Unifying a diverse group of dancers in a drop-in class can be a challenge, but Suzana Stankovic takes it in stride in her open adult-beginner ballet class at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City. "I get all kinds of students," she says. "That's one of the reasons why I love teaching open adult classes." To accommodate everyone, from the first-timers to professionals, she offers modifications for the combinations, like double frappés or doing the exercise on relevé. If she sees a beginner struggling, she'll stand in front of them at the barre and do the combination with them.
Before pliés even begin, Stankovic likes to start with a breathing warm-up that centers the mind and the body. Students sit on the floor with the soles of their feet together and their eyes closed, and then she cues them with simple commands as they breathe deeply: "Lift the heart, soft shoulders, soft neck, soft belly and a really long spine." Sometimes she tells them to pick an anchor word like "strength," "grace" or "authenticity," to focus on throughout class. "For the next 90 minutes that you're dancing and being challenged, you can always come back to your anchor word," she says.
To maintain a nonjudgmental atmosphere, Stankovic frames her feedback in the form of questions. "Throughout the barre I'll ask them: 'Are you gripping the barre? If so, why?' 'Can you soften your hands?' 'Can you soften your shoulders?'" she says, noting that dancers often come to her with a lot of embedded self-criticism. "Everything is a question. It's not a demand. It's not a judgment."