When Rosemary Sabovick-Bleich stresses the importance of turnout, she shows her class of 9- and 10-year-old students that the rotation should come from the very top of the hamstring—just under the gluteus maximus. “I told one of the girls that she had to feel that little muscle and pull up from there," says Sabovick-Bleich, who teaches at New Jersey School of Ballet. “Before I touched that spot, I explained what I was going to do."
Many teachers have a hands-on teaching philosophy, in which they adjust students' bodies to help them understand proper alignment. “Dance is such a physical thing—sometimes words don't fully convey what you mean," she says. “You have to actually put them into certain positions." Others, however, rely on visual and verbal cues to instruct. Effective teaching often involves using a mix of different approaches. How hands-on you should be depends on individual learning styles and comfort levels, as well as your own common sense.
1. Safety First
As in any educational setting, instructors need to make their studio a safe place. “My number-one goal when I work with kids is for them to know that I love them and care about them," says Patricia Brewer-Jones, who substitutes at The Portland Ballet, after a 40-year teaching career. “If they don't feel safe, I can't teach them." She often crawls on the floor to shape a dancer's foot or gently turn a leg to face the proper direction. Advanced dancers in her class demonstrate, but they are not allowed to give physical corrections. “No one can touch the students but me," she says. “I'm always very careful and respectful."
2. Ask Permission
Teachers should not assume they have permission to touch students. When Brewer-Jones has a new class, she talks to them first. “I explain that dance is an artform where you may be touched a lot," she says. “If they have a problem, I want them to tell me. I like to get feedback right away." Students might not verbalize their discomfort, but their body language will reveal how they really feel. “They could get fidgety and squirm," she says. “If you don't pay attention to those cues and you touch them anyway, it takes you so much longer to get that permission."
3. Use Common Sense
All hands-on corrections should be made in a sensitive and professional manner. “Fixing a sickled foot, crooked shoulders or an inclined head are very common places for hands-on correcting," says Sean Boutilier of Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance near Toronto. “There are certain areas you can fix, and other areas you can't. It's really just common sense." Male instructors have to be especially careful when correcting students in this way. Boutilier recommends facing the dancers, so they can see you, and offering a lot of verbal reassurance. “The children have to trust you," he says.
4. Be Prepared to Be Hands-Off
If students don't feel comfortable with or respond well to physical corrections, you can try other techniques to communicate the same information. One way to do this is to give dancers the tools for self-discovery. Offer them age-appropriate information about their bodies, and give them time to find the muscles themselves. Brewer-Jones teaches basic anatomy to all of her students, to help them better understand the way they should move. “I tell them where all their muscles are, and they learn the names," she says.
Brewer-Jones also uses imagery to convey a concept, such as the opposing forces of an attitude derrière. “I have kids wring out a rag to show them the spiral," she says. If they're on demi-pointe in relevé, she has them imagine that their outer hips are pushing in, and their inner thighs are pushing out. Demonstrating also goes a long way. Sabovich-Bleich says, “The little ones especially need to see what it's supposed to look like."
5. Find the Balance
“You have kids who are auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners," says Brewer-Jones. “If you're not teaching in all three modalities, you're losing two-thirds of your room." A student's body language can illuminate their preferred learning style. For example, if a dancer's eyes shift from side to side as a combination is given, she might be an auditory learner. “Don't touch them," says Brewer-Jones. “They could be in auditory mode and need to hear counts and names of steps that they can play in their head." Other students might look down at the floor, suggesting they are kinesthetic learners who would benefit more from feeling the right positions. “Those kids don't want to make eye contact," she says.
Still, many students need to be touched so they can feel the proper position or shape. “It's the wisdom of the teacher," says Brewer-Jones, “to know which child is in front of them and how to best make them feel respected, loved and inspired to work hard."