How-To

10 Ways to Keep Students Engaged at the Barre

Maribel Modrono challenges students at Miami City Ballet School to move like their favorite athlete. Photo by Jennifer Pino, courtesy of Miami City Ballet

Barre is time for ballet students to develop strength, accurate placement and basic technical skills. But it can seem boring and tedious to young or teen dancers, causing them to zone out and lose interest. Sometimes it just takes a few fresh ideas to perk them up.


Keep students on their toes with small surprises.

Abbie Siegel, school principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, changes the musicality or technical structure of a combination to switch things up. “I'll give something on an odd count, like a five or a three, instead of a four," she says. “Every once in a while I'll throw in a jump during a frappé exercise, or a pirouette in a relevé combination."

Change places.

Margaret Tracey, director of Boston Ballet School, sometimes has students rotate spots after each exercise. “Kids are way too young to get stuck in one place at barre," she says. “They need to be looking at themselves at different angles every day." Her younger students, ages 12–14, move one place over after each exercise. Her older students must pick up their bags and relocate to a new spot at the start of class.

Celebrate hard work.

When something finally clicks with a student, you can tell. Maybe she's balancing longer, or he just realized how to développé with proper hip placement. Recognize these “ah-ha!" moments and celebrate the dancer's success. “Stay positive, encourage and notice these things," says Siegel. “When they see how much better they're getting, it makes them more interested and eager to stick with it."

Create a legacy.

As a reward system, Tracey names combinations after her students. Maybe a dancer always remembers the correct épaulement or does a step especially well. “It's one of my ways of connecting with the kids," she says. “It inspires them to think that one day I'll name a combination after them."

Appeal to the competitive spirit.

Using games or competition at barre will help motivate even the youngest students. Challenge them to see who can point their foot the hardest, or who can jump the highest.

Use real-life role models.

At Miami City Ballet School, Maribel Modrono uses professional dancers or athletes to inspire dancers. “I ask them if they could jump as high as LeBron James," she says. “Or I tell them to pretend that they have on a beautiful tutu that was just made for the principal dancers of Miami City Ballet. Bringing real-life role models into the picture helps them connect."

Margaret Tracey asks Boston Ballet School students to come up with their own imagery to describe movement. by Rachel Papo

Be the music.

Modrono encourages dancers to use their bodies as instruments. “Every now and then they'll have to snap their fingers on the third count," she says. “Or clap when their leg opens to the side. After a long day of studying and sitting in a chair, that really wakes them up."

Change the tempo.

Even if you don't change the structure of a combination, you can switch accents or adjust the tempo. “Instead of a fondu in a 2/4, I'll do it in a mazurka or a polonaise," says Tracey. If students seem bored, she shortens the preparation time to just two counts. “All of a sudden they have to jump in and engage quicker."

Use creative imagery.

Visuals can inspire students to use their bodies in a different way. “Think of elastic or taffy to lengthen," says Siegel. “Or do sous-sus like your body is getting sipped up through a straw." Maybe their toes are hitting hot pavement when they're doing dégagé with a piqué, or they should have the sensation that their port de bras is moving underwater. “I ask them to come up with their own ways of describing things so they stay engaged," says Tracey. “Then they're part of the process."

Tie it to the rest of class.

Help students understand that the steps they do at barre are the same ones they need in center. “The plié they do in the beginning of class is the same plié they need for grand allégro," says Tracey. “Show how technique is built on a foundation, and that the foundation starts at barre. It gets them excited to see how everything fits together."

When Siegel sees that her students are spacing out, she'll wait until center to address the problem. “I point out that the reason they're not getting into fifth position after a glissade is because they're not working hard enough on dégagés at barre, and not getting into fifth," she says. “That helps motivate them, to see that relationship."

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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