One of my goals for my junior and senior dance majors at the University at Buffalo is to get them ready to go out on their own as dancers. So I began disclosing my process as a teacher.
First, I share my methods for making class plans: one is to choreograph a center combination first, highlighting a few central ideas, and then creating warm-up exercises that focus on those particular skills, steps, or qualities. The other is creating a series of warm-up exercises, determining any common themes, and then creating a large center-floor combination that includes some of these qualities or skills.
This information may be helpful if students go on to teach, but it also teaches them that they are responsible for finding a common technical theme at the beginning of any class so they can continue to work with that awareness.
In class, I take time to identify what I consider to be these main themes and tell the students to determine which movements address those technical skills. I tell them how I organized the particular class—which came first, the center combination or the warm-up exercises. I also ask questions like, “Where have you seen this before? Have you heard me say this in other combinations?” Handing out a copy of a class plan can be helpful, but for most classes I simply make my theme and structure clear in discussion.
I emphasize the connections between the very first plié and the last leap of the grand allegro by telling the students to visualize flying through the air with the écarte arm they used in sous-sus balance at the end of pliés.
Demystifying the dance class plan and giving students ample opportunity to prove that they can be their own teacher prepares them for times when they’ll need to act as their own mentor, advisor, and teacher.
Cultivating Warmth and Generosity in the Classroom
Once, while teaching a Saturday 9am class for children ages 3 to 5, I noticed how tired their moms looked. Many held extra-large coffees and some had toddlers or babies in tow.
My heart softened and I said to the young dancers, “Ballerinas are both graceful and gracious, full of thanks. I want you to look at your moms. I bet they would have loved to sleep in today, but they brought you to dance class because they love you. You are important to them! So, do you know what? I want you to give your moms a great, big hug before we start and tell them, ‘Thanks for bringing me, Mom. Thanks for signing me up for ballet class.’ ”
The girls smiled and ran to their moms, saying exactly what I had suggested, and the mothers’ faces lit up. That was more than 16 years ago and I have continued that practice before every class. Here are some other things I do to encourage a warm, open, and generous atmosphere in the classroom:
• While stretching together, dancers ask their partners questions, like what their favorite food is, or what they want to be when they grow up. After a few minutes, they stop and report their friend’s favorites to the class: “Here’s Kirsa! She wants to be a mermaid when she grows up!”
• When it comes to the across-the-floor section of our class, I remind the children how much we all like applause. “We all need encouragement,” I say. “Did you know that when you encourage someone, you are actually giving them courage?” After each student goes across the floor, she curtseys and the class applauds.
• Sometimes I remind students how we all look forward to our dance class all week and how much we love to dance. “We all share that and we are all friends!” I give them a few minutes to take the hand of someone they don’t know, sometimes adding things like “You might not know where they live but would like to get to know them better. Now smile at your new friend, please, and say, ‘I’ll see you next week!’ ”