NDI Is Taking Its Teaching Method Public

NDI founder Jacques d'Amboise with students. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of NDI

On a school day in December, the scene in the P.S. 002 auditorium on Manhattan's Lower East Side is particularly joyful. The pianist plays an upbeat tune, while a sea of fifth-grade students stomp, bend, punch and jump around the stage with big smiles on their faces. The dance teacher, National Dance Institute artistic director Ellen Weinstein, shouts out level changes, direction changes, compliments and corrections, with a pacing that doesn't allow time for distraction. Notably, these students are not chatting, resisting or goofing off the way you might expect of this elementary school age. Everyone is participating.

National Dance Institute is a nonprofit created by former New York City Ballet principal and George Balanchine protégé Jacques d'Amboise that offers children within the public school system the opportunity to dance, regardless of financial status or background. NDI partners with 44 schools within the NYC metropolitan area and has developed 12 affiliated programs throughout the country.

P.S. 002 is one such NDI partner school and serves as a great example of the inclusivity the NDI teaching method supports. Teacher Terence Sumner points out a small boy standing in the front, demonstrating the choreography with pizzazz. "He just moved here from West Africa," Sumner says. "He doesn't speak any English, and this is the only class he can fully participate in—dance really is a universal language." Sumner goes on to point out other students in the class who have their own challenges to learning (some on the autism spectrum, some with ADHD, others with physical disabilities), but who are also thriving in dance.

Jacques d'Amboise with Ellen Weinstein. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of NDI

While the organization has trained teaching artists in its method since the beginning, it has now announced the NDI Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, a teacher training program with a codified methodology. In essence, NDI is taking its innovative teaching method public. "As our program has become higher-profile, we have received more and more requests from companies with educational outreach programs, like American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and BalletX, to help their teachers become more effective in engaging children," Weinstein says about the reason for the new endeavor. "Now, we've established strong executive and administrative leadership to head up this side of NDI, and we are more professional and planned about spreading the methodology." This summer the NDI Collaborative will offer a two-week summer intensive in NYC and also has plans for four-week evening sessions throughout the school year for local teachers. NDI can also create customized trainings for companies and schools.

That said, the organization recognizes its method is not the right fit for everyone. "The movement style Jacques created is meant for sneakers in a school classroom," she says. "We don't necessarily think ABT's JKO School should start teaching our movement style to their students. But why not have them start incorporating humor into their lessons? Why not change the front of the room throughout class, or divide the room in half and have them face one another, or have three people demonstrate while their classmates watch? It's not about what we are teaching; it's about how we are teaching it."

"This is for any individual teaching artists and dancers who want to enrich children's lives through the arts, as well as for dance companies with educational outreach programs who want to give their teachers the skills to be more effective in the classroom," says Weinstein.

One force driving the NDI Collaborative is the need to secure the d'Amboise legacy. "Jacques is 85 years old," says Weinstein. "There was a time when we were worried about what would happen to the program once he was gone. But we've since learned that his techniques are transferable. Now there is confidence in the future of NDI. I feel his method will live well beyond all of us."

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Photo courtesy of NDI

Eight NDI Teaching Essentials From Ellen Weinstein: Advice for Success in Working With Diverse Learners

"You could be the best dancer in the world, but that doesn't necessarily translate into teaching," says Ellen Weinstein, artistic director of the National Dance Institute. "You can have the best choreography in the world, but in the end, it's only as good as your teaching. You have to work with your students where they are at. Help them do more than they ever dreamed possible, but not more than they are actually capable of. Start with where they are, and then raise the bar as you go. Be willing to simplify/adjust your expectations as well as your lesson plan to match their capabilities." Here, Weinstein shares eight essential ideas of the NDI teaching method that can be useful for any teaching practice.

Never have a front line. "We are constantly turning around in the room so that the person in the back knows what it feels like to be in the front. They never know when it's going to be their turn to be featured, so they stay engaged because they want to be ready."

Project a commanding presence. "Even if a teacher in training is nervous, they need to teach with voice. They have to be confident in order to instill confidence."

Don't turn your back to the students. Mirror them instead. "If the children start with the left, I have to start with the right. It takes time to learn how to do this, but it makes a big difference."

Learn to work with live music. "I know that it isn't always possible to have a live musician present, but when it is, so many teachers don't even know tempo, or how to count the musician in. It really impacts the pacing of the class and is important for drawing the students in."

Use voice or hand gestures to maintain focus. "I often switch to a quiet voice to get the students' attention. They immediately lean forward to hear what I'm saying. I also use a lot of sign language. The dancers really like this because they feel like it's a secret language we have just between us."

Change the pacing to keep students engaged. "I try changing the speed of the music to twice as fast or twice as slow. Or, I have the students sit down for a minute and then have them jump back up and try the phrase again so they don't have time to chat."

Create a safe environment where students can cheer each other on and take a chance. "We do this by asking the students to stand on their own or in groups of three and demonstrate while the other students sit, watch and learn. I ask them what they noticed that the student did well, or have them listen as I give corrections. If someone is struggling, the group erupts into cheers when they fix the correction because they are sharing in their success. We are developing their eyes to see what they respond to, what they find dynamic and what they find exciting."

Give honest feedback. "Kids know when you're lying. We teach educators to say, 'I love how you did that. Now let's do it again while getting your knees higher.' We teach them that it's OK to point out when a mistake has been made, but to do it with humor and joy."

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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