New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht, 26, excels at virtuoso showpieces like George Balanchine’s Tarantella, performing soaring leaps with a daredevil’s confidence. Four years ago, when an NYCB colleague asked him to teach a class at the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs, he welcomed the challenge. Then he faced his first students. “Suddenly I realized I was expected to play a part I’d never played before—a teacher! That so panicked me my first word came out, ‘P-p-plié.’ Not until I saw what we needed to work on did I calm down.”
Ulbricht’s experience is all too common, says Elsa Posey, director of the Posey School in Northport, NY, and president of the National Registry of Dance Educators. “Most young dancers know dance from a performance context, but they don’t have any background in dance education,” she says. “They know the steps and think that’s enough. Then, when they start to teach, they realize what they’re lacking.”
But there are ways that young teachers can avoid uncomfortable classroom situations—whether they’re caused by a lack of teaching experience or by the narrow age gap separating them from their students. DT explores how junior teachers can establish their authority in the studio.
One of the most common problems that young teachers have is preserving a professional distance between themselves and their students. Take a cue from senior, more experienced teachers: Be approachable, but not friendly. Even though they may be close to your age, your students are not your friends.
An easy way to establish that relationship right away? Introduce yourself as a “Mr.” or “Ms.” The physical impression you make when entering the studio can also help set the proper tone for the class. Erect posture not only helps you command the room, but it also sets an example for your students. Turn off your cell phone, and don’t carry in casual props like a cup of coffee or a BlackBerry, which distract you and make you appear less professional.
A young teacher’s behavior outside of class is equally important. Even when they’re not in the studio, your students are still your students. It’s best to avoid contact with them on networking websites and to decline their social invitations.
Come Prepared—But Be Ready to Throw Away the Script
It’s hard to overstress the importance of preparation. Arriving with a set of combinations—and music, if you won’t have an accompanist—creates a sense of security and increases self-confidence, which in turn boosts authority.
But what do you do with your script if it happens to not reflect student needs for that day? “Be ready to junk it,” says Ted Warburton, a former dancer, now an associate professor of dance at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “You must adapt to student needs and teachable moments. Good dance teachers invite spontaneity and improvisation in themselves and their students. Yes, my dance training provided a kind of road map for teaching, [but the destination] wasn’t the same in every class.”
“I’m all over the place during class,” says L.A.-based hip-hop choreographer and teacher JaQuel Knight, 20. “One-on-one contact is the best way to make a correction”—and to remind the students that you’re always watching them, emphasizing the fact that you are the leader of the class. Ulbricht believes prowling the studio not only reinforces your authority but also improves the students’ posture: “They always stand up straighter when a teacher goes by.” Eye contact with every student is also essential, and should not be limited to giving a correction. “Give to the whole room all the time,” Ulbricht says.
Warburton learned from his mother, an elementary school teacher for over 40 years, that moving closer to troublesome students to speak to them reinforced her authority. “It might have been weakened by calling out to them from across the classroom,” he says. “Sometimes all they wanted was her attention, anyway.”
Go Back to School
If at all possible, Posey recommends that young teachers take the time to study dance education. “You have to learn to teach, and that means familiarizing yourself with subjects like child development,” Posey says. “Also especially important—and especially lacking in younger teachers—is a knowledge of dance science and medicine, of the way the body works. You should understand the body before you teach others how to use it.” A young teacher with knowledge of these subjects will also be much more comfortable and confident in the classroom, and students will sense and respect that confidence—no matter the teacher’s age.
Never Let ’Em See You Sweat
All teachers make mistakes. But it’s especially important that younger teachers stay calm when they do—because students are more likely to take advantage of a younger teacher’s frustration than an older one’s. “Be patient, and trust yourself,” says Posey. If you forget a combination or can’t find the song you want, don’t undermine your authority by losing your cool.
Finally, remember that there’s always tomorrow’s class. Time and repetition are a young teacher’s best allies in the battle for classroom authority. DT
Harris Green is a freelance writer in New York City.
With additional reporting by Margaret Fuhrer.
Photo: At 20, JaQuel Knight isn’t much older than his hip-hop students. Photo by Josephine Daño.