Tips for designing classes for mixed levels

Students from The Chicago High School for the Arts

"Honey, you’re in the wrong room!” This was how Judy Rice, now associate professor at the University of Michigan, greeted one of her first students at the Joffrey Ballet School: a retired New York City Ballet dancer who, after electing to take Rice’s beginning ballet for adults, gently insisted on staying put.

How often do teachers work with advanced and novice dancers in the same class? “From master classes to auditions, it happens a lot,” says Gerri Houlihan, dean of the American Dance Festival and a dance professor at Florida State University. Or, a teacher might be out at the last minute, making it necessary to combine levels. This prompted Sarah Ford Thompson, dance department head at The Chicago High School for the Arts, to improvise a joint class for Level-A Horton and Level-D Contemporary.

Since no two dancers are alike, the need for differentiation is ongoing. However, running a smooth, well-paced class while challenging dancers on an individual basis is its own balancing act. Here are some simple and effective strategies for accommodating diverse groups.

Progressive Stacking

Layering more detailed, nuanced technique onto basic steps—or progressive stacking—allows teachers to challenge a mixture of abilities using the same combination. Working at a slower tempo, novice dancers can learn the combination while the more advanced work on movement origination, dynamics or extra turns, beats and direction changes. Both Houlihan and Tom Ralabate, a dance professor at University at Buffalo/SUNY and faculty member for Dance Masters of America, agree that this method is effective. For example, in ballet, adding a relevé, a pirouette or beats can quickly make a step more difficult.

For Rice, the ability to add these layers comes from gradually honing your class design and having a solid outline from which to work. She designs a very simple first movement across the floor to ensure “everyone will look brilliant” before making the steps progressively more difficult.

Adjusting Speed

Pacing is another powerful tool, ranging from the tempo of individual combinations to the pacing of class itself. During her impromptu joint-level class, Ford Thompson used progressive stacking to teach the combination at a slow tempo. Then, she repeatedly increased the tempo “until everyone had to invest fully to keep the movement clear and on the music.”

Houlihan sees equal value in slowing down the tempo, which challenges the most advanced dancers to move with control and transition seamlessly between steps. Another option is to divide the room into groups: Rice uses grouping to teach a petit allégro, breaking down the initial steps with less experienced students while more advanced dancers rehearse the combination right and left.

Building Self-Awareness

Tom Ralabate teaching class at the University of Buffalo/SUNY

Naturally, it becomes easier to accommodate diverse groups if students can make adjustments for themselves. However, many novice dancers need to be explicitly taught how to take class, as they take class. In master class settings, Ralabate finds it useful to focus on artistry, allowing students to “glimpse their own dance identity.” To create an atmosphere of artistic experimentation, he might make the combination a canon, placing dancers several counts apart, or ask them to improvise on top of the original steps.

Another method is to teach students to embrace their body type and build body awareness. For example, Ralabate—who notes that master classes often mean “teaching 100 women and a handful of men”—makes a point of giving male dancers alternate arms and corrections to encourage stylistic choices that balance masculinity and lyricism. In ballet, Rice asks her dancers to repeat anatomy terms and verbally explain their mistakes. For example, if a student falls out of a pirouette, can they identify which direction they fell, articulate why and determine how to fix it?

With high school students, Ford Thompson places more emphasis on kinesthetic understanding. Her most challenging students, she says, “intellectually understand immediately, but have to work very hard to create in the physical body what they see in their mind.” She relies on modeling (dancing the combination incorrectly alongside a student who dances it correctly, then asking students to identify the differences) to build self-awareness.

Honesty vs. Complexity

Perhaps the most direct way to challenge a diverse group of dancers—while refining your class design—is to return to the basics, focusing on quality of movement. Rice emphasizes the universal appeal of a class that is less about choreography and more about “function, alignment and honesty.” Houlihan recalls attending Maggie Black’s advanced class, then very popular with professionals, many years ago in New York City. “I was struck by how pithy, simple and straightforward [it] was,” she says. She notes that, paradoxically, most advanced dancers tend to appreciate the value of a basic class more than their less experienced counterparts, because they possess the self-awareness to continually and independently refine their movement.

Rice agrees. Early in her tenure at University of Michigan, she worked to separate the combined Level-1 and Level-2 ballet class, and she remembers not being very popular. “They fought it as freshmen,” she says of the Level-1 students. But they eventually changed their tune over the years, perhaps demonstrating how much they had grown. “As juniors and seniors, they wanted to come back.” DT

Ginger Davis O’Donnell is on faculty at The Chicago High School for the Arts.

Photo by Mark Ballogg, courtesy of The Chicago High School for the Arts; opposite page: by T.J. Crehan, courtesy of Tom Ralabat

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