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Friday, February 28, 2014

Dance, Mama!

    In every book or movie about ballet, there's a scene in which the uptight-but-lovable ballerina reluctantly attends a modern (or jazz or African or hip-hop) dance class. She's uncomfortable at first, but ultimately lets loose in a montage of flowing hair and slow-motion pirouettes. Rolling around on the floor to the beat of a bongo helps her rediscover her passion for dance and gets her through her existential ballet crisis. Ballerina will then become a modern dancer or join a hip-hop crew or become a principal dancer with Cooper Nielson's new company.
Jody's chronic lip bite finds a home in jazz class.
   Those kinds of scenes always frustrate me because, as a ballet dancer, that first modern or hip-hop class is rarely liberating. It's confusing and frustrating to have to use your muscles in whole new ways, to sift through years of classical training to figure out what you can use to your advantage (alignment, strength) and what you need to throw away (turn out, everything you thought you ever knew about dance) to perform those strange new movements correctly. Rekindling my passion for dance has always been more about the context in which I'm dancing than the style or technique itself. When burn out rears its ugly head it's usually because I haven't been dancing enough in the right place with the right people.
One of the major drawbacks of doing something I love for a living (teaching dance) is that I often start to feel burned out. I've written before about the ways I combat boredom when it comes to teaching the same classes over and over again, but burn out is a slightly different monster. Burn out makes me wonder why anyone wants to take ballet. Burn out makes me doubt my abilities. Burn out makes me want to delete ever Finis Jhung class album from my phone and curl up under the covers.
I know that a big part of it has to do with overwhelming myself with private lessons and classes to the point where I never have time to do much actual dancing myself outside of the classroom. I know intellectually that dancing more (not teaching, just dancing) will make me feel better but I usually end up just wallowing and whining about my burn out until someone snaps me out of it. This morning, that someone was my toddler.
I woke up with plans to tackle the housecleaning I'd neglected during my busy week of teaching. After getting dressed, changing a couple of diapers and feeding that toddler breakfast, I turned on my favorite Tony Bennett album and sat down for a few fortifying sips of coffee before beginning the day's work. My son heard the music and ran over to me with the biggest grin on his face. He grabbed my hand and tried to pull me to my feet saying, "Dancing! Dance, Mama!"
It about melted my heart. I love that he associates my favorite music with dancing and that he associates dance with me. I loved being pulled onto the dance floor, even if the dance floor was my living room and my partner was my 20 month old son.  For the next few minutes we swayed and jumped and stamped to the music holding hands. I didn't think about technique or choreography or how many costumes I still had left to order this season. I just moved to some music with someone I loved.
It was good.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Steps I Can't Teach

I've been doing this dancing thing for a long time. 

A very long time.
Ballet never came naturally to me as a student--I had to work harder than many of my peers to gain the flexibility and strength required of me. For years, I worked against forces in my body I couldn't control, like the arches in my feet (or lack thereof) and the tightness in my back and hip flexors.  That extra work pushed me to really think about the way my muscles had to engage or move in each step and position. Little did I know that the frustrating experience of studying ballet in a non-ballerina's body was preparing me for a career in teaching. 

As a dancer, I have to be able to perform steps correctly. As a teacher, I have to understand the mechanics behind every position, shape and action in ballet. Furthermore, I need to be able to relay that information clearly to my students.

There's a whole separate language of movement, a vernacular specific to ballet, at work in every classroom. When teaching beginners, I'm acting as a translator. For the most part, I think I'm okay at this. Of course I'd like to improve. I'm obsessed with researching new teaching methods and reading about what other respected teachers are doing in their studios but teaching itself has come pretty naturally to me--with a few exceptions. There are a few basic, easy steps I absolutely fail at teaching. 

I really struggle with teaching balancé (a simple waltz step) and petit battements (a small beating movement of the foot). I love both of these steps. I find them fun and straightforward, but frustrating to try to explain. Maybe these movements feel so organic to me, so much a part of my body after so many years, that dissecting them piece-by-piece gets me all garbled and confused, like when you say a word so many times it loses its meaning.

 I demonstrate the step slowly. I have students mimic me as I do it. I look at each moment in the step and probably use some stupid metaphor like, "Swim through the jelly, dancers! Swim through the jelly!" to clarify. The metaphor does not clarify anything. Students look at me like I'm insane. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Am I alone on this? Do any of you teachers out there struggle with teaching certain steps or concepts?