Young ballerinas need strict technique training too, right?
Several years ago, I went for an interview for a teaching position at a local dance school. I wanted to expand my horizons and gain experience teaching at as many schools as possible. The director of the school and I had a lengthy conversation following the interview about teaching ballet technique. She mentioned that she is “very big on technique” at her school and will expect even her youngest students to stand at the ballet barre and practice their tendus from 5th position. At the time, I was an inexperienced teacher of little ones, hadn’t done all of my research, and therefore completely agreed with her method, telling her that I, too, was “big on technique”.
So, what’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t the youngest ones have the same expectations set on them as the older ones? If they were to be great someday, they needed a strict regimen of ballet technique pumped into them from the beginning, right? It made sense to me.
Do you ever wish you could go back to a younger version of yourself and transfer a mental download of what you know now? I certainly do. Shortly after this interview, I came in contact with curriculum written by Ruth H. Brinkerhoff. My eyes were opened to the growth patterns of young children, and my mind was completely changed about the progression of teaching ballet technique.
They Don’t Have Correct Muscle Habits Formed
Young children do not have the kind of control in their muscles that older children, teens and adults do. Therefore, they really cannot learn the correct way of using their muscles for ballet. If something they are not ready for is required of them, they will have to use their muscles incorrectly in order to do it.
For example, place a three year-old at a ballet barre and you will get a good chuckle at how cute it looks, but they will get nothing out of it, technically speaking. They will have to reach up to even reach the barre, which is incorrect shoulder placement since the barre should be at waist level, ideally. They do not have the muscle memory or body control to remember how you place them at the barre, so even if you do correct them, it will not likely stick. More importantly, they will need to spend much of their attention and effort trying to stand correctly at the barre and not have enough concentration left to focus on the movements themselves.
Once they have the chance to focus on the movements, you will see that the students progress faster and easier through the technique expected of them. They can do a much better job at pointing a turned in leg forward and bringing it back in to parallel if they are standing on their own space in a circle with hands on their waist. We have to remember how incapable their growing bodies are at this age to handle more than one thing at a time. We must not push them too far too fast if we want them to progress naturally.
The barre is more often just a distraction to the younger ones, and has proven to cause very incorrect muscle habits. These incorrect muscle habits are nearly impossible to change as the students get older. Even when the muscular control is finally there, the old habits will persist. Perhaps that is why we often have such difficulty getting older ballet students to change their incorrect habits of technique! Often times, unlearning is harder work than learning!
Coordination Is Not There Yet
The same principles apply to center and across-the-floor movements as well. Very often, when the steps required of them are too hard or complicated, they will let you know by becoming distracted or even discouraged in class. They are telling you: “This is too hard for my little body. I need something simpler.” Some will shut down and not feel able to participate at all, others will actually cry or get angry.
For the young ones, it is best to stick to what Brinkerhoff calls “Natural Movements” such as walking (like a dancer), running, skipping, galloping, and the natural polka and pas de basque, eventually. The technique that is learned at the beginning of class such as demi pliés, tendus, etc. should be learned with a turned in leg for the first few years of their training (between 3 and 5 years). The positions can be learned, but not danced from until around 7 or 8 years old. (See samples of the Curriculum for more information.)
It is important to note that nearly all classical ballet movements and positions require a well developed contralateral coordination. This is the “correct” use of arms where the right arm comes forward with the left foot, known in ballet as “opposition”. This must not be required in the pre-school years.
If the use of opposition arms is forced upon the child before their nervous system is prepared for it, the child may appear to be coordinated, but a natural part of their fundamental development will have been skipped, leaving the child unable to naturally apply correct coordination to other movements learned later. Forcing physical skill development ahead of its time, out of its order, can actually damage the child’s future potential for skills and talents.
Place Realistic Expectations On Your Young Ones
Taking a three, four, or five year-old towards classical ballet requires a more conscientious and creative teacher than starting an eight year-old in ballet. Far too often, teachers do not understand the lasting implications of putting the young ones at the barre too soon or expecting them to do intense stretching or highly technical steps in the earliest phases of ballet training. Hopefully you can see, now, how great the benefits of a correctly designed pre-ballet class can be both for the children who will become dancers or teachers and for the ones who will not.
The fundamental movements are important to anyone involved in teaching movement skill to young children . . . The movements are also important because when they are developed to a relatively mature level they can be varied and combined to create a variety of more advanced movements . . . The importance of these movements cannot be overemphasized . . . We can form virtually any dance or sport from a base of fundamental movements.” *
- Understanding Your Student’s Growth Process
- Where to Put All the Tiny Humans
- Play and Ballet
- The Ultimate Survival Guide for Teaching Pre-Ballet
*Quotes are from “Movement and the Young Child”, AAHPERD © 1994, (slightly paraphrased). See the Level 1 Suite for more information on how to teach 3 and 4 year-olds.