Help students find the right approach to storytelling.

Andrew Murphy performing in Coppélia with Houston Ballet II

Since the 18th century, choreographers have used pantomime to help tell stories. Ballets like Giselle, La Sylphide and The Sleeping Beauty have iconic pantomime scenes, where rather than dancing full-out, characters communicate through a sort of balletic sign language. These gestures are just as integral to the ballet as the variations and pas de deux; the interactions help advance the plot and define characters, adding depth and nuance to the story.

Speaking without words may appear straightforward, but it requires precision and skill. “Charlie Chaplin was absolutely brilliant,” says Adrienne Dellas, artistic director at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. “It looked spontaneous, but he worked out every little motion until he found exactly the right expression.”

Good pantomime is hard to do well, and a ballet could fall apart if this body language is not clear. Audiences may get distracted or confused if the storytelling is not understandable—and believable. Dancers need patience and a good imagination to work through these scenes. As a teacher, you can help them develop and refine their skills.

There’s No Such Thing as Too Young for Storytelling

You can offer students an early introduction to the basics by helping them work on showing emotion. Andrew Murphy, principal instructor at Houston Ballet Academy, plays music for his youngest students and encourages them to express what they hear through improvisation. “Instead of going into what the pantomime is saying,” he says, “I’ll ask them to show me what it looks like to be sad, or happy, or how they would act tired.”

At the Kirov Academy, students start working on pantomime at age 10, so by the time they learn excerpts from Swan Lake, for example, they already understand the context of the gestures and how they are laced into the fabric of the ballet. Dellas also offers a ballet mime class during the summer course, giving new and prospective students a chance to get caught up. “We have so many children coming in who’ve never had the opportunity to study how the great story ballets are put together, and how pantomime helps explain the stories,” she says.

From Script to Stage

To begin, Murphy finds it helpful to give students a verbal script to say in their minds. “They need to know what they’re trying to say before they try to express it,” he says. Then, once it’s clear to them, the dancers have to translate the feelings into their bodies. He has them experiment with position of their feet and posture to see how they feel most natural while in character. “It’s teaching them to go with their own instinct,” he says. “It comes easier to some people, but everyone can do it.”

Dancers should also consider their character’s intention. Ballet has specific guidelines for some phrases such as “marry,” “swear” and “dance.” The movement is based on classical port de bras, but it leaves room for interpretation. “If someone is strong, then the chin is down and the chest is out,” says Dellas. “When they ask, ‘What are you doing?’ the hand moves away from the body, and the fingers open. A softer role, like Juliet’s mother, might ask the same question, but more gently.”

It might help to practice in front of a mirror to see if what the dancers are feeling lines up with the gestures they are performing. But Dellas suggests teachers guide this practice. “It needs to be directed,” she says, “because sometimes they’ll overexaggerate or think they’re doing something, and they’re not. Pantomime is part of an artform, not just something they can do like karaoke.” For homework, Dellas asks children to think about five different ways a prince might ask a question, or how a peasant girl would hold her arms and head.

Challenges of Learning a New Language

The most common problems dancers face are body placement and timing. Standing too close to another person can make the gestures muddled, and angling the body away from the audience can cause viewers to miss the interaction entirely. And when it comes to timing, waiting until another dancer is done “speaking” before beginning their own movements is essential to the clarity. Murphy emphasizes musicality, as well. “The ballets are choreographed to a specific score, and the music and the mime go hand in hand,” he says. “The timing makes a difference, especially in comedy. If it’s rushed, it’s not as funny as it could be.”

“The root of pantomime is an incredible imagination,” says Dellas. She encourages students to paint, read classic literature and look at photographs and old movies to inspire their creative practices. Dancers can also learn from watching people in everyday life, like parents who shake their fingers at children when they don’t want them to do something. “We use pantomime all the time,” says Dellas. “It is part of the human condition.” DT

Julie Diana retired as principal dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014.

Kirov Academy dancers in La Sylphide

Give Voice to Your Movement

Tips for clear and expressive pantomime from Andrew Murphy of Houston Ballet Academy

“Make eye contact.” Looking at the person you are gesturing to helps make the pantomime more of a conversation.

Keep the port de bras simple. Flowery arms and unnecessary movements make the gestures less clear.

“Pantomime should come from within. For dancers to learn the craft, they need to feel it.”

Move with confidence. “Kids might be self-conscious in the beginning, but it’s important to have fun with it and feel free. Give them the guidelines and let them play with it.” —JD

Photo (top) by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy of Houston Ballet; by Paolo Galli, courtesy of Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox