Allow me to paint a picture in your mind…
I am sixteen years old. I have had plenty of experience as a teacher’s assistant in ballet class. It is now my turn to take a class on my own and carry it for the entire year. I think I am ready. I have done all the studying and all the planning and all the preparing. The day has arrived. I put on my ballet teacher attire, adjust my attitude to resemble what I think is suitable for a ballet teacher of three and four year-olds, and head towards the studio. My teacher catches my arm and says, “Don’t be fooled by their size. They have the ability to consume you whole”.
That is how I was launched into the world of teaching tiny humans to be ballet dancers. It goes without saying that those little people did, in fact, consume me whole. More times than I care to imagine, or remember.
Many years have past since that first terrifying day. Through those years it has become evident to me that teaching these very young students is enormously challenging. (Huge understatement. Am I right?) Why in the world some studio owners feel high schoolers who are looking for some part time work can handle the job is beyond me. To teach this age well requires a very special skill set. Basically, to teach preschoolers how to be ballet dancers you should be a perfect mix of the energizer bunny, a saint, an expert improviser, a ballet master, a dreamweaver, and a disciplinarian.
While I would never label myself an expert, I do have a significant amount of on the job experience. Take what you will. Leave what you will. This is simply from one ballet teacher to the next because we must look out for one another lest the tiny humans eat us up.
Change the Mood Instantly
Did you just do something super exciting and everyone is all agiggle? Whisper. As though you have the most amazing of secrets that ever existed. Did you just do something soft and peaceful? Using a loud and enthusiastic voice yell out, “BALLOON TIME!!!” (or whatever dance is fun and upbeat). You get the idea. It should be a bit jarring because that will grab their attention.
Droning on about how they need to stay on their spots is frightfully dull. Instead of using your teacher voice, use a different voice. A silly one. An accent. A mouse voice. A grumpy voice. Just be silly and commit fully to the silly. They will think you are the funniest person ever which will make them want to listen to (and obey) you.
TRUE or FALSE
First be sure they understand the concept of true or false. Then play it with them. Example: You say, “When I plié I should pop like popcorn”. They will, hopefully, say FALSE. But if they say TRUE, you could respond in a variety of ways. When my students choose incorrectly I typically show them what the wrong way looks like. They laugh and realize they were wrong.
Choose a student (this can work really well to pull a disengaged student in) and make their body do the ballet step. Example: (I notice Dylan is not following directions.) “Dylan is going to be my ballet doll (sometimes I say robot instead of doll). Everyone come sit by Dylan! He is going to help me teach you how to do retiré.” I then will sit down with the whole class next to Dylan. The rule is no one may touch the ballet doll except for the teacher. I put Dylan’s legs and feet and body in the correct position and take time to discuss the wrong ways to do the step, etc. Kids love it.
Be the Teacher
Teach them the step and then tell them you are going to do it wrong. If they can spot what is wrong they should raise their hand. You then call on one person to come be your ballet teacher and fix your position. Everyone wants a turn doing this which is great because you can teach so many things and it takes them forever to get bored with it.
What is Different?
Have a student you know can execute the step well join you (or use your assistant). The class is aware that the student will do the step correctly and that you will be doing it incorrectly. Their job is to find the difference. What exactly is wrong?
Give a Test
Not written, of course. And not any sort of real test. This is a test that you conduct in a way to where every single student passes. I generally ask them three questions. They answer as a group. The questions are ones that I am certain they will get right. For each question they pass, I throw points at them (all imaginary). They wind up with so many points because of all their ballet smarts that they fall to the ground due to all the points weighing them down. It is silly, but it boosts their confidence in a very real way because they actually DO know ballet.
Know Your Job
I am a huge advocate of students, no matter the age, knowing their job in ballet class. This is not something I stop class for exactly, it is simply something I implement throughout all of the class period. I teach them and remind them of their jobs often and of mine. I might say, “Would you be able to learn ballet if I did not teach it to you clearly?” They will say no. Then I might say, “Do you think I can teach you ballet if you do not listen carefully?”. They will say no. “See! We all have jobs to do. Now, let’s get to work!”.
Time for a Chat
Sometimes the best option is to sit them down and have a chat. They never like this because to them it feels like getting in trouble. But it is vital that their disruptive behavior be called out, and at times it is not only one or two people who are causing the mayhem. It is the entire class. There is no need to grin and bear it. Sit them down and give it to them straight.
There are plenty of ways to be direct, yet gentle. Firm, yet caring. Always embrace your words with a genuine liking of the students themselves. They will hear you. They will respond. It will make a difference.
Follow Their Lead
No one enjoys always being told what to do. Whenever possible let them take the lead. You have the reins and you get to decide how much of a lead they take and how much you feel comfortable letting go; but test them and see what they have. Let them create the stories that go along with the exercises. Let them come up with ways to remember how to do ballet properly. Let them have choices. You will be rewarded greatly for this because it helps them take ownership of their dancing which has beautiful results.
To finish, the teacher who cautioned me about being consumed by the littles also said these words to me towards the end of my first year, “Robyn, I know it feels terrifying in there sometimes but just remember they are only 3 years old. To them you are a real live hero. You can do this”. And I have been doing it ever since.