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Ballet Talk for Dancers

A very green beginner with cultural questions


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Just wanted to say thanks, everyone for this great resource. I decided to plunge headfirst into ballet this year (don't even ask me how old I am)... Lol... But I have a few questions that relate to my particular situation. I hope to get a little advice. I apologize in advance for my lengthy post.


I am a Canadian expat living in Japan. While I am relatively conversational in Japanese, technical topics and certainly cultural nuances still elude me (after 10 years of working here).


I never expected ballet to be easy by ANY stretch. It's tough as nails. Now, I am pretty stubborn myself and refuse to give in when presented with a challenge but I'm also very practical and don't want to be wearing myself out by spinning in circles.


My question is, whether my experience is COMMON to ballet in general and transcendent of culture/environment? Or am I being exposed to particularities of the Japanese way of doing things?


The background: As an experienced, adult educator (college instructor) I probably make a lousy student (just like doctors make lousy patients)... I've also had lots of experience in performance arts (as a member of a professional choir, having acted in theater plays, and even having written and directed dramatic and modern dance performances)... But as an educator, I've always taken a very slow, systematic, step-by-step approach to helping my students learn.


I joined a local ballet school on the basis that they were close to our house, and that they also had a male instructor -- something I thought might help me, also being male... But I wonder if I was too hasty and made a mistake in joining. I wonder if I was blinded by my own impetuousness and should have shopped around more. When I started ballet last month, I noticed that the teachers took a very different tack to what I've always been used to, and the way I teach my own students. Again, I don't know if this is common to ballet in general or whether this is a regional thing, but the teachers offer very little demonstrative instruction when it comes to doing the movements and exercises.


The system seems to be: demonstrate the sequence and movements once, without music, then put on the music and have the class do the sequence. There is very little explanation, or correction. There are two instructors who alternate from week to week. The female instructor will generally do each sequence WITH the students, making it easy enough to watch her and follow along / imitate her movements accordingly. The male instructor on the other hand, will put on the music and sit on a stool in the corner, making it darned near impossible to do the sequence for me, because the dancers around me aren't actually THAT good so that I can watch and learn from them... I mean, the easy, simple exercises, sure. But the longer, more elaborate ones... They tend to make a number of mistakes, hesitations, and don't provide a good, solid, confident example to follow. Is that usual?


I also seem to have a slight personality conflict with the male teacher. Whenever I can't do something his body language tends to indicate that he's a bit exasperated. He will show me something again if I ask him to, but I can't seem to get him to break a movement down to its components, nor to slow it down for me, nor demonstrate it more than once. During my first lesson, while we were doing some free stretching on our own, he asked me if I could do the splits, and when I said I couldn't, he scoffed a little, made a slightly contorted face, and walked away.


After the weekly barre exercises and floor exercises, the school is rehearsing for some kind of recital in the summer so we are learning a choreographed routine as a class. Again, the teacher will demonstrate the ENTIRE dance ONCE, without music, and then put on the music and expect the class to do it. No way! It's just way too quick. Both the male and female teachers, respectively, asked me: "Can you do it?" I always answered: "Yes. I can. But only if you can show it to me slowly, and break down the sequence of steps and movements." So far, neither teacher has done so... The male teacher just responded, "Yes... Ballet is very difficult." And left it at that. The female instructor said to me, "Don't worry about it if you can't do it. Since you're a male dancer, you don't have to do any of this anyway. You just need to know how to chassé and lift the female dancers up in the air." Which is fine... But I still would like to understand how to do the movements, and not feel like I'm just being patted on the head and dismissed as a hopeless case.


So anyway, I'm not sure if this is all just "par for the course" as far as ballet goes and if I should just suck it up and be patient... Or if they are just a bit flustered because I'm not only a rare male AND a foreigner at that... Or if it's just poor teaching technique. Would there be a benefit in checking out some other schools in the city to see how they do things? Or would I be wasting my time?


What do some of the experienced dancers here think? What was your experience when you were a brand new beginner? Did you have similar issues? And if so, other than just giving it lots of time, did you do something to improve and make it better for yourself?


Thanks in advance.

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I am on the run so quick reply: No it is not normal but it depends on the level you are in. Usually for advanced students teachers quickly break down the exercises and students, due to their experience remember and pick it up quickly. BUT if they have a question, the explanation should be clear (and not answer like "it is difficult"). For begginers, exercises should be shown precisly, clearly with many indications for feet, legs, arms, heads and directions, not to forget music and counts.

Some teachers demonstrate with music, some without but alway precisly and clear.


You should recevei corrections, you pay the teacher to correct you!


Then, choreography usually is shown bit by bit in little pieces.


Again, beginners are not expected to do the splits (I would say in genereal you cannot ask adults to do it, since it is just a stretch and no ballet technique).


Maybe the level is too high for you but on the other hand, you say that everyone in the class struggles the teacher should slow down, make easier exercises and demonstrate them better!

If I was you, I would look around for another school. It looks to me like they have poor teaching technique (it does not matter what a background they had as dancers, the best dancers don't always make the best teachers!)

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I agree that very advanced dancers get treated this way. In a very advanced class, the teacher doesn't even demonstrate, but kind of marks while saying the words, showing ports de bras. However, if we have questions, it is usually cleared up with a more clear demonstration or explanation, what have you.


I'm a bit annoyed by the, "Male dancers just have to chassé and lift female dancers..." comment. That is so untrue. Male dancers have a completely different bag of dancing from females that is just as difficult and demanding. After a pas de deux, there's always the solo variation - the female takes her turn, and then both of you come out for the head spinning turncentric codas. Not exactly sliding around and lifting, y'know what I mean?

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As a teacher of many, many adult beginners, I also agree that this is not necessarily the way it is always done.


I do admit to sometimes not having the time to go over everything slowly and carefully each time a new student joins the class.

I do try to go over some things very slowly and carefully - though I have to also try to keep the students who have been coming for many months already and not bore them with the same explanations over and over again.


It is a balancing act for the teacher, but of course the student should not feel they are being totally left on their own!


I demonstrate everything, and then if I see that they are having too much trouble, I will often cut the exercise down and only do part of it.


It is fine for students to "just follow" now and then, but it is also good for them to do it entirely on their own.

Both are valueable skills.


Perhaps you could look around a bit for something more tailored to your needs at this time.


Ideally, there would be a "Total Beginners'" course, lasting perhaps a month or so, for generally it is the beginning which is so very difficult - knowing how to stand, how to hold the barre, what is turnout, what the "basic" things are and what the "goal" of each movement is.

Sadly, I have been unable to implement such a course at the schools where I teach - there are never enough "complete beginners" at one time. -sigh-



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JimDunlop your experience in the study of ballet as a adult is not the norm in any culture. Please do look around a bit more before you commit further to your current school. While I have no knowledge of ballet schools in your area, having worked in ballet in Japan for quite a few years I can tell you that there is good teaching going on all over Japan. Go to various schools, observe a few classes of all levels, talk with the teachers. Interview them to find out if they have an interest to actually teach adult ballet. Many teachers, unfortunately, teach adults as a way to suppliment their income.

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Thank you for the reflections so far... It's evening here in the Far East... So I shall re-visit my topic again in the morning. But It's good to understand how things are done in other schools around the world too. For someone like me, who doesn't have a yardstick to measure anything by, it's difficult to gauge whether the difficulty of a class is primarily due to the level of the class, the quality of instruction, or just simply the fact that there is a steep learning curve in the very beginning, no matter what you're trying to learn.



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Yesterday, I had another lesson with the male instructor... I had to stop about 3/4 of the way through because everything was just several levels over my head and I didn't even know where to begin. So as I was packing up and getting ready to leave, I ran into the school owner who gave me the fee envelope (that's how things are done in Japan) in order to pay for the next month.


I told her, actually, that I wasn't sure yet but that I was considering quitting. She didn't seem all too surprised but did ask why, and I told her that the male instructor's classes were just far too advanced for me. She agreed that this was the case, and that if I preferred, I could attend only when the female instructor was teaching. But here's the kicker. They actually DON'T alternate every other week. It's sporadic and random. For instance, we've had the male teacher for 3 weeks in a row now, and he will be teaching 2 more weeks before the female teacher comes for two weeks. So, I told the owner that by that, I would only be taking lessons once or twice a month. So she said that I could just attend the barre portion of the male teacher's class. Now to me, that's unacceptable because I'm paying for a 80-90 minute lesson and I don't feel that I should be shorting myself... In addition, I told her that it wasn't just that, but I also wasn't able to keep up with even the barre portion because the teacher would quickly demonstrate once, then sit down and expect the class do just do it...


Well, about 5 minutes of negotiation ensued and I found out that if I switched to Saturdays, I would have a "yasashii" female instructor every week. (Yasashii is the Japanese word for "easy" or "easy-going")... So I will pay my fees for June, come on Sat. am. and hope for the best. If this works out, I'll be happy. Otherwise, I will certainly take the advice I've received here, do a bit of not only shopping around, but sitting in on lessons and speaking with instructors as to whether teaching adults is really their bag, or whether they are doing it to supplement their income...



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I wish you the best of luck with your Saturday class... let's hope she really is hontou yasashii. I find it weird that they were so insistent on keeping you there despite the classes not being a good fit. Why wouldn't they just suggest that Saturday class right off the bat? Where are you in Japan by the way? There's quite a culture of adult dancers in Japan, I meet them all over the world when they move or visit, so I don't think that it should be terribly difficult for you to find a class of adult dancers if you're in a metropolitan area. I did notice that many of the Japanese adult dancers I encountered are pretty serious, whereas many of us American ones are kind of casual in attitude. We're the "yasashii" of the adult dance world! haha

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HA! Thanks for the kind words. I am located in the city of Kofu (abt. ~200,000 ppl), Yamanashi Prefecture. We are about 2 hours from Tokyo by car or train. Now, I'd be willing to travel to Tokyo for an OCCASIONAL lesson, but unfortunately cannot do so on a weekly basis. Although my wife and I are in the city on business at least once to twice a month... As for our city, a cursuory glance at the dance schools in Kofu shows at least a good half-dozen, but I chose the one that was geographically convenient for me, but also one that had a reasonable web presence so I could go over their materials, information, and fees online.


I'm not sure why they didn't recommend Sat. right off the bat though. But here's keeping my fingers crossed. I'll post an update after Saturday saying how it went! ;-)

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JimDunlop, if you are able to, i would also try and find a few books to help you get a bit of outside study in. Reading a ballet book will never replace learning in class, but if you can look at a picture of a step and take a few minutes to read about it, when it pops up in class next time you atleast have a fighting chance of knowing what to do! I make all of my adult beginner students learn the name, and the translation of each step so they have more of an understanding of what they are doing. A 'total beginners' course is even better as has been said before if you can find one.


Learning ballet as an adult is not easy so congratulations on taking the leap and keep going!! I have no doubt you will start to find it easier and grow to love it :)

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JimDunlop's story is one we have heard many times in similar forms here (and from many countries). Ideally, as has been pointed out, you would start with absolute beginner classes, and be taught the basics from the ground up (i.e from knowing absolutely nothing). And do it enough so that the basics become absolutely ingrained habits. The trouble is, that there are often not enough absolute beginner adults to make such classes viable. Also, what are called beginner classes often tend to take in non-beginner students, and then the level of the class gets raised to match their experience. And many so-called beginners are in fact returning to ballet, having had many years of experience in their teenage years.


In training, students get better at remembering whole sequences, and those who go on to further training probably have a natural facility at it anyway, so with an advanced class it is expected that students will be able to do whole sequences right off after one verbal description. It sounds like a (relatively) advanced class that you are in. Unfortunately, it seems that spending too long in a class like that will lead to discouragement and giving up, because you spend so long trying things that you do not manage to do, and you feel are not making progress to match the great effort that you are putting in (actually, you are probably making a lot of progress, if you compare what you can do now, with what you could at the beginning). And ballet is difficult enough anyway. One problem is that will be trying to do advanced things without being able to build on correct basics - and ballet DOES have to be built on sound basics.


I suggest that looking for a more basic class should be a high priority. For instance, you need someone to tell you to maintain your line and turnout, all the time, even during the simplest exercises, to correct such errors all the time until doing it becomes completely automatic - it does not sound as though this teacher has time for that. Also, if you do stay in this class, see if there is a good student, and always try and stand behind him or her, so that some correct style rubs off on you a bit.


I speak as someone what started ballet as an absolute beginner adult by the way, and have had some wonderful and understanding teachers.


Jim (another one).


And the comment about the splits sounds as though the teacher has a bit of a problem. Quite out of place to say that, I'd have thought.

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Hi, everyone...


Just a quick update. The Saturday class was okay. I was able to follow fairly well throughout most of the class. I got to the very end -- it was just the very last floor sequence that I just couldn't follow and had to sit out.


It was another female instructor that I hadn't met before. In terms of what I was looking for, I would say that she ranked somewhere between the previous two teachers... However the pace of the class was a LOT slower. This was much closer to what I would consider a beginner class.


On the other hand, unlike the other female teacher, this one seemed to be relatively oblivious to my presence in the class. When the owner of the school came into the studio and told her that I was a new student, she didn't show much interest or acknowledgment of that fact. That's not such a big deal though. I find that many Japanese people are like that, and once they get used to you, they open up more. It's not just teachers, but people in general. It took about three lessons before one of my classmates said anything to me. Par for the course. Consistent with that theme, she did a lot more individual correction with other students, and seemed to bypass me somewhat. However, a good quality she has, is that she also does a lot of general corrections that everyone in the class can benefit from.


In either event, the owner spoke to me after the lesson and was very, very eager to try and accomodate me. She said several times that she understood where I was coming from and that many students have been in my shoes. She encouraged me to stick it out, and went out of her way to put together a personalized class schedule for me, alternating Saturdays and Mondays, so that I could have both female instructors while avoiding the male instructor completely (at least for now).


As for the male teacher.... I suspect that somewhere down the line, if I'm there for several months or year, I'll have the opportunity to have a chat with the guy. There is a tradition in Japan (that people claim is dying, but in reality, it's very much alive, especially in rural areas, such as where I live). That is, to go out drinking with a superior, get him (or her) completely gooned, and then you tell them honestly what's on your mind and what's bugging you. The next day, everything is forgiven and forgotten. I've done this on occasion, with excellent results. The evening in question is never spoken of again, but you find that you have a much better relationship with the person after that.


I also like the idea of picking up some book or outside resources in order to help the learning curve. I will definitely pursue that. In addition, and in the mean time, I've also taken up Pilates, which seems to do wonders for core strengthening -- something I need in spades for ballet.

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I thought that I may as well follow up with the latest... If for no other reason but the cultural curiosity of it all, and perhaps someday, as unlikely as it may be, my experiences may help someone in a similar situation.


Had my second Saturday lesson this weekend, and got to meet yet another teacher. She was quite friendly from the very beginning, and certainly acknowledged my presense before and during the class. This instructor, like the other Saturday teacher, went very slowly and explained the moves in detail. Her demonstrations were good enough that I was able to follow along with the class even when she wasn't doing the moves with us. She had a voice like a foghorn, but that's okay. I'd rather not listen to the CD and know what to do than hear the pretty piano music and be completely lost. I especially appreciated the fact that she used a lot more of the French ballet terms, making it significantly easier to follow for me. My brain processes "à la seconde" and "relevé" a lot faster than the Japanese equivalents...


Last week, much like my first Monday class, no one said a word to me my first time, but this (my second) time, everyone was all chatty, smiley and friendly. (I tell ya, it's a cultural thing)... One lady told me that we have a common acquaintance even. Then, during the class, one dancer was particularly helpful when we were doing center floor exercises and I gave up on one particularly complicated sequence, and she insisted I try... When I said I couldn't, she said, "Ok. We'll do it together then!" I felt (and looked like) a bull in a china shop, but I got through it, so a HUGE +1 to her!


So maybe the best answer in all of this, was indeed changing classes, but also allowing the Japanese cultural particularities to work themselves out (i.e. giving people time to "absorb" me into their group and adjust to my presence)... I still do intend to find a good ballet book so I can edumucate myself a bit more on my own time.

Edited by JimDunlop
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