The Joy Of..Teaching Adults

 

“It gave me something to lean on when I was struggling. It made me realize that I am a strong teacher, and maybe I could enjoy the title of ‘dance teacher’ just as much as the title of ‘dancer’.”

As adults, we understand the value of time. Unlike our earlier years, we have more control over how our time is spent and what our time is delegated towards. The only catch is that there is much more to be done – work responsibilities, exercising, eating well, getting enough rest, hydrating, planning, paying bills – and there are people to take care of other than ourselves – our significant other, children, family, friends, pets. Sometimes the teeny, tiny wedge of our pie chart that we had hoped to dedicate to ourselves, ends up shrinking or maybe gets pushed out of the chart all together. This is when we start to feel the effects – fatigue, boredom, anxiety, sadness, anger, resentment, being at a loss for who we even are anymore. Whether you are in this cycle now or have been in the past, we all can relate to this as busy human beings (and works in progress). I salute each one of you in your individual struggle to embrace yourself and make time for YOU. This common human struggle is why I love teaching adults.

I started teaching in college. When I began at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, I intended to only get a performance degree. After completing the mandatory pedagogy course freshmen year though, I found that I really enjoyed teaching. And so, I switched my major to Ballet Pedagogy. I was able to perform as I intended, while also getting the added bonus of a ballet teaching degree. I knew that teaching would be essential to supporting my performance career, and, of course, I wanted to have a back-up plan for myself.

It’s a blur to me now when I even started teaching adults. What I do remember is initially being very intimidated by the task. While most adult ballet classes are labelled or defined in some way – beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc. – there’s not often a huge offering for adults. Therefore, as a teacher, you’re often presented with a huge spectrum of student abilities. As both a teacher and a people-pleaser, I want everyone to be happy, to be appropriately challenged, to enjoy themselves, and not feel overwhelmed! But finding this balance for each student was so daunting to me when I began teaching adults. (Honestly, it’s still a little daunting today too, but the love outweighs the fear LOL.)

Aside from level and ability, adults are also fully functioning humans with their own opinions. This we know. As a teacher of small humans too, there is an immense difference here. Adults, unlike children, will offer their opinions and choose how they want to spend their time. Early on before any adult class I would think to myself, “What if they don’t like me?!” This is partially my own personal problem, but it can be a thought for any teacher. Teaching younger students you may have a large number of kids but for a variety of reasons – convenient scheduling, attending class with a friend, limited number of levels within the school, or maybe the parent(s) believes your teaching methods work for their student. Adults, on the other hand, can decide for themselves what kind of class they want to attend. I know that not everyone is going to love my class, and you know what? That’s okay. Maybe they find it too hard or too easy. Maybe it’s got too much barre. Maybe they don’t like my music, or maybe I make too many weird little jokes. All those reasons are valid, and I respect that they get to make that choice.

“It is a conscious choice that they make to come to class, [to] set aside their busy lives, and to do something for themselves. I am always humbled to be a part of their time.”

After a serious injury about five years ago, I exited the company scene and decided to try my hand as a freelancer instead. With my mornings oddly free of ballet class for the first time in about nine years, I was given a Wednesday A.M. adult ballet class to teach. At first, it was a special kind of torture. Teaching class on the same floor as the company, around the same time as warm-up, made me feel like an absolute failure. I didn’t feel like myself. I would walk around and correct, offering the occasional wave at someone I knew in the hall, and think to myself, “What had I let happen to me? I’m not a dancer anymore.” Week to week though, I maintained a faithful crew of students. It was a challenging blend of students too, that I had originally thought I couldn’t conquer – a spectrum of ages, some comfortable with center work, some not, some with past professional careers, some totally beginner, one student even on pointe every week. What made it all the more enjoyable was their encouragement and the bond that we all built together. It gave me something to lean on when I was struggling. It made me realize that I am a strong teacher, and maybe I could enjoy the title of “dance teacher” just as much as the title of “dancer”. Writing about it now, I miss “my Wednesday morning crew” so much.

What means the absolute most to me about adult students, is that they choose to entrust me with their time. It is a conscious choice that they make to come to class (live, or virtual nowadays), set aside their busy lives, and to do something for themselves. I am always humbled to be a part of their time and to help them nourish the love for dance that they still have or are just now exploring. The responsibility I have to my adults is huge. Sometimes the weight of it overwhelms me, but overall it holds a special place in my heart.

I am honored to be a part of your life, and I hope to make your choice to dance all the more worthwhile.

Know Yourself, Then PUSH Yourself

“How can you push your dancers to give all of themselves, without holding back or giving up, while staying safe physically?”

Dancers are taught to push until there’s nothing left…To exhaust the body and give more than 100% at all times – in class, in rehearsal, in performance. We are ‘spoon fed’ the concept from day one that ballerinas are a special breed (and they are). Achieving success requires us to be calm and collected, focused, impeccably precise, and emotionally unshakable, even in the face of criticism and harm to the physical body.

While I believe those factors to be non-negotiable requirements, I am equally aware of the potential danger behind this message, not only in terms of our physical state, but also mental condition. While there are many who promote and encourage the self-care of professionals, some teachers and mentors do not (I have experienced both sides in my career thus far). Understandably, it’s a fine line to walk, especially for an artistic director or ballet master/mistress. How can you push your dancers to give all of themselves, without holding back or giving up, while staying safe physically?

“There is a time to push for more, but there is a time to conserve too.”

I, too, struggle with this as a dance educator. At times I feel hypocritical, but I have to fully communicate the need to PUSH oneself. If a student does not have that desire, there’s not much I can do on my end to cultivate it. It has to come from within. On the other hand, there is the student that gives 110% at all times, but struggles to understand signs of fatigue and overuse in their body. There is a time to push for more, but there is a time to conserve too. As a teacher, it can be difficult to understand and/or translate individual cues, recognizing the difference between laziness and fatigue. But this is my greatest responsibility.

What is lacking, for many students especially, is self-care – both physical and emotional. It is impossible to expect success without properly caring for the body and the mind, not only in the studio but also outside of the studio. The body requires stretching, massage, icing, the stabilization of weak areas/potential injury spots, additional conditioning, and aerobic exercise, in order to sustain a high level of dance training. The mind, on the other hand, is taxed with millions of different kinesthetic commands, as well as complex patterns and choreographic pieces. It is a dancer’s job to allow mental capacity and the clarity to ensure confidence, artistic expression, and freedom from anxiety and fear.

The vast amount of energy that must be devoted to dance can be overwhelming to a dancer of any caliber. In a world that demands excellence from all angles, the demands of ballet seem impossible to maintain. But those who really want ‘it’ understand and accept the unique commitments required to truly grow as artists. We learn when to push, and when enough is enough. Only when we are truly tuned in, mentally and kinesthetically, can we reach a high level of excellence, and hope to sustain that excellence in the future.

Watchful Eyes

“…there is something about a formal presentation of one’s skills, that definitely ups the ante.”

What exactly is it about an audience that shakes our nerves to the core? Is it the desire to attain perfection? Or maybe the worry that we might fail? Or is it that very simple and innate human fear of judgement? We all have different reasons, both stated and deeply personal, but I can assure you that if observing eyes send you into a panic, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

As a ballet teacher, I am currently in the midst of “Parent Observation Week” – the three dreaded words for any teacher that equate to an annual or bi-annual event held during the academic year. This busy week presents an opportunity for students to share their class experience with family and friends, and showcase the development of their dance technique, as well as their favorite steps and combinations. For teachers, it is a time to become better acquainted with parents and to highlight a class’ progress, as well as the individual advancements of students.

However, despite the obvious positive points of parent observation, it can be an anxious time for students and teachers. For young students especially, it is an introduction into the pressures of performance and the anxiety that can come along with it. For more advanced, mature students, it is necessary time to prove oneself and gain practice for future auditions and opportunities. For teachers, too, it can be a nerve-racking experience, ensuring that a class’ abilities are adequately showcased. The best teaching strategies and tools must all be used, different learning types attended to, attention paid to corrections and discipline, and, of course, a little humor to keep it light and get some laughs, can’t hurt.

When it comes right down to it though, all parties involved just have to act natural. But there is something about a formal presentation of one’s skills, that definitely ups the ante. It can affect a person in any career or stage of life. Our basic human instincts come into play-our desire to impress and succeed, and our fear of rejection and judgement.

It’s a wonderful thing to be motivated to give 110% percent and go above and beyond one’s normal expectations, but it’s also okay to experience nerves and anxiety in such a situation. Sometimes in tense, high pressure moments, we create and experience our best work. Under the watchful eyes of others, we may discover something about ourselves that we did not know before.

I've totally used this pic before, but what a great reminder...
I’ve totally used this pic before, but what a great reminder…

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The Joy Of..Teaching: The Brutal Honesty Of Children

“I have to appreciate the other 50% of ‘the moments’…I love to discover the love and the joy of dance…within someone else.”

I think I need to keep a more detailed notebook or journal of my memories and interactions with students and children. Some sort of a log guaranteed to provide for a “Kids Say The Darndest Things” excerpt. As a ballet teacher and a part time nanny/babysitter/childcare employee, I spend A LOT of time with kids. You’ve got to wonder if an excessive amount of time exposed to baby talk, mac and cheese, coloring, and children’s songs can somehow cancel out adulthood. However, when I’m not coloring with crayons or coming up with my best discreetly manipulative plan to convince a child to listen, I can’t help but realize how blessed I am to be guided by small humans from time to time.

Teaching young people is simple, yet highly complex. When I think about my job, I have very mixed feelings as to its difficulty-it’s a joy of course, but also not something that everyone is capable of. You have to be ready for a challenge. Just the sheer number of students you may encounter, depending on the situation, can be terrifying. They’re not all rainbows and sunshine. You’ll meet them all – the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

“…How blessed I am to be guided by small humans from time to time.”

"Plié Pumpkins" that my 6-8 year olds made in October. Instructions-draw a picture of yourself or a dancer in a costume..my student chose to draw me <3
“Plié Pumpkins” that my 6-8 year olds made in October. Instructions-draw a picture of yourself or a dancer in a costume..my student chose to draw me  ❤ (speech balloon-“I am Miss Liz and I like ballet”)

What I love the most, are the moments..the comments..the pressing and nonstop questions. I have heard it all – reasons for not being able to dance; excuses, excuses, and more excuses; detailed bathroom explanations; comments on my hair, clothing, makeup; detailed observations of whether or not I have a wedding ring; questions about stretching; and questions about pointe shoes. They also share their opinions on class material (critical eye brow raise) and give confirmations when something is indeed too difficult. I’ve been sweetly invited over to kids’ houses, and have heard musical observations and frighteningly accurate identifications of pop songs even in piano form…I really need to start writing it all down. Because it’s HILARIOUS. Pure, unadulterated life remarks. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Even when I hear too much information, or something completely unrelated to dance, I have to appreciate the other 50% of “the moments” – the appreciation, the wonder, the purity of excitement, and the effort. I love to discover the love and the joy of dance-the very same passion I have for this art form. Discovering it within someone else and watching them harness their passion and energy in order to progress, is absolutely wonderful. So if you’re a teacher (specifically a dance teacher, but the struggle applies to all teachers!) the next time no one wants to do an adagio or the baby ballerinas won’t listen to a word you say, remember that you are their hero. Even if just one continues to pursue dance, know that you have given them joy. In return they will give you the most brutally honest, refreshing view of life.

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Joy – PASS IT ON.

“If I can’t partake, I at least am grateful to be able to help…Thank you to my students for…help[ing] me feel the joy.”

My second Nutcracker season as “just a teacher” (I use that term very loosely because organizing and rehearsing Nutcracker magic is not an easy feat!) is well underway. I speak frankly when I tell you that it is a hard time for me. As a classical dancer and a die-hard fan of the Christmas season, the Nutcracker has always brought me such joy. Combining the bright and joyous sounds of Tchaikovsky, with familiar classical ballet, and excited audiences..it’s right up my alley. Despite the exhaustion that this time of year brings, I always have found it to be exhilarating. It’s a time to feel alive and strong and like a true professional (and knowing that each run of snow you burn just that many more cals).

Standing on the sidelines honestly tears at my soul sometimes, but helping my students to fully commit to and honor their roles within the Nutcracker is a pretty good substitute. I love to hear young Nut participants explain their role and the challenges of rehearsal when conversing with their peers, always brimming with pride and plenty of details. The cheerful “Thank you’s” I have heard after being commended on a job well done are pure and enthusiastic. The earnestness with which they approach their roles makes me such a proud dance mama. If I can’t partake, I at least am grateful to be able to help my ‘pride and joys’ put on a great show.

And isn’t the passing of joy (dance related or not), what the holidays are all about? Regardless of the impending holiday season, this is a time of change, a time in which civility and love matters more than ever.

I hope there are more dances to come. But for now, thank you to my students for working so hard for me. Your laughter and smiles are contagious and help me feel the joy. #thankful #blessed

Happy Thanksgiving from The J.O.D. Blog  ❤

thanksgiving-jod

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An Allegro Anecdote: The Duct Tape Fiasco

“Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day…Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.”

Plaids. Penguins. Stars. Stripes. Florals. All cute patterns, right? In this case, though, I am actually referring to some of the many kinds of duct tape I’ve used throughout my dance career. Now if you’re not a dancer, you’re probably thinking, “what does this chick need duct tape for?” I started using duct tape about four years ago, as a super resilient alternative for toe tape.

Repetitive work, literally on the toes, can create a bit of a disaster for the skin and nails of a ballerina’s feet. It’s customary for dancers of all levels to apply a “toe pad” of choice and/or protective tape and/or bandaids to individual toes while dancing en pointe. Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day despite blood, sweat..and tears, I guess. Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.

The longer I’ve used duct tape, the more interesting the designs have become! Florescent pink used to be my most exciting option, but now they have everything from paisley florals to macaroni and cheese (always discussed amongst my friends as a great option, but then again, I feel awkward putting images of pasta with melted cheese all over my foul smelling feet…).

I remember once mentioning to my Dad that I had duct tape on my toes. Protective Italian father that he is, he panicked. “Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!” (Good question, but it seemed irrelevant at the time) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. But father certainly knew best.

One of my favorite pics of myself ever....note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
One of my favorite pics of myself ever….note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

Now this particular disaster actually happened to me twice. However, the play-by-play of the second experience was particularly hilarious…Flashback to over a year ago, a typical day in the life of a professional dancer – dancing, immediately followed by a few hours of teaching. With just a little time in between these two blocks of time, I had left on all the duct tape I’d applied to my toes earlier. After teaching, I took a moment in my dressing room to change out of dance clothes and remove all the tape from my feet. In my haste to leave and feeling “maxed” out from my day, I overzealously tugged the piece off that surrounded my big toe (which one, I honestly can’t remember). Blood started pouring out of the pad of my big toe as I stared at it, confused and in disbelief. The tape had stubbornly clung to one of my calluses and pulled a large chunk of skin with it-the flesh I had lost still bound to the tape. I did my best to audibly mask my anger, shock, and pain (an academy class going on just outside the room), as I tried to figure out what to do. I hobbled over to a box of tissues and stuck a huge chunk to my toe. I assumed I’d just need to do this once or twice, but that wound kept on gushing, one wad of kleenex after the other.

” ‘Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!’ (Good question…) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. “

Enough time passed that I realized I had to leave that room for assistance and supplies. But there was the issue of having to hobble across a studio full of young students with a bleeding toe, so I literally phoned for help from the other room. I shamefully called my friend at the front desk of the dance studio to fetch me some first aid supplies. With her she brought not only band-aids, gauze, and ointment, but also our company podiatrist and my two co-directors. Initially shocked to find me curled up on the floor tending to a gushing wound, we all eventually also found some humor in the unusual situation.

I spent the rest of the following week reminded of my mistake each morning, as I re-wrapped my wounded toe. It required Neosporin, a band-aid, and a good amount of self-adhering gauze in order to protect the “hole” I’d created. All this to somewhat lessen the pain of stepping on or pointing the toe. Of course, I had an in-studio performance the following Friday in which I was supposed to dance barefoot. I was thankfully able to ween myself off of a great deal of the gauze by that point, and managed to perform the piece with only a small amount for protection.

The duct tape fiasco was a grave error and something that would only happen to me, but I had learned my lesson for the time being. However, I must admit, I still tape my toes with duct tape to this day…but I take my sweet time and attention when removing it.

Don't try this at home. PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
Don’t try this at home. PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

The Joy Of..Teaching: Part Two

“…how I choose to communicate…determines if they will sink or swim…Sometimes the feeling is empowering. Sometimes, it’s downright overwhelming.”

Two full weeks of teaching have been completed. I’ve met new students, greeted familiar faces, and made beginning of the year announcements about dress code and “ballet buns”…but now the real work begins. I’ve seen what everyone can do, gauged the capabilities of my classes, and taken (mental) note of who needs what and why. There’s not much different about this year than any other year. I step into my sixth year of teaching fully ready to progress my young charges and take on any challenges they may present. As I crank out the class plans though, I know that despite the importance of the content, it’s how I choose to communicate that determines if they will sink or swim.

PC - Nina Staeben
PC – Nina Staeben

What I love about teaching (here it is…) is the difference I can make. Sometimes the feeling is empowering. Sometimes, it’s downright overwhelming. I could very well choose to play it safe each class. And not to jump on the defensive, but there are many out there who do not appreciate the work of ballet teachers. “What’s the big deal?” “Life goes on, right?” It’s true that the world does not desperately require teachers of dance. But whether I’m giving freedom to a child who needs to release excess energy, or prepping a professional dancer of tomorrow, I know that what I’m doing is important. And, furthermore, it is by no means easy. I could just be a glorified babysitter for my young students, but I would much rather take pride in the fact that I am able to control a room full of 4-year olds and hear them confidently shout out “plié!” and “relevé!” in reference to movement.

PC - Jen O'Keefe
PC – Jen O’Keefe

Some of my favorite teachers were the ones that demanded pristine technique, but also knew how to make class time an enjoyable experience. I truly believe that having a sense of humor is crucial. We’re all going to make mistakes, we may fall (heck, I do that quite often, sometimes tragically), but at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. This attitude is extra important in a studio full of young dancers. The more that children progress technically, the more information there is for them to digest, essentially. As the pressure to improve and expand their knowledge grows, I like to lighten the mood I guess. Just drilling away at tendus for thirty minutes isn’t necessarily helpful, but having a clear understanding of what we’re looking for and why and seeing a visual contrast between beautiful and just plain silly, helps make a difference the next time the students step into the studio. At younger ages, the contrast between “ballerina behavior” and just plain standin’ around pickin’ your nose cracks kids up. It’s a tool I can’t pass up, and I love a good laugh anyway, so everyone wins.

“I know that what I’m doing is important. And…by no means [is it] easy…I…take pride in the fact that I am able to control a room full of 4-year olds and hear them confidently shout out ‘plié!’ and ‘relevé!’ in reference to movement.”

Gifts from teacher-I take so much pride in making these-my most witty of gifts, shown here..
Gifts from teacher – I take so much pride in making these – my most witty of gifts, shown here..

Despite all the laughs though, I always want to set a standard of excellence for my students. With hands on corrections and visual demos, the goal is to help students understand the adjustments we are looking for, both visually and physically (or verbally-it depends on what kind of learner you are!). My Achilles heel of teaching, however, is talking too much and not wanting to let certain things go. The need to press on and cover certain ground always exists, but why put off until tomorrow what you can do today? There’s no time like the present-might as well fix that port de bras or take a deeper look into those pirouettes.

Birthday love <3
Birthday love ❤

Expectations and goals are fine and dandy, but what’s most important is actually dancing. Do I want to create the sharpest, quickest, and cleanest dancers? Yes!! (Please!) But I also just want them to enjoy themselves! They’re most likely there for a particular reason, and for a large percentage, it’s because they just love to move. They relate to dance and movement. It is a language that their bodies understand, and their time in the studio is precious to them. I can only hope that the advice I give, the jokes I make, and the encouragement I offer, are things they will remember and appreciate as they continue down their own life paths.

The Joy Of..Teaching: Part One

“Learning how to best teach others helped me understand how to further “teach myself” and refine my technique.”

When I started out as a B.F.A. undergrad at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, I idolized my future life as a professional dancer. I knew that following the path of a B.F.A. was the best choice for me, to ensure further training, while also completing general studies and a college degree. However, I also assumed that after college, my life would prominently feature performance. What I didn’t realize was the passion I would find for teaching along the way.

Upon entering Hartt’s conservatory-style dance program, I was required to take a pedagogy course for my first year of studies. Working on technique in this in depth manner, not only gave me limitless teaching tools for future students but also for myself. Clarifying terminology, body positions, and arabesques from different schools of thought (for the crowd unfamiliar with ballet-there are some differences that exist in different schools of teaching; the three primary ballet syllabi being..the Vaganova method or Russian training, the Cecchetti method or Italian training, and the RAD method or British training), simultaneously helped me fill in any gaps in my training along the way. Learning how to best teach others helped me understand how to further “teach myself” and refine my technique. My college requisite quickly began to evolve into a future possibility and interest.

“…throughout my entire dance career, my teaching has kept me afloat. It is how I support myself. [without it] I simply wouldn’t have made it out alive.”

Setting foot on the pathway towards a dance career requires a “plan B”. Even the utmost profound confidence in one’s future as a professional dancer should be accompanied by a backup plan in case of personal injury. With knowledge of this fact as well as future financial realities, I realized a professional education in ballet pedagogy would be a valuable asset. So, after completing a full-year as a B.F.A. in Performance, I changed my game plan. A year older, a bit wiser, and cognizant of the possibilities at my fingertips (practically like receiving a double major in dance, all for the reasonable price of one degree!…cough, cough-college loans forever), I adjusted my plan and became a Ballet Pedagogy major instead.

Despite the internships, the observation hours, the consistent and ever-present Richard Glasstone articles, I wouldn’t change my decision for anything. (I think I may have read and discussed every single Glasstone article for my teacher Hilda Morales…“Some Thoughts On”…port de bras, epaulement, allegro…you name it, he thought about it…much to the disdain of myself and my small class of fellow pedagogy majors) I wish I had decided upon my path from day one, but at least I figured it out eventually.

As I write this post this week, I realize what a different time this is for me. I didn’t think I would ever encounter a time when I was only teaching (silly Liz)…or at least I have not yet ever felt ready for such a thing. But over the past year, and really throughout my entire dance career, my teaching has kept me afloat. It is how I support myself. If I had ever desperately tried to exist solely on my meager dancer wages these past five years, I simply wouldn’t have made it out alive. Teaching is my “B”. It is a way for me to be directly involved and to preach what I know. Although it is not me, personally, dancing, it’s pretty darn close.

Another Day, Another Plié

“…Someone somewhere…aspires to move like you…‘Another day, another plié’ you might think, but to the average person you are sensational.”

Dancers: how many times a day do you plié? A plié is simple in our eyes – a movement that’s used as an assist for practically every complex balletic movement. I’m not going to toss out a number, but per ballet class we each do an astronomical amount of these simple knee bends. Writing this, I even Googled “how many pliés does a dancer do in a ballet class?” The results were inconclusive, and I instead was offered topics such as “The purpose of Grande Pliés” or “How to Ballet Dance (with Pictures)” (my personal favorite). That’s proof enough right there that even the basics of ballet are fascinating to non-dancers. The physical strain we place on our bodies on a daily basis is far from acceptable anatomically. But does that serve as a deterrent to the art form? Not at all.

I decided to tackle this topic, in part, due to my frequent interactions with my adult students. I have always found it to be a pleasure working with adult groups-primarily because I know that absolutely everyone in the class is there of their own accord. Time and time again I find myself working with young students, whose own personal passions for dance do not match that of their parent or guardian. But when I step in the studio with adults, I know everyone wants to be there. I do my best to give a class that is comfortable for all levels, yet one that sparks thought and offers a challenge; I “read the room”-I’m not going to give a powerhouse class to a room of tired, mature adults; and I offer options-releve or flat, port de bras or stillness, stretch of your choice, etc. The opinion of this group is probably the one I value most. Because they are there to learn…to better themselves…to enjoy dancing. If I can provide them with anything and everything they are looking for, and they then come back and set aside time in their busy lives for ballet class with me, then I have done my job.

“The physical strain we place on our bodies on a daily basis is far from acceptable anatomically.”

Some of the students I work with regularly are advanced-women or men who have spent a considerable amount of time dancing, either recreationally or professionally. On the other hand, some are fresh to the world of dance. Does this make my job even harder? Yes. But I have great respect for these individuals. The simple movements that professional dancers complexly string together on a daily basis are the building blocks of my beginner adult curriculum. While I spend my mornings “plié-ing” away, I spend some of my evenings breaking down the basics for those who desire a recreational ballet class. The contrast in approach is vast, but the content of beautiful movement remains the same. While we as professionals dare to analyze and perfect our movements, in a recreational capacity, the goal is much simpler (and also, perhaps, more appreciated). It all comes with the territory. The more we advance, the more we take for granted and lose perspective.

So the next time you are going about your day, performing your routine, remember that someone somewhere admires you and aspires to move like you. Yes, perfection of tricks, alignment, and flexibility are all important at the professional level, but don’t forget to give yourself some credit. Ballet is not natural. It’s brutal and unforgiving. But you are a professional, and you have broken barriers with your capabilities. ‘Another day, another plié’ you might think, but to the average person you are sensational.

“Do You Do Toe?…” – The Biggest Misconceptions About Pointe Work

“…For the love of the art, we find a way. We make it work, and develop a thick skin…By no means should worst-case scenarios deter young dancers…from taking the next step in their growth as artists.”

This year I have the pleasure of preparing four of my dance students for pointe work. Every Monday, we gather for 45 minutes to practice the “bread and butter” of pre-pointe – Theraband exercises. Now that we are nearing the halfway point(e) of our dance year, tensions and questions have mounted regarding pointe and its intricacies. So, let me take this opportunity to clarify some of the classic tall tales of pointe work.

Da boots.
Da boots.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me “do you do toe?”, I would be a wealthier chick for sure. No disrespect at all, but I would like to clarify for any non-ballet readers, that “doing toe” is not a phrase that is ever used in the dance world. I do understand the confusion, since the toes are most definitely involved in the process, but when discussing the matter with dancers stick to the word pointe. While on topic, please also note the ‘e’ at the end of the word.

Aside from the name confusion though, the art of dancing en pointe has gained a gory reputation in the general media. Nearly every classic ballet film portrays the turmoil of pointe work. Center Stage, for example – Jody Sawyer takes it upon herself to have a late night private studio session in the dark, furiously practicing bourrées back and forth across the studio (“Flutter Jody! Flutter!!”). Upon removing her shoes, she reveals her feet – bloody, with a blister on practically every digit. Then, of course, there’s the more current ballet horror film, Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s hopelessly innocent character, Nina, decides to practice fouettés in her bedroom (Of course. Who doesn’t do that?) before auditioning the following morning for the role of the black swan. A few turns in, a grotesque crack is heard, and she falls to the floor in a heap. Upon further examination, she realizes she has completely split her big toenail in half – lovely. Even in the current melodrama Flesh and Bone, courtesy of the Starz network, Sarah Hay’s character, Claire, reveals a similarly tragic broken toenail. She bites her tongue at the pain, lets a few small tears surface, and boldly packages her toe back up in her pointe shoe, proceeding through her major company audition.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me ‘do you do toe?’, I would be a wealthier chick for sure.”

Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse
Toe defense. Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse

I’ve had many a blister or toenail disaster of my own, but by no means is this kind of thing happening every time a pointe shoe is laced up. These challenges present themselves frequently, yes, but the tricks of the trade are abundant nowadays, and the injuries of pointe work don’t quite plague us as much as they used to. Even when they do, for the love of the art, we find a way. We make it work, and develop a thick skin (quite literally – calluses). By no means should worst-case scenarios deter young dancers (and their parents) from taking the next step in their growth as artists.

Although pointe work is a serious undertaking, it should not be avoided in fear of a bounty of foot issues. Yes, it is hard on the body, but the strength that is gained can be extremely valuable. A dancer who has done a significant amount of pointe work not only has strong feet, but also strength and awareness throughout the entire body. In the most advanced stages of the art form, the dancer should feel as though they don’t even have pointe shoes on, but, rather, that the shoes are a natural extension of the foot. With this unique form of movement and bodily awareness available, the resulting choreographic options are many. Not only does pointe create an additional challenge for the ballerina, but it also adds an effect of beauty that is unlike anything else that meets the eye.