At Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, young dancers will pause mid-class to say the combination out loud. Director Lisa Collins Vidnovic encourages them to sing each phrase, at the correct speed and rhythm, to help remember the steps. "They do it together as a group, even if just one person is struggling," she says. "I find they can't retain and execute choreography if they're not able to verbalize it."
Some students have trouble picking up choreography—and remembering it, too. Teachers might have to repeat the same material again and again, stuck on sequence instead of being able to move forward, coaching technique and artistic details. New challenges arise when dancers forget corrections and don't apply the notes they get every day. What are the best strategies to avoid these potentially frustrating issues and nurture this essential part of your dancers' training? DT consulted three teachers about their approach and tips to make the information stick.
There's more to private lessons than one-on-one instruction. Consider these practical issues as you plan for your next session.
Some schools discourage private lessons and outside coaching for fear that these might contradict their training methods and confuse the student.
Deciding a RateGiphy
Rates range anywhere from $40 to $100 or more per hour, depending on the instructor. Some studios set a flat rate, offer a discounted package or offer need-based scholarships.
Dealing With the ParentsGiphy
Parents might ask to observe the lesson, but their presence could actually hinder the child's progress. "Students work better when their parents aren't watching," says Becky Erhart Moore, artistic coordinator at Marin Ballet. If they insist on peeking in, suggest that they only come for the last 15 minutes.
Scheduling can be tough, especially since most students aren't available outside of school hours. "If I have to turn down a student because of scheduling issues on my end, I refer them to someone on my staff who is available," says Cheryl Madeux-Abbott, ballet director at the Franklin School for the Performing Arts.
Your time is valuable, so encourage students to arrive ready for the lesson. "If they're practicing a variation, they need to have done class before," says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet. "But if we're working on fundamentals, then we can start at the beginning of barre and get warm as we go along."
Attitude turns have the potential for major wow factor—the position originated from sculptor Giambologna's famous bronze statue of the Roman god Mercury, after all—but many dancers struggle with this kind of pirouette. It's a tricky step, one that requires good placement, coordination and timing. Whether your students are learning this turn for the first time or working on doubles, it's helpful to go back to basics and break down the mechanics.
At the BalletMet Dance Academy in Columbus, Ohio, teacher Jilise Bushling Austin has students take a break from center and skip around the studio like rag dolls to loosen up the tension that forms during barre. "I tell them to shake everything out," she says. "If they have a tense upper body, then the legs don't respond correctly. It's almost like they're dancing on stilts." Ease and movement in the upper body allows for bigger pliés and higher jumps, Austin says. "The joints all need to work together."
Dancers show tension when they're tired, stressed or struggling with a difficult step. Tense muscles shorten, preventing extension through the upper back and making it difficult to fully coordinate the arms and legs. Some students even hold their breaths because they're working so hard, causing tension to build in their arms, shoulders, necks and even faces. Teachers can offer relaxation strategies to reduce this strain and keep dancers from developing stiff mannerisms that might negatively impact their technique and artistry.
When Tracie Stanfield teaches contemporary class at Broadway Dance Center, she often includes choreographed stretch combinations. Dancers might move from a contraction into a lateral bend and then to a cambré back, before repeating it all on the other side. "I try to maximize their range of motion," says Stanfield. "It's my responsibility to get them ready to dance and not just focus on hitting a picture."
Most dancers want to improve their flexibility, especially if they have tight muscles and joints that inhibit their extension. But they might be preoccupied with the height of their legs and disregard the quality of their extension. Some might even force themselves into unsafe stretches or positions, trying to imitate what they see on social media. You can give students safe exercises and ideas—the right balance of strength and flexibility—to help increase mobility while deemphasizing the need for whacked hips and backs.
Utah Dance Artists owner Brooke Maxwell remembers a mom calling to talk about the discomfort her 14-year-old daughter felt each time her ballroom teacher asked her to demonstrate. The mother pleaded with Maxwell to keep her daughter's name confidential when speaking with the teacher, because she didn't want to cause her child more unwanted attention. What was most surprising is that the dancer had been singled out in a positive way—because she paid attention and worked hard. Sensitivity, Maxwell realized, can come in unexpected forms. "When it comes to students being sensitive in class, the only way we can help is to have an open conversation," she says.
These types of situations can be tough to navigate, especially when students are nervous to express how they're feeling. Maybe they have anxiety when they're singled out or cry because they feel frustrated in class—or they're scared to leave their caregiver at the door to the studio. Paramount to easing sensitivity issues is to first correctly identify the source of the problem. Then, teachers can work with dancers in a way that is both gentle and effective, helping them overcome sensitivities and enjoy a positive experience in the studio.