My First Encounter…I had been teaching for a couple of years. A studio had recently hired me and I was thrilled to be given work even if my approach to ballet training didn’t quite match up to the school’s. There was one particularly challenging student. For her, ballet class was a requirement she had to endure in order to take “fun” dance classes. One day I noticed she was in an especially frightful mood. The eye rolling was building into audible sighs and those sighs were escalating into full out scoffs. I had no idea what to do but made the choice to ignore her and focus solely on the students who were engaged in class. When we got to petit allegro she said her ankle was hurting and she needed to sit down. Utterly relieved, yet trying to hide that fact, I told her she was welcome to sit and observe the rest of class so her ankle could rest and heal. Fast forward to grand allegro…You guessed it. She now was feeling fabulous and decided to stand up and dance.
“[Insert student’s name here], is there a reason you are standing?”
“Oh, I feel fine now. I want to do the big leaps.”
“I am so happy you are feeling better, but I can’t let you do grand allegro. Your body is not properly prepared because you missed the other portions of class.”She ignored me. Found her place in line and was preparing to dance.
“Did you misunderstand what I said? I am not allowing you to dance. Please, sit down.”She continued to move on, pretending as though I hadn’t said a word.
“I know you can hear me and I know you understood what I said. You have two choices. You can either sit down and observe the rest of class or you can leave my class. The choice is yours.”She stood still. Staring at me. Expecting me to give in. I stared right back. Then she left, I finished class, promptly got in my car, and sobbed everywhere.
What Is It All About?Unfortunately, that was not my last encounter with severely bad attitudes. They seem to be an epidemic. But really, what is even going on when a student acts out in such a way? I am a firm believer that behaviour reflects the state of our inner selves. When a student is demonstrating a poor attitude, it speaks to how they are feeling. It is an outward expression of inward emotions. Of course, it is preferable and not unreasonable to expect students of all ages to manage these feelings and show only respect during ballet class. But we all know that sometimes the opposite happens.
What In The World To Do?When these attitudes present themselves it is ghastly difficult to know what to do. How do we maintain structure and our authority without turning our students against us? Some of us even have the added challenge of studio owners expecting us to keep everything friendly and nice. I have no answers to this dilemma. But here are some of my methods for dealing with bad attitudes.
- Be Proactive. If something seems off, I attempt to redirect the attitude—distract it, even. Example: In one class, with attitudes flying every which way, I decided to give them a dance where they were villains. I made the dance about as slimy and evil as they could handle. They loved it and were motivated by it. And, without realizing it, they used it as an outlet for their frustrations.
- Engage Quietly. This only works during stationary exercises. Example: A student of mine clearly takes issue with my teaching style. I chose one day to approach her during stretches and quietly comment on how awesome I found her blue fingernails to be and how I wish I could stop biting my nails. We had a little laugh, and ever since then she has softened up to me. She still fights against the discipline I expect, but she likes knowing she is successful at something I struggle with: awesome fingernails.
- Mirror It. I find this one to be risky. If it fails, it fails miserably and the comeback is harsh. But when it works, it works wonders. Example: An entire class was lounging on the barre while I was giving exercises and then obviously they were unprepared when the music came on. This was happening so often I was beside myself with annoyance. I started lounging on the barre while giving the exercises and “forgetting” the exercises as I was giving them. So, I would have to start all over. It took forever for us to get through even one combination because of my lack of discipline. They got annoyed at me. And then I said, “Well, now you know how I feel.” And that was that. No more issues from that point forward.
- Spotlight The Good. Ignore the bad, spotlight the good. Example: I hone in on the students who are engaging and really taking my words to heart. The bad attitudes get left in the dust. As soon as a bad attitude shifts to a productive one I will engage and reward that shift in attitude.
- Just Say It. Sometimes students simply need to be called out on their disruptive and disrespectful behaviour. My example would be the story I told at the beginning. After all these years I look back on that situation and I am convinced I handled it appropriately. I didn’t know that group of dancers well at all and I was being outright challenged. It was unfortunate, to say the least, but I never had an issue with that student after that incident.
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