Order is beautiful to me. While I tend to live rather chaotically, I do ache for order. I believe this is one reason I was so drawn to ballet. The structure provided a solid framework for my creativity, and the discipline channeled my often scattered thoughts into clear, concise ideas.
Ballet brought clarity to my life. And with that clarity, I was able to tackle challenges, both in the ballet studio and out, without being swallowed by their largeness. I adore this.
As a ballet teacher, I focus my attention on the order of learning. Of course, the order can vary from teacher to teacher, student to student, and lesson to lesson because we are each so different in our learning styles and processes. The order can also overlap and merge because, at the end of the day, art will not be told what to do or how to behave (another reason I love it so). But, generally speaking, I have witnessed an order of learning ballet shining through organically and have chosen to embrace it in my teaching methods.
The 5 Stages of Learning
I will skip the stage of inspiration, as it is a given. Most everyone understands that inspiration is a key factor in learning and maintaining the learned concept. So moving on from there, here is the order I adhere to and very simplified definitions I personally have applied to them:
- Coordination — The parts of the body moving in harmony with one another.
- Musicality — The body moving in coordination with that movement being clearly executed in proper timing.
- Technique — A coordinated and musically sound movement refined with ballet technique.
- Épaulement —A completed shape takes form including eyes, head, shoulders, and the full extent of the ballet line.
- Artistry — Personality, character, presence, individuality, and brave choices which set the dancer’s movement apart, resulting in an artist who dances his truth and commands the audience.
These five stages can be seen in nearly any step and at nearly any level. Obviously, the fifth one can be highly pronounced before a student steps foot into the dance studio. As I mentioned earlier, these stages are easily rearranged and blended together depending on a variety of factors. But for the purpose of this article, I would like to demonstrate how these stages can apply to the spectrum of ballet training.
The Practical Application of the 5 Stages
Skipping: If a student begins learning how to skip at age 3, they may be 11 or 12 years old before they have reached the final stage.
- Coordination —The student is adequately accomplished at simple marches. We build on that by adding a slight hop to the march while encouraging the arms to swing naturally by the sides.
- Musicality — Once coordination is in place, we encourage the dancer to attempt to skip in time with the music. We offer a variety of speeds and ask the dancer to listen carefully and try to control their movements.
- Technique — As the skipping becomes easy for the dancer to control and maintain, we add in technical elements (pointed feet, clear retiré, high jump, stretched leg underneath, body held tall, port de bras is implemented). As technique builds, eventually the skip has turned into a true classical ballet sauté.
- Épaulement — As the skip has now been refined from a coordination movement into a ballet movement we present finishing touches to complete the form. Head and eyes coordinate with the port de bras, body is used to initiate and complement the port de bras, etc.
- Artistry — With a cleanly executed and well shaped sauté in place the student is now pushed further. They are allowed to play with the timing, the dynamic, the shape, the individual nuances and touches that make the sauté truly their own.
Chainé: If a student begins learning chainé at age 7, they may be in their high school years before they have the skills required to manipulate the chainé however they wish.
- Coordination — The student is adequately accomplished at simple three step/walking turns. We build on this by linking together three turns to create a basic sequence of chainé. The body is rotating in one piece, the arms are held in front of the body at all times, the eyes are able to focus (the foundation of spotting).
- Musicality — The sequence of turns is now required to be in time with the music. This includes the start, the steps that make up each turn, and the finish. The entire sequence should be executed in time.
- Technique — With a strong coordinated turn in place we add in technical challenges. Higher demi pointe, stretched legs, taller body, sharper spot, arms held in specified position, turn out engaged, etc
- Épaulement — Once technique is established and rooted, épaulement can become something to toy around with in chainé. Attempt a variety of port de bras. Change the focus of the eyes. Offer more challenging finishes that require various dynamics/lines with the upper body.
- Artistry — The chainé is solid. The dancer is now asked to create something uniquely them within a series of chainé. They consider the speed, the shape of the arms, the level of aggression with the spot, the size of the steps, the attack at the start, the sustain at the end, and all other pieces that make up their signature chainé or what they wish to convey with their chainé.
Of course, no step is ever mastered, and these stages must constantly be reinforced. However, with this basic order, it can bring some clarity to expectations and relieve the pressure off us teachers. If we stand back and analyze where our students actually are (not where we wish them to be, or where others feel they should be), it can direct us as to where to go next with them. The process of learning ballet should not feel rushed, hurried, or strained. Both the teacher and the student should feel a sense of calm and confidence in the process.
Ballet has beautiful order. This order I have outlined is only what I have personally discovered. No doubt many other teachers have uncovered a differing one that makes sense to them. Whatever order you adopt, trusting in that process allows for a peaceful class time, even in the midst of highly challenging obstacles. And couldn’t all of us ballet teachers use a little more peace in our lives?