Confessions From a Dance Teacher: Find the Key to Unlock Your Students' Potential

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When I was a little girl, there was a custodian, Willard, at my elementary school who had a large key ring attached to his belt. It looked like it had hundreds of shiny keys dangling around the hoop, and we could always tell when he was coming down the hall because of the jangling fanfare that preceded him.


One day, I asked him how he knew which key fit every door or box in the school. His answer? "I try 'em all 'til one of them works!"

Dance teachers are custodians of hundreds of children every week. Our job is particularly difficult—no one is there because of a law to learn to dance. Everyone is there because they want to learn the artform, or their parents want their child to find a creative outlet, or, at the very least, to fix their posture.

To be a member of the class is a conscious choice. That means dance teachers are held accountable if the student is unhappy, not progressing, injured or not fulfilling their dreams. It may or may not be warranted, but that's the way it is. Many dance classes follow a particular syllabus to the letter. Other schools use a mixture of different methods. Others, still, fly by the seat of their pants. But no matter what style the school subscribes to, every single teacher must have a metaphorical key ring to unlock each student's heart and instill some inspiration.

Like Willard told me, sometimes, we have to "try 'em all." Sometimes, the same key will fit several different locks. Whether it's an analogy, creative imagery, logic, anatomical explanations or even a few jokes, the teacher is the custodian of every student in the class.

We have taken on the challenge of their artistic "upkeep," so we must maintain the integrity of their technique. But most importantly, we must jangle that key ring and try 'em all until we unlock the dancers' inspiration.

Dance on.

Teacher Voices
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In 2001, young Chanel, a determined, ambitious, fiery, headstrong teenager, was about to begin her sophomore year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the highly acclaimed "Fame" school. I was a great student, a promising young dancer and well-liked by my teachers and my peers. On paper, everything seemed in order. In reality, this picture-perfect image was fractured. There was a crack that I've attempted to hide, cover up and bury for nearly 20 years.

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Health & Body
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Though the #MeToo movement has spurred many dancers to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the dance world has yet to have a full reckoning on the subject. Few institutions have made true cultural changes, and many alleged predators continue to work in the industry.

As Chanel DaSilva's story shows, young dancers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the power differential between teacher and student. We spoke with eight experts in dance, education and psychology about steps that dance schools could take to protect their students from sexual abuse.

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Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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