Teaching Ballet Really Isn’t About Ballet At All

Teaching Ballet

When I was five years old I decided I wanted to be a teacher. My kindergarten teacher was my hero and if I could do what she did then I figured I could possibly be a hero to someone else; or better still, be my own hero. Fast forward four years. I am nine years old and am experiencing the ballet studio for the very first time. From the moment my fingertips touched the barre I knew I had found my home. This was where I was meant to be. This was going to help me find myself; this was going to pull me through. This was what I wanted to teach. I knew nothing about ballet yet. I had not even done a plié. I had only placed my hands on the barre. But I knew. The passion was ignited and my path forward was set.

The Reach of Ballet Training

We often hear people speak about the benefits of ballet training. As teachers, we see firsthand how ballet can set kids up for success in their lives.  Whether they pursue dance or not, the reach of ballet extends far beyond pirouettes and saut de chats and shoots straight to the heart of what it means to be a living, breathing, flawed human.

I have no desire to outline the benefits of ballet training here. Most of us know what they are and those of us who don’t can easily do a quick search online and find a plethora of articles with great insight into that topic. No, my intention is to take the spotlight and direct it onto us teachers. The ones in the trenches with these kids. The people who often feel weighed down by the heaviness of our jobs. Yes, we adore our work. We have to; it’s far too difficult to do if the love for it doesn’t exist. This work is hard. It is hard on our bodies, it is hard on our minds, it is hard on our souls.

As rewarding as it is to see our grown students take flight and forge their way in this world, every single goodbye is coupled with an ache because every single student takes a piece of you with them. And with that piece of you, off they go. Talk about ripping your own heart out. This teaching thing is seriously intense.

Know Your Impact

Even if you do not see a student from the beginning of their training to the end, even if you are with them for only one class, your presence in their life has the ability to resonate for years to come. They may not remember your name, they may not remember all the things you said, they may not even remember you. But you gave all you had to them in the moments you had with them; they took those things and now you are a part of them. What a profound impact we teachers have. Recognizing and respecting this impact is likely one of the most important parts of our job.

Our students watch us relentlessly. When they are tiny people, we are as gods to them. When they are in the height of their kid years we are their heroes. When they are intermediate dancers they hold that lovely balance of fear and love for us. When they are advancing into genuine artists we are their mentors who are able to pull more from them than they thought could even exist. Our place in their lives at all stages is packed with potential to teach so much more than proper ballet alignment and technique. Regardless of if you want this power, you have it.

What will you give?

I am an avid believer that we can only give what we have. I cannot give my students patience if I do not show them patience. I cannot give them grace through those harsh times if I do not demonstrate grace when things aren’t going so well in class or rehearsal. I cannot give them resilience if they see me give in to exasperation. I cannot give them a solid work ethic if I am ill prepared for class. I cannot give them authenticity if I am afraid of showing weakness. I cannot give them courage if I hold back from correcting them with authority.  I cannot give them creativity if I offer up only the same thoughts every class. I cannot give them self expression if I teach only what I was taught. Ultimately, I can only give what I have to give. That is all any of us can ever do.

Masked Lessons in Humanity

While we are busy with our large attempts at teaching how to rond de jambe or brisé or skip there are hidden lessons being learned.  These hidden lessons are the ones that stick to those students’ hearts and journey with them throughout their entire lives.  If teaching ballet was only about the tendu or degagé how much easier it would be!  Yet, these masked lessons being taught are the true treasures because they are the ones that can make a difference in this world. Fostering empathetic hearts, strong souls, and patient minds can only serve our world well.

Ballet is, in large part, about humanity. Therefore, teaching ballet holds lessons in humanity. What those lessons are rests entirely on what we, the teachers, wish and choose for them to be. In the end, while the overwhelming majority of our minutes teaching ballet are spent speaking about lengthening the spine, placing the weight over the balls of the feet, and carrying the arms from the back (and knees over the toes. Knees over the toes!  KNEES OVER THE TOES!!!!) those moments that exists between our words hold depths of learning.

When I ponder this it causes me to pause, reflect, and remember that moment when I was nine years old; my hands first made contact with the ballet barre. That moment when I knew I was going to be a ballet teacher. How little I knew back then of the adventure that awaited me. The lessons I learned through those years from the many teachers I was fortunate to work with all led me to this place here and now. I am forever grateful for the teachers in my life who understood their impact and chose to act on it with wisdom and discernment. Tomorrow as I step into the studio to teach once again, as I do every day, my hope is that I will remain aware of this tremendous influence I have on these lives. I will ask myself, ‘What do you want to give?  What do you have to give?’. And then I will try with all my tired, yet continually inspired, teacher’s heart to give it.

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