One might think that the best way to keep a group of active, eager and talkative 9 year-olds’ attention would be to make things different each week of ballet class. That way they stay engaged and interested. Ruth Brinkerhoff’s “Classical Ballet 1 (Ages 8-12)” curriculum book suggests the opposite may be true when it comes to students who have reached the mental maturity of an 8 year-old and above.
Present, Guide and Help
Starting at age eight, students are capable of taking some responsibility for their own learning. It is the teacher’s job to present, to guide, to help with improvements. It is the student’s job to learn what is presented, and to work on improving it.
Make it clear that they will be expected to respond with that learning both as a class, and as individuals. This is why they need to have a memorized barre, and some memorized items in the center. Otherwise, why learn it if it will be all different next week anyway?
When the setting of the pliés or tendus is always different, the students must focus their attention on the setting, the choreography. This leaves no room in their concentration to work on improving the movements themselves. Technical improvement is what you want. Teach in a way that makes it possible and probable.
If there is always someone to follow, the students will, of necessity, focus on following, not on learning, or remembering, or improving. An assistant can help while they are learning, but you need to let the class do it on their own as soon as possible. Then, the assistant can help you watch for those who need assistance, and give individual help.
Put the Burden of Learning on the Students
- Have confidence in them.
- Present a movement.
- Let them try it.
- Compliment their efforts.
When they have the general idea (not perfection!) of the exercise, let them try it. If you make improvements, make only one, and let them immediately do it again, working for the improvement. Compliment their efforts.
Be Aware of Their Growth Processes
Many of the physical limitations given for younger ages are now changed (by age 8-12), but not all. These kids are still growing, and still need to not have their joints and muscles over stressed. Pain should be avoided. (See “Understanding Your Student’s Growth Process”) Be sure feet are lined up correctly with knees.
Correct skeletal alignment in natural movement makes correct alignment for ballet possible. Correct alignment for ballet makes correct muscle use happen. Correct muscle use is what constitutes correct technique, at all levels of study. In beginners, something can be right, and actually look wrong. Damage is caused when it looks “right for ballet,” but is wrong in terms of skeletal alignment or muscle use.
Create a Comfortable Class Format
Keep the exercises fairly short. Change legs often, change types of movements frequently to give moments of rest to various muscle groups. Long exercises requiring concentration on technical effort result in the muscles getting too tired to do their best work (See “20 Ways to Create a Comfortable Class”). Short exercises, within their ability to concentrate and use the muscular control needed for technical correctness will result in faster technical progress over time.
Longer exercises that are appropriate for beginning students will improve their coordination: skips, gallops, polkas, etc. This helps their aerobic development and, it strengthens the base of natural movement which is necessary for success in ballet.
There is no need to worry about “muscle endurance” at this stage. Endurance will come, gradually, year by year (See “Why the Wait?”) Working specifically for muscle endurance during the middle childhood years will quite likely enlarge the muscles unnecessarily, and slow down the development of artistry and technique; get an understanding of the basic elements of ballet into them first. This will take about four years!
Learn to See the Beginnings of Correct Effort
Brinkerhoff wrote, “I used to think my first year ballet students looked awful. Then I saw some pictures of first year students in a book about the Russian ballet schools. Their beginners looked even worse! Everyone’s beginners look bad when compared to the more advanced classes.”
Learn to see the beginnings of correct effort, the technique in embryo. Keep the work within their abilities, and your beginners will look wonderful! They will look good for where they are on that road to learning ballet. (See “Progressing Into Ballet Technique”.) They will improve year by year.
Changing it up doesn’t always make things better for the students. As Brinkerhoff suggests, consistency, repetition and understanding how your students growth and develop are the ways to allow improvement of the student’s classical technique.
- Understanding Your Student’s Growth Process
- Why the Wait?
- Progressing Into Ballet Technique
- My Personal Secrets for Teaching Littles
*Work Cited: “Ballet Arts: Classical Ballet 1” by Ruth H. Brinkerhoff, copyright The Ballet Source, 2016.