Mastering the Master Class
How to make the most of this unique teaching opportunity
A former soloist with a rising reputation as a results-oriented ballet teacher is invited to teach her first master class, and dozens of students travel from all over to participate. But she leads them from plié to grand allegro in the same methodical, progressive format she uses in her regular classes. As the students and their parents pack up to leave, two girls can be heard complaining that the class felt routine. “I got bored,” says one. “Yeah, I thought it was supposed to be special,” laments the other.
It’s tempting to view a master class the same way you would a regular weekly class. But experienced teachers say that would be a missed opportunity. The master class is a chance to rise above the ordinary so the students return to their daily routine refreshed. Toni Rodriguez, who teaches lyrical jazz for Dance Educators of America Convention Competition, asks herself before every master class she teaches, “How can I make a difference in a couple of hours?”
Mastering the quick-study analysis required to teach a master class demands a particular mind-set and a toolbox full of ideas. When taught well, a single master class can have a deep, long-lasting effect on students.
“Teaching a master class is about planting an idea that students can take away and nurture,” says Carter Alexander, senior faculty advisor at Miami City Ballet School. Since dramatic technical improvement isn’t a realistic end goal for a master class, many teachers opt to focus on the nuances of movement, which are often overlooked during the day-to-day emphasis on rote. Making clean shapes during transitions and adding resistance to the plié to texturize movement are some of the themes Alexander often explores. “Rather than hammering on the quadruple pirouette, I teach how to coordinate the steps into the pirouette—seeing the turn as an element of a phrase, flowing from the pas de bourrée that comes before it,” he says.
Similarly, Trey Barber, who teaches hip hop at Northland School of Dance and Larkin Dance Studio in Minneapolis and gives master classes throughout the country, focuses on expression rather than hard technique. “I emphasize taking risks and using dance to tell a story that conveys emotion,” he says. “I tell my students I don’t want to see their training. I want to get to know who they are through their movement.”
Odds are you’ll only see your master class students for two hours—ever—so every second counts, particularly at the beginning of class. Tap instructor Brenda Bufalino, recipient of the 2011 Chicago National Association of Dance Masters Artistic Achievement Award, assesses her master class students’ ability level during a 10-minute warm-up, using the simple rhythm exercises to determine whether her class should focus on small footwork (for advanced students) or time steps and clarity (beginners). She gets them to tap on the pulse as she determines the direction the class will take.
Barber makes sure his class is productive every moment by creating a comfortable setting. “Anytime I detect that the students don’t know each other, I have them all say their names and where they are from in front of the class,” he adds. A friendly, transparent environment will ease awkwardness and ensure that no student wastes valuable learning time worrying about who the other students are or what they think of her.
Remember that students are coming to your master class to learn what you uniquely have to offer. Think about your special teaching skills or talents, and how you can incorporate them into the class. Janalyn Memmott, dance department chair at The Waterford School and director of the jazz department at Center Stage Performing Arts in Salt Lake City, draws on her own struggles as a dancer when she teaches master classes. “I understand the challenges of dancers who have difficulty technically,” she explains. She finds that she is especially good at getting through to discouraged students, because she can relate to them personally, a fact she takes advantage of during her master classes.
Barber’s master classes showcase his special affinity for music, which stems from his second job as a morning radio show personality. He knows he can engage students right away by playing fun, upbeat songs. “I have access to music no one’s heard yet that keeps my master classes fresh,” he says.
And Now for Something Completely Different
Teachers love planning, but a bit of spontaneity can make your master class the unforgettable experience students hope for. Barber sometimes spot-choreographs a combination on his students, so they feel they are participating in the process. On a whim, he once introduced portable barres as props, which sparked the students’ creativity. “The idea really caught on and now I use them regularly,” he says. “Throw the students a curveball and they will respond.”
Alexander also likes to keep his master class students on their toes—mentally as well as physically. “Sometimes I’ll show a move incorrectly and ask them to point out what’s wrong,” he says. “Mixing things up activates their minds.” DT
Giannella Garrett is a writer based in New York City.
Photo: Carter Alexander focuses on the nuances of movement during his master classes. (by Todd Lechtick, courtesy of Miami City Ballet School)