It’s Not a Popularity Contest

Ballet may never be the first love of your competition dancers, but they can learn to like it.

Kelly Burke’s competition dancers took 2015 Best Ballet Performance at The Dance Awards.

At Westchester Dance Academy in Mt. Kisco, New York, lyrical class starts with a warm-up in center. Owner and artistic director Kelly Burke plays music by artists like Adele as she leads students through a progression of pliés, tendus and ronds de jambe en l’air. She gives the dancers a ballet barre in a nonballet setting. “Kids who don’t want to be ballerinas are still getting the foundation they need,” says Burke. “They’re just getting it in a style that interests them the most.”

Teaching ballet at a competition studio can be a daunting task. It can be a struggle to fit ballet into an already packed schedule, especially when students prefer working on contemporary, hip-hop and jazz routines. Dancers might show little interest in ballet even though the classical training boosts their technical ability, artistry—and competition scores. Yet despite these challenges, it is possible to ensure that they get the right ballet foundation. Teachers can inspire and engage them with a creative approach, positive attitude and immersive format that reaches beyond the ballet class.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Students need more than one class a week to develop an understanding of ballet basics. Burke sets a minimum for her competition students: Dancers under the age of 12 must attend two 1 1/2–hour classes, while older students are required to take three classes plus pointe. This formula works at Westchester Dance Academy, where students routinely take home trophies—in ballet—from Nationals, including New York City Dance Alliance and The Dance Awards. “I would love to have ballet every single day,” says Burke, “but not with these kids going to school and wanting to compete in every single form. There’s no way.”

To compensate, she incorporates some ballet into every class. Whether they’re taking lyrical, contemporary or jazz, dancers are always working on some aspect of ballet technique. “Every warm-up in every class has all the elements of a full ballet barre.”

Judy Rice (shown here with University of Michigan students) brings personality and precision to ballet class.

Move Slow to Go Fast

In ballet class, teachers might feel the need to rush through combinations in order to keep the students’ attention. But moving at a slow pace can actually generate more enthusiasm. Judy Rice often recruits dancers from her convention classes to audition for the University of Michigan dance program, where she is an associate professor. She recently taught a three-hour class that never got off the barre. “They’re learning to do things accurately,” she explains, “and then they see how ballet helps them achieve stronger technique scores.” Were the students in this marathon class engaged? Absolutely, she says. “I deliver it in a way that’s exciting for the kids.”

For one thing, she breaks everything down in a logical way, talking about anatomy, alignment and symmetry. She has a dancer do tendu side with her right leg, for example, not holding the barre. Then she asks her student to lift her foot off the floor. “If she can’t hold it and has to put her foot down, I’ll tell her it’s because her left hip wasn’t lifted enough. I make the student say what the problem is as she fixes it.” Asking the students to speak out loud helps them understand the physicality. “I get so excited when it’s right, which is infectious to them,” she says. “They understand what’s wrong and they can fix it. It gets really fun to be specific and make minute changes. The strategy is immediately successful.”

Grab Their Interest—and Keep It

Students might show more interest and develop an appreciation for ballet when they see how it relates to their favorite styles of dance. Lyrical dancers might like doing adagio. Jazz and tap dancers might have more fun executing a fast petit allégro combination with playful rhythms. “Acknowledge their strengths,” says Rice. “I told one dancer she was really musical and asked the other dancers to follow her. Turns out she was an amazing tap dancer.”

Rice also has young students skip around the barre and has been known to stop older students mid-class for a series of jumping jacks. “When I see their eyes glaze over and they just can’t stand still any longer, I do something to get their blood flowing.” She also rewards students with a fun, “big foo foo” class (sweeping waltzes, easy turns and a buoyant grand allégro) at the end of the week if they’ve been working really well. “If kids feel good, then they’ll love what they’re doing and are willing to go back to the specifics.”

Westchester Dance
Academy’s Kayla Mak was named National Miss Junior Onstage New York, 2015.

Let Them Discover the Ultimate Payoff—Results

Dawn Rappitt, director of Elite Danceworx in Markham, Ontario, puts ballet classes first on her class schedule. “It’s important for dancers to see how different their bodies feel and operate in other classes after they’ve already done ballet as a warm-up,” she says. To encourage students to get more ballet hours, Rappitt allows them to take other classes below their levels, free of charge. She also makes sure that her dancers do a full barre together before each competition. “When they arrive, it’s just part of the process,” she says. Ballet has become a consistent routine whether the dancers are on the road or at the studio.

Dancers get really excited when they see a difference in their competition routines, and parents notice the improvement, too. “It’s very much part of the culture within our studio,” says Rappitt, who took home the Studio of the Year Award from The Dance Awards in 2014. “I made the decision to put the focus on ballet as its own entity. We don’t treat it as a necessary evil.” As a result, students at Elite Danceworx are never late for ballet—even if they’ve just had another class. And, perhaps even more telling: Ballet class is never canceled in favor of working on the jazz number. “If it’s important to me,” says Rappitt, “it’s important to them.”

Elite Danceworx’s advanced company performed “Grand Pas” from Raymonda at The Dance Awards in 2014.

“Kids start to love it the more they do it. They also see how it changes their bodies,” she says. Lines are longer, spines are straighter and muscles are more defined. “It’s really nice to have 12-year-olds saying they need a ballet class when they get home from a convention or competition weekend,” she says. “Putting ballet first has really made a big impact, because they have a more disciplined approach and a stronger work ethic. And the kids are not going to be limited. They’ll have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.” DT

Julie Diana retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

Photos from top: by Rachel Papo; by Peter Smith; by Rachel Neville Photography, courtesy of Westchester Dance Academy; courtesy of Elite Danceworx

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