It is common knowledge that barre work is the foundation for ballet. Inevitably, where a dancer shows weakness at the barre, it will be magnified tenfold when they move to the centre. The essentials put in place through barre work hold so much transformative power that we often times keep our students at barre for over half the class period.
So yeah, you could say barre is important. Enormously important! But we already knew that.
Because of its importance, we must take the necessary time to instruct our students on how to use the barre and insist they follow the guidelines for barre work. All the time. Every single time. No easy task. It requires constant reminding until these concepts sink in and become second nature for our students. Which requires mountains of ongoing patience from us teachers.
Through my years of teaching, I have landed on some ways to help this process along and figured I would pass them onto my teaching comrades. And just to be clear, this is by no means a thorough list or the ULTIMATE list. It is simply some of my ideas that have helped me and my students in this journey.
Respect The Barre
My youngest dancers do not dance at the barre, but they know about the barres. They understand (because I speak to them about it constantly) that their job when it comes to the barres is to stay away from them and to not touch them. They know, when they are old enough, they will get to learn how to use the barre and this sets them up for an exciting milestone: Barre!
Wait For It
Early in my teaching days, I would bring my youngest students to the barre. Even three year olds. It went ok, but eventually I recognized that it was not the best use of time. A few years into my teaching career, I revamped my entire approach to the younger levels and made a choice to not bring barre work into class until the middle of the beginning ballet level (around age 7 or 8).
This made a significant difference. And not only in my youngest levels. The largest difference was with that beginning ballet level. Because they had done so much centre work and had a firm grasp on how to balance their weight against gravity without the aid of the barre, there were far fewer errors being made in that regard. Also, because they were older, there was a lot less of unwanted behaviors going on (swinging on the barre, etc).
Manage The Transitions
If you have free-standing barres that need to be moved out onto the floor and then back to the edge of the room after barre, then managing these transition times is crucial. This is a skill students need to have, which means it is a skill we must teach them. I insist they follow these 5 rules:
- Only lift the barre a couple of inches off the floor.
- Do not move the barre alone. Always have a partner. (Of course, this is not necessary for older students, but younger students should not be lifting large barres on their own.)
- Follow my lead. They are not to move their barre until I give them the go ahead. Usually after a couple of months, they understand the process and can do this without my cues.
- Space the barres appropriately. I teach them how.
- There will be no talking throughout any of this. Learn how to communicate without words.
Hands, Bodies, Feet, And More
Students have no idea how to use the barre until we explain it to them. We must assume they know nothing because that is exactly how much they know (even if they think they know more).
- Hands. All fingers placed gently on the top of the barre (be sure they know which height barre to use if there are options). The thumb should remain on the top of the barre at all times. You should not be holding the barre.
- Bodies. Bodies should remain the proper distance from the barre so placement does not get misaligned. We go through this a lot.
- Feet. Be certain you are spaced with the barre well enough so that you can do a tendu without running into the barre or another person’s foot.
- More. Unless the teacher instructs otherwise, no part of the body should ever touch the barre except the hands.
The students should be aware that if they fail to demonstrate the maturity needed to follow these guidelines, then barre work will be placed on hold for a time and the class will need to be taken back a few levels until they have learned the needed lessons.
This is another exciting milestone for them which should be built up and congratulated. However, when you transition from two hands on the barre to one, the whole thing can crumble. Students who were dancing lovely with two hands at the barre seem to appear all kinds of baffled, as though they have never touched a barre. Ever. All the rules from above still apply only they feel a little different because of how the body is oriented. Taking as much time as needed to re-teach the above skills will make for a much more peaceful learning experience.
NOTE: Even if you don’t have your students begin with the left hand on the barre for every exercise, it is good for them to be aware of the traditional way.
Be certain to thoroughly explain how you wish your students to switch sides of the barre. This is a prime time for crazy to ensue. From climbing under the barres, to lazily slinging themselves about. Tell them what you expect and then expect nothing less.
The Barre Hand
The barre hand should be free to move easily on the barre so as to stay in front of the body at all times and adjust to shifting of the weight. This seems like a simple concept, but in reality, as we all have witnessed, that barre hand prefers to get stuck in place. Even my advanced students need constant reminding of this. Their brains are super glued to the various others elements in play that this tiny detail gets passed over. But this tiny detail makes for rather severe problems. Insist. Insist. And then insist some more. Barre hand forward!
When it comes to barre, there is no denying its massive role in ballet. Rushing through the instruction of how to logistically manage yourself while at the barre is tempting because, without a doubt, we have a million other things to teach them. However, if we will take the time to set these things in place, then class will run more smoothly, bodies will be held more cleanly, and technique will have the room to blossom more fully.