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Words to Live By

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Keep students focused with bite-size sayings

By Diane Gudat

Over the years I have become attached to a handful of inspirational sayings that I like to share with my students. I have posted a few of them on my studio walls, where they have remained for years; I write others on the classroom mirrors and rotate them as needed. Since I have been repeating most of them for so long that I can no longer remember their sources, I send a sincere thank-you to their originators.

Make excellence your habit.
This advice holds a permanent place on my studio wall. If I could live by only one saying, this would be it.

An irritated parent once said to me, “You expect these kids to be perfect!” I replied, “Yes, and if I don’t, they will get nowhere close to that!” It is a rare thing for young people to work toward personal excellence. Sometimes their time is spread so thin that they become mediocre at several activities and fail to feel the satisfaction of doing their best at anything. The unique setting of the dance classroom calls for discipline and personal growth, which can inspire young people to show their best.

Everyone brings a different natural ability and aptitude to the dance classroom. Those who work to their maximum potential are demonstrating their own excellence. This thought brings me to my next favorite saying.

Let no one outwork you today.
If dancers work as hard as possible in every class, they will become the best dancers they can personally be. Although teachers should never compare one student’s physical aptitudes to another’s, holding each to a personal level of excellence promotes a good work ethic. The desire to work hard is a gift they give to their dance friends. When teachers and students put out their maximum effort, they become the strongest of dance families and achieve their goals together.

I try to give students realistic goals that will help them develop their work ethic, since some feel overwhelmed with certain tasks. For example, with dancers who are working to improve the height of their extensions, I tell them that if every day I placed one square of bathroom tissue onto a pile, it would take quite a while for anyone to notice a change in the pile’s height. But eventually the stack would become a tower, at which point it would be difficult not to notice it and ask its purpose. It would become quite impressive, just like the result achieved by a dancer who lifts her leg higher in each class, even if the difference is as incremental as the thickness of one slice of bathroom tissue. Eventually that tiny change will add up to an amazing accomplishment that might take years for others to notice but will be sure to impress eventually.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare also illustrates this concept wonderfully. I have had many hares in my classes, but it is the tortoises that have changed the quality of the studio.

You are the boss of you.
Most people, especially teenagers, prefer to listen to no one but themselves. Teachers offer suggestions, but their words merely fly around the room unless the students pull the information inside their heads and decide to effect a change. An advanced student’s best teacher is often the one inside his head. No dancer becomes outstanding until he accepts responsibility for his own training. Students must move their own bones and muscles, hear and feel the music their own way, and store what they think is important until the next class. They must recognize that the image in the mirror is of their own making. Once they feel that they are in charge, amazing things can happen.

At the beginning of class, I ask my students to take a moment to consider why they came and what they hope to accomplish, and to set a personal goal for that class.

Lead by example.
This goes back to my dear mother, who often said, “Do not tell people what to do; show them.” If you want your students to be on time for class, do not start class late. If you want your students to be focused in class, stay on track yourself. If you want students to show progress from class to class, make sure the class is structured in a way that allows them to feel the connection. If you want them to be nice to each other, be kind to them.

This slogan should also apply to your students. Every year at recital time, as students are learning their entrances and exits, there are always one or two students who cannot resist the urge to shout, “Go!” or push the student in front of them to get them started. I remind them that the polite thing is to lead by example. For example, if they begin to run in place at the right time, their dance friends will notice the reminder that it is time to get started.

Dance dangerously.
Encourage your students to dance full-out at all times. It may not always be pretty, but dance is physical, and unless dancers push the boundaries they will have no concept of how far they can go. Watching a dancer take risks and stretch each movement to its fullest is an exciting experience for the audience. This bravery extends to the direct emotional contact a dancer must establish with the audience.

Watching a safe dancer can be like watching a beautiful figurine inside a snow globe: It is lovely but completely untouchable. A dancer’s job is to affect the audience in some way. Whether it is to make them smile, laugh, think, or cry, dancers must learn to connect with audiences and let them feel as if they too are dancing.

In the same vein, I also use the phrase “Surprise yourself!” Do what you think you cannot. Do not question or correct yourself. Go for it!

Flexibility first.
Some people may argue this point, but if students are to excel, they must be as flexible as possible. We rarely have time in class to develop maximum flexibility in our students, so we must find ways to encourage them to work on their own. I give the analogy that my daughter would never go to softball practice without her mitt and helmet. These things are necessary equipment for her activity; without them she would probably get hurt. Flexibility is necessary equipment for dancers; they must bring it to every class.

My school offers incentives for improvements in flexibility, including the “Split Club” for dancers who can do all three splits.

Find your passion and attack it.
When people find what they love, they should move heaven and Earth to make it happen. Teachers can help students identify their passions and direct their studies in ways that will satisfy their interests. If dance is their passion, there are countless ways to develop that interest into a career. A student who loves dance and photography could combine those interests and specialize in dance photography. A math whiz with good organizational skills could manage a dance company. Painters could consider getting into set design. Those who love to sew can investigate costume design and construction. In this day of immediate Web access, teachers have the resources at their fingertips to guide students in researching all kinds of careers.

All people should be inspired to do what they love and love what they do, and teachers can play a part in helping their students make that discovery.

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