There’s an old saying that’s thrown around the artist community: Those who can’t do, teach. I can’t think of a more inaccurate description of the work of an artist/teacher. Teaching gave me a deeper understanding of my technique, a new understanding of how dancers learn, and an unparalleled sense of fulfillment.
Time management, conflict resolution, psychology, studio management, theater tech, and cat herding are all part of the job. Teaching dance at every level from a basic movement class for toddlers to advanced level pointe work has its own special considerations and challenges. Here are a few of the lessons I learned.
How not to conduct a class
I’m not going to lie. My first year teaching was pretty overwhelming. I had anywhere from 18 to almost 30 kids in my Ballet I class at any given time. Ages ranged from five to twelve years-old. It. Was. Chaos. Heaven help me if the Ballet II teacher was sick and I was asked to combine classes. I took to a very rigid command-style of teaching to mitigate the chaos. If, for instance, one student started whispering, there were ten that would soon follow. The same went for bathroom breaks.
Fundamentally, there were too many kids in the classroom, and there was too wide a range in ages. The kids who were working hard and needed encouragement to push them forward were overshadowed by the many who needed more foundational guidance.
Going command-style did not do me any favors. The studio was a jazz and hip-hop-focused studio, and my students already considered my ballet class to be some kind of medicine they had to take before they took their other classes. Long story short, it was all a lesson in how I did NOT want to approach teaching, especially ballet.
Ask for support
That specific experience taught me one of the most important lessons of teaching– it’s okay to ask for support. I knew that the best course of action would have been to split the class in half or to ask for an assistant teacher, but I was young and too timid to ask for help.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Teaching taught me to identify classroom goals and find the best ways to drive those points home. That involved a lot of experimentation to find novel tools that would keep young learner’s attention. This experimentation led to a hands-on, guided-discovery environment, where the students take a larger role in their learning process. Not every experiment was as good as the next, but seeing what worked was part of my own learning curve, and finding those approaches that worked made me a better teacher.
Teaching made my technique better
In crafting curriculum, I had to consider the relationship between each movement, why we learn it a certain way, the most effective and efficient ways to execute them, and how a simple movement lends itself to learning a more advanced movement. I had to really look at my own bad habits and fix them before a student picked them up. I also had to consider how I was taught and whether that was the best way to teach it, or if there was another method that was more appropriate.
Always be prepared
If I was feeling my best, my students were feeling their best. If I was having a bad day, they could definitely sense it. If they were having a bad day, the energy of the class would drag. Maybe the CD player was’t working. Maybe someone forgot their ballet shoes or tights. Maybe it was a rainy day and the kids had ants in their pants. I learned to bring a “bag of tricks” full of fun activities that can still bring technique home for the days where the classroom energy was feeling scattered. I also brought a second bag with extra aux cables, tights, and a sewing kit. Oh, and wipes. Lots of wipes.
The real payoff
While recital, performance, and competition seasons’ accomplishments are very rewarding, my most gratifying moments came with the small discoveries. It could be something as simple as a very young student fully articulating their tendu for the first time, or an advanced student making a third or fourth rotation in a pirouette. Some of the most fulfilling discoveries are made by adult beginners. Helping adults move more comfortably, improve their alignment, and achieve a new physical goal are all very rewarding.
Getting students out of their comfort zone and learning something different is also very rewarding. During University World Dance and Dance Appreciation workshops, most of my students are non-dancers or student athletes who would never take a Middle-Eastern folk dance class if they didn’t have to. When I walk into the professor’s classroom wearing my dabke costume- a blue abaya and hip scarf- someone will typically groan or giggle. But after a warm-up, we get moving and make connections between dabke and western dance forms like hip-hop. By the end of class, everyone is having a good time, even the guys!
The Final Grade
Teaching taught me about who I am as an artist and what I want to communicate about dance to my students. From my first job teaching at a youth-focused studio, to owning my own adult-focused dance and yoga studio, to teaching classes and workshops at the university level; each of my students gave me a wealth of knowledge about my craft that continues to develop and inspire.
Jennifer Burton is a mother, dancer, dance educator, and writer with a BFA in Dance from the University of Texas at El Paso. After a 10 year career in arts journalism, she returned to her first love, dance. She has danced under the direction of Myron Nadel, Lisa Smith, Andrea Vazquez Aguirre, and Leanne Rinelli. She recently had the honor of participating in the Florence Summer Dance Festival under the direction of Lilliana Candotti and Monica Baroni. Burton hopes to enter the Master of Arts in Teaching-Dance program at NMSU this fall.
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Broadway Dance Dreams