Lessons in Ballet History

I am thoroughly convinced there is never enough time in ballet class to teach everything we wish to teach. One year, I taught a three hour ballet class once a week to advanced dancers who were already taking many other ballet classes throughout the week. One would think in that scenario I would find three hours more than sufficient. I didn’t.

As teachers, we have so much to give our students. So many things we wish to give that reach far beyond simply how to dance. We want to give them deep knowledge of technique. A firm understanding of theory. A fierce vocabulary. Creative freedom. Individual choices. Exposure to all types of repertoire. Just to name a few.

And then there is ballet history. I, personally, cannot fathom dancing without at least some degree of ballet history in my brain. But students do this. All the time! Mainly because we teachers lack the time to give them lessons in this topic. After all, it isn’t very practical to have your students stop dancing in the middle of ballet class to listen to a ballet history lecture.

But if we wish to put some knowledge in their minds, while adhering to the time we have, we must get creative. So, that is what I have set out to do. Over the past years I have experimented with a variety of ways to implement ballet history into class.

For The Youngest Dancers (3-5 years): STORYTIME

Little people adore stories. And why wouldn’t they? Stories are wonderful. They are certainly one of my favorites. There are tons of ballet story books out there geared towards 3-5 year olds with beautiful illustrations. These stories touch on things like getting ready for ballet class, behavior in class, performing on stage, how ballet makes you feel, etc.

Taking five minutes out of your class (maybe midway through or whenever suits your class best) to read a story and discuss it teaches the students that learning ballet requires more than doing ballet.  With these story books, you can bring a taste of ballet history to life for them.

Ex: If the character is putting on a tutu, this is the perfect time to give them a small dose of how the tutu came to be. They find it super weird that ballerinas haven’t ALWAYS worn tutus!

For The Growing Dancers (5-7 years): CLUBS

This age group is very motivated by being a part of a special club. It helps them feel smart and accomplished which accelerates their learning forward. Give your club a fun name or let them help name it. One class I had named our ballet history club “The Amazing, Badazing, Cradazing, Ballet Zugglers Club”.  Not something I would have EVER come up with, but it was theirs and they were all about it. SCORE!

To be part of the club, they have to learn one piece of ballet history each week (my goal is each week, but honestly some weeks are missed). They learn this by doing coloring sheets while I speak to them about what it is they are coloring.

Ex: One week they were coloring in a raked staged and drew a picture of themselves dancing on it. I told them all about the history of stages while they colored. This took about 5 minutes. Then at the end of class they had to tell me (as a group or individuals—the point is to keep it fun and not stressful) something they remember about the ballet history that week. Then they all get a sticker.

For The Beginning Dancers (7-9 years): BALLET POINTS

I write up a little paragraph about whatever topic I wish to introduce them to. I then put a few questions on the backside of the page that relate to the material. During class I am sure to integrate the topic into class several times.

EX: The topic is Baryshnikov. While jumping, I will correct how they push themselves into the air and then speak about how much height Baryshnikov was able to achieve. I will go on to give a very brief description of who he is and why he is so famous. I will encourage them to “fly like Baryshnikov!”.

At the end of class, I hand out the paper I wrote, they take it home, read it, answer the questions, then return it to me at the next class for ballet points (I then grade them over the week and give them back in the next class). This works great because they get to do this in the ease of their own home and can ask their parents for assistance. It takes up almost no class time, which is also a huge plus. When a student reaches a certain number of points I allow them some type of special privilege for one class (come to class in PJ’s/choose the music we dance to for one exercise/get a small treat/etc). By the end of the year, they have a good stack of ballet history pages.

For The Intermediate Dancers: SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT

At this point, I very much want my students to begin understanding the various schools of ballet and how they differ from one another (and why). I purposefully spotlight this throughout class. When a new step or concept is introduced, I will speak about the various acceptable ways it can be done and how those ways came to be. But in order for this to really stick and make sense to them in a practical way, I try to hone in on one specific school for a couple of months before moving on to another. This doesn’t mean I teach that method to the students, it simply means I highlight that school’s history while teaching whatever method I desire.

EX: I prefer the Vaganova arm positions but I will specifically explain how Cecchetti is different. I will likely demonstrate the difference, but only so the students have a visual. I will definitely speak about who Cecchetti was and give them some interesting facts. I will stick with the history of Cecchetti until it is clear the students have a general understanding. Then I move on to another school of ballet.  (I am careful to make sure they know which school of ballet they are actually learning in the given moment.)

This is pretty easy to do in class. It only takes a few seconds to give a detail or two, and the students do tend to remember it because they associate it with the new step/concept they are learning.

For The Advanced Dancers: FIND YOUR VOICE

When a dancer reaches the advanced level they must focus tremendously on who they are as an artist. Large amounts of inward reflection is needed, but that is not enough. To look only inward restricts the vision. Dancers must also look outward and gain insight, inspiration, and wisdom from other artists. From the pioneers of their art. From the journey their art has taken. Only then can they make an informed choice as to where they wish to fit into the great puzzle of ballet history.

My job is to inspire them to do just that: to spark that passion so they learn about ballet outside of ballet class. On their own; in their own way. They then bring this knowledge to their dancing, and I am there to help mold it and refine it.  Of course, I continue to teach them the story of ballet and about the heroes in that story. This will always be part of my job as a teacher. But what I wish for my advanced students is independence coupled with an almost overwhelming desire to know more. To search more. With that desire, they can be launched into the world; blazing their own path to be woven into the beautiful history of ballet.

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