True Story: 4 Ways Breaking My Leg Made Me a Better Teacher
When Paula Frasz fell from a horse in 2015 and broke her tibia and fibula, she couldn’t put any weight on her left leg for three months. She continued to teach with the aid of a scooter, also known as a “knee-walker.” (This device allows you to kneel on the scooter and glide, coast, speed up, slow down, stop, turn and back up easily.) Frasz relied on three crucial elements of dance pedagogy—use of vocal description and imagery, student demonstration and mentorship—and made some powerful discoveries in the process. Here’s how she did it and what she learned.
- Imagery I developed a complex and fine-tuned vocabulary of descriptive words and phrases that instantly produced certain physical reactions in my students. I was naturally using ballet vocabulary as we do in every dance form, but the qualifiers were different and more distinct. I could say, for instance, “assemblé in parallel first position collapsing onto the right hip like a paratrooper landing in a parachute fall.” Even if you did not know assemblé or first position, you still could fall like a paratrooper. I did this with every single movement required and wrote the images and ideas in my lesson plans.
Granting Permission Rather than the “do this” command, I was forced to say “try this.” The simple substitution of words seemed to encourage and empower the dancers, especially the less experienced ones. These students typically wait for you to show them what to do, but with the “try this” method, they were forced to make an initial attempt, thereby giving me something to subsequently correct and shape.
Asking for Help Overcoming years of entrenched dance teaching stereotypes was as difficult as overcoming my injury. Admitting I needed help was an enormous emotional hurdle, but one that made me more human to the dancers. I became a figure who was struggling physically as, in many cases, they were themselves. I developed very strong emotional relationships with students in my classes during this time.
Why Not? While preparing class with my broken leg, I created some of the most interesting and difficult choreography of my career. My students complained, “Paula, this class is so hard!” This is because the reliance on my aging body to perform movement was gone. The movement habits and pathways I had fallen into were removed. I was limited only by my imagination. Taking a movement concept, I would perform what I could and rely on my imagination to fill in the blanks. My mind-set became one of “why not?” rather than “it can’t be done.”
Paula Frasz teaches at Northern Illinois University. This essay is excerpted from a paper she was invited to read for the International Fine Arts Festival in Athens, Greece, in May 2016.