Balancing Discipline and Artistry

Balancing Artistry and Discipline

Two dancers.

One possesses all the creativity that could exist in a human being. Put her in a story ballet and she will cause the earth to quake with profound emotion. But look for the briefest moment at her footwork and you may want to claw your eyes out due to the sloppy, disorganized mess.

The other is a fierce technician. Her petit allegro cuts through the air, her lines are pristine, her pirouettes are executed with shocking clarity. But ask her to show who she is, reveal her spirit, and your soul may want to weep due to the enormous nothingness that comes from her.

Two dancers. Can we just put them together and make one dangerously beautiful dancer?

Well, obviously we can’t do that. But what we can do is foster discipline and artistry within our classes so as to bring about both creative and technical accomplishment. I have outlined several ways I go about doing this in my classes. It is not a complete outline, nor is it anywhere near finished—but it is something, and something is worlds better than nothing so I thought I would share it with you.

Three and Four Year olds

  • Artistry—This is the easiest age to focus on artistry. These kids are nothing if not full of wonder of the world around them. Allow them to explore. Be bubbles, sneak behind trees, eat cotton candy, swim in the ocean, be sad elephants, melt like ice cream. The list is endless. Truly.
  • Discipline—This is the hardest age to teach discipline but it all begins here. Instilling a sense of structure with specified spots for each person, a routine for how class is run, and a clear beginning and end to each exercise and each class will set them up for success in the years that follow.

Five and Six Year Olds

  • Artistry—This age adores stories and adores telling you their stories. They thrive on imagining up new and bizarre ideas and then dancing those ideas out. It is how they relate to their world. They are brilliant artists and our job is to feed that and keep it thriving.
  • Discipline—Balancing their deep love for silliness with order is challenging, indeed. But we must if we are to carry them forward in their training. Teaching them to respect the art of ballet, to feel honored that they get to call themselves dancers, to behave as dancers in class—these are all important elements that build upon what they already know.

The Beginning Ballet Years

  • Artistry—A lot of kids this age are beginning to lose some of their drive to explore because life is slowly teaching them to fall in line and obey all the rules without question. We must keep their voices alive. By allowing them to apply their own thoughts to how we do ballet we engage them and build their imaginations. Ask them questions that require them to think about themselves. Why do you think plié is important? What does tendu feel like to you? Do you prefer faster or slower movements? Why do you think that is? Does this music make you feel something? If so, what?
  • Discipline—Students this age must absolutely understand how to conduct themselves throughout class time. There should be very little need to address inappropriate behavior. Those issues have been taken care of in the previous years and now we can hone in on technique and pull their focus to safe dancing and why it is so important to dance well.

The Intermediate Years

  • Artistry—These years are the hardest to grow artistry because there is simply so much technique they must learn in order to progress and dance safely. But dismissing imagination altogether puts a gap in their training which demands they play catch up in the years ahead. Teach them to dance within the music, to use proper épaulement, to feel energy throughout the movement, to consider the pathways from one large position or step to the next (the in betweens). Then allow some time for them to create: Maybe use one class and have them choreograph their own dance or come up with a story to a piece of music or play ballet charades. Anything to help spur on their individual thoughts and become more aware of their authenticity.
  • Discipline—We all know what needs to happen in these years. Discipline and technique reign supreme in the intermediate years. It is important to note that bodies are changing and prone to injuries. Careful monitoring is important and teaching the students how to be aware of what they are feeling in their bodies is also important.

The Advanced Years

These years are the most adventurous. Technique is exploding everywhere while simultaneously seeming to plateau. Self-expression is aching to have a platform and be heard while also running away and hiding behind insecurities. It is a most wretched and most beautiful time. The highs and lows of being a ballet dancer are extreme and students are brought face to face with their limits. They then must decide if they push forward, take a step back, or teeter on the edge.

Learning to make wise choices is what the advanced years are all about. Bold choices, smart choices, fearless choices, thoughtful choices, individual choices. It is about taking technique and passion, smashing them together and seeing what comes of it. This concoction will be different for each dancer because each dancer is a unique artist. No two artists are the same. But you know when a dancer has stepped over the line from intermediate to advanced because the technique and the artistry are now helping one another as opposed to working against each other. Musical phrasing creates an ease to rigorous pointe work; characterization builds stamina for the treacherously challenging variation; dynamic energy sings through the complex petit allegro. There is synergy and when you see your student feel it, grasp it, and garner control of it—nothing quite matches that. Our job is to help this unfold. Create opportunities for our students to see their potential and then take appropriate risks to reach it.

We must allow room for our advanced dancers to make mistakes, big mistakes. And when those mistakes are there we guide them through to the growth on the other side. We must also allow our students to determine for themselves what kind of dancer and artist they wish to be. This can often be different than our vision for them and when that happens we must let go. Always there to guide, always there to listen, always there to support—but let go.

As we move with our dancers through their ballet training, we serve them best by developing their creativity and their sense of discipline. If we listen to them, they will tell us what they need. Maybe not with direct words, but then they are dancers and often dancers don’t need or want words to communicate. They speak to us with their movements, their behaviors, and their glances. Following their cues will enable us to unlock the artist inside while training up a tenacious technician. What a magnificent journey to behold.

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