Arriving to teach at a summer intensive in Portland, Oregon, Zachary Carroll was caught by surprise: He discovered that he would be leading a beginner pointe class for 10- and 11-year-old girls. Carroll had an extensive career as a ballet dancer and teacher, but he certainly had no experience dancing on pointe, let alone teaching it. Before panicking, he called his wife (also a former dancer and teacher) for advice. “She told me to start with simple exercises in parallel, rolling through the feet, moving on to first position—to keep it simple and work on placement of the hips,” he remembers. “I relaxed after that, and class went well. I was lucky to have my wife as a resource for the insight that I lacked.”
Carroll’s experience may be an extreme example of a teacher feeling out of his depth, but his reaction to being in a position of uncertainty is echoed by dance teachers of all genres and levels of experience. No one teacher has perfect technique or is all-knowing. But our personal limitations and technical shortcomings don’t have to translate into gaps in our students’ training. In fact, our weaknesses as dancers often become our strengths as teachers.
Covering All the Material
As a dancer, it can be tempting to skip over the steps or combinations that don’t come easily to you and aren’t much fun. But when teaching, it’s crucial to separate what you like and what your students need. As Carroll says, “It needs to be all about the student and not the teacher or his ego.”
Robert Swinston, director of choreography for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, also stresses the importance of an objective approach to teaching. Since certain movements are inevitably easier for some bodies than others, he says: “The issue is for teachers to use a wide vocabulary, instead of just what they are good at. Merce had so many different kinds of movement, some much more difficult than others. Depending on the style, try to give as wide a variety of movement as possible, so the student gets accustomed to doing everything.”
Of course, having a clear guideline of what material to teach is a big help. Elaine Bauer, a teacher and coach at Pacific Northwest Ballet, says, “A well-thought-out syllabus should help eliminate gaps due to a teacher’s experience or preferences.”
Learning While Teaching
It’s hard to maintain the discipline and self-confidence to give well-rounded classes when you’re teaching something you feel insecure about. Remember that you’re not alone, and as Carroll did, turn to others for advice and guidance. Your former teachers or mentors are likely to be flattered if you ask them to discuss the finer points of technique.
When Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Rachael Riley teaches contemporary classes, she often uses the corrections she’s gotten from contemporary choreographers to push her students. She also asks other dancers for input on how they would explain a step or concept. This is a fascinating way to become privy to the limitless analogies and images that other teachers use, as well. (I once had an “aha” moment when a colleague relayed the phrase “grease the crease” of the hip flexor to achieve a smoother developpé.)
Letting Your Weaknesses Become Your Strengths
You may also be surprised to discover that what you once considered a weakness has become your strong suit. Another Grand Rapids Ballet dancer and teacher in the company’s school, Stephen Sanford, admits that though adagio was never his forte, he realized that he had a thorough knowledge of the subtleties of weight-shifting and placement from his experience as a partner. “Having a deeper understanding of partnering adagio translates into the classroom with my students,” he says. “I can show where weight, placement and line need to be for solo adagios, because I helped my partners achieve those same things.”
And there is a silver lining to having a technical weakness as a dancer: All the extra time a weak turner spends practicing, analyzing and troubleshooting her pirouettes, for example, gives her insights that a “natural” turner may not have. “Teachers who were dancers and had to work creatively to overcome physical challenges, like limited flexibility or turnout, to achieve their goals bring a different perspective to the student,” says Paul Destrooper, artistic director of Ballet Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia. “If a teacher has amazing feet, she won’t necessarily be able to explain to someone with poor feet how to develop them to their maximum, since she herself probably never had to.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a good dance teacher is much more than the sum of her parts as a performer, and the value of your experience can only enhance your teaching. “Personal experience and skills are a plus, but having a good eye and understanding the physical needs of the students standing in front of you is what’s most essential,” Bauer says. “That’s when good teaching happens.” DT
Gavin Larsen, a former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer, teaches dance in Portland, OR.
Photo: Elaine Bauer working with Carla Körbes (by Angela Sterling, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet)