We all have the ages and levels we adore teaching. It fits. We are synced in. Our flow is easy, organic, organized—it’s just all lovely.
We all have the ages and levels we struggle to teach. It feels disjointed. We fumble a bit. Our flow is anything but a flow—it’s just all taxing.
A few years back that difficult level for me would have been early intermediate. That time when the students are no longer beginners, but don’t really know enough to be considered intermediate. They are no longer little kids, but not quite older kids either. They are in a strange place. Typically, students in this level range in ages 9-12 years old.
Back when I used to struggle with this level I knew exactly why I struggled. The reason was because I couldn’t quite work out what my expectations were for them. I was more than a little unsure how to help them transition from beginning intermediate into full on intermediate dancers. How to move them from Point A to Point B was beyond me. All I knew was that they needed so much information/practice and time was not on my side.
Then a miracle happened. A beautiful miracle. A most lovely gift was handed to me in the form of a teaching schedule. One day of each week, I was scheduled to teach a class below this level, then this level, followed by the level directly above it. It was magic. Everything fell into place for me because I could see where the students belonged in the broader scope of advancing through ballet.
After an entire year of this schedule, I was able to develop clarity both in what I expected, and how to teach the skills I expected them to learn. It became one of my favorite levels to teach.
I could write an ocean’s worth of pages on this topic, but I won’t do that here. What I will do is provide an abbreviated breakdown of what I now expect and teach to this level. To clarify further: These expectations are based on students who have a solid beginning ballet training, demonstrate very little to no behavior issues, and attend at the very least an hour ballet class TWICE a week. Should these elements differ in any way, adjustments would need to be made.
- Body Alignment is key in this level. I talk about lengthening, stretching, growing taller, staying forward, being in control of where the weight is on the foot, both sides of the body working equally. I will then ask them what muscles they feel being used. Once these basics are executed consistently, and they are recognizing the connection to their muscles, I will begin more detailed instruction on specific muscle use.
- For Port de Bras, I encourage the arms to move from underneath, the head to freely follow the arms, and the fingers to paint the air.
- At Barre I slowly transition them to one hand with strict enforcement of a correct relationship to the barre at all times. Exercises are simple and move slowly so alignment can be prioritized. Loads of attention is given to articulating and shaping the feet in all exercises.
- Conditioning and Stretching is important for muscle awareness but must be monitored closely and taught thoroughly. Deliberate focus is of utmost importance. Barre stretching is introduced only when students demonstrate a solid understanding of body alignment and safe stretching in the centre.
- The Eight Body Positions must be learned. The goal is not a fully extended line, but an understanding of the dancer’s square and how the body is oriented along with the relationship of the working leg to the supporting leg. Vocabulary should be emphasized.
- Waltzing is a goal in this level. Beginning with the base coordination/musicality and working through to finally achieving demi pointe, turn out, stretched feet, and the “essence” of a waltz.
- For Allegro, the aim is to ensure the students understand how to jump safely and learn the various jumping families. Jumps do not need to look “pretty” yet. They simply need to be coordinated, understood, and safe.
- Turns do need to happen at this level to establish a comfort level with this area of ballet. Goals would be the body turning in one piece, stepping onto stretched legs for piqués, pushing clearly from two feet to one for pirouettes (I do ¼ and ½ pirouettes for a long time), executing solid preparations and finishes for every single turn, and implementing spotting.
- I like to give this level some Larger Movements at least once a week. I don’t spend too much time on them or teach too much about them, but I have found that allowing the dancers to really feel themselves sweeping across the floor can do wonders for their motivation. Steps like grand jeté (if they have shown they can land from simple jumps safely), faster piqué turns for a challenge, or ballet runs in twisty patterns finishing in perhaps a kneeling position. Sometimes I allow them to create their own combination.
- Etiquette is so important to teach. What do you want them to do if they are late? If they need to use the restroom? If someone is not moving across the floor properly and they lack space to dance? If someone is distracting them by speaking to them? How do you expect them to memorize combinations? When are questions appropriate? Etc. We are their teachers, and we set the tone. But they can’t know what we expect if we don’t tell them. And we can’t tell them if we ourselves do not know what we expect.
This level is full of potential for enormous growth! Watching the dancers excel from one week to the next must be some of the greatest joy I get in my teaching. Their faces light up with each concept they finally understand. Their excitement booms everywhere when you say, “Piqué turns!”. And their ability to give attention to the smallest detail is inspiring when you get on the floor next to their foot and insist they present that heel forward.
While the little people in those younger levels are adorable, and while the older dancers in the more advanced levels have far more abilities, these in between kids are so ready to learn. All we have to do is teach them. Before we know it, they will be off doing fouettés and entrechat sis. It is up to us to build an unbreakable foundation so those fouettés and entrechat sis don’t look like spins flailing about and fish flapping in the air.
I tell my students, “No one appreciates cheap. Give me rich. Give me refined. Give me jewels. Your value as a human is priceless. Dance up to yourself.” When they learn that lesson, nothing can hold them back.