Diana Alcomendas, director of Virtuosity Performing Arts Studio in Camas, Washington, demonstrates the first exercise in a ballet class combining serious ballet students with competition dancers and gymnasts. (Mixed classes like this are a common occurrence at Virtuosity, which has several dance teams and is a sister company of Vancouver Elite Gymnastics Academy.) The music begins. Her pre-professional ballet students melt into their pliés, clearly at home. But the competition dancers aren’t getting the intricacies of the technique, and the gymnasts look downright forlorn, their discomfort painfully transparent. Teaching this class, Alcomendas realizes, is going to be harder than she thought.
Since most studios serve a wide variety of students, nearly every ballet teacher will face the challenge of engaging and motivating students with different goals. When ballet is required as a cross-training exercise for athletes and dancers in other styles, it can be a hard sell, and balancing the needs of these students with those of serious pre-professional students isn’t easy. But if you teach a class that emphasizes the basics and addresses each dancer’s perspective, you can help all the participants achieve their objectives.
Establish What Everyone Has in Common
There are certain practices that will work for all of your students, no matter their goals.
Every dancer or athlete benefits from a class that stretches the muscles and helps develop strength and balance. Working on smooth, controlled pliés and how to relevé correctly will improve any physical effort. Nurit Krauss, who teaches a ballet barre class to recreational dancers at the YWCA Santa Monica/Westside, avoids brainteaser exercises, like intricate tendu combinations that test the memory more than the body. Instead, she focuses on “enhancing posture, elongating muscles and improving joint articulation, which everyone, regardless of their end goal, needs to work on,” she says.
Discussing the mechanics of movement is also valuable for dancers and athletes of all kinds. “Give your students information about each step they’re doing and what’s happening to the joints and muscles as it’s executed,” says Pamela Pribisco, a ballet instructor at Steps on Broadway in New York City and the School at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. For example, as students plié, describe the alignment of the hips over the knees as they go down and the inner thigh muscles pulling toward each other as they come back up. By focusing on mechanics, you’ll be speaking a language your whole class understands.
Address Specific Needs
But since no two students have quite the same goals, recognizing their differences is essential to their progress. Chip Morris, director of Acton School of Ballet in West Acton, MA, likes to reference students’ activities outside of ballet to engage and motivate them. “If I have a student who’s a musician, I’ll explain a correction using musical vocabulary and images,” he says, such as describing a frappé as “staccato.” Morris, who has taught ballet to serious ice skaters training at nearby Nashoba Valley Olympia rink (where Nancy Kerrigan trained), also tailors his class to highlight athletes’ strengths. “Figure skaters work turned in, with flexed feet. They often haven’t developed the muscles that turn out and articulate the lower body,” he says. “So to keep them from getting discouraged, I start out focusing on port de bras, alignment, the things with which they’re most familiar.”
If you’re teaching at a studio that also has a gym or competitive dance team, you’ll have even more opportunities to assess your students’ various needs. The directors of the ballet, competitive dance and athletic programs at Virtuosity and Vancouver Elite meet regularly to discuss the areas in which their students need improvement. “If we have gymnasts who need to improve their floor scores, for example,” says Alcomendas, “we’ll make sure their ballet teachers know they should be emphasizing clarity of footwork and port de bras.”
When it comes to making sure all students are sufficiently challenged, Pribisco likes to let each choose her own level of difficulty. “I always like to say, the aficionados may add an extra beat or the aficionados may do the combination on relevé,” she says. “Those of you who are not, do not.” Alcomendas goes a step further and creates multiple versions of her combinations. One, designed for those less familiar with ballet, may focus on working a single part of the body, such as pointing the toes, while performing a simple recurring movement. Another, designed for pre-professional students, might be more technically demanding, involving syncopated rhythms and contrasting movements in the upper and lower parts of the body. “I like to split it up so everyone gets something out of it,” she says.
Alcomendas also occasionally asks her pre-professional dancers to offer constructive feedback and advice to recreational students, giving them a taste of the teacher’s role. “It’s exciting for the kids who are concentrating in one type of movement to see the kids whose focus is in another area improve,” she says.
Constructing a class that will help all your students achieve their dreams is a difficult process, but ultimately a rewarding one. Remember those distressed gymnasts in Alcomendas’ ballet class? They ended up complaining that her class was only once a week. DT
Giannella Garrett lives in New York and writes about dance and travel.
Photo: Chip Morris references non-ballet activities to keep students engaged (by Melissa Morris)