Teaching Ballet: The Royal Ballet School Visits Richmond Ballet

Written by: Meredith Lee and Sheena Jeffers

We've all been there. A famous teacher from a prestigious institution comes into your studio to teach class, and instantly it's like you've never taken a technique class in your life! Your hands clam up, you clench the barre, you force your turn out, and is it just me? Or does gravity seem to be extra powerful today?

But stellar ballet educators, Mark Annear and Jay Jolley from The Royal Ballet School and Judy Jacob of The School of Richmond Ballet know just how to break through students' nerves and anxieties to pull the best out of their ballet training. The goals: remain cool, calm and collected; to keep a clear head and stay focused on personal goals.

Recently, The School of Richmond Ballet hosted The Royal Ballet School where Mark Annear, Head of Outreach and Teacher Training for The Royal Ballet School, and Jay Jolley, Acting Director of The Royal Ballet School, gave master classes to students and workshops to ballet teachers. The visit gave the schools and educators time to collaborate and discuss ballet training. Annear, Jolley and Judy Jacob, School Director of The School of Richmond Ballet, came together to look at the process of educating young dancers, and they spoke to us about their approaches!

Photo: Mark Annear, Head of Outreach and Teacher Training from The Royal Ballet School, conducts a demonstration class with students from The School of Richmond Ballet. Richmond Ballet 2014. All rights reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

The Royal Ballet School "heralds the future, but concentrates on the past," and by doing so they mold some of the world’s most lovely, passionate, and technically precise dancers in the world.

The school believes the following factors make up a solid and wholesome approach to pre-professional ballet training:

A solid foundation, musical holistic complexity, virtuosity and artistry.

But to achieve these factors, the approach to training ballet dancers has changed. No longer is it requiring the students to achieve a specific look by mimicking, but the focus is on how to achieve a specific look within different body types.

Annear, the Head of Outreach & Teacher Training for The Royal Ballet School, stressed the importance of a student-centered approach to ballet training.

"What I’ve done as a teacher, is not just look at ballet training but also education. [I looked at] what’s happening out in the education field: current theory and current practice. It’s very much what we would call a student-centered approach. It’s looking at what the students’ needs are and how we can help them best fulfill their ambitions and what they want to do," Annear said. "Rather than a teacher just proclaiming what needs to be done, we actually work more in collaboration with the students to help them achieve their goals and ambitions.”

The Royal Ballet Schools' pedagogy emphasizes the importance of a list of things:

Anatomy and working naturally (with turn out, extension)

Weight distribution

Placement

"Center line" and "counterpull"

As in all technical dancing, alignment is of the utmost importance. The Royal Ballet School focuses on working on the "foundation" (or a dancers' feet) and focuses on alignment straight up the body to the very top. Similar to approaches embraced in modern dance classes, the school is concerned with creating space within the body, the importance of counterbalance, and expanding distally away from the body's center.

Thoughts from The Royal Ballet School on a Dancers' Foundation:

1. Alignment: Students need to learn how to properly stack their bones and more importantly learn how that feels. Curvature of the spine, absence of posterior/anterior tilt, and weightiness of the pelvis are stressed.

2. Turn Out: Understanding turnout as a tool to access mobility and range of motion is an absolute necessity. The Royal Ballet School stresses the importance of facilitating turnout correctly and with whole rotation starting from the hip socket.

Turnout is an active movement, not a position. Equality between sides is extremely important to achieve, control, and master.

3. Weight Distribution: Dancers need to understand the feeling and science behind correct placement of the feet - flat without supination (rolling arches out) or pronation (rolling arches in). You want to feel your weight and energy going down through the floor.

4. Placement: Probably the most learned skill is placement of limbs of the body and their relation to joints to maintain the center line and balanced weight. Remember: your head is the heaviest part of the body and you should anticipate the line of movement.

5. Lengthening/Counterpull: Counterpull is about elongation and energy fulfilling the movement to the dancers’ widest range of motion. This expansion up, down and sideways in opposite directions - while maintaining length in the spine and a stable base - is what gives classical ballet training its trademark.

Once all of these principles have been deeply rooted into the students’ body, the student may begin to develop their movement vocabulary. Students are taught that each and every one of them is capable of greatness because of The Talent Code. 

The Royal Ballet School's Talent Code:

The belief that talent is not selective, but that talent can actually be created, harnessed, and nurtured.

The Royal Ballet School believes learning ballet is possible for any dancer, even those without the natural facility for ballet. No longer is it about simply copying an image or position but it's about finding new ways to deliver ballet training to achieve those goals.

“Obviously teaching ballet requires students to do particular things in particular ways, but it’s finding ways to actually draw that out of students rather than just demanding ‘do it this way or don’t do it at all,'" Annear said.

Jolley, Acting Director of The Royal Ballet School, seconded Annear's opinion: "It’s looking at how children learn, how they take in information, how they process information and what’s the best way for you to deliver it to them to understand more to achieve their goals. It’s looking at different learning styles.”

Jacob of The School of Richmond Ballet said discussing how people learn is critical to training ballet dancers. "We spent a little bit of time talking about the science of learning and the development of talent and how to get to point A to point B to C, to D. That’s a luxury we don’t always have time to talk about and consider," Jacob said. "It is interesting because we teach ballet in a class format rather than on an individual basis: one-on-one student to teacher. But yet, it’s very individual with how each student develops and passes through the levels and gains experience.”

The educators noted some stylistic differences between The Royal Ballet School and The School of Richmond Ballet, the focus on quality remains the same:

Jacob: "The basic tenants of teaching classical ballet, we all share. I think we're all on the same mission."

Annear: "Good dancing is good dancing and there’s a real basic nucleus to that and it’s just how you springboard from it. Good training is good training."

Photo: Mark Annear, Head of Outreach and Teacher Training from The Royal Ballet School, conducts a demonstration class with students from The School of Richmond Ballet. Richmond Ballet 2014. All rights reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

How do you know when a student is ready to move on to the next level?

Jolley: “It’s slightly perscriptive. We expect the student to achieve a certain level at each level before they move on. But then again, we go back to the individual child and some children will progress quicker and some may not be quite as fast so you hold them back a bit.”

Annear: "You get an instinctive feel for when a child is ready to move on. They’ll certainly be achieving what you’re asking of them consistently, they’ll be trying to push the boundaries themselves, so you can get that sense that they’re ready to move on as well. Sometimes they don’t recognize that for themselves and you have to push them. But I think those lines come along very naturally. ”

Photo: Mark Annear, Head of Outreach and Teacher Training from The Royal Ballet School, conducts a demonstration class with students from The School of Richmond Ballet. Richmond Ballet 2014. All rights reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

What do these ballet educators hope to leave behind for their students?

Annear: "To me, the big difference these days, and the lesson that I really hope to be able to pass on to students, is that they don’t just know what they’re supposed to do, they don’t just know that they are supposed to do a pirouette or an arabesque, that they actually learn more about how to do those things. How is dance constructed, how is the ballet technique constructed, what makes up the elements of the way we move in that particular dance form and how that scientifically works. And that’s not to negate any sort of artistic content because of course, that is very very important. But to me, it’s more developing their cognitive ability as well as their physical and kinesthetic ability as well, so they actually have a conception of what ballet is and not just what to do."

Jolley: "Our job is finished when we feel they can take the responsibility with their own career. They've learned the how of ballet and they take it further. It's empowering them to be able to take responsibility for themselves and their career."

Jacob: "I love ballet and I’ve done it my entire life since I was 5 years old, and I hope that my great love of this art, I can pass on to the student. And if I do that, whether they’re going to go into the profession or whether they’re just going to want to buy tickets and come to the theater and support the art, I’m quite happy with that."

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