April 11, 2012

So You Think You Can Teach?

Sometime ago Madame asked me if I had done any teaching yet. First I was confused, then I was floored - she was talking about teaching ballet! I was almost too quick to answer "no, good heavens no.." But, as Madame had started the conversation, I dared to say that it had at some point crossed my mind. You know, teach a basic class to adult beginners. Still, I was blushing as I said it - I had always thought that any professional teacher would consider my potential teaching ambitions presumptuous. But it was Madame who was asking, and she seemed both sincere and serious about it. Even better, she thought I could do it. Teach ballet!

Dear Readers, I haven't gone crazy. I know there's a difference between giving class and teaching class. I could never match the skill and experience of someone who has had vocational training and  or a professional career performing. Not even if take class for another twenty years. Then again, not every student needs a master teacher at every level! There are many fine teachers who have had only a brief career on the stage. My first teacher was trained in classical ballet, but performed as a contemporary jazz dancer. Still she was a very elegant ballerina, in every way. But how great a dancer do you have to be, to be a good teacher?

A master teacher can be in her seventies, and poke you with a stick do drive a correction home. She will also have many decades worth of experience, authority, a keen eye and a real passion to pass on her knowledge. A great teacher will know which buttons to push and when. She will coach, guide, motivate and inspire her students. That and knowing the entire ballet vocabulary, its steps and sauts, the technique, musicality, history and artistry involved. A good teacher is able to analyze and deconstruct steps, to teach progressively, and to give her students the tools to understand and advance. Knowing all this, I have tremendous respect for my teachers.

Looking at the list of qualities and requirements I just wrote, I can't really see myself teaching ballet. Not seriously, not when there are so many other and more capable dancers/teachers around. I feel like I would be cheating potential students out of something. Then again, I have not been dancing for the past twenty years without ever engaging my brain.. Much of my ballet-education has been a back-and-forth dance between different schools, teachers and levels. When I was allowed to to challenge myself in a higher level class, I knew to stay in the back and not ask any questions. Instead I watched the teacher and everyone else and worked out the steps by myself. The good old "fail again, fail better", or the way of trial-and-error - those were my methods of learning. And still are, to a degree. Luckily, I also have the best teachers to show me better ways!

There are some things that I've figured out over the years, which could be helpful to others as well. Sometimes teachers don't (immediately) understand why certain steps or sequences might confuse us adult dancers. In diagonale, it is not always the new jump that is being taught, but the steps preceding it. What is the beginning position, which foot goes first and how do I get from A to B? For those teachers who have gone the route of talented bunhead - vocational student - professional ballerina, ballet is imprinted on their brain. As natural as walking. For adult students, it can be like learning to walk all over again. Possible, but challenging in unexpected ways. I have been there.

Long post short, it is unlikely that there will be a teaching career anywhere in my future. I live in Big City, and there are enough ballet teachers around as it is. Our schools prefer trained professionals anyway (which is good). Although, if I had the chance, I would love to try it sometime. Just between friends and fellow adult dancers. I think teaching would be a great learning experience. 


  1. Nice post again. And a good subject. I'm not a dance teacher, but a flute teacher and can really tell you guys - not an easy job. There are always challenges, no matter what the level. But also it's very rewarding when a student really gets something, that "heureka!"-phenomenon... :)

    And what you wrote about that tutorial class - that's exactly what I was thinking you'd be great at! It's true that as you teach/give advice to someone, you learn yourself too. Even with the very basics, you have to think carefully how to explain stuff clearly - and that makes you revise things again and again. It's good for you and that's why I still study, even though I've been teaching since 1998 :)

    1. A tutorial class among friends, free of charge! We could take turns in teaching and learn as we go along. Some of my friends have been dancing for more than 25 years, and are pretty good at it!

      I have done some teaching outside of ballet, and it's true that you learn as you teach. If you have no understanding of what you're doing, it's impossible to break down and teach progressively. Althoug in ballet most is learned by watching and copying, so theory alone does not cut it!

      It's nice to know that teachers enjoy their student's "heureka" moments just as much :)

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. well I have mixed feelings on this.. but that is because I feel that ballet is the only activity I know where literally anyone who loves it can teach and yet, it is the hardest thing ever -- and quite dependant upon being practiced so correct as to be considered anal. There is no such thing in reality as pro versus vocational ballet.. there is only right and wrong ballet. I feel that the teaching in ballet should be much stricter -- there should be at least a certification --in RUSSIA you can be a principal dancer and still have to go through 5000 hours of teacher training... YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT 5000 HOURS! because ballet simply can be injurious and frustrating when practiced wrong...and there is a pedagogy that is often times counter intuitive to the result. As it stands YOGA TEACHERS GO THROUGH AN INSANE CERTIFICATION even at the most basic level with intense work on Anatomy and an advanced knowledge of anatomy but yoga isn't even touching the tip of the iceberg on ballet. There is a reason why people take ballet for 10 years and still look horrific.. and its not bc they are not talented.. bc even someone untalented should be able to stand at the barre and look good positionally even if they are not great movers or dancers. the reason so many take for years and still fail is because of all of the improper training. The fact is that is also why its nearly unheard of to start late. and the idea that vocational ballet is different from professional is the basis of the problem. there is no difference in vocational swimming versus professional or vocational gymnastics versus professional (even for OLD MASTERS AGE ADULTS!) and there should be no difference in vocational ballet versus professional bc of course the body can make changes at any age. yoga proves this as does body building. most vocational students should se=imply be taking a lower level until they can actually advance. that means no fouette turns in adult advanced beginner ballet. thjat means teaching beginner ballet to adults the same as you would to a child. then you can see what the real potential is in the adult. by skipping through to make it fun and interesting you really never see an honest result based on acquiring technical knowledge --you see the accidental result based on talent or kismet. its just that there is so much bad teaching in ballet that there is so much failure that it leads to this cultural idea that those who fail at least should teach. and this then trickles down into a culture that allows anyone with passion to teach and add the disclaimer "vocational" -- meaning wrong. the only difference between the pro and a vocational adult athlete is simply that one looks younger and in some cases (not all by the way) performs better -- not that they are learning differently. so that means if you love ballet you will love it enough to go through those tedious boring basics for a year or two -- just as an adult who picks up karate does. If you have a great interest to teach there is a ABT Pedagogical Degree.. a MA through NYU that is open by audition.

    1. Well, thank you for your passionate answer!

      I do not disagree with you. There is no right and wrong ballet. But there's a real difference in vocational and recreational ballet training/teaching. No way can you approach teaching a class of 16-60 year olds the same way as you would a class of selected pre-professional teens. This, however, does not mean those recreational students do not deserve a teacher who knows her stuff.

      And by stuff I do mean proper training, understanding of anantomy and pedagogy, knowledge of history and music etc.. Obviously a good teacher has clean teachnique herself and knows how to pass this on.

      I have heard that in the U.S. anyone can put up a sign and teach ballet. I have read about "Dolly Dinkle" schools. I also know that in France you can't teach without a state-diploma. Our teachers have all had serious training and considerable experience on the stage. They love to teach and are good at it. Any results you see in our classes are by no means accidental.

      Like I said, I'm not going to be teaching. I did, however, at times consider applying to a program for an actual dgreee. But, at this stage in my life it's no longer possible. So any potential students are quite safe from me!

      Having said that, I'm still happy my own teacher thinks I have the potential! :)

    2. I train young teachers, many of whome had no professional training in ballet. They are working towards certification. They mostly make very competant, aware teachers who fit the market they teach in, ie small schools teaching in school/village halls. Most have 'day' jobs in addition. Ballet teacher training is expensive and ballet teachers hardly ever earn much money. I personally spend a 1/3 of my wages a year on extra training. Which makes me a better teacher, but considerably poorer financially!

      My point is that you don't always have to be a professionally trained dancer to be a good teacher at recreational level.

    3. Thanks for your input! It's really good though that there is a certification system for teaching. That way beginning students (or their parents) can be sure that their prospective teacher has had more than adequate training!

      It would be lovely if every school and every student would have the best possible master teacher there is. But you can do very well with a properly trained and passionate teacher, even someone who has had "no career".

      I hadn't even thought about the financial aspect.. But you're right - training costs money and teaching doesn't pay that much. You would need a lot of classes to live on teaching alone. I'm at awe that you are willing to invest such a huge amount of your wage - but it shows that teaching ballet is not just any job!

  3. WOW. Well, whatever you do: congratulations :) If your teacher asks you something like this, even if you don't do it in the end, it's probably worth a 1000 compliments!

    1. Thank you. It was a question that made me very happy! :)

      I think Madame asked because advanced students often act as short-term substitutes in some schools. You know, if no other teachers are available. It is really not that uncommon. I mean, the question was "have you done ANY teaching yet.." "Any", as a class here or there..

      Still, the question does imply some positive appraisal of my skills. Which, coming from Madame, is so very cool! :)

    2. Johanna, I just want to add to these discussions, that I agree with you on this idea of an advanced student acting as a short-term substitute. For example, I think you could well "take over" your own class in case the teacher had to take sick-leave for a class or two. It would be great to continue practise the same routines as usual, one of the more advanced students leading the way... instead of a completely strange sub with completely new agenda and no knowledge of the level of the class (even though that can be very refreshing sometimes too).

    3. Hmm.. I don't think I could "take over" my own class though - nor do I think that Madame had our advanced level at mind when she brought up the question of teaching. Madame's class is close to professional level, and our last substitute was a retired soloist from the Finnish National Ballet.. :)

      However, I have been taking a regular basic class (I do it en pointe), and a short-term substituting of that would not be impossible, as I know the exercises and the level of the class. But this is all very theoretical, and never going to happen anyway! But I like to play with the idea :)

      Thank you for your input, we're defo on the same page here!

  4. I like your post. Maybe you can start as an assistance for any other teacher. I think teaching is another way to learn. Sometimes trying to explain something makes you understand it berrer. Greetings from Mexico!

    1. Hello Mexico! :)

      You're so right - when you have to explain something you think about it differently. And often learn new things in the process. Which is great!

      We don't really have teacher assistants here. But that's okay, I'm very happy being a student forever. :)

      Thank you, Mariana, for your comment!

  5. From what I read on your blog, I think you would be a fantastic teacher! And Madame seems to think you can do it, and she is an expert, right? :)

    Anyway, congrats and all the best to you, whatever you endeavor. :)

    1. Hi Hannah!

      Well, I don't know about the "fantastic".. ;)

      Seriously, I think even teachers learn more as they go along. You can't really teach experience! But I like to think that I could plan and execute a half-way decent class, that would not have students running for the nearest exit! You know, in case my substituting was the last option on earth ;)

      Thank you, Hannah, for your very sweet comment!

  6. Nice post! I'm more than happy to get advice from more advanced students. But another thing that I have seen a couple of times at class is when a student starts teaching the teacher or giving advice to her. And these have been really good teachers as well. I can only imagine how insulting it must be for a teacher to be questioned like that.

    1. Now that is really going against balletiquette! Unless the student is a professional dancer or teacher herself, AND the teacher is asking for a consult - which I've seen happen. Otherwise, you shut up and respect the teacher!

      Sometimes it can happen that lines get blurred. The class atmosphere is relaxed, some of the students even have teaching backgrounds or have been around for a long time.. The teacher might on occasion ask about an exercise that she can't remember (because she has zillion classes and levels), and thus encouraging some to speak up even when not strictly necessary.

      There are also students who might have been doing a certain step the same way for 25+ years, and then get confused when confronted with a different style. When they question the teacher about it, it might come across as something else.

      But, I have seen what you described. And it's just not right!

      Thank you for your comment! :)

  7. what a wonderful post, Johanna! I adore your third paragraph and sent it to my favorite teacher, who gives me private lessons. she is in her 70s, minus the stick (altho sometimes I think she's just as hard without it!). i am so grateful for her, and the investment of her time that she has given to me. of all my teachers, i say she is the one who has made me a ballerina--helped me have (some of) that polish and poise and presentation that 'finishes' us as dancers. i sent that paragraph to her too. again, i love your blog, Johanna!

    1. Wow. Thank you, Shannon! Really, I'm glad that you got something so positive out of this post. I was afraid that a few reactions might be quite to the contrary.. As in "deluded adult student thinks she can teach" ;)

      Your teacher sounds amazing! How wonderful that she continues to pass on her passion and knowledge.

  8. Well first of all congratulations! As a ballet student you do not hear compliments like that too often. I just wanted to tell that my ballet teacher doesn't have any professional career or teacher training. She is just dancer who started to teach adult ballet classes and I have never tought that she would not be competent..

    1. Thanks! I do appreciate it for what it is, a very nice compliment - and it's good to know that I'm on the right track!

      Of course I could teach no class without thorough preparation first. It takes a lot of planning to match music to exercises, and to have those exercises match student's (potential) skill levels. And you can't just throw in whatever, the class has to have a proper sequence and dynamic..

      Lots of dancers teach ballet class on the side, both for the extra income and because they have a real interest in teaching. When you think about it, the art of ballet is passed on from teacher to dancer, and eventually some of those dancers become teachers themselves. It's the circle of ballet! :)

  9. Agree. Quality ballet class should be with proper preparation and exercises.

  10. Dear Johanna,

    I started reading your blog a couple of months ago and I've been hooked since!
    I started at 22 and in the past year I've been taking class 5-6 times a week (and started pointe!).

    My university has a ballet club where professional dancers (from local companies and who happen to be students as well) teach a beginner and an intermediate class. This post has inspired me to start teaching a *very* basic class for beginners for free. Even though we have a beginner class, there's no time to go through each term in the ballet dictionary; like me in the beginning, our complete beginners are lost about what is a tendue and what is a degage. I want this basic class to be like a visual/active ballet dictionary and then do some strengthening exercises for the feet and core, as well as some stretches. I've been quite fanatic about ballet and I've devoured my ballet technique book and my dance anatomy books so I think that even at my level I think I can offer something to those who would like to start ballet but are terrified by the thought of something completely new. I wouldn't call this class a "real" ballet class but it would be useful don't you think?

    Thank you again for such a wonderful blog-you're so inspiring!

  11. I am enjoying reading your posts. I am a ballet teacher and retired professional ballet dancer. I have been teaching for 11 years and still feel I have so much to learn about it. What are the qualities that make your favorite teachers your favorite teachers?

    1. Hi!

      That's a good question... I asked readers over on this blog's facebook page, if you want to check those out. Some really good answers there! :)

      My own point of view: As a student, I thrive best in an learning environment which is positive, encouraging, suitably challenging, disciplined, calm, friendly (and also a bit of fun). It's not just the teacher who is important, but also the energy of the other students - and my own attitude, obviously.

      I've had many wonderful teachers over the years, with a variety of qualities... The best ones always push you forward, in one way or other.

      My favorite teacher is incredibly inspiring, the way she dances and teaches. She is a former principal dancer, retired some seven years ago. What makes her my favorite teacher ever: Madame is generous with her attention, has a keen eye for detail, and gives plenty of personal corrections. Encouraging praise too. Getting feedback is very important for me. You get the sense that she really wants you to be the best dancer you can be... And it's all about quality and artistry, not about how many turns or how high you can lift your legs (though we work hard on our turns & extensions too). Madame does not simply give class (and so many do only that), she teaches us. She knows her craft inside out, and how to help dancers with different abilities and limitations. She puts us first, there's no need for her to show off (but we love her demonstrations, even a simple port de bras). I love that she treats us as (potential) artists, not just ballet school students... We are encouraged to show our personality, to colour and play... The way we breath with our port de bras, how to express. At the same time, we work hard and well. No cheating, no short-cuts, always about quality!

      When I started taking class with her, a lot of things changed for me. My technique is getting cleaner and stronger, and I'm finding my own voice as a dancer. I trust my teacher completely.

      Other qualities that I appreciate in all my teachers:
      - Clear instructions, using proper ballet French
      - well planned classes, musical exercises
      - lots of corrections & feedback, but not so much that there's less dancing than talking ;)
      - generous with positive words, praise
      - ability to give corrections and advice in different ways
      - understands adult dancers' limitations - but is also willing to see their individual potential
      - does not use class to enhance personal ego or to show off
      - keeps track of your progress
      - is strict when needed, demanding (that eye for detail!), but not unreasonable
      - gives attention to all students, not just the best and most talented
      - respects us the way we respect her/him
      - friendly, greets class before starting
      - displaying a sense of humour is always welcome

      Hope I did not forget anything! Thank you for commenting :)

  12. Thank you so very much for your response. I am so impressed and heartened that you took the time to think so much about this and ask others as well. It will help me greatly! Thank you thank you thank you!!


To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...