Teaching Dancers: Non-serious v. Serious

Written by Sheena Jeffers for Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins

I tend to believe that young children are capable of great things. And I tend to believe that a focused, intense education (beginning at very young ages) produces well-rounded dancers and strong individuals for the "real world."

Part of my believing this comes from my background.

First allow me to explain that:

From the day I was born I was to understand the importance of self-discipline, hard work, manners, education, family, following through on what you say, and remembering, always, who I am and the principles I was raised on. This was my foundation.

I found dance when I was 5 years old.

From there, I worked hard. Sure, there were days when it was cold and rainy, mixed with my dance studio being a 30-minute drive from my house... that I didn't want to go to class. But my mother allowed nothing to serve as an excuse for me to miss class. She had signed me up because I so wished to be a ballerina, and she was going to keep her commitment by bringing me there, and make me keep my commitment by actively participating.

As I continued to work hard, I progressed to the competition team. By the age of 9, I knew very well important dance lessons/concepts:

1. Every time your foot leaves the floor, it's pointed - unless choreographed otherwise.

2. Square your hips.

3. Spot.

4. Proper turnout; proper arms.

5. Upstage, downstage, stage right, stage left.

6. Ballet, jazz and tap terminology (pronunciations, executions and spellings).

7. Progress as an individual; dance as a team.

By 9 years old, I was able to do double pirouettes, the splits, grand battements, grand jeté, chaine turns and piqué turns. I am not saying any of this to boast; I am saying this to frame the conversation that was recently sparked within the dance community, and among dance educators who I have come to know and respect.

The conversation began with the focal question: "Are non-serious dancers more difficult to teach?"

This was dissected down into many other questions:

1. How do you define serious?

2. What is strict? What does strictness produce?

I would like to share with you my thoughts, and the thoughts of a few others in the dance world.

My thoughts:

I believe every child should find their thing, and I believe - through the help of their parents - they can find this thing early on and their thing will help the parents in raising their children by teaching them lessons (or reinforcing parenting lessons) in a different atmosphere. For example, sports teach children lessons that they carry with them forever. Piano lessons help form a child's mind and provide the child a marketable skill later in life.

My mother helped guide me to my thing, dance, by paying close attention to my actions, interests and by taking a chance and signing me up for class. (It should be noted that she also allowed me to register for one season of soccer - prompted by my asking- which ended as a disaster and the coach advising perhaps soccer wasn't my thing.)

Once children find their thing, it's as if teachers don't have to ask a child to focus. A lot of the tough "work" of teaching is removed, because the child's interest and their learning are aligned. This is a perfect scenario, and I for one feel very lucky that I was a child who found my thing early in life, and had a family who could finance my thing. I do understand that not all children find their things - whatever passion that may be - early in life, some never do, and some do not have the finances to follow such passions.

But, for those who do, whatever the passion may be... I believe in no-nonsense training. This means, when you come to train, you are there to train.

Whatever baggage you may have; whatever demons you are fighting... they must be left at the door. Your focus, your energy, your efforts should be on your talent.

I once had a teacher who told me, "Being talented comes with a responsibility. You must learn and consistently work to come as close to perfection as you can with your talent." This is a lesson I pass along to my students. Being talented is a gift, but it isn't always easy to be talented. It takes hard work; and I, as your teacher, am not going to beg you to follow through with your own responsibility as an artist.

This is where the debate comes in: But how can a middle-school aged child know that kind of focus, work-ethic and caliber of work? Why should they be expected to know so and do so? They are in a time of discovery.

Photo by: Jianan Yu

I tend to agree to Deborah Bull (who began her "serious" dance education at the age of 7):

"It takes 10 years to train a dancer; ten years that have to take place before the effects of puberty set in, while maximum flexibility can still be achieved and the necessary neural connections - essential to speed and accuracy - refined. If you want to succeed as a ballet dancer, you'll need to begin taking class well before you reach double figures."

We know from years of studies on physical growth and development that gross-motor skills relate to a child's development of large muscles including the ability to move from place to place involving their arms and legs. By age 6, a child's body proportions are more like an adult's and their center of gravity is centrally located.

We know small-motor skills involve the smaller muscles, fingers, toes, hands and feet. By age 6, a child can print letters, numbers and cut shapes out of paper clearly and easily.

We know balance and coordination begins to develop from birth. By age 6, a child has good balance and can move more smoothly and (tests and YouTube videos prove) a child can play a musical instrument with practice.

Cognitively, and according to Piaget, by the age of 7 (The Concrete Operational Stage) a child, "begins thinking logically about concrete events, but has difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts."

So, in other words, I place high expectations on my students - not expectations that I know will hurt them (because I've done the research on physical growth and how dance manipulates and grows muscles), but expectations which include: the student taking the lesson seriously.

I define "seriously" as: Understanding that if you don't do your best, listen your hardest, put forth all of your effort, try, try and try again then you have something to lose. The idea of something being serious means there are stakes involved here.

Every child, regardless of their needs or backgrounds, understands when stakes are involved. They can tell instantly when a situation is "serious." Now, the trick is getting a child to understand when something that is "fun" is serious.

I believe the best way to do this (besides being an inspiring, motivating teacher) is to separate those who CAN acknowledge they want to be serious in their dance education (perhaps by an audition and placed in a separate class or track), from those who dance for fun, or because a family member desires they dance.

Being serious in dance training means you are willing to give up a few things like... sleeping in on a Saturday morning, going to your school's football game or Homecoming dance. Perhaps you miss the trip to the mall with your girlfriends, because you had ballet. But part of knowing you're giving up a few things, means you understand everything you are getting from dance... freedom, flexibility, strength, the ability to fly and dream and escape.

This may demand emotional maturity from a child: the ability to make a decision and honor it. But I think children can do this. I believe children are faced with decisions like this every day. For example, do I bully Sarah-Jane at school? Or do I stand up for her? Do I steal from the Art teacher or do I not? Children make decisions and stand by them daily.

From a very young age I knew my LIFE would be a RESULT of the DECISIONS I made throughout my LIFE (young and old). So yes, I did miss Homecoming football games, trips to the mall, sleepovers and the hallway gossip. I missed all of that because I was doing something that meant so much more to me... and I made that decision when I was still in elementary school.

Below are the thoughts of some fantastic dance educators and advocates throughout our nation! I am so grateful to have met them, and to always have them close by (via Twitter) to bounce ideas off of:

Nichelle from Dance Advantage:

If I had to define what a serious student is: Someone who is investing their attention, and open to what I have to share with them, and willing to master the unfamiliar and remaster the familiar. And, regarding this definition, I have also had experiences (namely when I was teaching college students) in which the absolute, starting-from-scratch beginners were an absolute dream to teach - they took the class very seriously. Meanwhile, the dancers coming from traditional dance backgrounds, who had been dancing a long time, were the worst. The breakdown:

Beginning dancer: knows nothing.
Intermediate dancer: knows everything; too good to dance with beginners.
Hotshot dancer: too good to dance with anyone.
Advanced dancer: dances everything. Especially with beginners.

I really do attribute it to where these dancers are in their training/dance life when they get to college. It's rare, even in most dance major programs, to find studio dancers that are coming in above the Intermediate level. It's at that juncture, I find, that you begin to see who really IS serious about dance because they'll either get over themselves and out of their own way, or they'll turn tail and run when they find out what it really means to get serious and advance. And frankly, the ones that retreat don't usually do so because they are afraid of the physical work.

OK! So, at a studio, there's that line between the kids who are always there dancing and the 'recreational' students. Serious might mean how much time someone's spending on the technique or craft of dance but I think it depends on the studio, whether or not these "serious" students are serious by my standards (above) and easier to teach. Because I've been in studios where the more classes the kids took, the more of that overconfidence and resistance they exhibited to the ideas both technical and philosophical that I was bringing in - ideas directly rooted in my experiences dancing academically or professionally in the 'real world'. This was less of a problem in studios that took exposing their dancers to a wide range of teachers, from outside the studio's circle, very seriously. And even less of a problem in studios that also exposed their students to as much and as wide a variety of dance performance as possible. And even LESS of a problem in studios that took the creative/artistic investigation of dance as seriously as they did technique (soooo very rare in typical dance studio culture).

So bottom line, if we're talking about students who fit my definition of serious... yes, they make my job deliciously easy. No matter how much dance they have/haven't, do/don't take or why they take it.

As for STRICT teachers - that's again subject to your definition. Having high expectations and providing appropriate challenges that help students meet those goals vs. Having high but unclear expectations and insulting and undermining those that don't meet them. Or, consistently issuing consequences for violating an agreed upon code of conduct vs. unpredictably screaming at students depending on one's mood. All might be seen as "strict." All happen in the "real world." But why would I want/choose a teacher who prepares me with careless negativity when I know I can be just as prepared and motivated by one whose actions are thoughtful, positive, and compassionate?

Sheena's Note: I love Nichelle's comments for two reasons: 1) Her passion for dance and education shines through! 2) Her view on the dance world is clear, and she can take the temperature of what is going on, while deciphering it down to the core issues. Confidence in dance is huge! Confidence plays a huge part on "being serious" and it also plays into the strictness of a teacher. I had strict teachers (some which used their strictness as a productive tool and with some it was careless negativity... but I learned to tell the difference. Their actions made me investigate further and allowed me to determine what I felt was "positive" and "negative" for myself, without anyone having to tell me how to feel).

Heather Vaughan-Southard from Educating Dancers:

I think it depends on what you want your students to learn and why.

I enjoy teaching serious students but for me this does not demand they be serious about pursuing dance. It does demand, however, they give their attention and time, and a hope they also bring some willingness to take risks.

I am interested in exposing students to the “real” world of dance and include a foundation for avenues in dance other than strictly performance and choreography. I provide technique classes with the same structure and expectations I give professional dancers but scaled to an age/skill-appropriate level. I am comfortable with the knowledge that the majority of my students will eventually leave dance at varying stages of their training or careers. So I consider much of what I do as an opportunity to train audiences to authentically appreciate dance and be able to talk about it in real terms with a real sense of aesthetic.

If, however, we are talking specifically about teaching technique to pre-professional or recreational dancers, in most circumstances I find “serious” dancers under 18 harder to teach.

Simply, there can be a staggering amount of repair work to be done before these students can even know what it is they think they are serious about. I am talking about their pre-conceptions of dance technique, dance styles, dance-making. I am talking about their misinformation/misunderstanding of “real” dance versus competitive/reality show based views. I am talking about their bad physical habits or poor training. I am happy to do the work but if we talk about ease, I don't find it here.

Give me a good mover and an open mind anytime- whether they are“recreational” or “serious.”

Sheena's Note: I love the quote, "...before these students can even know what it is they think they are serious about." Love it! For ME, being serious means they are willing to give up something - like going swimming with their BFF in order to take a technique class. This would be serious. This would be sacrifice. But Heather is correct! Sometimes it's difficult to determine what they need/want to be serious about.

And now, from Dance_Reader:

I am responding in the capacity of a dance parent and former recreational dance student. Now Sheena, she is a remarkable and unique young person:  driven, dedicated, intelligent, and with the benefit of a special mom about whom she writes lovingly and beautifully.  She also has a work ethic like none other. Very few "tweens" let alone teens or even adults could do anything for 30-40 hours a week. Sheena did.  I did (at academics).
But... that being said, it is hard for those of us who worked in this way to realize that many if not most kids can not perform at this level at this age. I think it is important not to place our own high standards on others who may not be mature enough yet. If I had been encouraged only in that in which I excelled (school) I might never have developed my passion for dance and music I have today.

I was always a serious student, serious about everything I did, whether it was dance, academics or music. With respect to piano, I was never great, but I learned to read music and to appreciate music in a way that one can not simply by listening. Did that make me a less 'serious" student unworthy of my musical education? Was my teacher wasting her time?  I don't think so. With respect to dance, I was serious in that I took adored my lessons, was respectful in class, etc., but I did not have the innate talents to be a "real" dancer and never would.

That being said, there is never a place for rudeness in your class and as the teacher you have the absolute 100% right to run your class any way you see fit.  As a parent, I would suggest first having a talk with the student, then if necessary with the parent. Lay out expectations in the beginning, even if it means having a written set of guidelines posted in your classroom and handed out to every parent. (I was recently a guest at a very serious ballet studio with a big posted sign that students more than 10 minutes later would only be permitted to observe). You should never be made to feel like a babysitter.

Regarding "strictness," if you want to run your classroom strictly because that's your style and it works for you, by all means do so.  If you want to be "strict" because no one coddled you and the real world isn't like that, (which I agree) well, I wouldn't worry about imposing a whole world view philosophy on a bunch of tweens whose biggest priority is the next episode of "Jesse." That's their parents' job. Your job is to teach dance, and maybe, a love of dance.  If you use whatever teaching style is YOUR style, without over-thinking it, you will shine. You can have high expectations and consequences for not meeting those expectations without being "strict." It's a fine balancing act. I think they call it parenting.

Also important to add, all dance lessons are valuable because you are creating future arts supporters.

Sheena's Note: I love Dance_Reader's comments as well, and one has been stuck in my mind since I first read her input. The comment about the piano lessons has been in my head for a few days now. I love this, because for me... I never knew anything else besides dance. And I've always wondered if my coach felt soccer was a waste of her time? A waste of my time? Or was it just... a memorable experience?! And if so, that's OK!

THE TRUTH IS:

At the end of the day, I want my students to be inspired and to be hard workers. For me, being serious means you are willing to sacrifice for your art. You are willing to give up what is comfortable and put in the physical work and the emotional roller-coaster that will be your lifelong education.

So to all children... I hope and wish and pray you will find your thing that you love so deeply that you are willing to sacrifice for it, fight for it, learn for it, travel for it. Decide for yourself which teachers are best for you, but be open to all teachers. Carve your own path, and keep moving.

Thank you to all who helped me in the post! Keep the conversation going! Leave a comment!

How do you define "serious?"

What method of teaching do you believe produces "real-world" results?

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