Teaching Tips

5 Things I Tell My Ballet Students in Modern Dance Class

Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.


Use your imagination

When learning a phrase of material or a combination, ask yourself these questions: Where does this movement take place? What images does this movement reference? What is the mood and how does the movement/music support that mood? What story can be told with this movement?

Search for clues from your instructor

Listen and watch carefully. What kind of descriptive words are being used to explain the material? And how are those words being said? (Slow and elongated? Quick and rhythmic?) Notice how the movement is being acted out as well as physically performed.

Ask questions

Sometimes teachers do not offer clear instructions. A student's job is to ask questions. A teacher's job is to answer them. Don't guess and don't pass over or ignore material you are unsure of. Get clarification.

Fill your brain

Read lots of books and articles, watch dance videos of all kinds, see as many shows outside of ballet as possible, ask about the history of choreographers and the work they make, analyze the work you see, discuss and have opinions about what you see and learn, and ask opinions of others. Information feeds the mind and the body. Stay curious!

Always have mentors

It could be a teacher, a counselor, a professional dancer you know or your mom's best friend. Have someone you can bounce ideas off of, express your concerns and ask for advice. Dance training is hard, so don't do it alone. We all need someone to lean on!

Teacher Voices
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I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

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After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

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