How I teach ballet

Don’t let Deborah Wingert’s silvery hair fool you. Dressed in a black turtleneck and leggings, she unfurls her leg into an ear-height développé one Saturday afternoon while demonstrating adagio for her advanced students at Manhattan Youth Ballet. High-cheekboned and statuesque, Wingert’s physicality alone is enough to inspire a roomful of bunheads. But it’s her combination of fervor, humor and vitality that captures her students’ imaginations. “Développé so beautifully that it breaks my heart,” she says, passionately clasping her hands to her chest. But not long after the students begin, she signals for the pianist to stop—their développés are too punctuated. “It has moments of clarity, but it’s not sharp,” she says, pausing thoughtfully. “It’s clearly etched.”

Musical and technical clarity are big themes in Wingert’s class, a result of her 13-year dance career with the New York City Ballet. George Balanchine hired her out of the School of American Ballet at the age of 16, and his influence permeates her methodology. Shortly after Wingert’s retirement in 1995, MYB director Rose Caiola observed her giving a private lesson and asked her to join the staff of her new school (then called Studio Maestro). Now head of faculty, Wingert teaches up to 15 classes a week and serves as MYB’s Balanchine répétiteur.

Wingert’s rich voice resonates through the studio like a well-honed thespian. She stresses exact musical timing, with an emphasis on speed and alternating rhythmic accents. “Balanchine changed my ear,” she says. “The rhythm is the steps; the steps are the music. But you’re always in service of the music.” Wingert articulates what she wants through inventive metaphors, often related to food. “It’s like two scoops of ice cream in a pretzel cone,” she says, referencing the contrasting in/out accents during tendus. “Smooth and creamy, with the crispy.”

Balanchine, she says, fostered an atmosphere of persistence and proactive engagement at NYCB, and she tries to cultivate those values in her dancers. “No time for doubt, no time for judgment,” Wingert reminds a frustrated student during a particularly speedy pirouette combination. “This is the Balanchine ethic—you have to do it because you have to do it.” Her students soak up the pep talk—the second time around, they attack their turns with greater fortitude and success.

Wingert keeps her dancers engaged by often asking them what they could have done differently, rather than telling them what they did wrong. “I think the best corrections are when students understand their part in it,” she explains, a process that requires patience on her end. “But that’s what Mr. B allowed. He allowed for that process of not being perfect.”

Glissade Assemblé

In Balanchine training, glissade is considered a preparation step that serves the jump that succeeds it—in this case, assemblé. It has a distinct musical emphasis on the landing plié (“and one”), which creates a quick, definitive slice through the air in second position. “The emphasis on the ending is the impetus for the assemblé,” says Wingert. For assemblé, the legs should hit fifth immediately on the way up. “The assemblage is what elevates you.”

controlbar=over&file=http%3A%2F%2Fvideos.dancemedia.com/09b68b9d8ff0b382a7a7a6d403ff896e9237d446/video.mp4&image=/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/wingert_splash.jpg&&&viral.pluginmode=FLASH"/>

Deborah Wingert trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under Marcia Dale Weary (where Wingert first cut her teeth teaching warm-up classes) and the School of American Ballet. She joined New York City Ballet at the age of 16, where she danced numerous principal and soloist roles by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. After retiring from NYCB, she joined the inaugural staff of Manhattan Youth Ballet, where she is now head of faculty. Wingert has also taught at School of American Ballet and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, guest-lectured at Harvard University and Goucher College and serves as a répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust.

Sophia Williams, 17, is an advanced student at Manhattan Youth Ballet and attends Bard High School Early College.

 

Photography by Kyle Froman

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox