How to make the most of this unique teaching opportunity

Carter Alexander focuses on the nuances of movement during his master classes.

A former soloist with a rising reputation as a results-oriented ballet teacher is invited to teach her first master class, and dozens of students travel from all over to participate. But she leads them from plié to grand allegro in the same methodical, progressive format she uses in her regular classes. As the students and their parents pack up to leave, two girls can be heard complaining that the class felt routine. “I got bored,” says one. “Yeah, I thought it was supposed to be special,” laments the other.

It’s tempting to view a master class the same way you would a regular weekly class. But experienced teachers say that would be a missed opportunity. The master class is a chance to rise above the ordinary so the students return to their daily routine refreshed. Toni Rodriguez, who teaches lyrical jazz for Dance Educators of America Convention Competition, asks herself before every master class she teaches, “How can I make a difference in a couple of hours?”

Mastering the quick-study analysis required to teach a master class demands a particular mind-set and a toolbox full of ideas. When taught well, a single master class can have a deep, long-lasting effect on students.


Big-Picture Thinking

“Teaching a master class is about planting an idea that students can take away and nurture,” says Carter Alexander, senior faculty advisor at Miami City Ballet School. Since dramatic technical improvement isn’t a realistic end goal for a master class, many teachers opt to focus on the nuances of movement, which are often overlooked during the day-to-day emphasis on rote. Making clean shapes during transitions and adding resistance to the plié to texturize movement are some of the themes Alexander often explores. “Rather than hammering on the quadruple pirouette, I teach how to coordinate the steps into the pirouette—seeing the turn as an element of a phrase, flowing from the pas de bourrée that comes before it,” he says.

Similarly, Trey Barber, who teaches hip hop at Northland School of Dance and Larkin Dance Studio in Minneapolis and gives master classes throughout the country, focuses on expression rather than hard technique. “I emphasize taking risks and using dance to tell a story that conveys emotion,” he says. “I tell my students I don’t want to see their training. I want to get to know who they are through their movement.”


Start Strong

Odds are you’ll only see your master class students for two hours—ever—so every second counts, particularly at the beginning of class. Tap instructor Brenda Bufalino, recipient of the 2011 Chicago National Association of Dance Masters Artistic Achievement Award, assesses her master class students’ ability level during a 10-minute warm-up, using the simple rhythm exercises to determine whether her class should focus on small footwork (for advanced students) or time steps and clarity (beginners). She gets them to tap on the pulse as she determines the direction the class will take.

Barber makes sure his class is productive every moment by creating a comfortable setting. “Anytime I detect that the students don’t know each other, I have them all say their names and where they are from in front of the class,” he adds. A friendly, transparent environment will ease awkwardness and ensure that no student wastes valuable learning time worrying about who the other students are or what they think of her.


Only You

Remember that students are coming to your master class to learn what you uniquely have to offer. Think about your special teaching skills or talents, and how you can incorporate them into the class. Janalyn Memmott, dance department chair at The Waterford School and director of the jazz department at Center Stage Performing Arts in Salt Lake City, draws on her own struggles as a dancer when she teaches master classes. “I understand the challenges of dancers who have difficulty technically,” she explains. She finds that she is especially good at getting through to discouraged students, because she can relate to them personally, a fact she takes advantage of during her master classes.

Barber’s master classes showcase his special affinity for music, which stems from his second job as a morning radio show personality. He knows he can engage students right away by playing fun, upbeat songs. “I have access to music no one’s heard yet that keeps my master classes fresh,” he says.


And Now for Something Completely Different

Teachers love planning, but a bit of spontaneity can make your master class the unforgettable experience students hope for. Barber sometimes spot-choreographs a combination on his students, so they feel they are participating in the process. On a whim, he once introduced portable barres as props, which sparked the students’ creativity. “The idea really caught on and now I use them regularly,” he says. “Throw the students a curveball and they will respond.”

Alexander also likes to keep his master class students on their toes—mentally as well as physically. “Sometimes I’ll show a move incorrectly and ask them to point out what’s wrong,” he says. “Mixing things up activates their minds.” DT

Giannella Garrett is a writer based in New York City.


Photo: Carter Alexander focuses on the nuances of movement during his master classes. (by Todd Lechtick, courtesy of Miami City Ballet School)

For Laura Young, a former Boston Ballet principal who teaches at the Boston Ballet School in Newton, Massachusetts, the request to substitute often occurs in the form of an emergency phone call. Instantly, her mind begins to race. If possible, she tries to schedule some huddle time with the teacher to discuss where they are in the curriculum. But that kind of preparation isn’t always an option. And even if it is—and even after decades of teaching—she can’t help feeling a little nervous every time she steps into an unfamiliar classroom.


Covering for another instructor can be daunting. “There’s a sub today, ugh,” is not an uncommon refrain for a substitute dance teacher to overhear. But whether it’s a last-minute save or part of a long-term plan, substitute teaching is an inevitable part of a teacher’s career—and, with the right preparation and approach, often an enlightening one, too.


Do Some Homework

Many subs would gladly transform into the proverbial fly on the wall to gain insight on the classes they cover. Maria Breza has taken that desire one step further. She studied ballet with Dawn Hillen at Broadway Dance Center in New York before substitute teaching for her. “You can see the class level, how she interacts with students, and the themes she finds most important,” she says. And though you can’t always study with the teacher you’re replacing, if you’re on the same faculty, take advantage of “informal opportunities to regularly discuss what you’re all doing in class,” Young says. That way, you’ll never be completely out of the loop.


But you might not have the luxury of familiarity with the teacher you’re subbing for, or even her school. A former dancer with Cleveland Ballet and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Ginger Thatcher has substitute teaching experience as varied as her dancing career. “I am very adaptable,” she says. “I am happy to do my own thing, but when I sub for Ballet Academy East’s graded, very striated program, they hand me a sheet with a specific lesson plan, and that’s great, too.” Keep an open mind about different teaching strategies. You may have tried-and-true methods of your own, but when subbing, it’s often better to put those aside in order to stay in line with a school’s program.


Consider What Can Be Accomplished

If teaching is building a continuum of challenges and accomplishments while cultivating a strong student relationship over time, substitute teaching, particularly when you have little guidance from the original teacher, can feel like a restrictive vacuum in comparison. To counter the absence of ongoing progression, Thatcher structures each one of her substitute classes with a sense of momentum. “There’s no ability to build on past accomplishments, so I’ll try to accomplish something else specific in one class,” she says. “What can I effectively teach them in the time I’m here?” Often, it’s something about keeping the weight over the standing leg, and the intricacies of the transfer of weight from position to position—common problems for dancers of almost every level.


Your students’ relationship with music is another evergreen topic that can be improved in a single class. Leo Morimune, who subs a contemporary jazz and jazz funk class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A., uses his limited time to arouse in his students a playful approach to musical phrasing. “I try to phrase each combination in a way that progresses musically,” Morimune says. Breza agrees. Subbing offers her an opportunity to remind students about how accents and dynamics convey shadow and light in movement just as colors do in painting.


Think on Your Feet

Planning is helpful, but you won’t really know what you’re dealing with as a sub until you step into the studio. When you first arrive—particularly if you know little about the class you’ll be teaching—Young suggests assessing the ability of the entire group, and then adjusting your plan as necessary, so it aims toward the middle. One of the best ways to figure out ability level, Young says, is to look at students’ posture. “The way students hold their bodies allows me to quickly assess their level of technique,” she explains. Better posture indicates better balance and a higher technical level. In addition, as soon as the students begin to move, she evaluates their musicality, another way to measure ability. A sophisticated response to music indicates a sophisticated student.


To adapt her class on the fly, Breza keeps a “tool kit” of five exercises at the ready that she can either water down or make more difficult. One of her favorites—a series of jumps in first and second position, followed by changements, pas de bourrées and sissonnes—can be used as a jump warm-up for advanced dancers and a petit allégro combination for beginner students. “It’s great preparation for jetés, either later in class or later in the students’ training,” she says. Changing music tempo can also be helpful. “Speeding up or slowing down an exercise is a simple way to adjust an exercise’s difficulty level,” Breza says.


Young believes a dancer’s ability to pick up new concepts quickly is essential—a point she emphasizes when subbing. “When I or another sub come in with a different style, it makes students pay attention,” she says. “This is good. They have to think more. They can’t get away with being on auto-pilot.” She’s also not afraid to look to the students for direction. Sometimes she’ll ask the class what they have been working on and if there’s anything in particular they would like her to cover. Though she’s careful not to contradict the regular teacher’s training, “hearing a concept they’ve heard before but in a slightly different way often helps the kids ‘get it.’”


Prep Your Sub

Here are a few tips to make the subbing process easier for your replacement.


* Schedule a meeting or phone call with your substitute to discuss what your class has been working on.

* Keep a typed-up lesson plan on hand for last-minute subs.

* Invite your sub to class to observe you and your students.

* Give your substitute a class photo of your students with their names labeled and notes about what each is working on, any behavioral issues, etc.

* If you use recorded music, provide a CD or a list of favorite composers/music titles.

* If you have an accompanist, arrange for him or her to spend a few minutes with the sub before class to discuss music choices.

* Prepare your students for the sub by announcing when she will be filling in and for how long. DT


Giannella Garrett lives in New York and writes about dance and travel.


Photo: Maria Breza (back left) took class with Dawn Hillen (front) before subbing for her. (by Fiamma Piacentini, courtesy of Maria Breza)

Diana Alcomendas, director of Virtuosity Performing Arts Studio in Camas, Washington, demonstrates the first exercise in a ballet class combining serious ballet students with competition dancers and gymnasts. (Mixed classes like this are a common occurrence at Virtuosity, which has several dance teams and is a sister company of Vancouver Elite Gymnastics Academy.) The music begins. Her pre-professional ballet students melt into their pliés, clearly at home. But the competition dancers aren’t getting the intricacies of the technique, and the gymnasts look downright forlorn, their discomfort painfully transparent. Teaching this class, Alcomendas realizes, is going to be harder than she thought.


Since most studios serve a wide variety of students, nearly every ballet teacher will face the challenge of engaging and motivating students with different goals. When ballet is required as a cross-training exercise for athletes and dancers in other styles, it can be a hard sell, and balancing the needs of these students with those of serious pre-professional students isn’t easy. But if you teach a class that emphasizes the basics and addresses each dancer’s perspective, you can help all the participants achieve their objectives. 


Establish What Everyone Has in Common


There are certain practices that will work for all of your students, no matter their goals.


Every dancer or athlete benefits from a class that stretches the muscles and helps develop strength and balance. Working on smooth, controlled pliés and how to relevé correctly will improve any physical effort. Nurit Krauss, who teaches a ballet barre class to recreational dancers at the YWCA Santa Monica/Westside, avoids brainteaser exercises, like intricate tendu combinations that test the memory more than the body. Instead, she focuses on “enhancing posture, elongating muscles and improving joint articulation, which everyone, regardless of their end goal, needs to work on,” she says.


Discussing the mechanics of movement is also valuable for dancers and athletes of all kinds. “Give your students information about each step they’re doing and what’s happening to the joints and muscles as it’s executed,” says Pamela Pribisco, a ballet instructor at Steps on Broadway in New York City and the School at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. For example, as students plié, describe the alignment of the hips over the knees as they go down and the inner thigh muscles pulling toward each other as they come back up. By focusing on mechanics, you’ll be speaking a language your whole class understands.


Address Specific Needs


But since no two students have quite the same goals, recognizing their differences is essential to their progress. Chip Morris, director of Acton School of Ballet in West Acton, MA, likes to reference students’ activities outside of ballet to engage and motivate them. “If I have a student who’s a musician, I’ll explain a correction using musical vocabulary and images,” he says, such as describing a frappé as “staccato.” Morris, who has taught ballet to serious ice skaters training at nearby Nashoba Valley Olympia rink (where Nancy Kerrigan trained), also tailors his class to highlight athletes’ strengths. “Figure skaters work turned in, with flexed feet. They often haven’t developed the muscles that turn out and articulate the lower body,” he says. “So to keep them from getting discouraged, I start out focusing on port de bras, alignment, the things with which they’re most familiar.”


If you’re teaching at a studio that also has a gym or competitive dance team, you’ll have even more opportunities to assess your students’ various needs. The directors of the ballet, competitive dance and athletic programs at Virtuosity and Vancouver Elite meet regularly to discuss the areas in which their students need improvement. “If we have gymnasts who need to improve their floor scores, for example,” says Alcomendas, “we’ll make sure their ballet teachers know they should be emphasizing clarity of footwork and port de bras.”


Challenge Everyone


When it comes to making sure all students are sufficiently challenged, Pribisco likes to let each choose her own level of difficulty. “I always like to say, the aficionados may add an extra beat or the aficionados may do the combination on relevé,” she says. “Those of you who are not, do not.” Alcomendas goes a step further and creates multiple versions of her combinations. One, designed for those less familiar with ballet, may focus on working a single part of the body, such as pointing the toes, while performing a simple recurring movement. Another, designed for pre-professional students, might be more technically demanding, involving syncopated rhythms and contrasting movements in the upper and lower parts of the body. “I like to split it up so everyone gets something out of it,” she says.


Alcomendas also occasionally asks her pre-professional dancers to offer constructive feedback and advice to recreational students, giving them a taste of the teacher’s role. “It’s exciting for the kids who are concentrating in one type of movement to see the kids whose focus is in another area improve,” she says.


Constructing a class that will help all your students achieve their dreams is a difficult process, but ultimately a rewarding one. Remember those distressed gymnasts in Alcomendas’ ballet class? They ended up complaining that her class was only once a week. DT


Giannella Garrett lives in New York and writes about dance and travel.



Photo: Chip Morris references non-ballet activities to keep students engaged (by Melissa Morris)

One of Forsythe's chosen few

Laura Graham teaching Artifact Suite to Dresden Semperoper

Laura Graham teaching Artifact Suite to Dresden Semperoper

Choreographer William Forsythe is often compared to Balanchine for his brilliant synthesizing of the classical with the abstract. He entrusts only a select few to stage his complex ballets—and former dancer Laura Graham is one of them. In addition to guest teaching around the world, she has been setting Forsythe’s works on major dance companies for 10 years. Graham currently serves as ballet mistress for the Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany. Last year she set and coached six Forsythe works, including The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which was showcased at New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival. A New York Times review indirectly hailed her for “making the choreography’s difficulties look like a great deal of fun.”

Born in Philadelphia, Graham began performing at age 11 with Mt. Laurel Regional Ballet Company, and she continued studying dance at the Joffrey Ballet School. After winning a top award at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1990, she became a principal with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where she danced as a principal for six years before joining Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. This spring, Graham returns to RWB to set an excerpt from Forsythe’s The Second Detail (“Hula”), while also staging his Artifact Suite for Dresden Semperoper. The two premieres open days apart and reflect the kind of intense commitment that only someone with a kinesthetically fearless disposition like Graham’s could imagine undertaking.

Dance Teacher: What was your trajectory into Ballett Frankfurt?

Laura Graham: I first saw a ballet by Bill [Forsythe] on TV, his Love Songs performed by the Joffrey Ballet. I was blown away and thought, “I need to dance with this person!” Bill was in the audience at a gala I performed in, and I left him my CV through a friend. I couldn’t believe it when he actually called and invited me to join his company. I had only been principal with RWB for two years and still cherished performing leading roles, so I agreed to stay in touch. But four years later I was ready to move on. I wrote him, and he sent me a contract without seeing me since the gala. Nothing ever came to me so easily. I always had to work extra hard because I don’t have an “ideal” ballerina body and had to repeatedly prove myself. Yet sometimes it just happens.

DT: How did Forsythe influence your coaching?

LG: I’ve learned so much about movement and space from Bill. He has always been an inspiration, by constantly questioning, pushing boundaries and never being satisfied with the status quo—one learns the only consistent thing is change. To help make the intricate choreography work for the dancers, I tell them to discover what they feel is the most important “kernel” of the movement. I learned this from Bill. If you focus only on one task (one kernel) during a phrase—like leading with your right hip or simply rotating your calf—everything else will fall into place. Thinking of 10,000 things at once is too difficult and can make one’s movement lack definition.

DT: How do you help dancers communicate the intention behind their movement?

LG: I use imagery and try not to get too intellectual. I say phrases like: Be longer and bigger than you are; know why you’re here; be honest and pure in your approach; and really use your eyes. One I like is: Expand your aura. It’s feeling your body in space and allowing yourself to move expansively. We all know what it’s like to feel squeezed. This is the opposite.

DT: Do you see yourself ever leaving the professional world?

LG: I love coaching professionals, but I am reconsidering. It would be very satisfying to teach professionally minded teenagers in a school setting. Working with so many dancers from many places, I’ve found there’s not enough emphasis in training for musicality, connected movement and natural coordination. Many syllabuses concentrate more on positions than full-body awareness. Pliés are the body breathing. The hands and feet punctuate the music. I love creating illusions and passing the wealth of passion. DT


Giannella M. Garrett received a degree in journalism from Boston University and studies ballet in New York City.

Photo by Ian Whalen, courtesy of Laura Graham

Photo by Andrew Terzes

Jhung, a critically hailed former soloist for the San Francisco and Joffrey Ballets and principal at Harkness Ballet, has taught a devoted following of professional and student dancers since 1972, presented at numerous teacher's workshops and produced a series of instructional DVDs. Tapped to train the original Billys by Nora Brennan, the show's children's casting director (and former Jhung student), Jhung was invited to remain on the job after choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry witnessed his impressive methods.

Dance Teacher: What do you emphasize in the boys' training?

Finis Jhung: We have an hour class, three times a week, so every moment counts. Instead of warming up at the barre, I start them in the center—it's the fastest way to warm up, using their entire bodies. I'm also working with them on correct alignment, training them not to force anything and to use their weight and energy properly. And I'm concentrating on their feet to help them gain a better sense of balance, since they dance on a raked stage and must do 16 turns in second position during the show's finale. I tell them to think of their feet as hands and their toes as fingers, and to grab and hold onto the floor when they plié. I am also training them to understand that there's nothing we can't improve.

DT: Our readers are forever curious about training male dancers. Do you have any advice?

FJ: The challenging part is getting boys to understand it's more than the positions—it's about preparation. The male technique demands virtuoso turns and jumps—they need to have strength in the legs and feet to push up in the air and land without injury. I have students do what I call the isometric plié, which uses resistance and opposition to engage the muscles. For the Billy Elliot boys, this is a totally new concept; it's not usually taught this way. They are used to thinking plié means you go down and up, and that's it. But they're grasping my concepts and especially respond to the video clips—actual proof—of great male dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Schaufuss

and Joseph Michael Gatti. That's the key. They have an image and can see themselves doing that. It's about keeping their energy and enthusiasm up, while correcting and making sure they do things properly.

DT: These boys will remember you as a major influence in their dance training. Who influenced your career the most?

FJ: “Mr. C," Willam F. Christensen at the University of Utah, made me realize you're always dancing for the audience. Rosella Hightower emphasized balance, simplicity and internalization. Madame Valentina Pereyaslavec instilled in me a love for movement. David Howard, who as ballet master at Harkness, gave me private lessons for almost half a year and would give me performance notes after every show telling me what I did and didn't need to do.

DT: What do you love most about your career and the path it's taken?

FJ: I see myself all over again in these boys. In the show's dream ballet they dance to the same Swan Lake music I did when I was their age, without a clue that I would ever go to New York. It's been that journey from there to here, plus all the terrific things in between.

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