A few weeks ago I did a stupid thing while teaching ballet. This stupid thing landed me on crutches for about a week. Fortunately, there was no serious damage done and the healing process rolled right along. However, I can say with certainty that I learned a valuable lesson through my crash to the floor: Ballet teachers should always prioritize their safety. Always.
I remember sitting in the lobby of the dance studio after my fall; waiting for my friend (a ballet teaching comrade) to arrive and drive me to the emergency room. I was horrified. My mind spiraled down the dark hole of worse case scenarios. What if I have broken my knee? What if I need surgery? What if I can never walk again?! What if my leg has to be amputated?!! What if I die during the amputation??!!
I know . . . dramatic artists . . .
But the most frightening thought of all? How will I teach ballet if I can’t stand up?
I realize I am not the only teacher who has ever dealt with this situation. But, seeing as I just came off this experience, I thought I would share some ways I managed to push through the setback and have productive classes. While I don’t teach every level this season, I do teach across the spectrum and I feel the tactics I used could be applied to various other levels.
- I believe the most important element which made this class successful was sitting them down in front of me (I was sitting in a chair with my braced leg propped up on another chair) and letting them ask all their questions. They wanted to hear the story about how I hurt my leg and so I told them. I allowed their curiosity to take over our class time for about 10 minutes. This helped them become invested in my healing and helped them recognize they could help me heal by taking extra responsibility for themselves.
- Another important element was to fully explain how class was going to run differently because I couldn’t stand up. I set the expectations clearly at the start of class.
- Typically between each exercise at this level the students return to their spots. But because I couldn’t join them, I had them return to me. They would come by me real close and we would talk about the exercise they just did and how they could do it better, etc. It kept their focus on me, even though I was in the corner anchored by my computer so I could easily start and stop the music.
- I pulled out some “fun games” that I almost never do. Things like freeze dance and jumping over the moon. Since these were brand new dancing games for them it was all very exciting and thrilling for them.
- I allowed them to choose which exercises they wanted to do. Of course, they chose the most fun dances, but that was ok. They were motivated and they could do the dances with very little help from me which gave them a sense of accomplishment.
- I chose to do centre barre with this level. This way everyone was looking at themselves in the mirror at all times and could easily see me for guidance. Not that I was moving, but I think having a constant visual of me was helpful for them.
- I kept the exercises super simple and would have one student demonstrate so everyone was able to understand what was expected.
- We honed in on very specific technical concepts and kept the focus only on those items. Ex: articulation of the feet/using plié before and after jumps/stretching the legs long while standing on demi pointe. Typically in a given class I will choose a larger handful of concepts to discuss, but because I was limited in my ability to correct, I chose skills that I knew they had a handle on and then insisted those were done to the fullest extent. It was quite productive.
- These levels shocked me at how much vocabulary they knew. I was pretty much able to simply say the exercises and they knew what I was expecting. I think they shocked themselves, too.
- I did find it trying at times with the advanced students when I wanted the combinations to be more layered or complex and words did not suffice. I believe I stood up once or twice to “demonstrate”. But it only took a little hobble here or there for them to quickly grasp what I was aiming for.
- In the intermediate level, I had students demonstrate the exercises while I spoke the words. This way I knew everyone had a visual and everyone was on the same page with what it was we were doing.
- I use students often when teaching, but I used them a good deal more during this time—both to demonstrate how to do things and how to not do things. I pulled two students out and had them execute the same step side by side while the other students analyzed which student was doing it properly and why.
- For the advanced dancers I allowed a bit more time for them to delve into how to inject their own artistry into the combinations. Since I was sitting in the chair and couldn’t get up, it actually allowed me to observe them in a different sort of way and really take in the choices they were making for themselves.
I believe the largest challenge for me was to not be up close and personal with my dancers. I am the teacher that stands right by the student at the barre. That gets down on the floor and molds the foot. That paces back and forth during grand allegro. That tries to give my own plié energy to my dancers by actually doing really large bends and yelling “BEND!” during petit allegro. As a teacher, I feel I am at my best when I am “in class” with my students. Not giving them class, but actually in it with them. For me, this requires a good deal of physicality. It was difficult when that was taken away from me. Words were all I had. Although, I have no doubt my arms were flailing about a lot- dancers have to move, after all.
Thankfully, I only had to be off my leg for a week. Had this been an extended period of time I believe I would have had to be a bit more creative with my teaching technique—if only so I didn’t get bored with my own teaching. Ultimately what I learned is that you can certainly teach while injured. It becomes a different experience, both for the students and the teacher; but much can be accomplished when a teacher is forced to sit down and find other ways to communicate.
One last note—If you ever find yourself injured and unable to take time off teaching due to important rehearsals that require your presence or bills that require those classes to be put on your paycheck, I would like to offer four pieces of advice:
- Commit to staying seated so you can actually heal and heal properly.
- Set yourself up in a comfortable place near your music with a water bottle and all your teaching essentials easily accessible to you. This way you don’t have to hobble about.
- Be prepared for some frustration to creep in. It is inevitable that not being able to move and not being able to teach in your normal way is going to cause you frustration. If you are prepared for it, you are more able to conquer it when it arrives.
- Save your voice. You will be talking a lot. If you have many classes you will want to be careful how loudly you speak so by the end of night your throat hasn’t been ripped to shreds.
Of course, the best advice is to not get injured in the first place. So, stay safe out there, ballet teachers!