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

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