Solutions to Common Challenges for Ballet Teachers
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Teaching Challenge #1:
How can I Cultivate a Culture of Caring while maintaining the Discipline needed to be successful in Ballet?
According to author Chloe Angyal (2021, Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself), dancers now, more than ever, need their mental health to be successful in their chosen career. She asserts that ballet does not serve the diversity of students who love to dance and that the future of ballet is dependent on those who lead students and work with dancers in companies - “If ballet survives, it will be because of the individuals and institutions who are demanding that it do better” (Angyal, 2021).
This is a tall order considering all the other requirements of teachers and directors. The mentorship that teachers already bring to help their students survive in ballet takes a monumental amount of energy, love, and caring for their students. On top of this, the concern that teachers and directors have for the survival of their school or company in the current climate takes an extraordinary toll.
I hope the new generation of dancers can truly create change, as Angyal suggests in her book. And I hope that teachers will help them - guide them - because students will need their vast experience and knowledge - I hope that teachers will at last shed the need to inflict heartache and pain on students in the name of tradition and discipline. Teachers can instill the required discipline through caring mentorship and inspired teaching that honours the gift that youth and young bodies and minds bring to the ballet profession. With the right training, they can be the proverbial breath of fresh air that invigorates and enlivens ballet - if their spirit is not trampled and their emotional well-being is caringly cultivated.
PROPS for ballet - professional ballet training with psychological skills - can help. PROPS Promotes self-awareness for Resilience to Optimize potential with Psychological Skills. The PROPS method suggests 6 Teaching Strategies that can be incorporated into ballet classes that help students learn, from the very beginning of their training, that they can create an approach to ballet technique that is right for them - their body, mind, and spirit.
Through PROPS training, teachers learn how to ensure that students have the time and appropriate guidance to find the best movement patterns for their body that satisfies the ballet aesthetic. Teachers are shown how to organise learning activities that promote students’ ability to problem-solve in their own best interest, think critically to challenge the paradigm that insists that “there is only one way to do this (and it’s my way)", and experiment to discover their potential to produce beautiful and creative art.
When teachers and directors give students and dancers opportunities in classes and rehearsals to become aware of their unique sensibilities and individuality, they open the door to the type of self-efficacy dancers need to make the differences that Angyal writes about. When students are allowed to discover and experiment with their dance work, they can develop their whole multi-faceted selves through dance, and hence find their voice. When opportunities are offered during classes for peer learning, collaboration, trial and error, comparing and contrasting ideas, under the teachers watchful eye that keeps students on track towards the ballet aesthetic, students can find their unique contribution to ballet as a living artform in the 21st century.
Psychological skills keep ballet alive! They help dancers reflect upon their dancing, review their ideas, and revise their technical and artistic responses to their work, based on a firm foundation of self-awareness, that is assisted by copious opportunities to explore their work with their peers and their teachers. Journalling (visual, written, aural) gives dancers a platform to record their thoughts, physical feelings, and emotions that are important to them, which in turn allows them to revisit these variables when they feel differently, want to explore other possibilities, or just want to perform consistently well. Scaffolding that progresses dancers' goals, wants, and needs from their ballet experience can help to keep them motivated when things get tough, and keep them positive about their progress. Finding personally relevant cue words can keep them emotionally and physically stable for consistent high performance that is not sabotaged by self-doubt or unhelpful self-talk.
Teaching Challenge #2:
How can I avoid having to repeat myself over and over in the same class?
Students need lots of repetition, that is a fact. When we repeat the same feedback, even when we say it differently, and even though it is necessary because the students are not "getting it" yet, or responding in the manner we had hoped, our students tend to tune us out - they've heard it before - they know, but they can't do it, I've often heard my students say. This scenario is repeated in studios all over the world and it is likely, as we start up our classes again after the holiday break, we will feel the need to repeat ourselves often, again. Is this a necessary part of teaching or is there something we can do to relieve our own frustration at having to say the same things over and over to the same class, while at the same time, avoid the frustration - and possible stagnation of progress that can lead to unmotivated participation or worse, increased attrition rate - of our students. DO we need to be the "keeper of knowledge"? Does everybody have to approach a movement the same way for it to be successfully accomplished?
We don't have to be the one with all the answers! Especially if we have covered the movement and shared our knowledge with this class before. We can expect students to reach into their memories, pool their knowledge, and come up with answers for themselves. This makes it more likely they will act upon that knowledge, as we know from socio-constructivism theory, that we learn best when we can collaborate with our peers, and only guided (not told what to do) by an expert.
We can spend our efforts on INSPIRING students to find their best movement patterns that suit their sensibilities, instead.
For example, we can ask a student who is not performing well, what would you tell your students who are struggling with this movement? Then you could offer your thoughts on their suggestions - perhaps ask the student to try some of their own suggestions to see if it improves their own work.
We could pair this student with others who are not performing well (perhaps for different reasons) and have them try to work out an improvement for each other -one observes and offers possible improvements and then they switch - then they evaluate for each other if improvement has taken place before presenting this to the teacher (and/or the rest of the class) for confirmation.
We could create groups of students to work with each other in the same way as above.
We could allocate time in class for students to write, draw, photograph, video, or make an audio recording of their thoughts or feelings about how their movement was performed. They could note if they think the movement needs improvement and where/how? Students could record what you - their teacher - thinks of their movement based on your feedback. Then this could be revisited later (in their own time) or in subsequent classes - when time is allotted by you - to review these thoughts, physical feelings, or emotions to see how they affected the movement and revise any or all of these to the current circumstances, mood, or current level of difficulty (for example, now the movement is done turning).
We could create learning episodes that require students to individually try out ideas for improvement to see what happens (and note it), or create learning opportunities where students can experiment with several possible solutions so that ideas can be evaluated for future use. The findings can frequently be different for each student, leading students towards an awareness of their individuality and an appreciation for their unique needs, physicality, artistry, or temperament. This also makes students aware that there could be more than one way to dance their movement successfully - recruiting more than one thought, feeling, emotion, idea, image, etc.
And throughout these examples, you have not repeated your feedback at all. You have used your creativity to set up an exploration, and you have used your expertise to watch over progress to ensure it is going in the right direction. You will have the opportunity to get past what you were repeating previously, and move on to something more interesting that the students were perhaps not yet ready to produce for themselves.
These inclusive methods of training, not only allow students to practice their art of teaching, but also offers them autonomy over their training. They can decide if and how much they work on one idea, how quickly they can move on to another idea, how "in tune" the ideas are with their own desires and needs, and do what they feel like doing (within your parameters) - the when, where, what and how of learning - in your class. This is something that improves motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000, Self Determination Theory) and trains students to start to take the reins of their own training. It helps them become responsible for their own progress, requiring them to remember what produces their best dancing, and helps them to prepare for a time when they have no teacher. Students start to feel competent, and they benefit from a feeling that they are capable of helping others as well as themselves. This can create a sense of belonging - they can contribute to the well-being and progress of the group - that can lead to the building of self-efficacy.