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Teaching Adult Ballet


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I am teaching an intermediate/advanced adult ballet and pointe class. I am very comfortable with teaching children, but would love some advice on teaching adults. What do you like in a teacher? What is really annoying? What do you hate?

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  • Dance_Scholar_London


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  • Jaana Heino


In short, I like teachers who just teach a class, with no additional fuss just because the students are adults. They might explain a bit more on the theoretical level, and they might expect people to remember things like names of steps faster than little kids do, but other than that, they should just give the combinations and corrections and pay attention to individual strengths and weaknesses just like in any class. A ballet student is a ballet student, and the individual differences between them probably are bigger than the differences caused by their age.


I have the impression that adults progress in more varied paces than children. Children are of course all different from each other, some of them are talented and some not, and some are fit and some not, but they have had only about 10 years to settle to their habits, and there is usually so many young students they can be grouped according to progress more tightly. Adults are more varied, maybe - we have had tens of years to develop our bodies, and in the same class you might have the "real adult beginner" with 40 years of zero excercise behind her (but three times a week solid training during the past two years), and the very talented person who took classes for 10 years in her youth (but has then been off for 20). While the above individuals might be at the same level now, they are not likely to progress at the same speed, and it should not be expected.


Teaching such a class without anyone in class feeling out of place is a real challenge, but the best of adult teachers do rise to it. They can make everyone feel at home, and know who to push for more now and who needs their progress pointed out to them and so on. I think the key is an ability to pay attention to your "regulars" and to know their backgrounds so that you know what to expect from everyone - I suppose it is really no different from teaching children, just that you are likely to have more varied people in the class.


What I personally find the most annoying is teachers who assume that adults are in class "only to excercise", and do not take ballet seriously. They do not offer corrections, give combinations that clearly are not meant to teach but are "dancey things just for fun" (sometimes even expressing this out loud), and even say things like "don't mind, you are an adult student, you don't need to learn it really".


Another thing that annoys me is teachers who labor under the illusion that just because a student is an adult, he or she cannot be told what level of classes he or she should be in - either because they believe adults can judge such things themselves (we all cannot any more than all kids can) or because they think they do not have the moral right to tell adults to do stuff (which is wrong, because they are the teachers, and they have the right to govern their classes).

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Jaana's reply is right on the money for me, but I thought I'd add some specifics.


I'm really slow to pick up combiations and I know many others in my class are as well, explicit counts really helps us out (rather that counts for one side/half and then humming or similar).


Very few of my teachers seem willing to do physical corrections, and I wish they would. I understand that it might be a bad idea at first and that moving an adult's body parts is fraught with possible disasters, but it's much easier for me to understand. So I guess, that suggestion would be: consider doing physical corrections, maybe just with feet, wrists, etc. to see if students are receptive.


I hate too much, undirected praise from a teacher. When the whole room gets a "Good, great, excellent" after every combination I don't believe any of it. Everyonce in a while remind the class that, uh, this is ballet and we don't quite look like it yet. This doesn't have to be mean, or depressing or lowering-of-self-esteem. If an entire class botches something, or just looks lousy, we know it, and pretending like it's all just fine is not only insulting, but ultimately confusing.

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I agree with Dido- I need quite a few repetitions to really get some exercises. Plus I find that I struggle with things when only one side is marked through for centre exercises, as I become very disorientated with regards to left & right. Some teachers only run adults through exercises once, thinking that they will get bored with too many repetitions. Not so!


I also like teachers with a good basic knowledge of anatomy. It helps me to understand how to perform certain movements if the teacher has explained which muscles to use and which ones not to use!

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Adults have their learning ways, just as the pre-ballet crowd has theirs. Teaching either one takes a teacher with special talents and an ability to convey information in a way that will work for their students.

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I have not taught adults in several years, but I did a lot of it for a long time. I taught the classes the same way I teach any ballet class. It is approached as a CLASS....therefore assuming they are there to LEARN, not just do any old way. Corrections, including hands-on corrections, were given. Telling them it's good when it isn't is not only dishonest, it's counterproductive. However, encouraging them, like correcting with a "yes, but....", and then telling/showing them how to make it better can be very productive.


Humor is important and very helpful, and you can tell them almost anything if it is done with a sense of humor. One good thing about adult students is that they will usually "get it", whereas humor is sometimes wasted on the teens. Not always, but sometimes :D


I treat them the same as I treat the younger students, which is as adults. I do not talk down to ballet students of any age, and expect them to be mature enough and serious enough to handle that. (I do not teach very young children. They are usually at least 12 before I see them.) By that time they are treated like young dancers, not children. They are expected to know how to behave in classes and to be there because they want to be. As long as they work and try their best, we are fine. I have zero tolerance for lazy from anyone!


All that said, while my adult classes in Florida were generally wonderful and totally there to learn, I did find adult students here in DC who just wanted to "do" a class, and did not really want to be corrected. I found that very frustrating, and, while it was certainly not all of them, there were enough like that that I did not enjoy teaching those classes here.

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Rather than say what I like in an adult ballet class, let me describe the class of my favorite teacher. I don’t think I am alone in highly regarding this teacher, as the teacher’s class is always extremely well attended—packed is perhaps a better word.


1. The class always starts on time. I find nothing more annoying than class starting late.

2. The teacher is enthusiastic. I’ve been to this teacher’s first class of the day and last class of the day and the level of enthusiasm is the same. Actually, I think this is the single most important feature of the class.

3. The class moves along at a good pace. Corrections are given, but they tend to be general, with a few specific individual ones while the exercises are being done. These often involve physically moving body parts to the right position.

4. The combinations are challenging. I think if you polled people in the class, they would say that it is a “hard” class.

5. Teacher will sometimes call out the barre combinations to aid those of us who are memory impaired.

6. Invariably this teacher will include a step you have never heard of in some combination and which will unlikely be repeated for years. Personally, I like this because it is challenging and even the very good people in class will look less than professional while doing it, which actually makes me feel good.

7. If the class is having some difficulty with some part of a combination, the teacher will change class and work a little on whatever the class is having difficulty with.

8. The combinations given are very “dancy” and fit the music extremely well.

9. If you goof up, you are not criticized. This is difficult to explain in words, but there is a certain positive to goofing up, the feeling that everyone does it some time and that the best thing to do is to put it behind you and go on from there. The result is more about your own attitude than anything else. I know I am not explaining this well, but this is something that most students recognize after being in this teacher’s class a few times.

10. The teacher relates his own experience, both as a performer and a student, to whatever we are doing in class.

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I must second all of Garyecht's points. The absolute MOST important thing to me is enthusiasm for dance and for teaching. I am very enthusiastic to be there and put a lot of energy into my class work, and I want a teacher who *wants* to be there!! I imagine it must be very difficult for a teacher to lead a class for such a varied group of adults, but I also want to be corrected like any other student that would be there. I'm not in class to flap my arms and twirl around meaninglessly with no rhyme or reason, if that makes sense.


Also, like Wembley posted, another thing that is important to me is repetition. This might sound like a weird point, but at least one teacher I know of has expressed the sentiment "well, I've already taught you everything in this level."


Doh!!! If there's more time, there should be more repetition of some variation of exercises we do know (in my opinion anyway)! That's the only way we will improve, is through repetition, and I was under the impression this is how dancers are trained. I believe this sentiment also goes along with the idea that adults are there "just for fun" or for another adult education activity. I do not want to skip adagio because "it's not fun." :D That might sound really weird but I have seriously encountered that before in class.


Along with that is patience, a teacher that knows a lot of the adult students may not be able to absorb the corrections immediately. Just because you show and explain - it may take me another 3 or 6 months to be able to internalize and replicate that sensation. It does not mean I am a lost cause, please hang in there with me! :sleeping: Just because adult students do not physically demonstrate the understanding immediately, please do not let this become discouraging because most likely they are *working* on it although it may not be visible as quickly as in younger students. This may not be as much of an issue at the int/adv level (I'm a beginner).


And not watching the clock. I guess that goes along with enthusiasm and wanting to be there. I like to start on time and not finish early. I also like a teacher that enforces at least some discipline in the classroom regardless of age. Not allowing students to wander in late, cell phone nonsense etc.


Thank you for teaching adults Swanilda. :D You obviously care about your students and your teaching since you are asking this question!!

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One thing I would like to add as an adult Ballet student; it is very important to make everyone feel comfortable. In previous classes I have taken, all of the adults had a different skill level (however, not too far apart). Some newbies can feel quite shy and intimidated at the thought of doing centre work let alone barre. My favorite teacher back in Houston, had this wonderful ability to not cater to one or two particular students based on their skill level. All students were encouraged to give it their best shot which is so important in not only improving the skill, but improving the self esteem and feeling comfortable doing movements in front of the class. My teacher was so encouraging even when more often than not we looked quite ridiculous. She was very honest with each of us and gave specific hands on instruction for improvement. She made the most experienced feel challenged and the newly back to ballet after many years feel welcome and encouraged them to try their best and to not feel bad for not so flexible bodies after years of being away. As she would say, it takes time...lots of it.


In short, keep the class moving forward, keep them engaged, know what each student can and cannot do and set the example for how the class will be run! Adult students may never be professional dancers but, that does not mean we do not take it seriously. Most of all, be a wonderful example and a great encourager!




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One of the things I recommend is to keep true to whatever level the class is. It is very important to have true beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes. As a more advanced student, this is the only problem I have with some of my classes- they are not the level advertised! It is also important to continue to challenge, no matter what the level. I also approve of very clean technique- some of the port de bras I've seen, even on professionals- I always want to tell them to streighten their arms a bit.

I agree on the importance of touch. I find it easier to know what the correct position is if I can feel it, and sometimes, too much trial and error confuses my sense of how a certain position should feel. I'm quicker to get it if placed there.

Good luck with your classes!

Edited by missvjc420
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Humor is important and very helpful, and you can tell them almost anything if it is done with a sense of humor


That for me is the most important factor in a class. I'm very fortunate to be able to attend two classes with very like minded dancers, but are mostly dancers with a similar history to mine - i.e have always danced and include teachers and ex pros.


However, as older people, our memory and attention span really isn't that great - especially for those in the class who are mums or work full time - or even both!


For all of us, I would say, that 90 minute class is where we are able to put all the cares of the week down and just do something familiar. However the number of times the enitre class collapses because about 4 reps into a barre exercise, one person forgets what was set, puts the rest off - or even where everyone ends up doing something completely different.


I would say that from a much older and experienced dancer's point of view, technical corrections are probably not an important part of the class. In my classes, we all know what we "should" do, but sometimes it is less than exciting to be constantly hounded about droopy elbows or wrists, or perhaps non-RAD positioning such as palms facing the floor in a pirouette preparation, rather than the RAD textbook version of palms facing inwards.


We all know about turnout, sickling, stretched feet, precise closes in a pas de bourree etc.


I do find it fun to do steps which we perhaps haven't done for a while - or perhaps even 20 years! flic flac, gargouilllades, grand fouette releve - just challenging stuff which we may not be able to do as well as we once did, but it is soo satisfying to know that we have at least had another go!


Little memory joggers too - such as for the teacher to dig out of their memory a syllabus exercise from our time and tell us to do it. Interesting for those who know the exercise and for those who trained in a different method and are seeing it for the first time!


For instance in my class last thursday, the teacher set the old Cecchetti intermediate pirouette en dedans exercise - one member of the class was cecchetti trained - a former classmate of the teacher's and a Cecchetti teacher herself. Just to watch a quiet mousey little girl in her late 40's suddenly become that 15 or 16 year old student again - beautiful! We all benefited from that! :)


Something else which is great fun - we celebrate any occasion - birthdays, marriages, divorces whatever with a bottle of bubbly and some lovely chocolates!


Another thing to bear in mind is that frequently, adult classes whatever their level tend to be the last class of the day. It is a great opportunity for the teacher to unwind, have a laugh with the class members and just have a break from the hard slog of "making dancers".


As adults, we know that we will never be the next Fonteyn, we have either had our chance or started too late. We just want to dance for whatever reasons. We also dance in order to relax and break up the mundanity of working 9 to 5 or bringing up a family!

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Reading through these posts has been great fun -- it reminds me of the scene in Mary Poppins where the kids were describing the perfect nanny! :D


Hopefully I'm not repeating too much but I enjoy classes that aren't "dumbed down" for adults, and where you're taken seriously and not indulged as a middle-aged eccentric who wants to play at ballet. Not that the atmosphere should be seriously academic -- the classes I take are actually fun and full of laughs but still are taught with a sense of purpose. Like Garyecht, I'm put off by classes that start late: I have one class like that -- and it's only an hour long, so there isn't that much time to begin with. :)


I admire anyone who teaches adults -- the classes have a much wider variety of students, from age to experience to motivation for being there -- that it must be really hard to fashion a class that speaks to all the different needs in that one room. Best of luck -- just remember, most of us are really grateful that anyone's willing to teach such a motley bunch!

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I think everyone here has given very good advice, but I’ll still add my two cents:


I think it’s important to remember that you are teaching adults, not children, and that the learning style does tend to be different. I think that adult tend to pick up concepts more quickly than children, but our bodies are slow to follow. Therefore, technical explanations tend to be more useful than metaphors, i.e. “Stand in first position, with your spine lengthened, abs engaged, knees pulled up, not locked, shoulders down, etc.” works better than “Stand tall like a tree.” (I had one teacher who actually used that phrase in an adult intermediate class… it was clear that she was used to teaching very young children and not adults) With technical, detailed explanations, I’ll know what I need to work towards, even if I’m not able to incorporate every element the first (or even the twentieth) time I do the movement. That’s not to say that imagery isn’t important for adults, but imagery is different than using a metaphor to explain what you want in the first place.


Also, since I don't always pick up combinations right away, I tend to like it when a couple of combinations are repeated the next class... obviously not every combination, and not for more than two weeks in a row...


Oh, and definitely give specific corrections, rather than general class corrections. I know that some teachers are afraid of singling out particular students, but most adults are very responsive to, and appreciative of, constructive criticism. In fact, I’ve found that when a teacher gives me individual corrections in a new class, rather than making me feel singled out, it makes me feel like more of a part of the class, if that makes any sense…


Good luck with your new endeavor!

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I also like a teacher that enforces at least some discipline in the classroom regardless of age. Not allowing students to wander in late, cell phone nonsense etc.


This was an interesting quote for me too.


The classes I attend, we have all had classroom discipline drummed into us from a very young age and I suspect that the discipline in our classes is greater than in many of the student classes. We do turn up - even if we're feeling under the weather, we are ready at the barre when the class starts, for centre work, we automatically form rows.


However, there are times that cell/mobile phones surely must be excused in an adult class. A dentist or doctor on call? A parent whose child needs to contact them in order to get home late at night? Generally people in my class if they need to be contactable for any reason - and this is very rare will ask the teacher and leave their phone close to hand so they can answer immediately. Not just general social chit chat but in emergency.

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One thing I would like to add as an adult Ballet student; it is very important to make everyone feel comfortable. In previous classes I have taken, all of the adults had a different skill level (however, not too far apart). Some newbies can feel quite shy and intimidated at the thought of doing centre work let alone barre.

I really hate it when I go to an elementary class and the teacher gives an intermediate class because there are some (semi)professionals in it. I think it is important that the class should represent the level that is advertised - even if there is just one beginner, a beginners class should be at beginners level and not a higher one. Some teachers seem to be carried away by more advanced students - I would say this is not a very professional way of teaching. :)

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