Private Lessons: Guidelines for Working One-on-One

Anna Reznik, director of the Joffrey Academy of Dance, conducting a private lesson. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of the Joffrey Academy of Dance

A student at Ellison Ballet in New York City couldn't keep up with the rest of his classmates. Although he had talent and drive, he was frequently distracted and unable to concentrate. But once he started taking private lessons—and had no choice but to give his undivided attention—he made rapid progress. “The information he absorbed during our privates was miraculous," says his teacher, Edward Ellison. “His level of focus changed dramatically."

Working one-on-one with students can help them address their individual needs. Maybe they have trouble with pirouettes, or they're slow to pick up concepts in class. More accelerated dancers may need more personalized attention to stay challenged. If you plan to teach a private lesson, it should depend on the student's age, level and personal goals. Below are simple guidelines to help make these sessions rewarding for both you and the dancer.

Getting Started

Suggest that the student come once a week, for at least three weeks. “One private is not enough," says Anna Reznik, director of the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. “And if students wait two or three weeks between lessons, they might remember the corrections mentally, but not physically." For children ages 9–11, Reznik suggests one-hour sessions focusing on barre exercises and alignment. Older students would benefit from 1 1/2 hours, if possible, to work on individual weaknesses or to learn choreography. Thirty-minute lessons are typically not long enough to approach an issue in depth.

Start by having a conversation about what the student wants to achieve. “I always ask what they hope to gain from private lessons," says Ellison. “It differs from one student to the next." Knowing a dancer's goals gives you an idea of how to structure the lesson. For those who just want general instruction, give a simple class to assess their level and specific needs.

Back to Basics

For students working on specific issues, like footwork or placement, it helps to start with floor or barre exercises. Becky Erhart Moore, artistic coordinator at Marin Ballet in San Rafael, California, focuses on basic alignment, often spending an entire hour on pliés and tendus. “It's in-depth work and a lot of repetition, so we don't jam a whole class into the tutorial," she says. “I get down on the floor and manipulate their bodies so they can feel how it should work."

Reznik warns against saying too much in the first session. “Focus on just a couple of corrections," she says. “In the next lesson, continue the work but give something new. Work very slowly and specify more each time, but too many corrections in one class can be very stressful for the student." She recommends that students bring a notebook to write down what they learn, so they can review their corrections before the next class.

Giving homework enhances students' private lessons and keeps them focused between sessions. Cheryl Madeux-Abbott, ballet director at the Franklin School for the Performing Arts in Hudson, Massachusetts, gives exercises that students can practice on their own. If a dancer is working on flexibility, Madeux-Abbott will assign specific stretches. If the dancer has a foot issue, Madeux-Abbott will teach TheraBand exercises to work on strength and muscle memory. “I never have them do anything that I feel needs to be supervised," she says. “It's always something that they can commit to on their own, outside of our lesson."

Marin Ballet's Becky Erhart Moore (left) with student Polina Myers. Photo by Olivia Wecxsteen, courtesy of Marin Ballet

Pushing Ahead

Private lessons can also give accelerated students more personalized attention. A challenging technique class, a men's class or intensive pointe work will push them beyond the level of their group training. You can also use this one-on-one time to coach variations or pas de deux. After teaching the choreography, Ellison gives extra attention to sections that need the most work. “We'll dissect each phrase, talk about how to do the steps and explore how things work musically," he says. “It all begins with the bare fundamentals of the choreography."

Ellison then directs his students to specific videos or sends links via e-mail, so they can observe how professional dancers interpret the roles. “You can see so much today with YouTube," he says, “but you have to know what to watch. Some things they're better off not watching." He tells his boys to watch Mikhail Baryshnikov, for example, to study the way he partners—not just his dynamic tricks. If coaching a variation from a story ballet, Ellison encourages students to research the full-length production.

Many dancers want help with variations or pas de deux for competitions, college auditions or school performances. But it's important to recognize what they're ready for, and if they have the physical strength and necessary technique to tackle certain choreography. “A lot of teachers give privates because it is attractive to make a few bucks," says Ellison. “But I would caution giving coaching to a student who is unprepared and not developed enough to do it. One can get seriously injured." Instead, suggest that dancers work on basic technique first. If they gain enough strength, offer private coaching on a variation as their reward.

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