Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Choosing A Ballet Teacher for Your Child

Rule #1:  Look at her students, not at her.  She can look like Bozo.  She can weigh four hundred pounds.  She can have a hunchback bigger than Quasimodo's-- but if her students can move like Suzanne Farrell, then go to her.

It's always nice when the teacher is gorgeous to look at--several of my teachers made me sigh with delight when they demonstrated a step:  "when that woman lifts her leg," I thought to myself, "it's like a song."  But:

Rule #2: A good dancer is not the same thing as a good teacher.  A good dancer is an artist, and an artist is propelled by her visions of, say, an effect she'd like to create in a dance.   An artist may not feel interested in the nitty-gritty of necessary repetition, in correcting placement (the way a dancer must stand in order to move correctly) in a way that a young student can understand, in making sure basic exercises done at the barre are repeated in a new and more challenging way in the center.  Therefore:

Rule #3: Good dancing and good teaching are two completely separate skills.  They sometimes appear in the same personality, but my own experience has been that terrible dancers often make good teachers.  Now, I was a dance student with a far from ideal body.  Technique was not easy for me.  A student who is a natural may feel differently.

Rule #4: "Those who can't do teach."  In other words, See Rule #1.  The best teachers I ever had looked like they'd never graced a stage.  Although I knew that Maggie Black (who taught everybody who was anybody in the dance world) had danced with Anthony Tudor, she never pointed her foot.  She didn't stand up straight.  But she had eyes in the back of her head, communicated corrections to the more than eighty people in her classes, and was known as "Black Magic," by George Balanchine, founder of the New York City Ballet, who envied her.  David Howard danced with the Royal Ballet, but it's his sharp eyes and sharp perceptions that you notice in his classes--not his body, which--frankly--is not beautiful.  I loved his wry comments: "Not so spastic with the arms," he would smirk, making us laugh and remember to correct our arms. 

When I was a student, Maggie taught me to stand and David taught me to move.  These unique teachers evolved their own highly different methods, although both were grounded in the Royal Academy of Dance method.  

Rule #5: The best teachers are often those who are highly aware of physical problems encountered by dancers--among them, scoliosis, lack of natural turn-out, lack of natural flexibility, flat feet, toe lengths rendering pointe work challenging . . . the list goes on.  Their knowledge derives from the difficulties they suffered as students, and they develop methods for dealing with physical problems as well as for compensating for them onstage.

Rule #6: It is always good to have more than one teacher.  No teacher can offer everything a dance student needs to know.  I have had teachers whose beauty of movement inspired students.  These same teachers may not be able to explain how to cope with a movement problem if they have not themselves experienced it.  I had a teacher who used one correction for every single student:  "push your hips forward," and eventually I realized that this worked on his body--not on mine!  He was an extraordinarily gifted dancer who had never had to be patient with himself, who picked up steps very quickly, and who did not understand why anyone else wouldn't. 

Rule #7:  The teacher should like children, but don't pass up a brilliant curmudgeon.   I have seen highly effective teachers who barely spoke English--usually they spoke Russian--scream "Make better!" without of course indicating what exactly should be better. Or they yelled: "Terrible! Go to the back of the class!" and many of their students looked well-trained.  For some children, such teaching is traumatizing but for others it becomes an exhilarating challenge.

Rule #8: Look at the websites of nationally known dance schools and organizations:  The Royal Academy of Dance USA, The School of American Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation, among others, and then go on You-Tube and watch performances.  Then you have some idea what a student dancer should look like and also an idea of different methods of ballet teaching in the United States. 

Rule #9: The teacher does not necessarily need a teaching degree, but it helps.  A certificate from the Royal Academy of Dance or another internationally known dance organization is a good sign, but the acid test is the way they teach.  I have had excellent teachers who had degrees, but again, my very best teachers had evolved their own methods.

Rule #10: Parents should observe the following in a good dance studio: 

A.  Students wear a uniform and their hair should be neatly tied back.  This helps with the sense of belonging and shared purpose.  A teacher can allow students to choose the color of leotard they wear that year, but then everyone must stick to it.

B. No very young student should go on pointe: typically, students start pointe at about age 11 and AFTER several years of training, though some may start a year or so earlier.

C.  The music chosen for classes should delight the soul and support the dance steps.

D.  The room should be sufficiently warm.  Muscles work best when they are well-lubricated with sweat. Beware of studios touting air-conditioning, unless it is used only to dehumidify the room.  You don't want cool air blasting in during a ballet class.

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