Teaching Ballet in Universities

As with many university dance programs, California State University, Long Beach, provides ballet training primarily to students who are interested in becoming contemporary rather than classical dancers. Ballet training in a university setting is therefore not a means to an end as much as an additional route of movement investigation. Though much has been written about approaches that use somatic methods or encourage cross-training between ballet and modern, the heart of the matter seems to be this: How can a way of moving that is so codified according to the needs of a 19th-century repertory be useful in the training of dancers who have little or no desire to dance that repertory?

 

University dance majors often begin their ballet training later than students in a conservatory. Whereas a conservatory-trained student has many years to embody the set structures in ballet, university students are on an accelerated path that places ballet side by side with modern dance. They’re generally eager to add ballet proficiency to their tool belts (many admire companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago), but their zeal quickly subsides when ballet is taught in a way that feels to them aesthetically anachronistic and without creative resonance for their dancing selves.

 

I have found through trial and error that these students gain the most when ballet is approached experientially—when they are guided to be the agents of their own learning through exploration. As a road map, ballet holds great power in the clarity and logic of its suggested routes of travel. As a method of study alongside modern dance techniques, it can be invaluable in preparing university students for professional work in the contemporary dance arena. Cultivating a creative approach to the teaching of ballet, one in which students themselves are the authors of their creative movement choices, helps to bridge a gap that can exist like a chasm for them between the worlds of ballet and modern dance.

 

Explore within traditional structure. As a method of study, ballet presents a codified system that simplifies the pathways to follow, but its “rules” do not dictate how movements are to be explored. Interestingly, I have found little need to adapt the traditional structure and progression of ballet class in order to serve this sense of individual exploration (I still rely on Vaganova and Cecchetti myself), but rather that classes with an emphasis on self-authorship by the students are the most beneficial. 

 

It’s effective, for instance, to encour-age students to generate choices rather than to mimic actions. While it is enormously helpful if teachers can find imagery to guide their students (whether in relation to movement dynamics, spatial awareness, alignment or in sequencing enchaînements—the list is endless!), even more helpful is tapping into a student’s own sense of creativity.

Center versus barre. I occasionally begin my classes with simple center exercises, both parallel and turned out, to guide students into finding placement and weight. I am a strong believer in the barre as a means to amplify the length, rotation and dynamics associated with ballet, but it can be easily misunderstood and work counteractively against a student’s natural stance and turnout. A common misconception among students is that the “lifted look” in ballet is created through the excessive holding of the muscles in order to support the skeletal structure. Similar to the freedom students find while moving in contemporary dance classes, the perception of one’s center of balance in ballet class can also be an energizing sensation which enables mobility. I occasionally conduct entire classes dedicated to exploring tension release, and I encourage students to discover a “center” to move and breathe from, rather than a static place in time and space.

 

The gravity factor. In modern dance classes it is accepted that responsiveness to weight and gravity will play a major role in the development of technique. This work must be equally applied to ballet, and by embracing the sensation of weight, students can productively engage in the struggle against gravity, whether on flat, relevé or while jumping—generating gravitational opposition by pushing rather than lifting the body. Many divisions between ballet and contemporary dance melt away upon this discovery, when one realizes the enormous subtleties and shades entailed in how weight can be approached.

 

Finding the motion within épaulement. Teachers can offer cues to help students discover their own movement intent by encouraging them to explore the space surrounding them, a multidimensional canvas upon which every dancer interacts or discovers repose within. Positions of the upper body are fertile ground to begin this discussion, and students can be encouraged to mobilize the head and neck in such a way as to counter the “pushes and pulls” of shoulders, torso and hips. Dancers proficient in modern dance can actually more easily understand the spiraling force of épaulement, as they have the ability to manipulate their torsos beyond the twisting that is more internal in balletic positions. Épaulement can thus be understood as a movement idea, rather than a static position.

 

The power of opposing forces. Many positions in ballet class can be explored in terms of this dynamic oppositional quality—an arm in second position against a leg in attitude derrière, for example—whereby the equilibrium created through counter-pulls regenerates a sense of stability. In order to fully explore these oppositional sensations, exercises can be constructed for students to overexaggerate the twisting within directional points in space, taking to the extreme positions that are usually implied in classical work. As I like to say, “Let’s try to break a few rules this time around!” And, fol-lowing their investigation, it is interesting to point out to students that their approach could form the basis for some of the contemporary choreography they are currently witnessing, many following in the footsteps of William Forsythe in pushing ballet into new territory. DT
   

 

Lorin Johnson has danced professionally with both American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. An expanded academic version of this article is forthcoming in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training: www.tandf.co.uk/journals/rtdp.

 

Photo: “I am a strong believer in the barre,” says Johnson, “...but it can be easily misunderstood and work counteractively against a student’s natural stance and turnout.” (by Lisa Johnson, courtesy of the author)

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox