I once taught a class of three year olds who I called my Sparkly Marbles. They were very proud of their title and often referred to themselves as Miss Robyn’s Sparkly Marbles. One class a dancer asked, “Miss Robyn, why are we sparkly?” I replied, “Because your giggles sparkle everywhere! It is very beautiful.” Another dancer asked, “But why are we marbles?” I said, “I will tell you the answer to that question next week”. The next week arrived and I reminded the students of the question and then I proceeded to take out a bag of marbles and drop them on the ground. Of course the marbles rolled everywhere and the dancers ran after them, giggles sparkling everywhere. While I had to explain to the three year olds why I called them marbles, I’ve no doubt you have put the story together.
They really do seem to roll all about. And into one another. Constantly. But gather them we must and get them to remain in their place we must.
But . . . Must We?
Is it really all that important that students learn about having their own space and remaining in it? The answer to that may depend on whom you ask. If you ask me, the answer is a resounding YES. And here is why:
- Personal Space—No reason to go on about this. We all know what it feels like to have our personal space invaded. Life lessons can be learned in ballet and this is one I teach.
- It Provides Grounding—With the little ones, the class is full of playing and can become chaotic. Knowing how to go back to their places grounds the class and produces a safe feeling. Always a good thing.
- Spatial Awareness—Aside from it being a good thing to have in life, spatial awareness is crucial for dancers as they advance. Ever see a corps dancer out of line? The horror! Ever have a student who can’t chaîné without running into classmates? The frustration! Ever try to teach pas de deux to a dancer who can’t figure out how to move their body next to their partner’s? The disaster! It simply must be taught, and the earlier we teach it, the better.
- Performance Success—Whether our students continue with ballet training or not, what we know is that we want them to be successful when they get on stage. Practicing proper spacing throughout every single class is an excellent tool to help younger ones not end up on top of each other and look like one giant glob of tulle when the lights come up.
Giving The Marbles A Spot
- Tape It—Tape is my best friend. I have had to teach class to young dancers without tape and I nearly cried. It was so stressful for me! Before my class begins, I tape out a circle with individual spots and staggered lines. I am sure to space these formations out carefully so the students organically learn what is appropriate space within ballet class. I also use two different colors of tape.
- Corner It—Upstage Left is #1, Downstage Right is #2, Upstage Right is #3, Downstage Left is #4. The upstage corners get a mark of some kind (sometimes tape, sometimes a fun laminated picture). The downstage corners get a prop (a hoola hoop that they must step into; a drum they must hit; etc. The point is to ensure they actually go on the diagonal and not straight across.)
- Line It—If we are doing anything that requires the class to be in one straight line together I will do one of two things: 1) Tape it (if they need this much assistance) or 2) Use visuals. It could be the seam in the floor, the pictures on either side of the room, etc. Anything that creates a boundary that encourages the group to be in a straight line.
How To Get The Marbles To Their Spots
So you have your spots down, but that is not the same as getting the kids to stand on their spots. Some things that work for me:
- Expect It—The students need to understand the expectation and sometimes that requires no more explanation than “this is how we do ballet class”. State the expectation upfront so they have a chance to live up to it.
- Imagine It—If it’s a circle, make it into a bowl of ice cream that you can all eat up after you gallop around it. If it is a diagonal, make it into a path that leads you to the treasure. If it is waiting in line for their turn, make it into a tunnel that you don’t want to suffocate in so you best give everyone some breathing room! If it is a center spot, make it into a special lily pad for each ballet frog. The possibilities are endless here and they will likely love helping you come up with a story.
- Game It—Everyone is on their spot. Now…take a walk around the room. Go ahead…just take a little walk. We are all walking now. Isn’t it lovely to walk? Everyone! Quick! Back to your spots! Wonderful game to get out some energy and instill the concept of their own spot (you can mix it up and have them crawl like cats or stomp like dinosaurs, etc.)
- Forget It—Take a break from spots and do something that allows them to feel the entire space. I do a spider dance in tap and at the end they all run to their spider webs (they choose where their webs are). That little bit of “breaking the rules” is enough to give their brains a rest so I can pull them back in for what’s next.
When The Students Are Moving Away From Marble-hood
Using actual spots is a great way to teach spatial awareness. But being aware of when your students no longer need the spots is important. If we use the tools too long they become a crutch. However, taking away the assistance all at once can sometimes lead to confusion. Here are some ways I help the transition:
- Try It—We will try class without the spots and decide as a group how we felt that went and which spots we would like to keep a bit longer. Usually by age seven or eight spots are no longer needed in class or on stage.
- Circle It—They hold hands in a circle, pull out until their arms are stretched, let go, and take two steps out in unison. If done properly, this gives a nice circle.
- Center It—I will stand in the center of the circle (or put an object there) and as they move around the circle they must all stay the same distance from me (or the object).
- Partner It—Once the general idea of any formation is understand I have them attempt dancing in that space with a partner (I rarely use partners with students younger than age five).
I would say the absolute best results come when they recognize for themselves how important their own space is. Some kids get this quickly, others need more time and guidance. But one thing I know is that we teachers can help the process along by prioritizing it. When we see them bumping into each other or running about we mustn’t cave and think they aren’t ready to do more or do better. Instead we must restate the expectation and find ways to motivate them to follow our directions. This can be done. It requires huge amounts of patience but the payoff is enormous. Once they get it, class moves along so much more peacefully and productively. So go forth! Gather your sparkly marbles and do some ballet.