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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Ballet education in academic schools

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The "So You Think You Can Dance?" thread inspired this post. I think many of us have imagined just what a perfect course about ballet would be. Let's make it a one-semester high school course, or a middle school unit (the longer the better, our school has 6 week units), or a 1 week "artist in-residency" program for elementary (or any level, for that matter). Something that would be long enough to stick in the students' heads and varied enough to motivate their continued interest.


Here's what I've often thought of:

To me, the very best way to gain some understanding and appreciation is to approach the study from at least three different angles: textbook (preferably a ballet dancer's autobiography as well as ballet history), experiential (kinesthetic involvement - a class, for example), and visual (see a performance). It would be nice to have costumes on display at some point also because the students could see how they've developed over the years as they learn from their texts what caused the changes.


I've always wanted to have the same person teach and facilitate all three areas. That person should be a former professional ballet dancer because that would ensure a great love of the subject rather than a schoolteacher assigning text reading and a paper but not really understanding the art much either. I always worry that textbook alone will dull, rather than increase, a student's respect for an art like ballet (except for those already in love with it, of course :P S/he could describe AND demonstrate as they go along, bringing the text alive for the students, and having workshops that include pre-professional students from school.


Nutmeg used to have a program - they may still have it; this was years ago when my daughter was involved - called "Athletics to Aesthetics" where a ballet teacher visited a school along with some advanced ballet dancers. The dancers demonstrated as the teacher explained what kind of strength, which muscles, etc., was required in order to do this. She did some of it experientially, inviting various students up. Often they included students who already were taking ballet once or twice with Nutmeg. So the audience could see what some of the early work progresses in.

I like that idea because it's both experiential (students are called up for a mini-class) AND visual (students observe the dancers of all levels).


And there should always be a field trip to a real ballet performance. The ballet professional teaching this entire program would also prepare the students for the field trip, demonstrating (in school) some of what the students should look for at the ballet, explain the history of some particular variations, etc. It goes without saying that the students should know the history of the ballet they're seeing, especially if it's a classical one. That way the students will be more focussed during the performance and know a few things to look for. They could have writing assignments afterwards as a response to the performance, perhaps both a short paper and a "reader's journal" type of writing (except that this would be an "audience journal".


I just don't think that we'll change the popular notion of ballet not being for "regular people" unless we start early and make sure that students more interaction with the art.


So, folks, what kind of course would you love to see in an academic setting? We need to get people to know and understand ballet if there's ever going to be a change in how it's viewd. As I'm writing this, I realize that it could be the basis of a grant-writing paper for one of you ballet professionals. You know, if we all pool our ideas, we could come up with some fabulous ones to pitch to our local communities.

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Vagansmom, I love your class description. About the only thing I might add would be to invite a few of the young corps members of a professional company to the school so that the kids could interact with them, ask questions, and see that the dancers really are just "regular people" like themselves who happen to have a passion for dance.

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I started dancing at an old age. I had spent many years in competitive athletics and felt it was time I did something else. I decided I wanted to dance, though at that time I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew there was competitive ballroom (I had watched Championship Ballroom on PBS many many years) and knew there was square dancing. I pretty much thought that at my age those were my only two options.


I started competitive ballroom, but knew I would never be really good as dance is a high skill activity and one’s ability to acquire physical skill declines with age. That was something of a problem for me as (no boast intended) I had always been good in the sporting world. I decided that if I couldn’t be really good at ballroom, I would have as broad a dance experience as I could get instead. The second problem then became that I had absolutely no idea as to what was possible.


My solution was to enroll in what I will call dance 101 at my local community college, which did happen to have a dance major. This was a survey course for dance majors. It turns out that theater majors were also required to take dance classes, so students in the class were a mish-mash of dance majors, theater majors, a few other students exploring their options, and four older folk, including me.


The course itself aimed to acquaint students with different forms of dance. There was a textbook covering theatrical dance in general. Essentially it was dance history and dealt with fundamental movement concepts, ballet, modern, jazz, and world forms. The emphasis was on knowing the important figures, when they lived, and why they were important.


There was also a lab where we experienced basic classes and even did some old dances (I remember doing the minuet). We also watched film of a lot of performances and critically discussed (or tried to, which was difficult because we were so inexperienced) what we saw.


We also had to watch and critique two live dance concerts, do an oral presentation on some aspect of dance, and choreograph and perform a 2 minute dance.


This course was the seed that really started my dance career. I learned that one could be an older person and take a ballet class. I learned that there was something called modern dance, jazz dance, and a variety of folk and ethnic dance. I learned a lot about art itself. I learned of the various opportunities to dance and take class after this particular class. I learned to think aesthetically. I saw my first live dance concerts.


Since that class and due to that class, I’ve learned that the ballet world is really extremely small, though the dance world is extremely large. I don’t think many ballet people see the dance world as large because their experience is so focused in this one tiny dance activity. Really unfortunate in my opinion.


I have an advanced degree, so I’ve taken a lot of courses. I can think of no other course, however, that has had such a profound and lasting effect on my actual behavior and I am quite serious about that.

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One thing I would add in a course like that is instructions in how find a ballet performance and how to buy tickets to it. My parents were always going to cultural events, so when I started managing my own life, I was already familiar with the arts section of the newspaper, the box office, the different arts venues, etc., so buying my own tickets was no problem (well, except for financing it :party: ). But we had out of town guests one time (before the internet) that wanted to see a baseball game. Oh, no...I didn't have any idea how to get tickets. I knew Dodger Stadium had something to do with baseball because I was always getting stuck in its traffic jams, but how do I get tickets? Where's a good place to sit? How much should I spend to get a decent seat?


Imagine these two scenarios after a child has just learned about ballet at school:


"Mommy, mommy! I learned about ballet today and I want to go see a real ballet." "That's nice, dear, maybe someday we'll see one."




"Mommy, mommy! I learned about ballet today and I want to go see a real ballet. I'm going to go look in the newpaper and on the computer to see if I can find a performance. I know just what to wear and how to be a good audience member." "That nice, dear, here's the credit card. Get us some good seats and if we like it, maybe we'll become ballet patrons and contribute lots of money."


See what a difference that can make?

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Now you've got me thinking, vagansmom. This past year, a local Irish dance troupe did do a week-long "artist in residence" program at my daughter's elementary school, culminating with a little performance by the older students (3rd-5th graders) who had worked daily with the dancers. They did an interactive lecture/demo on Monday; then the group of selected students worked with the troupe and its teachers for the rest of the week, with the performance on Friday. I don't know what the connection or agreement was between the school (or public school system) and the troupe, but we have a small professional ballet company nearby whose AD is always looking for community outreach...wonder what kind of deal can be made there? :party:


"Mommy, mommy! I learned about ballet today and I want to go see a real ballet. I'm going to go look in the newpaper and on the computer to see if I can find a performance. I know just what to wear and how to be a good audience member." "That nice, dear, here's the credit card. Get us some good seats and if we like it, maybe we'll become ballet patrons and contribute lots of money."


Mrs. Stahlbaum, I love it! Imagine the sponsorship dollars that dancers could enjoy one day when they become as popular as sports figures... :shrug: oh no! someone just pinched me and I woke up!

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I love Mrs. Stahlbaum's idea. Let's take it one step further and pass out discount coupons from the local company ... maybe even freebies (one for each kid, with a paid adult?). That'll get them to the theater at least once, and then they'll know how to do it again!


This is a great idea, vagansmom, but I have a feeling that the curriculum in most schools is just too crowded with prep courses for those !@#$% standardized tests. And unfortunately, arts literacy is just not on the national agenda.

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