“She was a shining example of dedication and passion for our art,” Rhee Gold said about Mignon Furman, a longtime Dance Studio Life contributor and DanceLife Teacher Conference faculty member who died December 4.
Please trust your students. If you are clear about what you expect from them and they understand and know their dances, there is no need to stand in the wings and vigorously perform the dances. This distracts the dancers and makes it hard for them to concentrate, which prevents them from performing at their best.
Ballet vocabulary is often neglected. It helps to have young dancers understand the meaning of the French words because it gives them an image of what the step should be; for example, glissade (to glide), jeté (to throw), and assemblé (to assemble or bring together).
Dropped wrists can so often spoil the line for older dancers. There should always be a curved line for the arms, except in an arabesque, where the arm and leg make the longest line possible.
Over the past months I’ve noticed that many dancers I see have poor posture. The posture must be correct with the core of the body firmly held.
Feet, feet, feet! I have written before about the importance of the use of the feet. But after seeing unstretched legs and feet literally hanging from them, as well as young dancers stepping onto unstretched feet or even onto the heel, I feel strongly that this important part of training is so often overlooked or not insisted upon.
Fully stretching the feet as they leave the floor is of utmost importance. There is no better way of strengthening the feet than battement tendu.
nly a few lucky dancers have natural elevation. Elevation depends on the Achilles tendon, the thigh muscles, the muscles at the back of the knee, and demi-plié.
In order for students to develop good balance, instructors must teach correct posture and placement right from the beginning of training. It takes many years of training to develop the strength in the legs and the back needed to balance on demi or full pointe. Start early.
Attitude, a pose that mimics a statue of Mercury, is difficult to achieve correctly. A good way to teach it is for the dancers to work in pairs. One performs the exercise and the other assists in getting the position correct.
A fouetté (short for fouetté rond de jambe en tournant) is a step of virtuosity. The first thing to be strengthened is the relevé.
Ballet is a beautiful art form. It should not make students look and feel miserable. Making corrections in a mean or sarcastic way is an old-fashioned approach to teaching that succeeds only in making the young dancers scared and nervous. They are captives and have no way to defend themselves.
With the emphasis on high leg elevation, kids think that this is the epitome of technique. Teachers should explain that high leg elevation is only as important as other aspects of classical ballet.
It is very important for young dancers to understand that port de bras consists of more than the arms making beautiful shapes; the coordination of the arms makes it easier to execute steps.
Beginning pointe work is always so exciting for young dancers. For teachers, it is a time of great responsibility.
How can flexibility be increased without injuring muscles, tendons, or ligaments? Stretching should be done when the body is warm—after barre, at the end of class, or after a hot bath.
Unless we own or teach in a school that can audition and take physically perfect bodies for ballet, as teachers we have to work with students of all sizes and shapes.
You’ve heard what Desmond Richardson, Jillian Meyers, Nicholas Leichter, William Wingfield, and other big names think about the nature and characteristics of contemporary dance. But we wanted to find out what teachers and choreographers in the Dance Studio Life circle had to say.
Some young children find skipping very difficult while others just naturally perform the movement.
Sickling inward is seen often in young children, especially in hops in attitude devant. To correct this, teach students to hop with the leg held straight out in front.
The technique behind batterie, or the beating action of the legs, can be difficult for young dancers to understand. Here is one effective exercise.
So many young dancers don’t know what they don’t know. Those who feel they “know it all” may become frustrated when they take class elsewhere and find that they have to keep up with more advanced dancers.
When teaching correct posture (stance), explain that the knees must be over the center of the foot, the hips in line with the knees, and the shoulders in line with the hips. Ask the dancers to walk as fast as possible with the weight over the heels, then with the weight forward.
Here is an allegro combination suitable for preteens, to be danced to a 2/4 polka rhythm or, for more of a challenge, a quick waltz:
Learning attitude en l’air is best done facing the barre. Have students stand slightly away from the barre, holding it with two hands. Have them raise the leg, derrière, and bend the knee slightly without altering the height of the knee. (A low position should suffice at the beginning.) As the height of the leg increases, the weight of the body moves forward. The shoulders and hips remain square to the barre.
One of the weakest areas I have seen in students who audition for my summer school is the pirouette. If students cannot balance, they cannot pirouette. Therefore, have them start by balancing on two feet from age 8 or 9, feeling the body centered, then progress to balancing on one foot with the working leg in passé position. Once they have felt their balance, turning will become easier. Of course, the head, turnout, and arms must be synchronized, but the balance is the basis.
Batterie is often overlooked in classes when time is a consideration. So make sure the first allegro combination is suitable to be performed with batterie. For example, if the warm-up is four sautés in first and four changements, the changement can be changed to royale (changement battu). Or try four changement and two échappé sautés. Beat the changement and the closing movement of the échappé.
Regular readers of Dance Studio Life have come to look for Mignon Furman’s “2 Tips for Teachers” department in every issue. Teachers who want more of Furman’s hard-won wisdom on ballet education have an option this summer: the Teachers Intensive 2010 at Purchase College SUNY.
Repetition, repetition, repetition—the only way to perfect a ballet movement is to do it over and over. Think of concert pianists who practice for hours to perfect only their fingering. Then think of dancers who have to perfect feet, legs, head, upper body, arms. How can you make this constant repetition enjoyable and meaningful for young dancers?
A child who disrupts a class obviously wants attention. If the child is young, explain that you need to have someone hold your hand; then firmly and kindly hold that child’s hand. Or give the child a special place in the front of the class, along with the responsibility of being the class model. It usually works well.
Stiff and strained-looking hands and fingers, along with thumbs that stick out, show tension in dancers. To help them relax, have them circle their wrists in both directions and feel their fingers move.
Often parents live their lives through their children. I have frequently heard a mom say, “We have started pointe work,” as if the mother were also in pointe shoes. Children will progress more in their studies when parents are not so involved.
Pirouette en dedans should be the easiest way to turn; it is the most natural. However, problems arise when turning is made so technical that the dancers become tense, restricting the movement.
In teaching pirouettes it is important to emphasize using turnout. On relevé the supporting leg must retain turnout with the working leg placed so that the toe is just below the knee of the supporting leg. The turned-out working knee acts like a rudder of a ship, steering the way around.
From my balcony at the Tel Aviv Hilton, I watched swimmers, surfers, and the waves of the Mediterranean Sea lapping on the beach below. In Israel for the Performance Awards, my program to encourage and evaluate ballet students, I looked out on this city of contrasts. Its skyscrapers towered over older apartment buildings built on concrete stilts, with bomb shelters in their basements and solar panels on their roofs. I could see the nearby marina, and the biblical Jaffa in the distance.
In traveling to many cities on my audition tour, I have become more aware than ever of many young dancers’ inability to turn well. Look for more tips on improving this aspect of technique next month.
What age to start pointe work? This is a question frequently asked by teachers, and my advice is not before 10 or 11 years of age.
Hyperextended (or swayback) legs create a beautiful line but present problems with strength and stability in some areas, including pointe work.
How do you get students to keep straight lines when dancing in a group or ensemble for a competition or recital? It’s simple: Teach them to look directly at the back of the head of the dancer in front of them (right at the bun, if it’s a girl).
Tip 1 To teach développés devant, have the students lie on the floor on their backs with their legs crossed as though the feet are in fifth position and with both feet fully stretched. Instruct them to draw the working foot through cou-de-pied to the passé (retiré) position. Then, leading with the heel, they should extend to an attitude devant, returning the leg to fifth position by reversing the movement. Have them practice développé to second from this position as well; it is easier to feel the correct placement of the hips.
Tip 1: Do not demonstrate too much. When teachers demonstrate excessively, young students depend on copying them instead of absorbing and remembering the movements.
Tip 1 When teaching batterie (such as a royale or changement battu or an entrechat quatre), have the students start from an open rather than a closed position. For example:
In ballet, an ending is as important as a beginning and middle, if not even more so. From early training the children should be taught to remain motionless for a count of 3 at the end of each exercise. You can make this into a game of statues in which everyone turns to marble when they finish an exercise. Then wave your magic wand to free them, and move on to the next step.
To explain the concept of turnout to a young dancer, have the child stand with legs parallel. Draw a straight line along the thigh through the knee and down the shin to the center of the foot. (Use chalk so that it can be removed easily.) Explain that the line must always remain straight even when turning out, and that only by practice and gaining strength and flexibility will each leg turn out to 90 degrees with the line remaining straight. Explain that if the leg turns out from the knee instead of the thigh, the line will not be straight.
A demi-plié provides both spring and momentum in allegro work, making fast steps easier, jumps higher, and landings softer. Demi-plié must be used at the beginning and end of all springing and allegro steps, including glissades. A well-executed glissade must be completed in one count, making certain to put the same energy in stretching the closing foot as in the leading foot.
In a class of 3- to 5-year-olds, it is a good idea to vary the format of the class. One way to do that is to place hula hoops on the floor and tell the children that each one’s place is in a particular hoop. (They become very territorial!) It makes for a fun class and teaches discipline as well.
TIP #1: Corrections
Do not give instructions through the music. If a dancer is not performing the steps correctly, stop the music and correct the steps. Do not give more than two corrections at a time. If more than two are necessary, let the dancers get the first two correct before proceeding with further corrections.
Three golden rules for arms (except where choreographed otherwise):
1. The arms should never move to or be held in a position behind the ears.
2. The hands should never cross the centerline of the body.
3. In any arabesque, the shoulder of the front arm is never lower than the shoulder of the side arm.
For children ages 5 to 8, start the class with moving steps, before they stand still for demi-plié or tendu. Suitable steps would be gallops, runs on a high demi-pointe, and what I call “picked-up runs,” which are running movements in which the raised knee bends and the foot is lifted behind the body.
It is important for young children to practice the head movement, and to spot, before starting to learn pirouettes. Here is a useful way to achieve this: