Dance Teacher Tips

Q: I'm looking for out-of-the-box teaching tools to use with my students. Do you have any recommendations?

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Dance Teacher Tips
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Even the most disciplined dancers admit to weeping in class sometimes. Sorrow and fear are human expressions, but teachers may not always know how to navigate a sudden burst of waterworks.

"Stress is in the body," explains Linda Taylor, a school psychologist in Idaho who has taught ballet to all age groups, from toddler to professional. "Sometimes the release of it can bring on tears, especially for older students."

"We all need to cry sometimes," says Joel Hall, founder and director of Joel Hall Dancers & Center in Chicago. An instructor who has taught for 46 years, he admits he used to feel panicked at the sight of watery eyes. Now, he has a better understanding of students' feelings and how to work with them.

Here are five expert tips from Taylor and Hall for navigating grief in dance class.

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Dance Teacher Tips

Here The Ailey School's Peter Brandenhoff teaches Bournonville style, marked by its use of épaulement and quick footwork. Brandenhoff explains that at the peak of the grand jeté, it should look as if the torso is sitting atop the legs, unaffected, and the narrow second position of the arms should be presentational—like you're "giving a little tray of petit fours to the teacher," he says.

Here's the grand jeté:

Miami City Ballet in Heatscape, a fleet-footed work by Justin Peck. PC Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

As a teacher, Ashley Tuttle is known for her lightning-fast petit allégro combinations. But her students might be surprised to learn that speed did not come naturally to her. "When I joined American Ballet Theatre at 16, I was an adagio dancer," says Tuttle. "I had to learn to be fast."

Many dancers immediately become tense when they think about moving faster, causing their bodies to stiffen and their shoulders to creep up. As counterintuitive as it may feel, you will find more success in doing the oppo­site. "To go faster, we have to go deeper and breathe more expansively," says contemporary teacher and choreographer Kristin Sudeikis. Even if speed doesn't come naturally, you can become a faster mover by working on your physical and mental agility.

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Dance Teacher Tips
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You know it's essential to cross-train outside the studio as a teacher. "The only times I've had major injuries have been when I'm teaching," says Michele Miller, a Pilates instructor, veteran movement teacher and professor of dance at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. "I think when I'm teaching class, I'm not in my own body the same way. I'm not paying attention to me; I'm paying attention to my students."

She relies on Pilates to keep her whole body strong and safe in the studio. But even with her workout routine, she notices areas of weakness. "When I teach my modern class, I tend to do everything starting on the right side, and I noticed it felt like my pelvis was getting a little twisted in one direction," she says. She began alternating which side she demonstrated first, and it evened out.

Miller isn't alone—specific muscles tend to go undertrained or forgotten in teachers' daily studio routines. Paying particular attention to these parts of your body could be the key to increased strength or even pain-free days at the barre.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Cherish Voyticky, courtesy of Monat

As Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, ballerina Margot Fonteyn entered the stage with the excitement and abandon of a teenage girl on her birthday. "The way she ran out and down the stairs, I thought she was 16 years old!" says Sophie Monat, dance faculty member at California State University, Long Beach, and teacher at Westside School of Ballet. "But Fonteyn was actually 60 at the time. Her entrance was such an electrifying moment because of the way she embodied her character."

How dancers enter and exit the stage can leave a lasting impression. A great entrance sets the mood and captures the audience's attention, while a sloppy run into the wings breaks the magical atmosphere the dancer just worked so hard to create. Practicing entrances and exits in the studio—in context, and as often as possible—will help your dancers understand just how important these seemingly minor moments are to any piece.

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Hebach, left, and Morrison at the ATDF studios. Photo by Kyle Froman

Susan Hebach and Margaret Morrison believe it's important to get your beginning tappers moving through space with their flaps. An easy way to do this is with a traveling flap-heel. Remember to lift the knee and bring the leg with you as you travel forward.

The next phase? Take away the heel and replace it with a clap—this helps students develop enough foot strength and control to balance on the ball of the foot.

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Dance Teacher Tips

If only you had a dollar for every time you uttered these words...

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