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Courtesy of Lisa Lacroce Patterson

Audrey was looking at her iPad when I heard her begin to sob. My daughter's tears flowed with more intensity as the music continued to build. What was she watching that moved her so profoundly? Looking over her shoulder, I saw that it was the final act of Swan Lake. I was stunned by her emotional reaction to the story, particularly because her attention deficit disorder (ADD) usually prevents her from sticking with any one video for more than a minute. But here she was, thoroughly engrossed by poor Odette and her prince, Siegfried, for more than an hour.

In addition to struggling with ADD, Audrey, who is 14, is nonverbal, developmentally delayed and on the autism spectrum. Most of all, she's passionate about ballet.

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Teaching Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

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