Private Lessons: Guidelines for Working One-on-One

Anna Reznik, director of the Joffrey Academy of Dance, conducting a private lesson. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of the Joffrey Academy of Dance

A student at Ellison Ballet in New York City couldn't keep up with the rest of his classmates. Although he had talent and drive, he was frequently distracted and unable to concentrate. But once he started taking private lessons—and had no choice but to give his undivided attention—he made rapid progress. “The information he absorbed during our privates was miraculous," says his teacher, Edward Ellison. “His level of focus changed dramatically."

Working one-on-one with students can help them address their individual needs. Maybe they have trouble with pirouettes, or they're slow to pick up concepts in class. More accelerated dancers may need more personalized attention to stay challenged. If you plan to teach a private lesson, it should depend on the student's age, level and personal goals. Below are simple guidelines to help make these sessions rewarding for both you and the dancer.


Getting Started

Suggest that the student come once a week, for at least three weeks. “One private is not enough," says Anna Reznik, director of the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. “And if students wait two or three weeks between lessons, they might remember the corrections mentally, but not physically." For children ages 9–11, Reznik suggests one-hour sessions focusing on barre exercises and alignment. Older students would benefit from 1 1/2 hours, if possible, to work on individual weaknesses or to learn choreography. Thirty-minute lessons are typically not long enough to approach an issue in depth.

Start by having a conversation about what the student wants to achieve. “I always ask what they hope to gain from private lessons," says Ellison. “It differs from one student to the next." Knowing a dancer's goals gives you an idea of how to structure the lesson. For those who just want general instruction, give a simple class to assess their level and specific needs.

Back to Basics

For students working on specific issues, like footwork or placement, it helps to start with floor or barre exercises. Becky Erhart Moore, artistic coordinator at Marin Ballet in San Rafael, California, focuses on basic alignment, often spending an entire hour on pliés and tendus. “It's in-depth work and a lot of repetition, so we don't jam a whole class into the tutorial," she says. “I get down on the floor and manipulate their bodies so they can feel how it should work."

Reznik warns against saying too much in the first session. “Focus on just a couple of corrections," she says. “In the next lesson, continue the work but give something new. Work very slowly and specify more each time, but too many corrections in one class can be very stressful for the student." She recommends that students bring a notebook to write down what they learn, so they can review their corrections before the next class.

Giving homework enhances students' private lessons and keeps them focused between sessions. Cheryl Madeux-Abbott, ballet director at the Franklin School for the Performing Arts in Hudson, Massachusetts, gives exercises that students can practice on their own. If a dancer is working on flexibility, Madeux-Abbott will assign specific stretches. If the dancer has a foot issue, Madeux-Abbott will teach TheraBand exercises to work on strength and muscle memory. “I never have them do anything that I feel needs to be supervised," she says. “It's always something that they can commit to on their own, outside of our lesson."

Marin Ballet's Becky Erhart Moore (left) with student Polina Myers. Photo by Olivia Wecxsteen, courtesy of Marin Ballet


Pushing Ahead

Private lessons can also give accelerated students more personalized attention. A challenging technique class, a men's class or intensive pointe work will push them beyond the level of their group training. You can also use this one-on-one time to coach variations or pas de deux. After teaching the choreography, Ellison gives extra attention to sections that need the most work. “We'll dissect each phrase, talk about how to do the steps and explore how things work musically," he says. “It all begins with the bare fundamentals of the choreography."

Ellison then directs his students to specific videos or sends links via e-mail, so they can observe how professional dancers interpret the roles. “You can see so much today with YouTube," he says, “but you have to know what to watch. Some things they're better off not watching." He tells his boys to watch Mikhail Baryshnikov, for example, to study the way he partners—not just his dynamic tricks. If coaching a variation from a story ballet, Ellison encourages students to research the full-length production.

Many dancers want help with variations or pas de deux for competitions, college auditions or school performances. But it's important to recognize what they're ready for, and if they have the physical strength and necessary technique to tackle certain choreography. “A lot of teachers give privates because it is attractive to make a few bucks," says Ellison. “But I would caution giving coaching to a student who is unprepared and not developed enough to do it. One can get seriously injured." Instead, suggest that dancers work on basic technique first. If they gain enough strength, offer private coaching on a variation as their reward.


Technique
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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