Review Your Cues
As each semester begins, I often re-explain the cues that play like the soundtrack of my class. Phrases like “dance taller,” or “engage the abdominals,” and the more personalized “long toes,” or “hollow your leg,” constitute a working language within my class. New students need time to understand what these cues mean. While cues will eventually allow the class to proceed more quickly, I understand that what I mean by “lifting up” may be a very different thing than it did for my students’ last teacher. Similarly, until I work physically and verbally with my students, “long toes” may have no meaning for someone who has worked for years to perfect a toe clench.
And time spent explaining the cues I will use throughout the semester is not time wasted for returning students, for whom the phrases sometimes lose power. Breaking them down may help returning students deepen their understanding of a standard classroom cue.
The beginning of the school year is an obvious time to establish your particular classroom language for new and returning students. However, we know students need to move in their first weeks of a class. Teachers need to capitalize on the enthusiasm students bring at the beginning of the year. If we do all the talking and explaining in the first weeks of class, students may pack their bags and look for a studio where they can “just dance.”
Understanding how and when to uncover all the information that is stored within each cue is where real teaching comes in. To allow students to grow and strengthen, take time throughout the class session to offer in-depth explorations of the concepts you are pinpointing.
It’s not just about inventing new cues, although that can be helpful. I simply suggest clarifying what individual cues mean and consistently providing students with the information they need to absorb and incorporate them.
Make It Personal
Using personal analogies can help students understand ballet concepts. Sometimes giving instructions and corrections in terms of friends and family can give them a fresh way to think about these ideas.
When at the barre, I sometimes say, “Use the barre as if it is your favorite partner. You don’t want to hurt him. Use a gentle hold; don’t dig your fingers into him or lean on him and make him fall down.”
I tell them, “Your face contains some of the strongest muscles in your body, and they’re very expressive. But don’t let them show the work the rest of your body is doing. No one wants to see how hard ballet is, so don’t show it on your face. What if the meanest mean girl—the most competitive person you know—was watching you? Would you want her to know how hard this is?”
If they’re jumping or doing relevé, I’ll say, “Spread your toes out on the floor and then push down against the floor like you are mad at it when you relevé or jump.”
In croisé, I remind them: “Make sure not to over-cross. Pretend you’re in the theater and your brother and sister are sitting on opposite sides because they just had an argument. So you need to show a good position to house left, where your brother is sitting, and house right, where your sister is sitting.”
When dancers start to slack off, I’ve been known to liken ballet to a new outfit that’s going to fit them really well, be comfortable, and look fabulous: “Your mom’s not going to buy it for you,” I say. “You have to work for it and earn it yourself.”