Anthony Jones knows what it feels like to be anonymous in class. “For two years, my teacher didn't know my name," he says. Now, as the school director at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Jones makes it a point to know all his students, even if it means they have to wear name tags for weeks. “It's important to me that I see everyone," he says.
Some teachers naturally gravitate toward two or three of the strongest students in class and, unintentionally, overlook dancers who don't put themselves front row, center. But you have a responsibility to motivate these students and help them reach their full potential. By maintaining an inclusive attitude and employing some simple logistics, you'll keep the entire class in focus.
To see all students in class, it helps to move around when you teach. “I walk around the barres and along the perimeter," says Jones. “I'm always working with different dancers, fixing hands and feet." You can move students into new positions, too. Avis Sauls, director of Essence Dance Company in Dallas, Texas, refuses to let dancers hide in the back. “I put them right in front of me," she says. “Then I can really see the places they're struggling and take some time to break things down."
Students might need to move to another class if they aren't in the appropriate level. “It can be very demotivating for dancers if they can't keep up, or if they're always feeling overlooked," says Wendy Miner, director of Magnify Dance Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It's also hard to teach to the top of the class when you feel like you're leaving them behind." Miner is restructuring her classes to accommodate a growing number of teen students who don't fit into the most advanced level. “They are very engaged and want to be there multiple days a week, so we're going to create a new level for them," she says.
Give Everyone a Chance to Shine
All students can be acknowledged for something they do well. “I try to zone in on their strengths," says Jones. “If it's their memory, I'll ask them to remember a combination for the next class. It gives that kid a certain ownership." If a student demonstrates good musicality or is the only one to apply a general correction, those are opportunities to showcase that dancer. And, Jones adds, “other students in the class can then appreciate that everyone has something to offer."
When doing new choreography, include dancers of all levels by designing sections specifically for them. “Still make it challenging, but let them feel beautiful," says Sauls. “It's our opportunity as teachers to remember that they're not just bodies, but people." She congratulates these students when they make even a small amount of progress, knowing that for them, it might be a big leap forward.
Miner highlights a different student each week, taking a picture of her in a tiara and posting it on social media. “Maybe that person is a great friend, has great attendance or is helpful to the teacher. It's not about who can do the most pirouettes or who has the best extension. It's based on their personal qualities," she explains. It's also been a good marketing strategy, since parents get excited and share the news with friends.