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Readjusting my ballet teaching approach

Updated: Jan 12

stick figure drawing of a dancer in arabesque

I'm at a new studio this year. I've spent the last few years directing the ballet program at a competition studio and had a wonderful experience. A lot of my work the first year there was convincing people that yes, ballet can be joyful and fun. This year I've moved to a ballet studio and my "ballet loves you" approach doesn't seem to be clicking with as many students. I have one small group in particular that really seems to give "I couldn't care less" vibes in class. I've really struggled with how to connect with them.

In general, I am a "praise publicly, correct privately" kind of person. When a student needs a correction I try to share the information with them in a way that won't make them feel awkward or embarrassed in front of their peers. And I have a goal to praise each student in front of the whole class, every class. I don't always manage, but I do always try. If you asked me to describe my teaching philosophy I would say that I work hard to balance student-centered philosophy with the declarative instruction approach necessary to master the ballet vocabulary. I believe that teaching students reflective skills à la John Dewey (but updated) helps them be active participants in their own learning process and prepares them to be self-directed adults.

I also try hard to minimize competition in my classes. When we play freeze dance I don't do "outs." I don't place students at the barre or in center based on ability. When I do end-of-year evaluations, everyone is held to the same standard. This isn't just because I'm a softie, it's to serve a very good purpose. In her book Dance and Belonging; Implicit Bias and Inclusion in Dance Education, Crystal U. Davis talks about how a sense of competition in the classroom creates an in-group and an out-group. That social dynamic makes it impossible for every student to feel included. I want my classroom to be a place where everyone feels like they belong and are valued.

This approach worked great where I was last year, but I'm in a new place this year. My teaching philosophy and guiding principles aren't going to change but the way I apply them in class needs to. Last night I got some inspiration.

This week is a show week. (In fact, tonight is opening night.) So that means classes are all kinds of altered so that everyone can be prepared. Last night I was teaching a few of my regular students and most of the class one level lower. Of course most of my regulars were from camp I Couldn't Care Less and it seemed like all of the kids from the other class were just so excited to be there and worked so hard. I had a sinking feeling, like I was letting my kids down and not doing my job well enough. Then one of the younger kids mentioned that they always do competitions with each exercise and their regular teacher says which barre did the best work. So I tried it. And oh my goodness did my regular kids perk up! They have no desire to shape their port de bras for the sake of ballet but they'll do it if I'm going to pick a winner!

I was conflicted about this. I have intentionally minimized competition in my classroom and yet it was clearly a useful teaching tool in this moment. How do I want to move forward? I absolutely want to continue building a classroom that is and feels inclusive to everyone but I also want to keep these kids motivated. So here's what I've decided to try: I'm going to keep the combinations as competitions. Instead of selecting an entire barre as the winner I'm going to choose one dancer as the winner for each combination. Instead of adding up points (which I most certainly do NOT have the brain space for while I am teaching!) I'm going to give the winner a small sticker to put on their face or body. And if I have to, I'm going to rig things so that everyone wins at least one time each class.

Thank goodness I have a tried-and-tested curriculum and lesson plans ready to go. I don't think I could keep track of new vocabulary, key principles, combination winners, and students' external signals of belonging all at the same time!

I'm hopeful that this will help my students see an immediate payoff for their hard work instead of waiting for the vague "this work will help you look beautiful on stage." I'm hopeful that this will make class more of a game (think Mary Poppins or Jane McGonigal) which will in turn help engage those kids I'm having trouble connecting with. I'm hopeful that we can do this in a lighthearted way that equates "winning" with celebrating someone's hard work instead of implying that everyone else is a loser.

The stickers I ordered should arrive this weekend. Stay tuned . . . .

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