As I mentioned in my previous post a few weeks ago, building a proper foundation for technique, especially ballet is an essential part of a dancer’s education. Students need to be challenged and given new goals to strive for, but they are never going to be successful without a solid foundation.
Building ballet technique is much like teaching a child to read. A young child must understand the most basic concepts of the alphabet, how to write the letters, and the sounds they make before they are able to read and write. In ballet, the alphabet is learning proper posture and alignment, the 5 basic positions of the arms and legs, and how to point your toes and stretch your leg. Once a student has learned the alphabet, she can begin to make simple words- akin to learning plies, tendus, passes, arabesque (on the floor at first, please), etc. As a student becomes more and more comfortable, we begin to add more difficult words, simple phrases, and eventually sentences.
I like to think of those sentences as more complex movements such as many turns and large jumps such as pirouettes (and eventually turns a la seconde and fouette turns) and grand jetes (and eventually tour jete and grand jete entournant). Think back to your grade school days when you learned to dissect and diagram a sentence. Much like you learned the correct usage of each noun, verb, object, and preposition, in ballet, a student must learn the correct usage of her arms, legs, and head using the more basic movements she’s already learned. These sentences become paragraphs in ballet combinations, and eventually stories in choreography.
For example, some of my students have begun working on fouette turns. Instead of merely asking them to copy what they see me do in the middle of the floor, I’ve built upon movements they’ve already learned. Starting at the barre and then moving into the center with the same movements, we’ve practiced pirouettes, developpes in and out of a plie and a releve, rond de jambes en l’air, and other movement phrases that will be used in our sentence of “fouette turn”. This method allows the students to grasp the different elements of the complex movement, breaking it down piece by piece, and then reconstructing the movement- or sentence- as a whole.
We as teachers are constantly talking about breaking a movement down to help students learn a new skill. The question is, are we breaking it down enough, allowing our students to grasp all the different elements before reconstructing the movement? Do our students know how to spell all the words- perform the simpler moves- that make up our sentence of a more complex movement? Or do our students fail to understand what we’ve broken down in pieces to them because the pieces are still too foreign?
However, we cannot allow our fundamentals to stunt our students’ talent. We must offer them reachable challenges while still building that foundation. In my previous example of fouette turns, I have explained- and demonstrated- what we are striving for, and after only a week or two of building the basics, I had my students attempt their fouette turns, thinking about the pieces and parts we had talked about earlier in class. Each week that we build their foundation, we also try our complex skill out. My students can now grasp an understanding of what the more tedious barre work moves towards, have a challenge to strive to achieve, and can see themselves making progress as we further develop the parts that going their fouette sentence.
Whatever skill set I want to work on in class, I build on starting from the barre. Barre work isn’t just for warming up, its to provide a stable environment in which to practice the fundamentals of a larger skill to be practiced in the center. When I want to work on chasses with my beginning ballet class, we practice tendus into plie at the barre so that all of their chasses begin with that movement, we practice sous-sus both at and away from the barre, and we practice saute in 5th position to find the position of a chasse mid-air.
There are about as many teaching philosophies as there are dance teachers in the world. We all see different elements of a student’s education as important or strive to achieve the elements with different methods, usually shaped by our training backgrounds. I can say that my most successful years as a dancer- the years that I improved the most and that my technique level was at its highest- were the years that I was taught by instructors who not only valued but taught technique fundamentals well. I strive to recreate a similar environment for my own students with the goal of giving them the best possible ballet training I can possibly give.