10 Ways to Keep Students Engaged at the Barre

Maribel Modrono challenges students at Miami City Ballet School to move like their favorite athlete. Photo by Jennifer Pino, courtesy of Miami City Ballet

Barre is time for ballet students to develop strength, accurate placement and basic technical skills. But it can seem boring and tedious to young or teen dancers, causing them to zone out and lose interest. Sometimes it just takes a few fresh ideas to perk them up.


Keep students on their toes with small surprises.

Abbie Siegel, school principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, changes the musicality or technical structure of a combination to switch things up. “I'll give something on an odd count, like a five or a three, instead of a four," she says. “Every once in a while I'll throw in a jump during a frappé exercise, or a pirouette in a relevé combination."

Change places.

Margaret Tracey, director of Boston Ballet School, sometimes has students rotate spots after each exercise. “Kids are way too young to get stuck in one place at barre," she says. “They need to be looking at themselves at different angles every day." Her younger students, ages 12–14, move one place over after each exercise. Her older students must pick up their bags and relocate to a new spot at the start of class.

Celebrate hard work.

When something finally clicks with a student, you can tell. Maybe she's balancing longer, or he just realized how to développé with proper hip placement. Recognize these “ah-ha!" moments and celebrate the dancer's success. “Stay positive, encourage and notice these things," says Siegel. “When they see how much better they're getting, it makes them more interested and eager to stick with it."

Create a legacy.

As a reward system, Tracey names combinations after her students. Maybe a dancer always remembers the correct épaulement or does a step especially well. “It's one of my ways of connecting with the kids," she says. “It inspires them to think that one day I'll name a combination after them."

Appeal to the competitive spirit.

Using games or competition at barre will help motivate even the youngest students. Challenge them to see who can point their foot the hardest, or who can jump the highest.

Use real-life role models.

At Miami City Ballet School, Maribel Modrono uses professional dancers or athletes to inspire dancers. “I ask them if they could jump as high as LeBron James," she says. “Or I tell them to pretend that they have on a beautiful tutu that was just made for the principal dancers of Miami City Ballet. Bringing real-life role models into the picture helps them connect."

Margaret Tracey asks Boston Ballet School students to come up with their own imagery to describe movement. by Rachel Papo

Be the music.

Modrono encourages dancers to use their bodies as instruments. “Every now and then they'll have to snap their fingers on the third count," she says. “Or clap when their leg opens to the side. After a long day of studying and sitting in a chair, that really wakes them up."

Change the tempo.

Even if you don't change the structure of a combination, you can switch accents or adjust the tempo. “Instead of a fondu in a 2/4, I'll do it in a mazurka or a polonaise," says Tracey. If students seem bored, she shortens the preparation time to just two counts. “All of a sudden they have to jump in and engage quicker."

Use creative imagery.

Visuals can inspire students to use their bodies in a different way. “Think of elastic or taffy to lengthen," says Siegel. “Or do sous-sus like your body is getting sipped up through a straw." Maybe their toes are hitting hot pavement when they're doing dégagé with a piqué, or they should have the sensation that their port de bras is moving underwater. “I ask them to come up with their own ways of describing things so they stay engaged," says Tracey. “Then they're part of the process."

Tie it to the rest of class.

Help students understand that the steps they do at barre are the same ones they need in center. “The plié they do in the beginning of class is the same plié they need for grand allégro," says Tracey. “Show how technique is built on a foundation, and that the foundation starts at barre. It gets them excited to see how everything fits together."

When Siegel sees that her students are spacing out, she'll wait until center to address the problem. “I point out that the reason they're not getting into fifth position after a glissade is because they're not working hard enough on dégagés at barre, and not getting into fifth," she says. “That helps motivate them, to see that relationship."

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

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

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox