Most of us can remember being in a class where we couldn’t focus or understand what was being presented. It wasn’t much fun, was it?
A dance class can feel that way to a young child. Childrens’ brains and muscles must be kept from frustration if they are to be happy and well behaved in class. Remember, too, that pre-ballet classes build your dance school from a business standpoint. Happy children make happy parents. It is indeed worth the effort to make your classes comfortable and happy for your young dancers!
The pre-ballet class must not involve formal ballet training. Instead, it should aim to give the child time to physically develop and practice the skills needed as a base for ballet (see “Understanding Your Student’s Growth Process”). Just because a child can do the class does not mean they should. Depth of experience will strengthen their base.
1. Build the Class around Basic Skills.
Use the basics such as walking, running, galloping, jumping, hopping, and skipping. Building a foundation of natural movement is one of the most important things young dancers will need to move forward as they grow. When doing these movements, the young child’s arms should be allowed to move freely, or with hands on the waist or arms in demi second position.
For all movements done across the floor, you must teach the concept that dancers don’t bump. Compliance is essential for childrens’ safety and good feelings.
2. Choreograph Arms and Legs Separately.
While feet are dancing, arms should be left to move naturally, or with hands placed on the waist or arms in a single position such as demi second. This is the best way for their bodies to naturally develop coordination. Enforcing specific arms while the legs are moving at too young an age can actually have a reverse affect on their coordination development. It is much more comfortable for them to do what comes naturally to them. Give them the choice to choose what they like to do most.
Instead, specific arm or head movements should be performed while the feet and legs are not moving. Do not attempt arm and leg movements together until they are old enough to manage both (usually not until Level 4).
3. Have Them Change Legs Frequently.
Have them do only one to three repetitions on one leg before changing to the other leg. Keep the exercises short enough to be well done. Match the tempo to their comfort and ability. They will tend toward always using the same leg, so be sure to take enough time between sides. “Ok, feet together. We are getting ready to use the other foot now.”
4. Alternate Activities on the Feet with Activities on the Floor.
The younger the student, the more often their legs will need a short rest. Rest them about every eight to ten minutes (see “Games for the Ballet Classroom”). Returning to sit in their places between activities will help give their legs some rest, too. Pay close attention to how they are receiving each activity and look for signs of tiredness.
5. Right and Left Awareness Is Not Secure at this Level.
They are not all ready to differentiate right and left sides of the body while moving. Some authorities believe that requiring this response too soon can interfere with a balanced development of the two sides of the brain, or with the development of a secure handedness, or dominance.
Children of five, six, or seven can begin using the correct foot or leg in dance class. Demonstrate by mirror image which side to use, but don’t force it. They will follow you correctly when their brains and muscles are ready.
6. While Demonstrating, Face Your Class.
This means you must use the left foot when you want them to use the right foot. Explain what you are doing and how you expect them to respond. Some may have been taught the other way, but it will not be hard for them to change to the “mirror image” type of response. It is an easier, more natural way for children to follow.
Demonstrate at their level, not at your more advanced level. You are their example. Show the correct amount of turnout for them; lift your leg only as high as you want them to go. Sometimes you can show the “wrong” things and ask them to fix it for you.
7. Use the Same Class Format each Week.
Vary some things, but keep the basic content and procedures the same. They need the security that structure and familiar procedure brings. Young muscles, minds, and feelings need repetition. Vary the stories, presentations, and goals, but repeat the basic movements, enchainements, and dances that they are learning and have already learned. (See “Why ‘Changing It Up’ May Not Always Be Best”).
Too many words will frustrate and confuse. Keep directions short and simple. Use short sentences. Show, say, and then ask them to try. When they have been successful with your help, let them try it without you. Finally, let them show it by taking turns one at a time or in small groups.
Select what you want to work on each week. Repeat a lot. Children need lots of repetition. Children like familiar activities. Praise their progress. It takes ten to twelve weeks (see “The Twelve Week Rule”) for a skill to become firmly established in the muscles and brain. Be enthusiastic and imaginative, and they will have fun doing the same skills again and again.
8. Challenge? Or Frustration?
Sometimes parents or other adults will think it is a good idea to “challenge” children with something they cannot do. Goals given to children need to be possible for them to accomplish within one or two lessons. Things that are more difficult create frustration. A success-oriented program will build confidence and progress. (See “Challenge? Or Frustration?”)
Mentally quick children must be challenged with more complicated tasks: enchainements, mimes, dances, creative movement, counting steps, etc. They should not be moved up before completing at least a year at Level 3.
9. Divide the Class for Group Turns.
If your class is large enough to divide up for some of the group activities, make the divisions and then assign names to the groups such as “chipmunks,” “squirrels,” “rabbits.” Do not base your divisions on ability. Use age, height, color of leotard, or some other quality not related to ability. You may also choose to use partner cards for a fun way to decide who will partner each other.
10. Give Individual Help Sometimes
Sometimes you’ll need to help students one at a time when teaching a new movement. If the class is large, you may want an assistant to help with this (see “Training Your Dance Assistant”). And do give occasional chances for them to perform individually in class. Have the rest of the class sit as they watch and wait for their turn. They love to show you what they can do on their own! This prepares them for being confident on stage. Free or unstructured practice is not a good idea.
11. Be Flexible in Your Teaching.
We like to do what we do well. Children are no different: they need to learn a movement and feel comfortable with it before they can really enjoy it.
When a children can’t seem to do a movement, more background, muscle maturity, or a less complicated presentation may be needed. Do more preparatory work. Skills happen when the growth and readiness is there, not before. No amount of instruction or help can replace the necessary preparatory skills.
Next week or next month you can adjust the approach, but start with the basics. Use more steps to get where you are going. Relate or compare it to something they can already do.
The real purpose of teaching is to enable the student to perform without the teacher’s help. When material is within their limited abilities, is presented at their level, and is carefully rehearsed, this can happen!
12. Teach Ballet Skills in the Center of the Room.
Ballet barre skills performed in the center of the room help the young student develop a sense of balance and posture. Young students find the movement much easier to perform without the barre. Children under age eight develop better technique and better posture if kept away from the barre.
13. Teach Them about Music.
Phrase steps and short enchainements with the music. Students age five and older should be able to follow the musical beats on most things. With specific teaching, their musical abilities will improve.
Work first with the feel of music. Mention how it fits the feel of the movement. Then work with musical phrasing by changing ideas or actions along with the phrases. Finally, use rhythm instruments or clapping to help them hear the beats and follow them. Dancing to the music also requires a good sense of balance, so use easy movements for rhythm study, such as walks and marches. Having words to sing or say with the music helps.
Rhythm instruments can also make music interesting to dancers. Give them some simple rhythm patterns to copy or to do with you. Use patterns from their exercises and dances. Then have them “dance” the rhythm without music. Give them chances to listen, hear the elements in music, and respond to the music.
14. Children Love Imagery.
Use stories, moods, and feelings when choreographing for them. Stick to things within their rather limited experience. Use stories and themes that are appropriate for them. However “cute” it may be, avoid having them imitate adult ideas and behaviors. They need to be children for a few years yet!
15. Create at Their Level.
This is where they learn and perform best. Create little stories and mimes to act out, using the exercises and movements in the syllabus. You want them to build a strong, secure base for future coordination, grace, and technical excellence.
Keep the props simple, and not too numerous. Their concentration is quickly distracted by a constant use of pictures, props, etc. Schedule some class time “just past the middle” for something creative or fun or different.
Keep your themes childlike. They will become teens and adults all too soon. Capitalize on the natural charm of childhood while there is still time for you, the kids, and the parents to enjoy it.
16. Help Them Improve Their Work.
Wait until a movement or enchainement is well learned. Discuss how to make it better for ballet. Show them what you want, at their level. Let them try it. Sometimes show the wrong way and let them correct you.
Compliment their efforts. It is best not to give individual correction at this age. Show it with one child, then have all of them practice the improvement. Talk about what looks good for ballet and what doesn’t. Give the class only one improvement at a time.
Take the time to teach and practice careful beginnings and endings. Ballet is a performing art: every exercise should be a miniature performance.
17. Make the Choices for Them.
It works best at this age if you make all the choices. Class is too short to spend time on turns for all the children’s choices. How can you refuse an inappropriate choice and still seem fair to the children?
Children have difficulty with choices and decisions because they are immature and lack experience. Their sense of what is correct for each situation is still a bit hazy. They can be very uncomfortable when even small decisions are placed on them instead of decided by the teacher. They may look or act bored, or they may act out or deliberately make a wrong choice because they are unsure of what would be acceptable.
18. Guide Their Energetic Behavior!
Have a specific, consistent way of starting and ending class. Practice these procedures with each new class, and again when a new student joins a class.
Use roll call to start the class in an orderly way. Some individual attention can be given by calling on each one to show a position or movement.
Assign each child a spot—this is where they should: a) dance when performing in place, b) return to when an activity is finished, and c) go to while waiting for the teacher’s instructions.
Use children’s ideas for mimes and activities when appropriate, but don’t let them “direct” the lesson. Unsolicited ideas should be put off until later in the class, or next week, so that you are the one deciding what is done, and when.
19. Take Turns, and Be Fair.
It works best if students are not allowed to choose their own partners. If they choose, it can very quickly lead to hurt feelings. Having to choose a partner puts their attention on the social relations between class members, rather than on the activity and the learning.
Keep track of any special privileges, turns, and partners. Rotate these from week to week to be sure they get equal turns, and that they get to dance with everyone in the class.
20. More than Enough to Do!
Choose a reasonable number of activities for your class to learn in one year. Starter classes can handle 22 to 30 items. Be sure to include several items from each section of the class.
Teach about half of the items you have chosen. When they have those learned pretty well, start adding one or two new ones each lesson. Items that lead up to harder skills can be dropped to make time for newer, more advanced things. Creative sequences and mimes can be changed occasionally for variety.
You may decide that you want to use the exact same classwork for a couple of years in order to learn the material a little better, or to save time on lesson preparation. But you don’t have to: there is plenty to choose from.
Need help choosing material? Check out tools from The Ballet Source Curriculum.
- The Twelve Week Rule
- Challenge? Or Frustration?
- Training Your Dance Assistant
- Why “Changing It Up” May Not Always Be Best