Syllabus Strategies

Patel Conservatory students Marta Kelly and Jackson Kettell in "On the Edge"

Whether you start from scratch or use a time-honored syllabus, the key to a successful student body lies in an organized curriculum.

Choreographing enough combinations to fill an hour-and-a-half dance class is the easy part—in a pinch, you can even manage it on the spot. However, in order to be an effective teacher over a long period, you have to have a structure and a plan. Using a curriculum—mapping out what skills you’re going to teach and when—can be the key to creating an organized faculty and successful student body. Some schools take that one step further and require faculty to use a syllabus that outlines specific steps, lectures and combinations at each level. But curriculum planning doesn’t happen overnight; as Patel Conservatory dance department chair Peter Stark can attest, it’s a continuous and relentless process.

Since taking the reins in 2006, Stark has shaped the Florida-based school’s curriculum and is seeing rewarding results. A former dancer with New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet and The Washington Ballet, Stark became director of Orlando Ballet School in 2000 and started working with the Patel Conservatory in Tampa six years later. He has students in top companies worldwide and most recently, his student Hannah Bettes, 16, won senior gold at the Youth America Grand Prix finals in New York and a scholarship at the Prix de Lausanne to train at The Royal Ballet School in England.

Stark took a varied approach when plotting Patel’s curriculum. For the youngest levels—ages 3 to 6—he purchased the Leap ’N Learn syllabus (created by Beverly Spell) and tweaked it to meet the school’s needs. The pre-professional levels incorporate the structure of the Vaganova syllabus and elements of Marcia Dale Weary’s program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. And though all teachers receive a notebook of materials for their level—including the overarching goals, steps that students are required to learn and an initial lesson plan—nothing is set in stone.

Dance Teacher speaks with stark about the keys to his success:

Are there ever disagreements among the faculty?

Yes, it’s a constant conversation. We start every year with a full-day teacher retreat where we look at everything and argue and haggle. I’ll say, “I want a wrapped frappé.” And someone else will say, “But you don’t get a full brush if you’re not in a flex!”

My team is headed by myself and my colleague Ivonne Lemus. I came from School of American Ballet and danced initially with NYCB, and she’s from the National Ballet of Cuba. We are divergent in our backgrounds so we argue all the time, but we love and respect each other and have seen that there are things from both of our methodologies that we can merge to make students better.

Which of those styles would you say your syllabus is most influenced by?

We are a stepping-stone school, meaning we are not affiliated with any one company, so we have to be broad-based enough that our students can move into a Balanchine style or a traditional, more classical style.

My analogy is that ballet is a tree. The base of the tree is what we’re doing. Balanchine style would be one branch, Vaganova style would be another branch, Royal Academy of Dance would be another, but we’re really trying not to go down any of those branches. It’s stylistically neutral and structurally sound. We aim to give students the tools so that when they go down any of the branches, they can handle it and adjust to the specificity of that style.

Has your syllabus changed over the years?

Participating in competitions like Youth America Grand Prix has really enabled us teachers to see what people—who are hiring and offering scholarships—are responding to. I’m not that old, but when I was training, not all of the boys had full splits. Now you wouldn’t see a professional male dancer without splits on both sides. It’s expected! That’s a very simplistic example, but the fact of the matter is the artform is ever evolving, and if you want to create students who are employable, you have to keep responding to that. We’ve got to change our thinking. There are always things that we can improve on, in terms of how we’re preparing students to excel beyond our school.

So you’re never truly done.

It’s a living artform. The key to our success is that we keep changing. Every time I watch somebody else’s class, I get ideas. Most recently I watched the class of Raymond Lukens, who helped create the curriculum at ABT, and his analogies and combinations together were months of material that I can utilize. I was also fortunate to watch Jock Soto’s class, which was totally inspiring. He was having the dancers move so incredibly fast. I thought I was fast, and he was like 10 times my speed! I am constantly inspired to continue to push and to change.

Would you advise others to work with such a clearly structured curriculum?

You have to. Otherwise, you might produce a student here and there—talent will survive regardless. But if you want to train consistent talent, you have to have a system. Also, two people can accomplish more than one, and the only way to work collaboratively is to have something you can look back to. We constantly reassess what we are doing, but it’s the team effort that makes it successful. Star students come and go, star teachers come and go, but a methodology can maintain through that. DT 

 

Kate Lydon teaches for American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and is editor at large at DanceMedia.

 

Day-to-Day

A curriculum may be in place, but your students will ultimately dictate the daily or weekly lesson plans. Here, three educators share their tactics for staying on track.

Lesle Shafer Koval currently teaches modern dance technique and Laban Movement Analysis, and she is a senior project advisor at The Boston Conservatory. She has created her own curriculum and syllabi for both of her classes.

My point of view comes from Laban Movement Analysis, and even in my modern technique class it gives me an organizing structure. I always come to class with notes that are thought through very carefully, but I’ll stray from them if necessary. I don’t plan my next class until I’ve taught the one before, because I need to evaluate: Did they get it? Do they need to do this again? Are we ready to move on?

Melissa Bowman, assistant principal of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and director of the JKO School’s Children’s Division, was on the advisory committee for ABT’s National Training Curriculum. She follows those guidelines to create her own syllabi for the classes she leads.

I start with what I want my students to achieve and I work backward. I see where my students are technically, then I start introducing the most basic elements. For example, this year my 2As (9–11 years old, whom I see two times per week) learned assemblés, but I had to go back through pliés, tendus, dégagés, sautés and relevés. I figure out a progression. Then I have about four combinations written down for each element that needs to be achieved.

Gerri Houlihan has been teaching at Florida State University for six years. While some of the syllabi were already in place, others she designed, redesigned or tweaked.

I team-teach a teaching methods class (required for all senior dancers) with Tom Welsh. He’s one of those people who fleshes out his syllabus with incredible detail—he knows exactly what is happening every day over the weeks of the course. I use his syllabus, though half the time—especially after choreography showings—I’ll say, “You know what? Can we talk about…” and the next thing you know we are off on a totally different path. It’s much more my nature to be in the moment. He’ll indulge me to a point, and then he will say, “OK, now moving back to the plan.”

 

Photo: Patel Conservatory students Marta Kelly and Jackson Kettell in “On the Edge”; by Soho Images, courtesy of the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts

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