“Who likes to paint?” Vanessa Salgado asks her roomful of 5- and 6-year-old students at New York City’s Joffrey Ballet School. “Today, we’re going to pretend we’re paintbrushes and the room is a big piece of paper.” One by one she designates a color to a body part. “Let’s say our arm is the color blue,” she says as the accompanist starts a dreamy adagio. The children slowly dance around the room, waving their arms in an effort to paint the sky. “Now let’s pretend our back is pink and purple,” she prompts, and a little boy drops to the ground, scooching like an inchworm across the floor.
Throughout Salgado’s pre-ballet class, she asks her students to reach into their imaginations, interweaving simple ballet technique within their moments of make-believe. They tiptoe back and forth like giraffes, chassé like “crabbies at the beach” and practice spotting like an owl. All the while, Salgado maintains a brisk pace between exercises to keep their short attention spans engaged, stopping briefly to fix an unpointed foot or haphazard ponytail.
Her class, she explains, is designed to achieve a balance of structure and creativity. “That creative-thinking component is very important,” she says. “It helps build confidence, promotes independent thinking and I believe it is the special sauce that turns dancers into artists.” In addition to simple pliés, sautés and gallops, she leads her charges through speed, shape and level changes, exercises in spatial awareness and creative thinking, and memory games. All the while she maintains control of the room, expertly staying attuned and changing things up when necessary. “I think a really key quality of leadership is adaptability, to be able to troubleshoot and change,” she says. “Especially when you’re working with kids.”
Although Salgado has experience teaching all ages, she feels a special affinity for early childhood classes. “It’s so exciting to see a child come into the room and be so unbelievably happy,” she says. “Totally uninhibited, in love with the world, in love with the art of dance.” In return she tries to create a nurturing learning environment. “I want them to identify me as someone they can trust and as a positive influence.”
Below, Salgado and a Joffrey Ballet School pre-ballet student demonstrate a preparation exercise for marches and skips. “It’s very simple and straightforward,” she says, “but it prepares children to march with proper alignment.”
Vanessa Salgado trained with Tatiana Akinfieva-Smith, Elena Manakhova and Betty Webster in Salisbury, Maryland. Salgado developed a love for early childhood classes in middle school when Webster, a 2010 Dance Teacher Award winner, asked her to help as an assistant teacher. When Salgado moved to New York to attend the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, she took on her own classes at The Ailey School’s First Steps program. After graduation, she joined the faculties of Ballet Hispanico School of Dance and The School at Steps on Broadway. She joined the Joffrey Ballet School’s Children’s Program faculty last year and holds a certification in dance education from the Dance Education Laboratory at the 92nd Street Y. In addition to teaching, she dances for her sister Donna’s company, CONTINUUM Contemporary/Ballet.
Vanessa Salgado published a children’s book in 2012 with the help of her sister Donna, who is also a dancer. Crafterina is a ballet storybook that includes crafts that children and parents can do together. “The whole idea is if children can hone their creative thinking skills at a young age,” says Salgado, “as an adult those skills will allow them to move forward and be successful.” She often incorporates the projects—take-home crafts include tableaus, puppet theaters and paper dolls—into her class to give students an entry point for learning. “They can learn about all the different characters and scenes and make different formations with them,” she says. “They start to learn how a dancer and choreographer work.” (Crafterina.com and etsy.com/shop/Crafterina)
Photos by Kyle Froman