Time Crunch

Structuring a ballet unit despite limited class time

Denise Purvis teaches students at Thomas Dale High School in Virginia

By the time her students have changed out of their Catholic school uniforms and entered the studio, Nicole Tipton Tallent is often left with only 35 minutes to teach her high school dance class at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. Faced with three 45-minute classes and one 75-minute class per week, the greatest struggle is structuring the ballet unit for her shorter periods—half the time of a standard ballet class. “There are all these elements at barre, plus center practice and a combination across the floor,” she says. “I had to decide on the skills I really wanted to teach.”

A fundamental system of movement, ballet teaches students to pay careful attention to details, take risks and be bold. But faced with extreme time constraints, crafting a ballet unit that is inspiring and engaging for students is not easy. What do you include? Is it wise to focus on the traditional goals of honing proper technique, or should you concentrate on developing holistic students of the arts with an understanding of the classical style? Here, three high school dance educators share their tactics.

OMIT EXERCISES DURING SHORT PERIODS

One of the first things Tipton Tallent decided was to cut down the barre work, which she now strictly limits to 15 minutes. In her level 1 class, she includes pliés, tendus, dégagés, relevés and a retiré combination to get students’ legs moving. She also gives a long stretch at the barre because flexibility is a big issue for many of her students.

With 5 to 10 minutes reserved for exercises using bigger movements that travel across the floor—“it’s worth remembering that these kids like to move fast,” she says—the rest of the class is devoted to simple center combinations that she can build on throughout the week, ending with small jumps.

“I had to think about what I wanted them to come away with at the end of the semester,” says Tipton Tallent. “For instance, the beginner students need to gain a sense of alignment and knowledge of how to work with turnout, fully straighten their legs, point their feet and plié. I had to think about what is useful in very basic terms for the month or so I have for each unit.”

To keep things from becoming boring, Tipton Tallent says she likes to give the dancers new challenges each week, like pirouettes. “They were so pleased to try those, because they recognized the step. They felt really accomplished when they got it right.”

In the course of a week, Tipton Tallent makes technique the focus for her three shorter classes and twice a month uses the 75-minute classes to explore dance compositions. “We do gesture studies, partnering, activities with action words, drawing and movement, and language and movement. They work with partners or small groups and then present their work at the end of each class,” she says. “It allows my students to be creative, which they love.”

USE CENTER BARRE FOR WARM-UP

Denise Purvis, who teaches at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia, spends about four to six weeks on the ballet unit, which she presents in a year along with modern dance, jazz and musical theater. Although Purvis’ class is only 30 minutes, it comes at the start of the day as the kids get off the buses, so she doesn’t lose time while the dancers change clothes.

“Nine times out of 10, I’ll do a center barre because it’s faster,” she says, explaining it also saves time, since the dancers don’t have to reverse sides. “They’re familiar with the center barre from the other styles, and it also helps them with stability.” With such short classes, Purvis makes every minute count, setting many of the exercises at the beginning of her courses, so the dancers don’t have to spend too much time learning new material.

“I do combinations that travel a lot, although I don’t do big leaps because I don’t want them to get injured; I don’t think they have the technique yet to land safely,” she says. “But they’ll do balancés and waltzes, things that have less impact on the joints.”

Purvis lets her students’ needs drive her pedagogic choices. “I try to understand what they hope to gain from the unit as well as what I believe dance can offer them. Even if they never take another dance class, I want them to walk out of my classroom stronger and healthier. They’ll have a better sense of their bodies in space, and they’ll be smarter about how they use them.”

EVERY MOMENT iS AN OPPORTUNITY

“Transitions are crucial, as is not staying wed to the traditional ballet class structure,” says Lisa Green-Cudek, who has taught at public and private high schools and now teaches ballet at Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University of Maryland. She places importance on pacing the class and makes sure every moment counts. Green-Cudek teaches two combinations at the barre—pliés and rhythmically driven and accented tendus—before moving students around the room. “They’ll trace the edges of the room with a traveling step, because I want them to experience moving in space,” she says. “Then I’ll bring them back to focus with a controlled rond de jambe at the barre, including an expressive cambré to gorgeous Turkish music.” By varying the dynamics of class, her students stay attentive and excited throughout, she says.

Green-Cudek also looks for interesting ways to get the dancers to move from one combination to the next. For instance, she has students practice a run that changes levels from high to low when leaving the barre to take their places in the center. Class time may be limited, but this way, she says, “not one transition is wasted.” DT

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Scott Young, courtesy of Denise Purvis

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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