At 20, JaQuel Knight isn't much older than his hip-hop students

New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht, 26, excels at virtuoso showpieces like George Balanchine’s Tarantella, performing soaring leaps with a daredevil’s confidence. Four years ago, when an NYCB colleague asked him to teach a class at the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs, he welcomed the challenge. Then he faced his first students. “Suddenly I realized I was expected to play a part I’d never played before—a teacher! That so panicked me my first word came out, ‘P-p-plié.’ Not until I saw what we needed to work on did I calm down.”

 

Ulbricht’s experience is all too common, says Elsa Posey, director of the Posey School in Northport, NY, and president of the National Registry of Dance Educators. “Most young dancers know dance from a performance context, but they don’t have any background in dance education,” she says. “They know the steps and think that’s enough. Then, when they start to teach, they realize what they’re lacking.”

 

But there are ways that young teachers can avoid uncomfortable classroom situations—whether they’re caused by a lack of teaching experience or by the narrow age gap separating them from their students. DT explores how junior teachers can establish their authority in the studio.

 

Establish Boundaries

 

One of the most common problems that young teachers have is preserving a professional distance between themselves and their students. Take a cue from senior, more experienced teachers: Be approachable, but not friendly. Even though they may be close to your age, your students are not your friends.

 

An easy way to establish that relationship right away? Introduce yourself as a “Mr.” or “Ms.” The physical impression you make when entering the studio can also help set the proper tone for the class. Erect posture not only helps you command the room, but it also sets an example for your students. Turn off your cell phone, and don’t carry in casual props like a cup of coffee or a BlackBerry, which distract you and make you appear less professional.

 

A young teacher’s behavior outside of class is equally important. Even when they’re not in the studio, your students are still your students. It’s best to avoid contact with them on networking websites and to decline their social invitations.

 

Come Prepared—But Be Ready to Throw Away the Script

 

It’s hard to overstress the importance of  preparation. Arriving with a set of combinations—and music, if you won’t have an accompanist—creates a sense of security and increases self-confidence, which in turn boosts authority.

 

But what do you do with your script if it happens to not reflect student needs for that day? “Be ready to junk it,” says Ted Warburton, a former dancer, now an associate professor of dance at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “You must adapt to student needs and teachable moments. Good dance teachers invite spontaneity and improvisation in themselves and their students. Yes, my dance training provided a kind of road map for teaching, [but the destination] wasn’t the same in every class.”

 

Keep Moving

 

“I’m all over the place during class,” says L.A.-based hip-hop choreographer and teacher JaQuel Knight, 20. “One-on-one contact is the best way to make a correction”—and to remind the students that you’re always watching them, emphasizing the fact that you are the leader of the class. Ulbricht believes prowling the studio not only reinforces your authority but also improves the students’ posture: “They always stand up straighter when a teacher goes by.” Eye contact with every student is also essential, and should not be limited to giving a correction. “Give to the whole room all the time,” Ulbricht says.

 

Warburton learned from his mother, an elementary school teacher for over 40 years, that moving closer to troublesome students to speak to them reinforced her authority. “It might have been weakened by calling out to them from across the classroom,” he says. “Sometimes all they wanted was her attention, anyway.”

 

Go Back to School

 

If at all possible, Posey recommends that young teachers take the time to study dance education. “You have to learn to teach, and that means familiarizing yourself with subjects like child development,” Posey says. “Also especially important—and especially lacking in younger teachers—is a knowledge of dance science and medicine, of the way the body works. You should understand the body before you teach others how to use it.” A young teacher with knowledge of these subjects will also be much more comfortable and confident in the classroom, and students will sense and respect that confidence—no matter the teacher’s age.

 

Never Let ’Em See You Sweat

 

All teachers make mistakes. But it’s especially important that younger teachers stay calm when they do—because students are more likely to take advantage of a younger teacher’s frustration than an older one’s. “Be patient, and trust yourself,” says Posey. If you forget a combination or can’t find the song you want, don’t undermine your authority by losing your cool.

 

Finally, remember that there’s always tomorrow’s class. Time and repetition are a young teacher’s best allies in the battle for classroom authority. DT

 

 

Harris Green is a freelance writer in New York City.

 

With additional reporting by Margaret Fuhrer.

 

 

Photo: At 20, JaQuel Knight isn’t much older than his hip-hop students. Photo by Josephine Daño.

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Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

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New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht has a history of precocity. At age 15, after a three-day visit to the School of American Ballet as a guest pupil, he was awarded a full scholarship on the spot. NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins then cast him as a spunky, side-straddle-hopping jester in Martins’ production of The Sleeping Beauty while he was still a student. Once in the company, Ulbricht proceeded to set new standards for crowd-pleasing virtuosity in such demi-caractère parts as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night's Dream and conjure up the power of the great Edward Villella in his signature roles in Tarantella and Prodigal Son.

Given his lightning-fast ascent through the ranks, it’s no surprise that he’s now an in-demand teacher as well—at age 24. His burgeoning parallel career includes serving as a guest professor at Indiana University and a guest faculty member at the Chautauqua Institute, The Rock School for Dance Education and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In New York City, he teaches at SAB, Ballet Academy East and Studio Maestro. Last summer, he and fellow NYCB principal Jenifer Ringer became associate directors of the New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga, NY.

Dance Teacher: When did you start to teach and where?

Daniel Ulbricht: I started teaching in Saratoga three years ago, when I was a soloist with City Ballet. Saratoga is the company’s summer home, and our dancers are traditionally involved with NYSSSA. Amanda Edge, a [now former] corps member who served as a liaison, called me and said, “Daniel, would you like to come teach?” I said I’d like to try. Little did I know. The class was co-ed for New York state students, ages 14 to 18, who had qualified for the summer program. The first five minutes I was so nervous I stuttered, “P-p-plié.” But then it was smooth sailing. I talked so much, encouraging the students, that I lost my voice. I was mentally as well as physically exhausted, but I was hooked. Teaching was like another kind of performance.

DT: By you?

DU: Not just me. I want students to think of class as a performance. I want steps done at the barre and in the center to be presented as if for an audience, with musicality and personality—and energy. Ask your students to define “energy,” and they always say it means “fast.” Actually, energy is about being alive. An adagio must have energy. Without energy, without musicality, there is no dance. When students come to class with that attitude, they bring extra adrenaline and they pay extra attention. A dancer should look energetic—that is, ready to go—just standing at the barre.

DT: So you start with posture?

DU: Teachers can improve students’ posture just by walking around. Students always straighten up when teachers approach, then slouch after they pass. That’s why I walk around all the time. It’s my job to keep the energy level high. Growing up in St. Petersburg (Florida, I alsways add after a pause), I was fortunate to have had teachers whose classes were so exciting I couldn’t wait to return. [Leonard Holmes, who studied at SAB, and Javier Dubrocq from the Ballet Nacional du Cuba] taught me the proper attitude while giving me a solid foundation in technique.

DT: How large are your classes?

DU: I’ve taught up to 60 in a college class or summer program. My average, I’d say, is 30 students. Last summer I taught up to 25 classes a week.

DT: Can you give students individual attention in a class of 30?

DU: My general corrections apply to everyone, but for specific, personal corrections, I’m a tailor making a custom-tailored suit and keeping everyone’s measurements in my head as I teach. It’s like having 20 or 30 different classes going on at once. That’s a challenge, since my goal is to get to everyone in one way or another, either by demonstration or hands-on training, but I like challenges.

DT: You were notorious for cutting up in company class. One City Ballet teacher said you should be in a cage. How would you have disciplined you?

DU: I’m still a cut-up, but that’s beside the point. I put undisciplined students on the spot by challenging them to do a demanding step or combination. If it’s a gifted student who’s bored because he thinks he knows it all, I make up a really challenging combination for him. You have to keep pushing your best students because they tend to be content with how good they are. Demonstrating is also a good way to build confidence. Some students may score a breakthrough by being put on the spot. They didn’t know they could deliver! I always ask to see an outstanding demonstration done again. Consistency is absolutely essential. A student may be proud of doing seven pirouettes in succession, but wobbling on the third and the fifth means there’s more work to be done.

DT: How bluntly do you put that?

DU: First, I always say something positive, like, “You’re on the right track.” That’s how Lenny and Javier empowered me. Then I get specific about what’s being done wrong. My teachers showed me they were there for me but let me know what I had to keep working on.

DT: What if the student is hopeless?

DU: “Hopeless” is my least favorite word. If students are “unpromising,” let’s say, but really trying, I give them plenty of encouragement. I want every student to develop a love of dancing. Everyone deserves that experience of having worked hard at something they love. Maybe in the future they will support dancing because they remember what it felt like to dance and how much they loved it.

DT: Do you prefer teaching single-sex or mixed classes?

DU: Mixed classes. There are few steps that belong exclusively to one sex. For older students, practicing steps in a mixed class raises the energy level. The gentlemen try harder to impress the women in the room, and the women try harder to impress the gentlemen. Of course, if you’re teaching a class of children, you don’t start little boys out on steps that are done in a tutu; otherwise you’ll lose them.

DT: Do you learn from teaching?

DU: Oh, absolutely. Let’s say I’m correcting a student with balance problems, and as we break the steps down, I realize the solution involves a distribution of weight I’ve never thought of. “Daniel, you’ve got to try this!” I’ll tell myself, and next time when I take class, I do. This happens all the time.

DT: Doesn’t teaching interfere with your career as a dancer?

DU: Dividing my time and energy is a problem I’m always working on, but I’d say the two biggest enhancements of my career as a dancer are teaching and Pilates. Dancing is like a language the best dancers have total command of. Teaching is an analysis of that language and learning its complexity, while dancing is using it competently, securely and correctly with an elegance that makes the audience think it’s easy.

DT: Which career do you enjoy most?

DU: Dancing. I love meeting the challenges and—I admit it—there’s no satisfaction like having 2,500 people roar their approval when you take a bow. But there’s a similar satisfaction when I’m standing with my back to the mirror, facing the class after I’ve given a correction that hits the target. Yes, I have a smaller audience but it’s a great satisfaction to see the light bulbs go on. If you don’t wholeheartedly love it when that happens, you shouldn’t be teaching. DT

 

Harris Green is a writer in New York City.

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