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Tips for Teaching Beginning Adult Ballet, part 3



beginning pointe adult ballet student in tendu devant

Teaching beginning dancers is an art, but teaching young beginners and teaching older beginners are very different arts. With the little ones everyone tries to do the same thing. The goals tend to be very future-focused like, "someday when you get your pointe shoes" or, "when we get on the big stage." With adults, class has a lot more variation. But since the dancers are beginners, they don't know what modifications are available or acceptable. Part of teaching adults is giving guidance and encouraging students to honor what is best for their body today.


Personalized modification tips:

  • Adults have better somatic awareness than children. This is part of why adults don't need to start at the beginning-beginning. I start my adult beginners in Level 2 of the Elementary Division, which uses 1 hand at the barre. Adults are better able to stay square during movement so facing the barre isn't as helpful, plus it feels more "ballet" to stand 1 hand at the barre. Part of the reason adults are successful starting this way is because they are less likely to twist in their ankles or knees to increase their turnout. That somatic awareness includes the ability to feel (and want to avoid) "tweaks" in the joints.

    • Do not mistake better somatic awareness for knowing right from left. It's pretty common for about half of the adults in my beginner class to take a split second to remember which is which. Usually they glance for a wedding ring or start to put their hand over their heart to figure it out. It's no big deal and only takes a second, but it's also the reason I don't put abrupt direction changes in my beginning adult combinations (unless someone specifically asks for help with the concept).

  • Every class will have a newbie and a veteran. With younger students we typically "teach to the top" but you'll scare away many of your students if you take that approach with adults. Keep class newbie-friendly but be sure to point out opportunities for more experienced dancers to increase the difficulty of a combination. Unlike with mixed-level classes with younger dancers where it's often necessary to tell kids which version of the combination to do, let adults self-select. Sometimes people you would have expected to do the harder version don't want to (for whatever reason) and sometimes the new "kid" surprises you with their bravery and natural ability.

  • The combinations that you give in class will change but the level of the class never does. This class is always adult beginning. Hopefully your adult program grows so that you can offer an intermediate class eventually but in the meantime keep it beginning ballet, modifications optional. That way your marketing will always be accurate and you'll build a reputation for being a welcoming class that people will bring their friends and neighbors to. In order to keep my dancers feeling like they are making progress, I mostly use the curriculum from Level 2 and add in elements from Level 3 as people are ready but as soon as class starts being mostly Level 3 I know we're approaching needing a second, more advanced class. And adults often don't mind staying in beginning classes for a few years. They often only come once a week, only most weeks, and there isn't the same expectation to "level up" each year that kids have.

  • Adults benefit from having someone to watch the first time they try a combination but they are able to remember simple combinations sooner than young children are. You have to be constantly reading your room to see if you need to jump in and dance with people as a demonstrator. For barre I usually demonstrate the exercise (using my right side), do the first side with my students (and face them so I can see them and also use my left side), and then have them do their second side alone. But if no one feels confident I'll do the second side with them as well. You need at least one person who feels comfortable being watched at all times. During the center portion, whether or not I'm needed to dance with them changes depending on the combination and who is in attendance that day.

  • Everything can be modified. Adult class is totally "Choose Your Own Adventure." As I mentioned before, be sure to point out modifications along the way so that students know their options.

    • Grand plié can be hard on people's knees. Two demi-pliés can be substituted for a grand plié without messing with the timing.

    • Balance declines as people age and is also influenced by a person's whole-body strength and flexibility. The goal in class is to challenge and increase balance ability and that can be done on flat, en rise, on one foot or two, and with the eyes open or closed. Encourage students to mix-and-match depending on how they feel that day.

    • Ideally dance involves the whole body but sometimes the best choice for an individual is to focus on the lower or upper body only. For students who are using most of their focus to learn vocabulary and keep track of the combination, placing their hands to hips instead of using port de bras can be a big help. For adults who have difficulty standing for the whole class period, sitting and focusing on the upper body is always an option.

    • If you demonstrate your développé up by your ear most students will give themselves permission to lower their leg. But if you show it at about 45 degrees, they may not realize that higher is always an option, too. It's always a good idea to mention when leg height can be variable.

    • Because balance declines as people age, some of your oldest students will not want to turn. (It is a significant milestone when you realize that if you fall, you might not bounce up anymore.) Be sure to show how turns can be changed to balances.

    • "Jumping for joy" is a common phrase but it doesn't stay easy forever. Assure students that they can always relevé instead of jumping if they want. (And make sure people know where the bathroom is. If that doesn't make sense to you yet, trust me and enjoy your life.)

    • You probably guessed that most beginning adult students won't be ready to do the splits but you might be surprised by how many people have very tight hip flexors. Adults sit a lot and it catches up to us. Be prepared with variations on as many stretches as possible, especially quad and hip flexor stretches.

    • When you stretch forward be aware that it is harder on a person's back to come up with a flat back than a rounded one. Mention to your students that rolling up and/or having a gentle bend in the knees is always an option.


One of the fun challenges in teaching adult beginning ballet classes is how much it tests your ability as a teacher to modify "on the fly." The more you work with this class, the better you will get at seeing the layers in your combinations and all the potential directions you can take them. Adult beginners are a gift to get to dance with!

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