Mind over Matter

If your students are having trouble understanding the finer points of technique, perhaps it’s time to target their imaginations. Veteran teachers know that, in many cases, comparing a difficult movement concept with an everyday image works wonders, helping students get a better handle on alignment and body mechanics.

“What works best is a quick, simple image that needs less explanation,” says Roseann Ridings, a former Boston Ballet dancer who teaches throughout New England. Ridings sprinkles her lessons with funny, creative images, particularly when teaching younger dancers. For example, when her students’ frappés lack adequate attack, she has them think “karate” rather than “ballet.” “I say, ‘Your foot is a deadly weapon that you need to sharpen,’” she explains. “They laugh, but they get it: They strike the foot a bit stronger.”

Humorous images work particularly well and tend to be more memorable, a plus for teachers tired of repeating the same directives, like “Pull up,” or “Where are your arms?” “It can be as silly or stupid as you like,” insists Glenna Wilson, owner of Dance Dreams Studio in Kannapolis, North Carolina. “You have to be creative and constantly think of ways to entertain.”

Over the years, Ridings and Wilson have amassed a collection of their own images, as well as those from their teachers and friends in the field. Here are some of their favorites:

If you want students to:

Keep their chests lifted

Say: “Imagine you’ve been shot with Cupid’s arrow.”

Ridings asks older students to picture Cupid’s arrow going through their sternum, with the point entering between the shoulder blades and exiting through the chest. This helps them remember to lift the front of the chest rather than let it collapse, she explains. The off-beat image gets their attention. “Any time you can use physical pain imagery, you get a strong reaction,” she says, laughing.

If you want students to:

Stop sticking out their ribcages

Say: “Imagine your chest is an umbrella.”

Wilson has students who can’t shake this habit visualize their spines as the rod of an umbrella. When the rib cage is out, the umbrella is “open.” By placing a finger at the top of the rib cage and sliding it down to the belly button, they “close” the umbrella.

If you want students to: Improve their balance

Say: “Imagine the air is solid.”

This image can lend dancers a sense of support in balance. In first arabesque, Ridings’ students imagine they are placing their right hand on their bedroom bureau, trying to “feel” the support. Later, they advance to thinking that the air around them is “solid.” Ridings notes that this is particularly effective when dancers must hold an arabesque from a moving step, such as a series of chaîné turns.

Or say: “Imagine you’re dancing with an invisible partner.”

Younger students can think of a partner holding them up by the wrists when they’re in fifth-position relevé. When it comes time to balance alone, Ridings says, “Remember that invisible partner? If he were here right now, how would he help you stand in passé?”

If you want students to:

Stand tall

Say: “Imagine you are a scarecrow, hanging by the back of your neck.”

This helps younger students stand tall in relevé while relaxing the arms and keeping the shoulders down. Sometimes, Wilson touches them at the back of the neck, to help them find that “spot” where the scarecrow is attached to the pole.

If you want students to:

Turn better

Say: “Imagine you’re a Porsche, not an SUV.”

If you find that older students are having trouble keeping their balance during turns, try explaining that a sporty, low-to-the-ground Porsche takes turns well, while a top-heavy SUV tends to flip over. In pirouettes, this image encourages students to keep their weight in their hips and helps to counteract the tendency to pull up and topple out of the relevé, says Ridings.

If you want students to: Keep proper alignment

in plié

Say: “Imagine you’re a piece of bread in a toaster.”

Perfect for little ones, this image is especially effective with grand plié in second. Ridings reminds students that if they stick out their belly or behind, it will get burned. To make the same point, Wilson uses a funny phrase: “It’s plié, not bootay.”

Imagery has helped both Ridings and Wilson advance as dancers themselves. Ridings, for example, first heard the “air is solid” metaphor while taking a class in her 30s, and couldn’t believe how much it helped her balance. “Sometimes putting something a different way makes a huge difference,” she says. “Students never forget these images; they really stay with them. I’m always on the lookout for something clever. I wish I had a million of them.” DT

Karen White is a freelance writer and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

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