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Teaching Steps v. Concepts in Ballet Class

a page from the Geeky Ballerina Level 5 curriculum

Are you teaching steps in your ballet class or are you teaching concepts? Or are you teaching both?

Steps are the individual ballet vocabulary--plié, glissade, pirouette, saut de chat . . . . We need to be teaching these. Without the codified vocabulary there would be no way for ballet to be consistent from teacher to teacher, country to country, or even century to century. But if all we do is teach steps then our students miss out on all kinds of important information.

Concepts are like zooming out, looking at the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on plié as a step in the classical vocabulary, you would focus on the concept of bending at particular joints while maintaining alignment. Concepts are important to help students see how different vocabulary link together and build on each other. But a class solely focused on concepts does not create a complete ballet education; students become experts in the theory but not in the details of practice.

The best ballet classes combine carefully selected steps and concepts. Ideally, the two would build on each other and create a spiral of momentum in learning. For example, in Level 5 (Intermediate Division) I teach fouetté turns. We start drills in Unit 6 and move on to practicing the step in Unit 7. But the concepts that go into a fouetté are started much earlier. The key principle for Level 5 is turnout. We spend the whole level refining the way students understand, access, and use their turnout. The concept (turnout) is the foundation for the step (fouetté).

There are lots of lists online of what steps need to be taught in a ballet program. There are lots of different opinions on what the "best" order is. But what is often lacking from the discussion are the concepts that underlie the vocabulary. What order should we teach the concepts in so that students have the foundation they need to understand and master the vocabulary? What steps most clearly illustrate the concepts so that students' movement experience reinforces what we say?

I have been playing with the relationship between steps and concepts for long enough that I can confidently say I know why I teach each step when I do. Nothing is accidental. And since each unit, level, and division that I teach naturally builds on what came before, it my students progress at a really pleasant pace. It's slow enough that there is time for the information to sink in and be practiced, but consistent enough that students can see their own growth from month to month. Class is consistently a fun place to be because

  • it makes sense

  • there is enough repetition for things to feel safe and familiar

  • there is enough new information for each day to be an opportunity to learn and practice

  • the challenges feel manageable---maybe we won't nail the step today, but it's not crazy to think we'll get it soon

It isn't about teaching steps v. concepts, the key is teaching the right steps with the right concepts. And yes, I include both in the teaching resources I offer.


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