From time to time, it helps to have students take off their flat shoes to start class. Try this after long breaks, or when students are doing lots of pointe work, or when you notice they’re not using foot muscles to the fullest.
By the time you give a rond de jambe combination, students should be well on their way to reaching their full warmed-up potential, and class should be at the 20- to 30-minute mark—the perfect time for a long stretch.
Over the past quarter century, some of ballet’s most distinguished teachers have shaped the students of San Francisco Ballet School, among them Irina Jacobson, Lola de Avila, Jorge Esquivel, Antonio Castilla, Gloria Govrin, Jean-Yves Esquerre, and Edward Ellison. Recently, two other teachers joined that list: Pollyana Ribeiro, who became part of the full-time teaching staff in 2014; and Yannick Boquin, who chooses to guest teach exclusively. In February 2015, I watched both of them teach class, with a goal of discovering what they might add to the educational structure Patrick Armand, associate director of SF Ballet School (under the direction of artistic director Helgi Tomasson) is putting in place.
Making the jump from good teacher to great teacher is a chapter we all endeavor to write in the book of our lives. And though it may seem unattainable at times, striving for greatness is a way of investing in yourself and your students every day: practicing, thinking, and reaching. Constantly. Becoming a better teacher is within everyone’s reach, and it starts with the resolve to be stronger.
As dance teachers know, conferences and conventions are excellent opportunities to get fresh ideas, network with colleagues, and rejuvenate their love for teaching. However, since many are annual events, teachers can end up with limited options if the dates conflict with other obligations. Cost is also a factor; registration fees, travel, accommodations, and meals can add up to $1,000 or more. In such situations, there are other options for those who wish to engage in professional development: participate in or provide opportunities within their own communities.
NOMINATED BY: Michelle Loizeaux, former student/team choreographer: “Kristin was my teacher for 10 years and is now my colleague. She helped shape me into the dancer I dreamed I could be, and now, as a teacher myself, I continue to learn from her. Kristin connects emotionally with her students, successfully communicates the technical aspects of her lessons, and develops meaningful and professional friendships with her dancers and their parents.”
The word contract is often used as a blanket term whenever we want the back to curve, but there is more than one way to curve a spine. There are differences, for example, between a Graham contraction, a rounded back, and a Taylor contraction.
Feet are like hands in their expressive capability, but young dancers often don’t use feet to their full potential. This can be due to thinking about line in an absolute way. These students have in mind an unattainable, ideal image of “perfect lines” that has little to do with their actual bodies. This creates a disconnect between the mind and body. The idea of line becomes a struggle and makes these students feel inadequate—which in turn makes it even harder to create “nice” lines.
There are two ways to do a grand cabriole fouetté sauté landing in arabesque, and the beginning of the jump is identical for both: a 90-degree battement devant upon takeoff. The dancer can either cabriole the leg devant, then fouetté and land in arabesque; or (the more advanced version) fouetté, then cabriole in arabesque before landing.
It’s critical for advanced students to be able to finish pirouettes en dehors in positions other than fourth-position lunge or fifth position. One-legged finishes, such as soutenu attitude derrière or devant, showcase a dancer’s balance, control, and strength.
Who makes ballet mandatory in order to take jazz? I am trying to implement this in my program this year and I have an older student who hasn’t had ballet in a few years and does not want to take it. Do I grandfather her in and let her just take jazz? Or make it mandatory for everyone?
“Reality Check: Must. Do. Ballet”: Q: Who makes ballet mandatory in order to take jazz? I am trying to implement this in my program this year and I have an older student who hasn’t had ballet in a few years and does not want to take it. Do I grandfather her in and let her just take jazz? Or make it mandatory for everyone?
“Classroom Connection: Stories That Move”: Whether you teach a parent/child class, creative movement for preschoolers, or pre-ballet for kindergarteners, starting your youngest kids’ classes with a book can be calming and inspiring at the same time.
The first Romantic ballet, La Sylphide, a two-act ballet set in Scotland, depicts a love triangle between James, a farmer; Effie, his fiancée; and a sylph, or forest spirit. Torn between real and fantasy loves, James chooses fantasy, with tragic results. The ballet premiered in 1832 in Paris to acclaim, with Filippo Taglioni’s choreography showcasing his daughter Marie as the sylph. Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer’s score, with its lilting 6/8 rhythms and buoyant 2/4 variations, especially for the female leads, lends itself to petit allegro—ballonnés, pas de bourrées, brisés, and cabrioles.
Rhythmic and melodic features of Scottish Highland dances (which both Taglioni and Bournonville studied) appear in both La Sylphide scores. The Highland spirit is best captured in Løvenskjold’s Act 1 reel, based on the traditional tune “McDonald’s Reel”—perfect in class for dégagés, petits battements, and petit allegro.
The wave starts from the fingertips of one hand and travels across arms and shoulders to end in the fingertips of the other. Have students start in a T position—arms out and level with the floor. Tell them to keep a mental image of this position; it will help them hold a clear shape that shows off the wave’s progress.
Students need to learn when and how to create accents—to “stop on a dime” or “hit” a move’s maximum energy—to perform successfully. Usually, accents match sounds in the music, and both dance and music move fast. But that doesn’t mean hip-hop choreography must be taught at fast tempos. Students need to connect to movement and music at a slower pace first, to maintain technique, fine-tune details, discover nuances, and learn to sharpen moves by accenting the music.
It’s a new year, and I’ll bet you have some sort of self-improvement goals for 2016. If one of them is to become a better teacher, try this: imagine that each time you enter your school you are walking in the stage door, prepared to give the best performance possible.
Heel drops are among the first skills a tap dancer learns, and they add a unique percussive sound. Initially, students can build strength by dropping the heel without a weight shift. For beginners, drop the heel in quarter-note or half-note time with a strong toe dig pressed into the floor. For more challenge, combine quarter and eighth notes, keeping the toe dig pressed and using one heel.
Toe drops produce a very different sound from heel drops and add variety and challenge. Practice repetitive toe dropping on one foot in different rhythmic combinations to build strength and clarity. Initially, this may be difficult—shin muscles tire more easily than the larger leg muscles—so don’t overdo these drills.
Coppélia (1870), staged in Paris two months before the Franco-Prussian War broke out, is considered the last Romantic ballet. A collaboration between choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, librettist Charles Nuitter, and composer Léo Delibes, it tells a comic story of a village couple, Swanilda and Franz, and a mysterious doll maker, Dr. Coppélius.
Delibes incorporated several national dances, all the rage then in Paris, into Coppélia’s score, setting a precedent for future ballet composers.
NOMINATED BY: Dana Farber, a student’s mother: “Brynn has endless energy for her students. She spends weekends working on choreography, rhinestoning costumes, hand-making accessories, and helping her solo students. She wants the best for her students and encourages them with positive and kind words. What I value most as a dance parent is that Brynn takes class, attends conventions, and looks for performing opportunities to further her own dance experience.”
Tombé pas de bourrée is one of classical ballet’s most common connecting steps, and it lends itself to all forms of center work. Yet its importance is often overlooked, and it can wind up being a combination’s sloppiest-looking step. Students may spend most of their mental energy on preparing for the trick that follows the tombé pas de bourrée, forgetting that in dance, every step counts.
Graduating from changements to royales can leave even the most talented students feeling “toe-tied.” A simple way for them to feel the correct sensation in a royale is to break down the step.
Fully engaged legs are essential to classical modern technique. Yet sometimes so much value is placed on the torso and arms in the classroom that clarity in the legs is lost.
When training is too focused on physical ability, students may miss out on the sense of personal exploration that is one of modern dance’s most important gifts. Especially with codified styles, we teachers may get lost in a sense of achievement as our students advance through the acquisition of vocabulary and proper technique. But it’s important always to be exploring ways to bring forth students’ full humanity in class. We should be able to see the individual in modern dance—it is part of what makes this tradition so beautiful.
It’s important to teach an awareness of sound quality as well as rhythm clarity. Once students demonstrate good technique in basic movements, challenge them to explore varying volume and tone. Even beginners can learn to regulate volume.
Using different parts of the tap also affects sound quality. In shuffles, for example, we can choose to produce a full-bodied brush and spank with the full toe tap; a light, high sound with the toe tap’s front third; a sharp, striking sound with the toe tap’s inside or outside edge; or a scuffing sound with the heel edge.
If students tend to focus internally or stay in one spot while freestyling, or if choreography isn’t moving around the room as planned, turning basic geometric shapes into pathways can help. This exercise encourages students to focus outward and frees their bodies to travel.
Students can feel overwhelmed when asked to improvise. Focusing on dance fundamentals, basic aspects of movement shared by all dance forms, can help.
Patti Rutland was done. After 20 years, the Dothan, Alabama, resident had sold her dance studio and was set to retire. Then a dancer she had mentored and befriended, Vincent Johnson, posed a question: “Is there anything you wanted to do but didn’t?”
“Reality Check: Absence Mindedness”: I am hiring a new teacher; we are days away from making it final. She just told me that she will be away the first week of classes on a trip she’s had planned for a while, so she will not be able to teach her first night. She’s excited about teaching in a studio again with young kids and I am excited because it’s difficult to find a good hip-hop teacher in my area. How would all of you handle a prospective teacher missing the first night of classes? Do you think I should look for another teacher? —Chrystie Kenny Greco
“Classroom Connection: Reminders”: By the time advanced students walk into my classes they know all the steps in the traditional ballet vocabulary. This is not to say they aren’t still learning. And I’ve found that one way to make sure they do so, consistently and continuously, is to use “reminding” tools: verbal cueing, asking, sharing, and touching.
Until the 1820s, a ballet’s music was often a compilation of popular tunes, opera melodies, and original pieces by one or more composers, tailored to fit the story. Early ballet composers, hired to provide simple accompaniments for the solo and ensemble dances, were of lower stature than their symphonic counterparts. The choreographer decided the rhythms and number of bars for each dance, and the composer improvised music to fit. Mime scenes often borrowed melodies from well-known songs with words that fit the action; the association helped the audience understand the mime. By the 1830s, however, these musical practices were changing. Full-length, two-act ballets were being performed, and original ballet music was increasingly needed.
In 1841, Giselle debuted in Paris with music by French opera composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856). Adam excelled in the new genre of ballet music. Giselle’s score, mostly written in major keys, uses minor tonalities to emphasize key themes and moments, including Hilarion’s theme, Albrecht’s entrance in the second act, the appearances of the Wilis, and the deaths of both Hilarion and Giselle.
Heading into my 19th year of teaching, I have held many titles over the years—dance instructor, movement teacher, dance specialist, and guest artist. But when I started being called a “teaching artist” about 12 years ago, the components of my life came together. “Teaching artist” is the title that best describes me.
NOMINATED BY: Kiana Foster-Mauro, student: “Miss Maggie’s studio is a place where we can be ourselves, have fun, learn dance technique, and create lifelong friendships and memories. Most important, she is an inspirational role model. From time management, to the importance of community service and teamwork, to the true meaning of friendship and family, Miss Maggie leads by example.”
It’s important for students to understand the modern dance concept of the spiral in the back. The spiral allows dancers to move in a way that feels fully three-dimensional. Think of it as a carving motion, in which dancers use the arms or legs to help them carve through space and generate a turn or fall.
To teach coherent classes with a sense of progression, try incorporating the shapes, movements, and energy of the final combination or phrase into the earlier parts of class. This means no improvising the final combination on the spot—it must be choreographed in advance so the rest of class can be planned too.
Many of the hip-hop steps we teach come out of popular dances. The camel walk and Patty Duke, for example, are based on 1970s dances that influenced the social aspect of hip-hop’s development. Since these steps started as party dances, have students face each other and interact to get into the right spirit.
There are a few versions of the Patty Duke; here’s one. Stand on two feet, shoulder-width apart, and start the groove, a body rock going backward. Bring one foot forward, leaving the weight on the back foot, to tap the floor on the accented beat. Return to two feet and rock, then tap with the other foot. Repeat.
Periodically I have to revisit the mechanics of soutenu détourné, because students want to rond de jambe their working leg slightly when closing to sous-sus. This is easiest to correct at the barre, slowed way down, to make sure technique is not compromised.
Without music, have students execute and hold each step in the sequence: a well-placed and square tendu soutenu à la seconde, a tight and lifted sous-sus, and détourné with a crisp spot and tidy finish. Watch how each student closes to sous-sus; the leg should travel in a direct line, with no hint of a rond de jambe. Once students do it cleanly, practice with slow-tempo music, then work up to a brisker speed. If at any point you see students returning to their rond de jambe habit, slow the exercise down again. Make sure to practice soutenu détourné both en dedans and en dehors.
Chassé en tournant can be a striking step in performance, because it has exciting elements—a jump, a turning step, and a traveling step—and plenty of room to add extra dynamics with port de bras. A common mistake is adding a quarter rond de jambe before taking off in the jump. Forced to compensate for the extra inertia, students may sway their backs and/or let their core muscles go.
Remind students that, with or without the turn, the only leg traffic for this step is: plié in fifth position, chassé to sous-sus in the air, plié in fifth. Have students master this sequence before adding the turn in the air, and make sure they don’t try to bring the leg to à la seconde before closing to sous-sus derrière.
The 20th century ushered in a new era in music composition, though Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and others continued to write in a Romantic style.
Major 20th-century movements include neoclassicism, minimalism, and experimental music.
NOMINATED BY: Kim Wood, mother: “In 2003, Lisa opened her school with 80 students. Since then, it has grown and she is living her dream. She is blessed with a 4-year-old son and also a beautiful daughter born two years ago with cystic fibrosis. When she is tired or has been up all night with a sick child, she lights up when she walks into her studio, sees her students, and gets energized to dance with them once again.”
“Recipe for a Better World”: On page 146 of this issue, you’ll find a story about the DanceLife Teacher Conference in which we tell you about many of the goings-on at this big event—but there’s one thing we didn’t touch on because it bears separate mention. It’s the joy and abandon, the sweat and exhilaration of the hundreds of dance teachers who threw themselves into all kinds of technique classes.
“Powerful Girls”: It’s 2015, and our culture still conditions young girls to grow up believing men should be strong and women should be pretty. Misty Copeland’s sinewy leaps, Katniss Everdeen’s archery feats, Title IX, Michelle Obama’s arms, and critical best-sellers like The Princess Problem and Reviving Ophelia haven’t yet washed away mainstream expectations that femininity requires physical weakness.
If you teach girls to dance, you know that isn’t true. But do the girls?
This year’s DanceLife Teacher Conference began with producer Rhee Gold making a request of the 800 dance teachers and studio owners in attendance: “Make this week about you,” he said. “Take the time to rejuvenate.” He recalled his mother telling him, when he was a child, to go outside and get lost—in a good way, of course. It was time for the attendees to “get lost” themselves; for these few days at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, he said, let others handle the school, the house, the kids.
They did, if the smiles, laughter, and conversation witnessed at every turn were any indication. And they did it together. Everywhere, collegiality trumped competition. At breakfast and lunch, teachers welcomed strangers to their tables and swapped stories and ideas.
Books of note (new and not)
1. A Time to Dance
2. Tallulah’s Solo
3. Ballet Spectacular: A Young Ballet Lover’s Guide and an Insight Into a Magical World
4. Creative Dance for All Ages (2nd ed.)
Students often try to achieve correct placement through tension. But to maintain correct placement while moving, dancers must feel engaged, not tense.
The box step is a basic step in many styles. In hip-hop, it was popular with early b-boys/b-girls and lofters.
Most hip-hop dance is done inside a cypher. Dancers address the people around them with their movements, dance together, or dance at each other in battle. Make sure your students think about dancing in 360 degrees. If they always face forward in the studio, their dancing will stay too flat.
Clear weight shifts are essential for strong and articulate footwork. A dancer needs to have one foot released, relaxed, and ready for whatever step is next. A brush, spank, step, stamp, stomp, tap, toe dig, heel dig, or toe tip, for example, requires a 100-percent weight shift to one foot, over the arch, and with the shoulder stacked over a relaxed hip, knee, and ankle. In contrast, only a partial weight shift is needed to produce a strong heel drop or toe drop.
A coordinated port de bras during a jump preparation is key to reaching full potential in the air. Often arms aren’t being allowed to help achieve big jumps because students aren’t timing their arms’ momentum to coordinate with “lift-off.”
To help students grasp this concept, even before attempting small jumps in center, have them stand with feet parallel and slightly separated. Ask them to bend their knees, keeping the feet flat on the ground, then jump as far forward as possible without using their arms. Next have them swing their arms back and forth. Have them jump forward as their arms swing back—that will feel wrong. Then have them jump forward as their arms swing forward—that will propel them into a longer jump.
This exercise demonstrates how helpful arms can be (when swinging with correct coordination) in propelling our movements; a well-coordinated port de bras is the balletic equivalent.
Try this exercise to correct students who, in coupé jeté manèges, are cutting short the port de bras in the coupé. Have dancers extend the arms in first arabesque, right arm in front. Ask them to make the right middle fingertip the starting point, and also the anchor, of an imaginary circle.
Next, have them move the left hand and arm to connect to the anchored fingertip, completing the circle—as they would do in a coupé turn. Insist that the right fingertip stay still in space and the left middle fingertip reach to complete the circle. Students will have to move their upper and lower bodies toward the anchored fingertip to achieve this. Then have them attempt a coupé jeté using the same principle.
One evening before a rehearsal one of my students said to me, “It must be great to be a dance teacher. You can sleep all day and then show up for a few hours of work at night.” This happened during preparations for a rather large-scale show. Like many studio owners, I was responsible for handling all aspects of the production; I’d started planning months beforehand.
This dancer’s comment made me realize how little students understand about what goes into producing a show. In response, I created Production 101, a class that introduces students to the process of theater and dance production, from concept to performance. I also wanted them to see how they could be involved in dance aside from performing.
The two-hour class, open to advanced students, meets weekly for 16 weeks. I also offer the class as an enrichment course at a private high school for international students—a month-long intensive that meets four days a week for three hours each day. On the fifth day, I take the students offsite for field trips. We have toured theaters, observed rehearsals, attended performances, and spoken with production professionals. I also invite guest speakers to the studio for Q&A sessions. Each program ends with a performance at the studio that is open to our dance families.
“Reality Check: Teacher Transitions”: Q: I’m three years in, and it’s happening: I just put out our schedule for next year, and some of the young students I’ve taught will have different teachers. Enrollment has gone from 25 to 150 in three years, so naturally I can’t teach them all anymore. I’m starting to hear parents say, “We come here for her.” Most of these parents don’t know the other teachers, so I will be introducing them, making bios available, and holding meet-and-greets. What more can I do to convince them to trust my judgment in selecting a faculty? They will have me as a teacher again in a year or two. (I teach all levels, but there are multiple classes in each level.) I would appreciate advice on how to navigate the next month during early enrollment. I cannot continue spreading myself too thin. —Chrystie Kenny Greco
“Classroom Connection: Ballet Obstacle Course”: I came up with this activity because our focus of the month was “pathways.” I thought this was an opportunity to hone my ballet students’ focus and to offer a fun alternative to the usual ways in which they travel across the floor. It works best with dancers ages 6 years and older. Younger students may have a difficult time understanding and doing the activity unless you choose easier steps and paths.
I’m writing this two days after the 2015 DanceLife Teacher Conference, our biggest and best yet. Each time we produce this event I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work that goes into it—and each time, as it concludes, I forget about the work because I’m overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, spirit, and generosity of the hundreds of dance teachers and studio owners who spend those four or five days with us, immersed in dance.
From the 1850s to early 1900s, the nationalist movement arose in music, a reaction both to the abstract style in vogue among Germanic composers, and to the wars and revolutions then restructuring much of Europe. Musicians of conquered nations composed music intended to express national pride, often drawing upon popular songs, folk music, and folk dance rhythms (for example Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises).
The major composers of impressionism, a predominantly French movement (approximately 1870 to 1920), were Debussy and Ravel. They sought to break away from Romanticism’s restrictive tonal structures and create musical pictures, or impressions, analogous to the impressionist paintings of Monet, Degas, and Renoir.
We typically think about dancing for exercise, but what about exercising for dance? Hip-hop requires strength and stamina, but dancers who start off in the street (like me) may have no prior physical training. Some students struggle to keep up in class because they lack conditioning, not rhythm or ability to pick up steps.
The knee drop is a common but impressive transition to the floor. (Jerkers call it a pin drop.)
Sometimes students lean too heavily on asking questions. Encourage them to understand that part of class is figuring out answers for themselves. Students become more engaged in learning if they’re empowered to use various methods for absorbing material or concepts, such as observing another dancer or trying an exercise a few times.
Working with hyperextension can be challenging in all dance forms. First, students struggling with hyperextension need to understand which muscles to engage for support; I often focus on the adductors and hip flexors. Students can find their adductors by standing in parallel while squeezing a yoga block or medium-sized therapy ball between the thighs. Have them repeat this in first position, encouraging them to feel the thigh bones spiraling outward, taking pressure off the knees.
NOMINATED BY: Elaina DiBenedetto, student: “I am so lucky that more than 10 years ago Wendy Stein walked into my dance studio and my life. She introduced me to modern dance and encouraged me to dance my first solo; her unwavering confidence has pushed me to do things I might otherwise have let pass by. She is the epitome of what a dance teacher should be.”