Ballet skills are built upon the base of natural skills that has been developed within the person. This is why extensive experience with fundamental movement skills is important for a ballet class of young children. It is surprising how many small pieces of growth and development affect the child’s ability to perform classical movements correctly! The bones, muscles, and nervous system must be mature enough to allow it to happen.
Ruth Brinkerhoff covers three stages of coordination in her Level 3 Curriculum book. Ballet teachers must understand how these stages flow into one another to allow their students to progress naturally in their coordination skills.
All Coordination Is Not Equal
There are three basic stages of coordination development that nature intends children to grow through during the first seven or eight years of life. If these stages have occurred, there will be a base of natural coordination with which to work, and physical skills and techniques can be successfully taught. In our computerized, mechanized world, few children are physically active enough to fully develop their coordination potential.
Do not confuse training with coordination. A child can be trained to perform almost any set of movements, whether they really have the maturity for those particular movements or not.
The movement experiences of young children have been found to directly affect their intellectual as well as their physical development. Given a full movement experience in the pre-school years, children can be expected to learn intellectual skills sooner and easier, as well as being better at learning physical skills. A lack of movement experiences can affect learning necessary developmental skills.
Stage 1: Symmetry
Coordination builds confidence and performing ability. The basis of all coordination is symmetry. This involves a muscle balance between the two sides of the body, sometimes known as bilateral coordination. Two categories of movement belong to symmetry:
- Movements that are symmetrical in appearance: jumping on two feet, swinging arms in unison, doing forward rolls on a tumbling mat, lifting arms to second position, doing sit-ups, the “down, back, in, jump up” exercise (as found in the Level 2 Curriculum Book), jump apart jump together, nodding head up and down, parallel knee bends, rises on two feet, etc.
- Movements involving an immediate reversal, and continuously alternating use of the two sides of the body such as walking, running, skipping, point together, heel together, shuffle step changing feet, turning head from side to side, etc.
To improve coordination at any age, include movements that use one or both of these categories.
Stage 2: Asymmetrical or Unilateral Coordination
The second phase of coordination is a transitional stage known as asymmetrical, or unilateral coordination. This is often seen in a three or four year old’s first efforts to march. The arm and leg on the same side of the body move in unison, rather than in opposition.
This is not a mistake, it is a transitional stage of coordination. It should not be corrected or commented on. It will become an important part of the person’s total coordination package.
This middle phase overlaps the basic and the final stages. It is a part of the finished product. It needs to be firmly established within the neuromuscular system.
A secure presence of this transitional stage enables the older dancer to quickly and easily produce any and all of the various arm and head positions that can be used with any given movement.
Stage 3: Contralateral Coordination
Contralateral or cross lateral coordination is the use of arms in opposition when walking and running. This phase includes both the basic and transitional stages. The person now has almost unlimited variation in the coordination patterns they can learn to perform.
A child needs to be well into this final stage in order to be successful in learning correct technique for classical ballet. Forcing a child to perform at this higher level before they have naturally arrived there can cause coordination problems later on. The stages of coordination overlap. Lower stages support and make possible the higher stage of coordination. Lack of coordination generally indicates a lack of natural movement experiences. Providing these experiences should improve the coordination.
Other Signs of Coordination Developing
Dominance, or handedness settles in at about age 7. Dominance and coordination are somehow related. Forcing correct responses of right and left, and forcing adherence to exact movement patterns before the child is ready may interfere with the full development of dominance, and the balance between the two sides of the brain.
Crawling on hands and knees (creeping) encourages coordination to happen. Children need to not drag the knees, but to “walk” with them. No particular timing or coordination of arms with knees should be taught. Specific movements, timings and methods in creeping are sometimes used by therapists to correct certain problems. Dance teachers are not therapists and should not attempt to do any “corrective physical therapy.”
The child of five or six or seven who still swings arms randomly when walking, running, etc. should be allowed to do so. With very few exceptions, they will eventually progress to the transitional stage, and go from there to the natural use of arms in opposition.
It is normal for all three stages of coordination to be seen in a child during the same dance class. A child using arms in opposition is not necessarily fully developed to this higher level. We should not teach the stages of coordination. They should happen naturally as the person gets enough natural movement experiences.
Provide for Coordination Enhancement
Ballet training, at its best, will enhance the natural development of the child. It will increase the potential for physical coordination and artistic expression. Correct skeletal alignment must be preserved and the natural growth patterns acknowledged and protected throughout the growing years.
Teachers should use good judgment when teaching ballet to children who are still growing. Teach only what their bodies are mature enough to do safely and correctly (See “Why the Rush?”). We know so much more about such things than previously. Let’s pay attention to what the researchers and physical therapists are telling us about the dangers of learning “too much too soon.”
Correct and successful instruction for children involves understanding the growth process, and working with nature’s intended patterns rather than against them.
- Helping the Undercoordinated Students
- The Pyramid of Coordination
- Developing Coordinated Dancers
- Tips for Teaching Preschool Combo Classes