Turning Recitals Into Education

Turn Ballet Recital Into Education

Ballet recitals aren’t going away. I get that.

I know when I was a young dancer I looked forward to recital with all kinds of anticipation. It was perfectly exciting. And without that experience I would not have known the unmatched thrill and sense of accomplishment that comes with stepping into the world of performing. I am grateful for those early opportunities.

However, I can’t imagine there is a ballet teacher anywhere who has not found themselves weary of recital season. The work that is involved can suck the inspiration right out of you. Plus, it eats up so much class time. I have toyed around with a variety of ways to approach setting recital choreography on my students so as to save time for actual class, but when it comes down to it you just need the time to ensure everyone is prepared and the piece is cohesive and ready.

NOTE: This article is geared at teachers of young dancers.  The older dancers present a separate type of challenge that deserves its own article.

What to do, then?

How do we keep deepening our students knowledge of ballet when the pressure is on to crank out a dance (or two or three…oh my…death is imminent!) for the stage? Here are some ideas I have implemented into my classes over the past few years and have been pleased with the outcome:

  • Teach all the elements of being a performer.  From arriving to the theater, to changing into costume, to waiting backstage, to moving into the wings, to taking your place on stage, to doing the dance, to taking the bow, to exiting the stage, to changing out of costume (or into another costume), etc.  Teach them the entire performing process.
  • Break down those elements into expectations. Within each element of being a performer there are ways in which we must conduct ourselves. Waiting in the dressing room is different than waiting in the wings. Taking your place on stage is different than performing your dance. Let them know how you expect them to move through each of these elements. Teach them to respect performing.
  • Give them the proper language. From stage directions, to cues, to calls, to parts of the theater, etc. Help them understand there is a language for performing just as there is a language for ballet. Teach them to be informed performers.
  • Set the story. Whatever their dance is about, they need to have clarity in the purpose of their dance. This might mean you reading to them the story your school is performing, or explaining the theme of the school’s recital, or presenting to them a clear idea of what the performance is all about. Teach them performing is about being a part of something bigger than just themselves.
  • Be sure they know their role. Even if your recital doesn’t have a story or a theme it is crucial the students understand what they are specifically dancing about. This builds up in them a healthy sense of importance and pulls weight into their performance. Teach them to have presence.
  • Pull on their imaginations. Allow them to develop ideas of what they wish the audience to feel while they are dancing. Ask them to explain their ideas and how they think they can accomplish their ideas. Teach them to not be afraid to make choices.
  • Build on their humanity. Help them understand how to portray feelings and ideas with authenticity. We don’t want fake smiles or fake sadness or fake fear. Art is real, so we must help them learn how to be real. Teach them to be artists.
  • Get them flowing with the music. The music will be their guide on stage. It will pull them together if they are falling apart. It is the glue. But only if they know it as well as they know their own name. Listen to it over and over and over with them. Have them improv to it. Have them clap to it. Sway to it. Sing to it. Count to it. Teach them musicality.
  • Sharpen their memorization skills.  Breaking the dance into parts that are maybe 16 counts each can be very useful along with giving these parts a name (Ex: Circle Part/Flying Part/Sauté Part/etc). Quiz them on the sequence of the parts. If you wish to be extra creative you can make flashcards and do a fun game with it. Teach them to be organized dancers.
  • Do What If’s. We don’t need to scare our students but sometimes unexpected things do happen. What if you fall down? What if your friend runs into you? What if your music stops? What if you forget your dance? Play the What If game and equip them with the answers. Teach them to be smart dancers who can adjust to the unexpected.
  • Always elevate them. Even when correcting, and especially when correcting with a firm hand, use language that lifts them up and empowers them. Our job is to send them on stage as confident dancers ready to take on the magnificent power of live performance and own it with every part of their existence. Teach them they are capable and worthy to be seen.

I recognize that attempting to teach all of these items feels as though it will take more time from class; but what I have found is that when I instill these concepts in my students (no matter how young) the learning process happens more smoothly and more quickly. I think that is in part because their feelings of being little, unsure, and new are replaced with feelings of maturity, ableness, and readiness. Those are strong motivators.

Try not to be too weary, ballet teachers. Recital can wipe us right out, can temporarily mute our love for teaching due to what seems—and very possibly might be in some situations—unreasonable expectations.  To get these little people on stage and off again without a full on disaster taking place is a feat in and of itself. But take heart. Because the work you do makes a positive difference in these lives you teach. And soon recital will be over and we can go back to relishing the nourishment ballet class gives to both our students and to us.

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