Building Smart Dancers

What good is knowing how to do 17 pirouettes if you don’t know when to do 17 pirouettes?

What good is being able to extend your leg far behind your head if you don’t understand the nuances behind lovely extension?

What good is soaring across the floor in jaw dropping grand allegro if you have no spatial awareness?

What good is being a student if you never learn the art of self learning?

What good is throwing yourself into your dancing if you lack the wisdom to know when to pull back and give your body time to rest?

What good is dancing if you don’t know how to use dancing?

To be sure, dancing without a dancer utilizing the full capacity of their brain is nothing but injuries waiting to happen, tricks lacking expression, and a bunch of wasted energy which will vanish into nothingness just as quickly as it burst into existence.

The world—not just the dance world—needs smart dancers. We need artists who have longevity, who know how to communicate, who understand how to troubleshoot their own problems, who can carry the tradition of classical ballet by passing on their wisdom, and who get that there is so much more to ballet than nailing the fouetté.

In this climate of getting results, placing in competitions, reaching the top—our students often don’t know how to slow down. To take a beat. To analyze their situation and options, and make an informed decision. They plunge forward. They insist there must be shortcuts. They whine that they are always falling out of their pirouette. They want it all, but they want it all now. Patience is not their friend. Subtlety is not their game. Progression is not their aim.

. . . And all the ballet teachers weep. . .

Information Overload

In this age of technology and smart phones, information is always at our fingertips. It’s fantastically exciting. However, this can result in an overload of information for our students. Taking care to give our students only what they need can help their training remain steady and organized. Encouraging our students to work where they are (and being certain they know where that is) can help them better grasp why ballet training moves at a slower pace than the rest of our culture. This can instill a deep sense of respect for not only ballet training, but also ballet history and theory.

WARNING: Misinformation Ahead!

Along with an overload of information, technology also complicates our job by sidestepping our supervision and bringing misinformation directly to our students. It is now more important than ever to teach proper technique and the reasons behind its importance. Students see countless videos of dancers doing, what appears to them, astounding things. But of course we teachers can take one look at the same video and see a plethora of cringe-worthy errors. It is vital to encourage our students to see beyond the trick. Beyond the “wow” factor and look directly to the heart of the technique and artistry.

How? Why? What?

It goes something like this:

  • A student can’t figure out the brisé exercise on the second side. He has the first side down. It is clicking. Things are happening. But the second side is giving him much trouble.
  • I could step in and give him all the information; he would then take it, implement it, and be on his merry way. Yet I wish to take him further. Teach him more about himself. More about his personal journey through dancing. So I ask:
    • How is this feeling for you on this side? I expect as thorough of an answer as he can possibly find. This requires a good bit self awareness and critical thinking.
    • Why do you think it feels that way to you? Again, a thorough analysis of his dancing is expected. I offer up suggestions based on what he says (and what I see) and if he seems stuck, I will try to guide him. But I do make large strides to help him navigate this self-discovery on his own.
    • What can you do to make it better? By this point, if he has answered the other two questions with honesty and as much thought as possible, he will have arrived at his own answer. I will give more suggestions and directions, but I typically base those off the input he has offered.

This method is splendid at getting dancers inside their heads (in the right kind of way). It empowers them with a sense of autonomy and control over their dancing.

Remember What You Know

Ballet can be overwhelming. Once one mistake happens, it is so easy to allow it to consume the rest of the exercise, combination, class, dance, etc. Dancers often forget that they know an awful lot. Instead of drawing on their reservoir of knowledge, they give in to the mistake. I encourage my students to first and foremost focus on what they know. Do what you know and do it well. The things you don’t know so well, do your best and then let them go. Eventually, they will join the ranks of the things you know.

Make Choices Before You Dance

Whether it is how to use the space properly, how to phrase a certain string of steps, how many pirouettes you wish to execute, how you will transition off pointe into the tombé, etc. Students need to learn how to make choices BEFORE they begin dancing. If they wait, they will be caught in the middle and their reaction time is not fast enough to make such decisions in the moment. That is not to say choices can never change or spontaneity has no place. It is simply that most students need to think through things before beginning. This sets them up for success and will provide a good anchor for when in the moment choices do need to occur.

Know The Language

Not knowing the difference between croisé and en face. Not understanding the concepts of en dehors and en dedans. Having a limited vocabulary. These things do not set our students up for success. The language is important because the language is what we use to create our art. When we really get the language of ballet and can speak it fluently the world of dance opens up to us fully. We can create like never before. We are catapulted forward. We memorize and maintain choreography much more quickly. We ask smarter questions. We engage in a more refined way with other artists. We maneuver from one style/genre/method to another with much more grace and ease. It builds us up. Our students need the language.

To sum up, a dancer’s most important tool is her brain. We must teach this to our students and we can begin immediately. All students, no matter their age, have the ability to wield the full power of their mind.  With this power, confidence will build, awareness will grow, individuality will blossom, and ballet will continue to breathe its unmatched essence into this world.

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Kristy Jo says

I love this one! This is definitely my teaching style with the QUESTIONS we ask to help the students figure it out! :) Thanks for the good reminder to keep doing this and continue empowering THEM!

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