Coordination can be taken for granted by students who have progressed naturally and successfully through its phases. Others have had a tough go, and as dance teachers, we see the evidence of that struggle. It can be almost embarrassing for the undercoordinated, but with enough attention given, there is hope. Even the older undercoordinated dancers who come into our classrooms can be guided.
Disclaimer: The exercises in this article are not “remedial” or “therapeutic”. Dance teachers do not have that qualification. These movements and activities are a normal part of learning to dance.
1. Movement Planning
Movement planning is a great place to start. Everyone benefits from strengthening this skill. Movement planning puts the responsibility for learning on the students. They must learn to think first about what they are going to do and then decide the direction of the movement along with the number of repetitions.
Dancers must realize that their body is their own. No one else can move it for them. They must learn to consciously activate their own muscles to create the movements and positions needed for dance. By teaching this, you will promote the idea of self-control, and of taking responsibility for what your muscles do.
“It’s your leg, you fix it.”
“You must tell your muscles what to do.”
“See it with your mind’s eye.”
It takes time for dancers to teach their muscles. The teacher is a guide, and a support. But, it is only the dancer that can actually teach the muscles what to do. Tell them this: “Brains understand things quickly, but muscles have to practice”, and build habits.
2. Strengthen Symmetry
Work for symmetry and balance. You may not see it in your students at first. Nature takes time to grow and improve. You may see some improvement in a few weeks. It is possible that you will see change quickly, but this is not normal. To improve symmetry in barre work, face the barre so that both sides of the body work equally. For movements with one leg, do these with each leg, one at a time, then repeat, etc. Talk about what they should be feeling and experiencing in the various muscle groups. Use creative language to describe what is happening in their bodies.
Avoid individually correcting the under-coordinated students. If you let them practice, and explore the process of planning their movements, the errors usually disappear. Their muscles and brains need time to find the best way to work together as a team. Whenever we can be patient, and let the students eventually correct their own errors, the learning becomes more secure. Be sure not to skip over their coordination errors, but stop the class to give a fair amount of time to let them get their minds wrapped around the concepts.
Always having students follow someone with their eyes will not improve either their coordination nor their memory, because movement planning is not employed simply by watching. Show and demonstrate only as a teaching device, once or twice, then let them try it on their own, without a demonstrator or teacher leading them. Give help only as needed.
3. Move Up on the Pyramid of Coordination
The next level is unity. This requires the arm and leg on the same side to work together. This is not the usual pattern for dance, and really, neither instruction nor practice are required in order for the student to move through it.
The best thing here, is for the teacher to not correct it when it happens–such as moving legs and arms in unison while marching. Let it happen. It is the base for contralateral coordination, and everyone’s nervous system needs to go through this stage of development.
When the person’s coordination has progressed to the contralateral level, that of contrast, it will be easy for them to use arms in opposition to legs. Progress should go forward from there quite naturally.
4. Even Your Best Students Must Practice Planning Their Movements
Ask. “What dance step are you going to do?” Without music, ask each student which step she plans to do on her turn, dancing down the diagonal, or across the room. When this is easy for your whole class, add “How many of these steps are you going to do?” Then when that student’s turn comes, he shows that number of his chosen step. This requires motor planning, and exercising a pre-planned action. Doing this without music helps the students to keep their minds on the planning and the movements.
Some students are not comfortable with performing alone in front of the class. Working with a randomly assigned partner, and planning the movements together should take care of this problem.
5. Try Analyzing Everyday Movements
Watch for and note a movement that the uncoordinated person makes in a clumsy way, such as opening a door. Without drawing attention to this, at the next lesson ask the class to figure out the easiest, most efficient way to open a door. Pantomime it, perhaps adding an idea of what is on the other side to make it more interesting. Try the pantomime with a real door, and with an imaginary one.
Hopefully the class will get the idea that even very common movements might be easier when thought out ahead of time. So, of course the ballet movements will be easier if they plan them in their head before actually doing them!
Our first objective for the under-coordinated student is to help her give purpose to her movements. Matching imaginary story lines to movement can encourage the students to think about a movement before they do the movement. Try giving purpose to movement with mime, drama, story lines, acting out imaginative situations. Mime and pantomime can help with movement planning, as well as give the class practice with the artistic, expressive side of classical ballet.
Dance itself is purposeful movement. But it is more advanced movement than what usually occurs in everyday life. Until the stage of purposeful movement in natural, everyday movements is in place, it is very difficult for the person to learn the more refined use of movement expected in a ballet class.
By giving purpose to movement in a general way, the more refined movements involved in ballet should become easier and smoother. You have nothing to lose by trying some of these ideas. The under-coordinated students are not going to get any worse, and these activities may even improve the ones who are already coordinated for their age.
Above all, have patience without criticism with those who have problems. They are the ones who will benefit the most from your caring, and your teaching!
From “Coordination for Ballet” by Ruth Brinkerhoff, © The Ballet Source, 2017.
- Sensory Development for Purposeful Movement
- Developing Coordinated Dancers
- How Teachers Help Their Students Improve Coordination
- The Pyramid of Coordination