consider What Can Be Accomplished
If teaching is building a continuum of challenges and accomplishments while cultivating a strong student relationship over time, substitute teaching, particularly when you have little guidance from the original teacher, can feel like a restrictive vacuum in comparison. To counter the absence of ongoing progression, Thatcher structures each one of her substitute classes with a sense of momentum. “There’s no ability to build on past accomplishments, so I’ll try to accomplish something else specific in one class,” she says. “What can I effectively teach them in the time I’m here?” Often, it’s something about keeping the weight over the standing leg, and the intricacies of the transfer of weight from position to position—common problems for dancers of almost every level.
Your students’ relationship with music is another evergreen topic that can be improved in a single class. Leo Morimune, who subs a contemporary jazz and jazz funk class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A., uses his limited time to arouse in his students a playful approach to musical phrasing. “I try to phrase each combination in a way that progresses musically,” Morimune says. Breza agrees. Subbing offers her an opportunity to remind students about how accents and dynamics convey shadow and light in movement just as colors do in painting.
Think on Your Feet
Planning is helpful, but you won’t really know what you’re dealing with as a sub until you step into the studio. When you first arrive—particularly if you know little about the class you’ll be teaching—Young suggests assessing the ability of the entire group, and then adjusting your plan as necessary, so it aims toward the middle. One of the best ways to figure out ability level, Young says, is to look at students’ posture. “The way students hold their bodies allows me to quickly assess their level of technique,” she explains. Better posture indicates better balance and a higher technical level. In addition, as soon as the students begin to move, she evaluates their musicality, another way to measure ability. A sophisticated response to music indicates a sophisticated student.
To adapt her class on the fly, Breza keeps a “tool kit” of five exercises at the ready that she can either water down or make more difficult. One of her favorites—a series of jumps in first and second position, followed by changements, pas de bourrées and sissonnes—can be used as a jump warm-up for advanced dancers and a petit allégro combination for beginner students. “It’s great preparation for jetés, either later in class or later in the students’ training,” she says. Changing music tempo can also be helpful. “Speeding up or slowing down an exercise is a simple way to adjust an exercise’s difficulty level,” Breza says.
Young believes a dancer’s ability to pick up new concepts quickly is essential—a point she emphasizes when subbing. “When I or another sub come in with a different style, it makes students pay attention,” she says. “This is good. They have to think more. They can’t get away with being on auto-pilot.” She’s also not afraid to look to the students for direction. Sometimes she’ll ask the class what they have been working on and if there’s anything in particular they would like her to cover. Though she’s careful not to contradict the regular teacher’s training, “hearing a concept they’ve heard before but in a slightly different way often helps the kids ‘get it.’”
Prep Your Sub
Here are a few tips to make the subbing process easier for your replacement.
* Schedule a meeting or phone call with your substitute to discuss what your class has been working on.
* Keep a typed-up lesson plan on hand for last-minute subs.
* Invite your sub to class to observe you and your students.
* Give your substitute a class photo of your students with their names labeled and notes about what each is working on, any behavioral issues, etc.
* If you use recorded music, provide a CD or a list of favorite composers/music titles.
* If you have an accompanist, arrange for him or her to spend a few minutes with the sub before class to discuss music choices.
* Prepare your students for the sub by announcing when she will be filling in and for how long. DT
Giannella Garrett lives in New York and writes about dance and travel.
Photo: Maria Breza (back left) took class with Dawn Hillen (front) before subbing for her. (by Fiamma Piacentini, courtesy of Maria Breza)