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Transforming Ballet Combinations from Drills to Dancing

pre-teen dancers leaping through the air, arms in 3rd arabesque

To be clear, drills have a definite purpose in training. But no one signs up for a ballet class thinking "Gee, I hope we can do drills and reps and stuff!" No. People come to class because they want to dance. There is something really magical about moving our bodies through space and that isn't a feeling we should save just for performances. That joy can be part of every class.

Some teachers are really gifted at creating combinations that feel like choreography but also contain the repetition required to understand and refine a concept. If you are one of those teachers, I would love if you would share your tips in the comments. Don't be shy about owning your excellence! Teachers who naturally do this are few and far between.

For those of us who sometimes can't see the forest (movement) through the trees (vocabulary), I have some real world-tested tips. And yes, they do coincide with the key principles, vocabulary, and expectations to advance in the Geeky Ballerina curriculum because a great system supports both consistency and creativity. I'm naturally pretty darn consistent (for example, I consistently include dessert as part of my breakfast because it's the best way to start my day) so I refer to the curriculum regularly as a reminder of all the different directions I could let my creativity wander.

Pre-Ballet and Ballet Foundations Classes

These classes are based in imaginative movement and use repetition to both reinforce learning and create a sense of safety/predictability for young children. That repetition is important for this stage of development so my first tip if you feel like the class is getting stale is to step back and watch how your students are experiencing class. You might be bored but they are probably not. But, especially for the Ballet Foundations levels, by the end of the year some groups are ready to mix things up a bit.

  • Freeze dance and follow-the-music games. If you do not already play freeze dance with your littles, I highly recommend it! It is a great introduction to musicality.

  • Guided improvisation. I do this separately from freeze dance. I set a scene (underwater, Wild West, tropical jungle, outer space, etc.) and ask students to dance like they are in that space. This also translates well for an exercise that you design instead of improvisation. It a great introduction to dynamics and acting.

  • Travel backwards. If you can skip forwards, you can skip backwards. If you can gallop en avant en manège, you can gallop en arrière en manège. Tip: if you have kids switch directions on a certain count, plan your spacing and the energy in the movement accordingly because there will be crashes. Learning to anticipate a direction change is very much a learned skill.

Elementary Classes

A lot of tools from your Ballet Foundations classes will still apply in the Elementary Division. Freeze dance, guided improvisation, changing direction, and even props are all usually met with excitement. Now that your dancers' training is more structured, you can also challenge them by offering small changes.

  • Change the port de bras. You probably have a go-to port de bras for most vocabulary. Where do your dancers instinctively put their arms when they sauté in 1st position? When they balancé? See? We all have our standard arm shapes but there are fewer port de bras rules in ballet than we sometimes remember. Bonus: this can be a great chance to practice moving through "the gateway" (1st position arms) which is a critical part of the Level 2 curriculum.

  • Add a half-turn. Lots and lors of jumps can be done with a half-turn, plus you're then facing a new direction which offers a new type of spacial exploration. If you're worried about safety (like how well an assemblé is going to be landed if you add a half-turn) have the kids land in 1st position or even parallel. From there you can incorporate turning out again into the combination and it feels even more dance-y.

  • Combine pirouettes and jumps in the same combination. No variation is completely one type of step. Dancing is the way we put different steps together, just like poetry is the way we put different words together. If you're stumped for ideas, I made a video about variations that showcase each level's key vocabulary that you can use as a jumping off point.

Intermediate Classes

Have I confessed that this is my favorite division to teach? I'll never admit it out loud to my students but the growth that happens during these years always blows me away. They are learning so much, both in terms of vocabulary and how well they understand concepts. But that's all the more reason to make sure you're mixing things up. This is the level where drills seem to get used the most.

  • Do it on demi-pointe. Whatever the combination is, find a way to do all or some of it on demi-pointe. These dancers are either preparing for pointe shoes or in the beginning of their pointe training so challenge their strength and balance!

  • Vary your body direction. Personally, I use a ton of croisé. I had a teacher once tell me that it makes my legs look longer and, as a very short dancer, I was all in. So now I review my lesson plans to make sure that my students use croisé, écarté, and effacé about equally. But when my combinations need a jolt of "dance-y," I look for places to change body direction and the direction we're travelling (because "travel backwards" is always a good way to mix things up). It's also a nice chance to slip in some "secret 1st position" practice.

    • I covered the magic of "secret 1st position" in my newsletter. If you aren't already on the list, you can sign up here. I'll blog about it someday but the newsletter is where I go most deeply (and geek-ily) into ideas.

  • Switch between head 1/4 turns and épaulement. In the Intermediate Division students should be comfortable with both but we tend to use one or the other in combinations. Combining both in one combination is probably not going to be the most aesthetically pleasing thing you'll do all day but it is a good brain teaser and sometimes changing a small detail like this brings just a little more attention to a step or combination. This is a great opportunity to talk about somatic awareness with your dancers. Did using a different head placement than they were used to prompt them to sense their body in a fresh way? Did it feel "different" or "harder"? This is a really interesting question to explore because some head coordination helps technique while some of it is more aesthetic/traditional.

Advanced Classes

These classes are probably already pretty dance-y. You just can't bring students to this elite level of training without using all the space in the room throughout the class. Some people prefer to keep their barre work square and save the spatial explorations for center, which is a valid approach. Whatever your preference, center "work" should also be center "play." I think this is why so many talented teachers get nervous teaching these levels. There is a sense of safety in "the class can only do XYZ right now" and it can be scary to think that anything goes. For those of us who resonate more with the identity of teacher rather than choreographer, it can be easy to get stuck in our own heads. (Remember how I said these were real world-tested tips? That wasn't clickbait.)

  • Focus on a different element of artistry for each class and give yourself permission to make adjustments to your lesson plan on-the-fly to support wherever that element takes you.

  • Don't choreograph every count. You can leave longer spaces in your combinations to allow students to improvise or you can set most of the phrase (7 out of 8 counts, 14 out of 16, etc.) and let students choose what to slow down to fill the space. Or maybe they'll double up on something. Some really cool things happen when we don't control it all.

  • Incorporate partner work where dancers help each other move while off-balance. We spend so much time working on core strength→ alignment→ aplomb (I'm pretty sure that was in a newsletter as well) but contemporary choreography especially plays with that concept. Why not you? If you don't have a lot of experience in this area start with center tendu and ask your students for ideas. "Kids these days" have good ideas and the best classrooms are the ones where we all learn from each other.

Even on those days when class is all about "taking your ballet vitamins" and you're focusing on simple excellence, let grand allegro be about dancing. When the last combination feels like moving through space in a super-human way, the memory of the whole class class tends to be positive.


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