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Ballet Talk for Dancers

My Life As A Mid-Life Dance Major


Funny Face

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BW has encouraged me to talk about my experiences as a dance major in mid-life. So I have copied the gist of what I posted in another thread to get it going, and I'll fill in as others may have questions or show interest. I'd love to talk to dancers of all ages about this experience.

 

Here goes:

 

"I just wanted to comment on the earlier comment that most college departments are modern. When I first majored in dance at a large Midwestern university, decades ago, the major was clearly and equally divided between ballet and modern. Period. If you wanted to take yoga or jazz or character, you did so through a university extension program, but did not receive college credit for it, nor did it count towards the major. I also took several levels of dance composition, but comp was, for whatever reasons, focused on modern. Student performances were choreographed by teachers and students, but the ballet choreography, to my recollection, was always done by the teachers. Students either didn't care to try it or didn't feel capable of it.

 

A friend of mine from those days danced for, among others, the Milwaukee Ballet, and when we caught up several years ago, she urged me to do what she had done. Go back all these years later and finish what I'd started. I first went to meet with the chair of the department we had attended so many years ago and where she went back to finish. It was totally modern. Ballet was an elective. I asked the chair about the shift in focus over the years and I'm going to paraphrase her explanation as to why most college dance departments are now modern-based. She said that modern dance is feasible for the older dancers or the dancers who start late, or the dancers who simply don't have the technique for ballet, etc. She said that only a few ballet-oriented dance departments still exist in the U.S. because in order to recruit truly talented ballet dancers, the departments would have to be endowed with the same kind of funds that athletic departments have. Those ballet dancers, she explained, are going to choose an early career over a dance major.

 

At the time that I had this interview with her, it was the last days of ballet teaching for the professor I'd had many years ago. Those must have been bittersweet days for her. I just couldn't see myself returning to that department with those changes. And, I also felt the BFA was too easy -- a total of 7 semesters of dance were required, and those semesters could include the lowest levels of technique.

 

As I was beginning to think this was all a pipe dream, I ran into a woman with whom I've taken class in this city, who is also chair of the Theater/Dance Department at a private university in my state. She told me that the department, which had offered a minor for years, had just started a dance major, the only one offered in the state. It offers a BFA and BA. Both are demanding. There is equal emphasis on ballet and modern. The BFA requires 16 semesters of technique (2 courses each semester in ballet and modern) and you must audition, and you must achieve advanced level in both for graduation. The BA requires 8 semesters of technique, and you must achieve advanced level in either ballet or modern and intermediate in the one you don't achieve advanced level in.

 

Also, the intermediate level of class works twice a week by itself and joins with the advanced level twice a week, so there is still the impetus to keep up with the higher level.

 

I successfully auditioned for the program as a transfer student in fall 2001, and in so doing, became the oldest dance major in the history of the university (and the state). Doing this while in cancer recovery was especially rewarding for me. I felt like a kid again every single day -- what a joy to place my hand on the barre each morning, look out the window at this beautiful campus, hear the music, and begin the plies all over again. I completed the program this past spring with a solid 4.0 and, while I am happy to begin a new career of motivational speaking for others in cancer recovery, I now feel the whole experience flew by way too fast. However, even though I've completed the requirements for the major, I still have to take several non-related (science) courses to achieve the degree. The department chair told me they've established a new rule -- that as long as a dance major is still taking courses at the university, she must remain in technique class each semester to keep up her level of technique until she graduates. This is not a requirement I am going to balk at. I get to be a kid just a little longer.

 

And as to choreography being taught, the major requires 4 levels of choreography training, including a major senior project. Although I had actually completed that requirement in my past life, I opted to take a choreography class again, because I think it's important to look for those workshop opportunities and keep yourself fresh in this regard. For our student concert last year, I composed and recorded the music along wtih choreographing a piece, and it was very rewarding. One thing I've noticed that is similar to my first college experience: students still want to do only modern choreography, and the teachers are the ones who choreograph the ballet pieces. I wonder if anyone, particularly our younger, up and coming dancers, could comment on this."

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I'm going to go ahead and add another thought, as the above post was actually written a couple of weeks ago. And -- in another week, I start my life as a 'second year senior' -- the other seniors have gone and graduated, and I'm back without them, a funny feeling in itself. That is due to my also working almost full-time as a paralegal, while I accomplish this dance major, the oldest in the history of college programs in my entire state. My goal is to do motivational speaking and writing for others in cancer recovery-- or others who have had some kind of obstacle in their lives that they thought precluded them from fulfilling a dream.

 

I recall a little over two years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop with several friends I'd taken adult classes with over the years, and one of them was reiterating her same chant -- that she was too old to pursue dance as a real career, or even to consider going back to studying it as a major. I love these friends, but that whole post-class coffee discussion centered on what people felt it was too late in life to do. And that was the last time I've had coffee with them. I remember that day because it was one of the catalysts in pushing me to do what I've now accomplished, with more obstacles than any one of the women who sat at the table that day.

 

I don't want to spill everything at once, because it's a rather involved tale, but as questions may arise, I'll be happy to answer them all.

 

If you want to be a ballet dancer, you must want it with a passion that rivals no other. You must be prepared to give up a great deal and to work past all manner of challenges, be it illness, injury, loved ones who don't understand what the devil you're doing, financial riches, etc. And with that, I'll close for the night with the words on a plaque in my home: "This life is not a dress rehearsal."

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Thank you, Funny Face. I have no doubt you'll have great success as a motivational speaker as you're doing a great job as a motivational writer on this board. :thumbsup:

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It is so inspiring to read your message, funny face. i am presently pursuing a dance diploma course in my country, and am the oldest female student in my cohort. i had thought a lot about what i want to do after i finish my studies, and what i really want to do is to get a degree in dance so that i could come back and teach. although it seems to me like a pipe dream because 1) i'm much older than the other students, 2) i started dancing late in life and 3) i don't have the body for ballet.

 

your message has inspired me and gave me a reason not to give up my dream. thank you so much. i wonder, if it's possible to pm you to ask you some questions?

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One thing I've noticed that is similar to my first college experience: students still want to do only modern choreography, and the teachers are the ones who choreograph the ballet pieces.

 

I think your answer lies in the earlier part of your post; dancers cominng into the program lack the technical foundation in ballet to be truly comfortable choreographing in this medium. For example, they may be able to reasonably excute a glissade but not have a true understanding of it's function (i.e. a linking step into a larger movement). Choreographing well in a balletic mode requires understanding the syntex of the ballet vocabulary :o

 

Of course, this is true of any dance technique. You mention the Midwest and because I am back in that region (after many years in NYC), I find this an issue in modern technique and performances as well. I find many 'teachers' giving 'technique' classes that are lacking a true technical foundation. How can the students gage their progress or knowledge when the teacher's vision is so unclear? Graham, Humphrey/Weideman/Limon, Horton, Cunningham all have clear, codified movements. Here in the Midwest (yes, I know I am making sweeping generalizations :blink: ) a contraction may be any movement with a rounded back (nevermind the strength, origination & power in the pelvis!).

 

So now we are back at ballet, where the students in your university are trying to compose dances with many 'holes' in their basic technique. Imagine trying to compose on the piano with half of the keys missing! They can't compose in that medium because they have no basic understanding of it's possibilities. They may be intrigued with the flashier, bravura steps (beyond their ability) and lack the fundamentals to bring the more basic steps/movements to choreographic fruition with any mastery (go back and look at Balanchine's Serenade, choreographed on students!

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So many issues in these responses ... just to address one at a time:

 

I'll start with the notion that it might be a pipe dream to want to teach ballet due to starting too late, being too old, or not having a ballet body.

 

First, I'm not sure if anyone can even describe a "ballet body" these days. Last year, my dance history class was watching a video of a ballet in which the then famous principal dancer (of origin other than the U.S.) was so emaciated that it was difficult for any of us -- dancers or non-dancers to even watch. Another professor popped her head in for a moment and whispered to me that she won't even show that video when she teaches the course because she finds the body image so dangerous.

 

Several days later, I was showing pictures of a former principal dancer with ABT to the class. The pictures were in a book about anatomy for dancers written by a former ballet dancer (I promise I'll get the book and give more accurate information later) -- from, I believe, the 1960s. This dancer had a real woman's body, which didn't preclude her from being a principal dancer or having what was clearly fantastic technique.

 

So trends come and go in this respect.

 

Now, if we're talking about issues other than size -- such as feet, extension, turnout, etc., these things still don't have to be an issue when you teach. In fact, having a few flaws can actually enhance your teaching because you become much more astute about how to help your students transcend these flaws. A teacher with marked hyperextension, and who has learned to work with it, can be of tremendous help to students with the same characteristic. A teacher with less than perfect feet can impress on her students that it's more important to use the foot you have than to be blessed with glorious feet that aren't used to their full advantage. Instead of focusing on how your body might be lacking, you can see this as an opportunity to be an even more empathetic and insightful teacher for your future students. I urge you to look at it this way and to become as knowledgeable as possible on such physical challenges.

 

As to starting too late to teach, it's not necessarily so. So you'll never be a great dancer. You can be a smart dancer. As you progress, it's a good idea to keep on taking a beginning class once a week, so you continue to learn how to break down combinations and movements -- the better to do so at a future date for others. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is for many advanced students to take a beginning class and have to do a very slow glissade or turns broken down into quarters and halves. You'll really discover if you're placed and if you understand the mechanics of what you're doing.

 

And, as for being much older than your students, well, there's another distinct advantage. I started teaching when I was the same age as the children's parents, and that enables you to be regarded with far more authority than you might otherwise garner. One thing you will find in your teaching career is that you'll be doing almost as much teaching to the parents as you will to their children in a number of respects.

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dancers cominng into the program lack the technical foundation in ballet to be truly comfortable choreographing in this medium. For example, they may be able to reasonably excute a glissade but not have a true understanding of it's function (i.e. a linking step into a larger movement). Choreographing well in a balletic mode requires understanding the syntex of the ballet vocabulary 

 

I find many 'teachers' giving 'technique' classes that are lacking a true technical foundation. How can the students gage their progress or knowledge when the teacher's vision is so unclear?

 

So how does a young student coming up the ranks learn ballet syntex? Especially if the teacher instructing the technique may not understand the "syntex." Are there books that would supplement technique classes that would help one to understand steps that are linking steps vs those that are not? For a younger student who is not at university level, it sounds as if there are still "academic" classes that they would benefit from. Would this be something a student in a year-round program would be more likely to learn? Or one lucky enough to live in a large community with a school associated with a company? Or is it becoming hit-or-miss? This sounds like something ALL dancers should understand before taking on a "role," etc, and not just something for a choreographer to learn--yes?

 

PS (edited to add) this would make a great new topic?!

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nikflint, this is something that is missing in a lot of schools, even with many supposedly very good teachers. I see many students every year who arrive here or audition on my tour, who have been very correctly trained in terms of placement, clean positions, lovely poses and good line, even some with decent port de bras (very rare), however way too often these students cannot DANCE! They cannot move in the center, and all of the inbetween movements are sloppy or careless, with little or no articulation of the legs and feet and no idea of linking and phrasing and connecting everything. They know steps, they can execute a fairly clean jeté or assemblé, maybe even some good grand allegro steps. But what happens in between the big steps is quite awful.

 

Finding a teacher who can give them all of the things they need in addition to steps and poses is not that easy, unfortunately. How do you find it? I have no idea, beyond watching classes. Most teachers who have had a decent professional career SHOULD be doing this, however there are still a lot of fine dancers who simply do not know how to TEACH. You will have to watch the classes, the teacher, and the advanced dancers to know. Can it be found outside of a full time academy or professional company school? Yes, but you have to really look for it. There are some out there, but not everywhere. :blink:

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Yes -- teaching ballet is a much misunderstood talent. I studied for about seven years with an older man originally from Belgrade (he returned to the 'old country' this past year to retire), and each summer, he would go on an extended visit to his homeland, and appoint certain students to handle teaching in his stead.

 

Most of these students were quite good dancers and usually had the body types that this teacher found desirable. But I maintain that not one could teach. In particular, not one had any concept of the preparation time that goes into teaching a class. They would give a barre with huge pauses in between each combination, listening to music again and again, then finally coming up with something that didn't even approximate being musical. Center combinations were hit and miss. Just awful.

 

You want to be able to give these temp teachers your full respect and cooperation, especially when someone you otherwise respect has appointed them in his stead. I am used to giving ballet teachers my complete trust - if they ask something of you in class, then I try to comply. All it took was one time for this to have disastrous consequences for me. A temp teacher gave, at the end of class, a series of lightning fast little jumps facing the barre only going through the feet, with no plie at all. If I'd had a moment to stop and think about what was really being asked, my common sense would have told me to sneak out the back door at that point. But you get into the flow of a class, and the music starts, and you just attempt what someone has asked, and voila -- my SI joint was problematic for months after that episode.

 

In my current university setting, the students have a couple of days each semester when they have to divide up the class amongst themselves, each giving a combination in barre and center. I've yet to find one who knows the terms of the combination they're giving, or to have some kind of sense of how movements should be logically linked.

 

I think that for truly talented teachers, giving class is almost instinctual. You get thus many bars of music, with thus and such tempo, and you pull it out of your head -- out of that font of knowledge that includes musicality, ballet terminology, a comprehension of anatomy and physics, a sense of what is aesthetically pleasing, an understanding of mood and emotion, a familiarity with the history of the music and the movement, etc. There is so much that goes into those combinations that really fine teachers give. They didn't get that way overnight. And then after giving all those combinations, you have to know how and what to correct in your students, and the most effective ways and means of doing so. You have to be familiar with metaphor and analogy and imagery, as well as the fundamentals.

 

For people to just raise their hands and say, "Oh yeah, I wanna teach while you're away, Mr. So and So," just shows a complete lack of understanding of what it takes to assume such an important responsiblity.

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nikflint, I will echo everything in Ms. Victoria's answer; finding training that goes beyond placement, etc. is challenging. In addition to watching classes, I would also recommend attending the regional ballet festival in your area (even if it means travelling). You will see a range of abilities, but often you will come across a 'gem' of a program that may be within commuting distance, if only occasionally. I think that these regional festivals give a better sense of the training as a whole, as opposed to a big-name competition which may showcase the 'star' of the school.

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This is a wonderful thread for me, especially just now as I embark on 3 years as a dance major! Regarding choreography, I am dreading having composition class because I've never been to one yet that didn't say something about "breaking out" or just plain ignoring ballet. I for one plan on choreographing ballet steps! This is not because I don't like modern (I love modern) but rather because I think the word needs to be spread that ballet is still a live art form.

 

However, the point that students in college programs often do not have solid technique is a valid one--don't know how I'll get around it except to choreograph to the level of the dancers (maybe through my choreography I can sneak in a few suggestions about port de bras :shrug: ).

 

I also agree with everything Cabriole and Ms. Leigh have written, and Funny Face, I too have been the victim of "student teachers" who clearly know nothing about teaching. I even had one who added combinations to barre because "it isn't taking long enough" :wink:

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Hans, could you clarify if you have already spent 3 years as a dance major, or are about to embark on 3 years as a dance major? Please tell more about some of the requirements where you are involved as a major.

 

I actually fulfilled my composition requirements (3 semesters) when I first was a major many years ago.

 

However, when I became a major later in life, I choreographed a piece for a student concert, and approached the choreography from a total artist point of view. I composed a song about the homeless, recorded it for piano and vocals, and then choreographed a piece for three dancers to 'play' different homeless personalities. I also awoke very early one Sunday morning, and went into the city to chat with several homeless men, who graciously told me their individual stories and allowed me to photograph them so that I could have slides in the background of my piece. I also chose choir robes for my dancers to perform in, as the music was of that genre.

 

It was a very special piece for me, and the faculty chose it to be the finale, which was gratifying. But -- I would not be honest if I did not tell you that it is much harder to get students to cooperate in terms of time and commitment for their fellow students than it is for them to do so with faculty. Therefore, I had to keep subtracting elements from the dance until it was 'bare bones' choreography, as it would have been too much for the dancers to tackle with the limited time they could offer. In general, I've noted that it's difficult to elicit as much time from dancers as is really needed to present a piece. This coming year the faculty is going to make some changes in that respect to ensure that when dancers make a commitment to a performance, they are up to the task.

 

Therefore, because I did not feel this piece was truly representative of what I could actually choreograph, I chose to put myself back in a basic composition class all over again -- to humble myself, if you will. The class consisted of a variety of assignments, but the common thread was that no music could be used. Also, it certainly did appear that the approach was from a modern dance viewpoint -- to get us to create organic movements.

 

I tried to go with the concept from the get go, and I don't think everyone was completely happy with the class. But -- in the end, when we finally presented a final piece, with music of our choice, the thought process getting us to that point made sense to me. It turned out to be a deeply meaningful class for me. My final project was actually ready to go prior to the due date, and so even though I had 'completed' the project early, I chose to go back and expand on it, lengthening it from about a minute and a half to five minutes. What made this an especially challenging work for me is that for the first half of the piece -- about 2 and a half minutes, my feet did not move. I was planted in one spot, portraying a statue coming to life, employing the idea of working with limitations in presenting movement.

 

I am a huge believer in going back to basic classes every so often to sort of wipe the slate clean and renew one's interest and knowledge in a basic way, whether it be for ballet technique or for composition, or even dance history. The reason is that the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to keep learning.

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I will begin my three years (actually, I'm trying to make it two because of the cost) as a dance major/music minor (vocal). According to the course catalog, a high intermediate level must be reached in both ballet and modern, and if concentrating in performance/choreography (which I am not) must reach an early stage of "advanced" (I say this because "advanced" is divided into 3 levels, and perf/choreo majors must reach at least the 1st level of "advanced"). Other required courses include Music for Dance (learning about rhythm/accompaniment), Light Design and Technical Application for Dance, Composition: Dance Exploration, Intermediate Dance Composition, Labanotation, Anatomy and Kinesiology for Dance, and Seminar in Dance Criticism, Theory and Philosophy. That last one sounds like a lot to cover in one class, but is described as "An integration of the theoretical and practical aspects of dance through the study of critical theory, dance aesthetics, dance criticism, dance journalism, theory and philosophy of dance both as an art form and as a humanity."

 

Besides the concentration in perf/choreo, there are concentrations in Dance History and Criticism, Dance Therapy, Dance and Arts Administration, Dance Science, Dance Ed (both with and without certification) and Dance and Theatre, and all have various required classes. I have decided not to do a concentration because of my minor and because I have a Nutcracker for which to rehearse and perform (I have all three male lead roles--Nutcracker, Snow Pas, and Cavalier) as well as plans to take a historical dance class that requires outside rehearsal time and a foreign language requirement to fulfill (I haven't yet decided whether to continue in French or learn Russian--very likely it will depend on the rest of my schedule!)

 

Overall, I think it's a very complete dance program in terms of educating the dancer's mind as well as his/her body, though I have seen programs, most notably in Indiana, that do an excellent job with technique. I don't yet know how good the teachers are at teaching ballet technique (I have heard and seen some things that give me cause for skepticism) but am focusing on expanding my mental capacities at the moment :wink:.

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Hans, do you have a practicum requirement? And, do you have a dance company requirement?

 

At our university program, both BAs and BFAs have to be part of the dance company -- which has been in existence for decades, long before, actually, the major was developed. This requires many hours of rehearsal each week in preparation for a faculty choreographed performance.

 

Also -- practicum involves 50 hours of work, be it in lighting, scene design, costume shop, etc.

 

Both of these courses are only 1 credit each, despite the many hours involved, so I find that completing the major in 4 years is quite a herculean task for the majors. They end up with an extremely heavy load. This is why I'm doing the "2-year senior plan," as I call it -- to save my health and sanity.

 

Also -- our 1-credit ballet technique classes actually require more than attending class 4 days a week. You must also attend at least 3 designated concerts and write a review and participate in an oral discussion held subsequent to barre after the performance. And -- during one semester, we had to color an extremely detailed anatomy coloring book. Unbelievable, the hours that took me to do!!!

 

I find that many of our required courses are less than 3 credits and yet involve far more work than other 3 credit courses at the university.

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