Before I jump into this topic, I would first like to say that everything I write concerning teaching is based on my own personal experience in the field. I write what I know. Obviously. I can’t write what you know. I suppose I could try, but that would be disastrous. I say this upfront because we each have unique styles of how to approach teaching. I recognize the strength in this. When I look back over my years of training, I can see with clarity how the different approaches to teaching advanced me forward in specific ways. Of course, there were styles I preferred over others, but they all had their place and I am grateful for that.
With that being said, I feel the subject of demonstrating while teaching should be placed on the stage. Perhaps it will open up conversation and result in a dialogue that helps us analyze our teaching methods and choices. Maybe bring us to a greater awareness of why we teach the way we teach and if we wish to adjust in any way or feel confident right where we are. At any rate, the thoughts that follow are simply my own—free of any need to enforce on others. It might be best to read this as more of a dialogue I am having with myself as opposed to an informative article.
Five Questions I Ask Myself:
1. Why do I demonstrate while teaching?
- To show the steps that make up the exercises/combinations.
- To show how to properly execute certain steps/concepts.
- To show how the combination should flow—the dynamic/quality/timing of the movement.
2. Where are my own thoughts while demonstrating?
- Most of the time, they are with the exercise and the students.
- Sometimes I get lost in my own movement—frustration with how my older body now does ballet/carried away with the beauty of the dancing moment I am personally experiencing.
- At times, I can get distracted by my demonstrating by allowing my own movement to steer me towards corrections I would direct at myself as opposed to corrections the students in my class should hear.
3. Is my demonstrating helping?
- It certainly helps with the youngest students.
- Many times it is helpful because some students are visual learners.
- I find it can be helpful, but then instantly it switches over to not being helpful at all.
- Sometimes I find the students attempt to make their dancing “look” like mine. This is most often not helpful and would be a good time to stop demonstrating so they can focus on their own dancing and their own aesthetic/technique.
4. Can I teach this without demonstrating? If so, how?
- Many times, yes.
- Use vocabulary.
- Use other students to demonstrate.
- Use ideas/stories/analogies/questions to tap into their critical thinking skills.
5. Are there benefits to restricting how much I demonstrate?
- Yes—It forces the students to think in a variety of ways.
- Yes—It builds vocabulary.
- Yes—It fosters individuality within each dancer. Instead of trying to always dance “up to the demonstration” they are dancing in confidence with themselves.
- Yes—It cuts down on the amount of time it takes to present a combination, allowing more time for dancing and teaching.
- Yes—It helps save my energy, and at the end of the day I am not as exhausted or sore.
I believe these are all appropriate questions to ask ourselves while we teach. Of course as we grow older our bodies will eventually demand we not demonstrate as much, or at all. Because of this there is a real desire to “do until we can’t”. We are dancers, after all. We thrive on the movement. But we are also teachers and our first priority as teachers is to teach, not dance.
There is a Time for It
That is not to say we should never whip out earth shattering pirouettes, or show off with crazy fast petit allegro, or astonish with sky high extension. By all means, if we have it, we should use it—in moderation. Students love being floored by seeing what their teachers can do. But I also believe we can easily get carried away with demonstrating. When this happens, teaching takes a backseat momentarily. The students’ training pauses for the briefest period, and this is not exactly acceptable.
Constantly demonstrating full out is a disservice to our students. We want them to be able to dance cleanly and intelligently without always needing to see the steps performed. We should not have to show a tendu exercise completely. We should not have to demonstrate the adage with music. We should not have to go leaping across the floor to help them grasp what a jeté should look like. If we have students who do need these things, our goal should be to help guide them to a place where that need no longer exists. How to do that is a separate topic entirely and one which deserves to be written and discussed in great depth.
To close, I will say that…
Once upon a time I had a ballet teacher who always wore her hair in a French twist. I remember the French twist well because I would try so hard to get my hair to do that. I was 12 years old and just could not figure out the French twist for anything. But oh, this teacher’s penchée—it was to die for! Every single time she dipped down and her leg floated over her head it appeared so effortless. Seamless. Heavenly. I wanted THAT penchée. Her demonstrating inspired me to work and work and work until I finally conquered that challenge and penchée was mine.
Once upon a time I also had a teacher whose movement was restricted to slowly walking about the room with her cane. I never saw her execute a dance step once. Her eyes cut into me and her words pierced me. I entered her class struggling with pirouettes. By the time I left her instruction two weeks later, my mind had opened to the step and I had an entirely new set of tools available to help me attack the turn. All because of her wisdom and the rhythm of her cane striking the floor to demand I spot each turn with precision.
Demonstrating, not demonstrating. Both valid forms of teaching. By approaching these styles with awareness and purpose, capitalizing on our strengths, and training up our weaknesses, we will be better equipped to serve our students and utilize those few precious minutes of ballet class.