Daily technique classes are a necessity for students training for a professional career in ballet, commonly changing to two-a-day classes for those in later phases of preparation. Adult beginners, with a different goal in mind, should try to attend classes at least twice a week; they could expect little progress from a once-a-week schedule.
The necessary elements of any ballet class-the teacher, the studio, the student, the music, the “vocabulary’ – and the first procedures of the lesson are the subjects of this chapter.
Most important to a ballet class is a well-qualified teacher
Indeed, all ballet artists credit their success to one or more great teachers with whom they have studied. These teachers most probably had been dancers themselves at one time, an important consideration for students bent on a professional dance career. An often-heard maxim, “Great dancers aren’t always great teachers” is true enough, but a gifted teacher (usually with experience as a performer and some knowledge of classical ballet repertory) seems to be in the background of every great dancer.
The teacher of a beginning class for adults need not be a retired prime-ballerina or premier dancer with firsthand acquaintance of famous ballet roles, but she or he should have a sound knowledge of ballet technique and an understanding of human anatomy. The instrument being trained is the human body; the teacher’s job is, therefore, a complex and responsible one.
Beginning ballet classes
Knowing and showing the steps is not enough, especially for beginning classes. An exercise needs to be “broken down” into basic movements that must be mastered before the complete step is attempted. These slow, elementary exercises may seem totally unrelated to the brilliant footwork of dancers seen on stage and screen. Those serene artists show no signs of effort, sweat, or fatigue, but a visit backstage at a performance or to a professional class will quickly dispel the vision of effortless motion. To dance is to work, and to work very hard. It is the teacher’s job to guide that work soundly, and the good teacher can often make it exciting and enjoyable.
Teaching methods and manners vary. One teacher may be “dressed out” in practice clothes like the rest of the class; another may wear street clothes and shoes. One instructor may demonstrate every exercise; another will remain seated throughout the lesson. A teacher’s voice may be loud, accompanied by hand-clapping or stick-tapping, or it may be soft, as though only two persons were in the studio. Many teachers employ a variety of styles and resort to a number of ways of reaching the students-serious, joking, angry, anecdotal.
Correction and criticism are basic ingredients to instruction, and a good teacher knows when and how to give them to the beginner as well as to the advanced dancer. Basically, there are two kinds of correction – that given to the entire class, and that given to an individual. Take heed of both! A soloist with a famous company has said that she always listened to a class correction as though it were said to her personally.
When an individual correction is given, it should not be received as an embarrassing insult, and hopefully it will not have been offered in such a manner. Most teachers have a genuine interest in the progress of their pupils and a true dedication to ballet. A correction is considered an aid to progress, and the teacher is likely to lose interest in the student who ignores or systematically forgets criticism. If corrections apply to a serious structural problem and are still ignored, the student may be asked to withdraw from the class. Ballet technique is a powerful tool for building strong bodies, but when done incorrectly it is equally powerful in damaging them.
The teacher of a beginning class for adults should not expect the technical perfection of a younger student enrolled in a professional ballet school. Neither should the adult who enrolls in a ballet class expect to float randomly around the room as music plays somewhere in the background.
Ballet’s aristocratic heritage from royal courts has continued a certain formalism in manners as well as style. Thus, in class the ballet teacher usually is addressed as Miss, Madame, or Mr. Such-and-Such even though some students in the class may be older than the teacher or on a first-name basis outside of class. Although this procedure may sound austere, today it is just a formality and does not detract from the teacher’s availability for answering serious questions and listening to individual problems. Adult classes offer both teacher and students the opportunity to discuss artistic and historical matters as well as technical concerns of ballet. The classroom should be a place to ask as well as to listen.