Dance Teacher Tips
Susannah Israel-Marchese with students at School of Ballet Hartford; photo by Frank Marchese, courtesy of SBH

At Michigan Ballet Academy, artistic director Irina Vassileni meets with a group of eager young students and their parents. She holds a shiny new pair of pointe shoes in one hand and an old, worn pair in the other. "I show them all the details, inside and out, and how working on pointe for hours will break down the shoe," says Vassileni. "I might even bring in different models and talk about how they're made. Parents need a lot of information to make them feel comfortable about their children going on pointe."

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Dance Teacher Tips
Amber Johnson at Deland Middle School. Courtesy of DMS

For a young student in the process of developing bodily awareness, a hands-on adjustment by a teacher can mean the difference between safe and incorrect alignment. But in many K–12 schools today, a hands-on approach is frowned upon or sometimes even forbidden. With dance being a kinesthetic art, this limitation presents a predicament for K–12 dance teachers. Here, two teachers share their views on whether to use touch in class and, if so, how they go about it.

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Dancer Health

Q: I have a student who isn't pressing her heels into the floor when she pliés, because she feel a pinch in her calves. What can she do for this problem?

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Dancer Health
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Q: I'm tired of the fast food that's consumed at my studio. I get that families are on the run, but what can I say to encourage healthy eating without harassing anyone?

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Q: A student in my class has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in her spine. She's dancing to her limits and is in physiotherapy, but I want to know if there's anything I can do to help.

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Dance Teacher Tips
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Working with a 9-year-old student, Alexandra Koltun asks the young girl to face the barre. She reviews fifth position, demi-pointe with the front foot and coupé devant. "I separate all the positions, so the student understands each one," says Koltun, founder and artistic director of Koltun Ballet Boston. She reaches down to shape the girl's foot into sur le cou-de-pied, leaving the heel in front and gently squeezing the toes around the ankle. "This position will equip the foot with more strength," she says.

Depending on a ballet teacher's preference and style of training, sur le cou-de-pied (meaning "on the neck of the foot") may be incorporated into class at different times and in various ways. From steps like pas de cheval to frappé and développé, the wrapped position can be fundamental to a student's technical development. Or it can be used less often and as a supplement to cou-de-pied front and back. Either way, the value of the position remains constant as a tool to mold and strengthen dancers' feet.

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Q: Why can't some of my dancers keep their heels down while in demi-plié?

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Dancer Health
Photo by Joe Toreno

At a time when Stacey Tookey's dancing should have been taking off, she suffered two serious health setbacks that almost cost her her career.

First, at 17, she learned she had stress fractures in her shins that were so bad she could have snapped her tibias. She had to recover in a wheelchair and took a year off from dancing. "I had never rested a day in my life and worked through any pain I'd ever had," she says. "It was the first message to myself that I'm not invincible."

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Dancer Health
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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Q: I'm an older dancer/teacher and have some pain under my heel bone and Achilles tendon. I feel it most in the mornings and when I'm walking down stairs. Would wearing teacher shoes with heels help me?

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.

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Q: I'm in my 40s and have been taking ballet for four years. How much turnout can I expect? I am flexible enough to touch the floor with my legs straight.

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Dancer Health
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Pliés shouldn't be excruciating. As a ballet conservatory pre-professional student, Taylor Gordon knew this, but when the back of her left heel began aching during pliés and jumps in 2007, she didn't think it was a big deal. She was dancing more than 20 hours a week and couldn't imagine pain bad enough to keep her from it. "I never understood why people I'd seen who were injured had to sit down and watch class," she says, remembering her determination. "Why can't you just push through it?"

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