Thanksgiving is over, winter break is on its way. There is so much excitement in the air. The buzz of the holidays brims everywhere. The most wonderful time of the year! Right?
We’ve all been there. The chaos of the holiday season spills into the ballet class causing mayhem everywhere it lands. What an odd puzzle teaching is. At times we would do anything to add more excitement to our classes, but wait a few more weeks and the students are overdosing on excitement. It can definitely seem as though their brains have left the building.
*Teacher gives exercise*
Teacher: “And prepare”
*Students prepare and then proceed to not know a single part of the combination*
Teacher: “Stop! How is it that nobody knows the exercise?”
*Students look baffled as though you are speaking in some foreign language unknown to all of mankind*
*All tiny dancers and the teacher have situated and are ready for class to begin*
Teacher: “Alright, friends! Everyone stand and prepare for skips!”
*Tiny dancers begin rolling all about on the floor and their giggles echo throughout the entire universe*
I discovered a few years back that when my students are behaving in ways I don’t particularly care for I should first check my own behavior. So often students mirror their teachers. Ouch. That isn’t such an encouraging thought. Yet, it can be so true. The craziness of the holidays doesn’t only make its home in our students. It also nestles into our heads. Yep, teachers can lose their brains, too. Brains, come back! We need you!
But we mustn’t lose heart for there is good news. Ballet class during this trying time doesn’t have to be a battle. Like all of teaching, it is a matter of gauging where the students are, meeting them there, and then moving forward together.
Some Practical Tips?
Well, I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do love passing on my knowledge to fellow teachers. So, here are some things I have found to be especially helpful. Or at the very least, these items have kept me from walking out of the studio in complete exasperation:
- Do something entirely different. And by different, I really do mean different. Don’t do ballet class. Do stretch class. Pilates class. Ballet mime class. Anything that switches gears completely.
- Explore the imagination. Assign an emotion to each exercise and have the dancers execute the emotion with the ballet steps. Create a story together before class and have each exercise tell a part of that story. Have the dancers develop their own fictitious character that will then move through ballet class based on their backstory (Characters can interact and the plot can thicken. It can feel a bit like an improvised play taking place.)
- Engage the brain. Give an exercise and then say, “Do it backwards.” The last step would be executed first. (Example: Tendu, plie, relevé, plié = Plié, relevé, plié, tendu). Have the students create and teach the exercises. Teach the class and forbid any use of words at all (only body language can be used).
- Go to them. Especially younger students. Focus in on what is inspiring them on that day (Candy? Cookies? Snow? Screaming?) and use it. Don’t fight it. If they can’t stop talking, do a dancing game that incorporates their voice. If they insist on slithering like snakes, then make up a snake ballet. If the only thing that will motivate them to chassé across the floor is holding a Christmas present to put under the tree, then let them hold a present (It can be imaginary. They can discuss what the present is and how their tree is decorated.) The point is to be in their world. This is vital for teaching the younger ones always, but even more so when their attention wants to flee elsewhere.
Your Attitude Matters
There are always the go to standards such as using fun music, letting them create their own dances, teaching them a holiday specific dance, etc. And these are all excellent, as well. However, if you have been teaching ballet for more than a couple of years, these ideas can feel stale to you; even if they are not stale to the students. Yes, part of our job is to engage the students, but we can’t do that fully if we are not engaged.
Finding ways to move through those challenging holiday weeks that also speak to your own heart and your own inspirations is so very important. Students can tell when their teacher is not really “in it”. Indeed, they can tell when our brains have left the building and it does not reflect all that well in their class work.
Hold Them Accountable
There is one more note on all of this—I, personally, believe it is crucial to hold the students (no matter the age) to their responsibilities. By the time the holidays are upon us, most students have been in class for a few months and have been exposed to the expectations of ballet class etiquette. Allowing them to release it all and go wild does not seem like a productive use of time. Placing all the burden on the teacher to keep the class together and sane does the students a disservice. They must learn to rise to the challenge and expect more of themselves.
We can help them do this. By creating an environment that fosters thinking, embraces creativity, and recognizes the need for mixing things up on occasion we can teach even the youngest that being distracted is not an excuse for poor dancing or poor behavior. Ballet class is after all teamwork. The students have a job right along with the teachers.
Hang in there, teachers! Everyone’s brains will eventually return in full swing. Until then, here is my holiday wish for you: May your ballet classes be filled with peace, may your tiny dancers find the power to not howl like hyenas, may your older dancers keep their minds fixed on ballet class so as to discourage injuries, and may you have a lovely bed to fall into at the end of the day.