Karen Mills Jennings' Unique Teaching Approach

Karen Mills Jennings uses the ABT National Training Curriculum to create her lesson plans. Photo by Kadi Reyez; courtesy of Jennings

“Ballet life begins and ends in demi-plié fifth position," Karen Mills Jennings likes to tell her students. “They know that there is no compromising on a correct demi-plié fifth position, period, end of story." By the time they reach her intermediate level-two class at the Michigan-based Flint School of Performing Arts, students have mastered that fundamental concept and are starting to understand how to apply it to petit allégro combinations and traveling movement. “They are really starting to move through the space and taking their ballet technique with them," she says.

“I prepare every day for the class that I am about to teach, because where they are is very different from my class next year or my class last year," she says. She uses the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum to structure her lesson plans, but always allows room for adaptation. “I have my goals for the class, but the students may have goals themselves," she says. “I am mindful of where they are on any particular day, the questions they may have and how that may change the direction of the class."

She uses a teaching approach called Beyond Boundaries, which is centered on nonjudgmental dialogue with students. "We ask questions like, 'How did that feel? Do you have questions?' Then we talk about those questions. So there is quite a bit of verbal exchange throughout the class," she says. When students participate in their own learning, she notes, they become more engaged learners. "They are really excited when they've made an accomplishment."

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

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