I remember being 8 years old in class with my teacher Leslie Crockett at Marin Ballet. I remember hearing for the first time the french names for the steps we were executing. I had been "dancing" for 3 years already and yet I had never heard the names of the steps we were dancing nor did I know what they meant.
Mrs. Crockett was the turning point for my dance education. The following year I had Tamara Statkoun as my teacher. She took the foundation that Mrs. Crockett had given me and started to give me the understanding of how to execute the steps that I now knew the meaning of. By the time I was 11 I was ready to start taking my dance training seriously and I was accepted to the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC where I had 1 teacher, Mr. Anatoli Kucheruk, 5 hours a day, 6 days a week for the next 5 and a half years.
I started my Vaganova Program this past week and I have one 8 year old student enrolled at the moment. We spend an hour and 15 minutes working on the foundations of Plie and Tendu. There is no fluff in the class, there are no ribbons or scarves, there are no tutus or concert routines. I am teaching her the foundations of ballet as they were taught to me by Mrs. Crockett, Madame Statkoun, and Mr. Kucheruk.
One of the hardest things in the world is to be a parent of a child who dreams of becoming a professional dancer. I remember the anguish my parents went through when deciding whether to allow me to attend The Kirov. Very few schools outside of the serious ballet academies actually teach ballet technique so they knew it was necessary, but it is tough to send your child away at a young age.
In many community dance schools most of class time is spent on concert or eisteddfod routines. Lot's of dancing is happening without giving the child the necessary foundations. For parents who have not grown up in the world of dance, it may look from the outside like their children are learning what they need to, but in reality probably couldn't tell you the meaning of Plie and Tendu.
Ballet is difficult and it should be difficult. It is difficult because the training is meant to discover the children who's passion transcends the challenge, the children who need to dance. Of course the argument can be made that not everyone wants to become a professional dancer. I refuse to accept that as a reason for children being taught incorrectly. Why tell a child to do the swishy jumps when you mean assemble? Why tell a child to do the big diamond and the little diamond when you mean grand plie and demi plie? Why take a child away from the barre when they can't stand up without holding it?
When I started teaching adults last year, I took it on as an experiment to see what would happen if I actually taught them how to do ballet the way I was taught. Now nearly 8 months after starting at our current location we have women in class who had never taken a ballet class before that can tell you the meanings of the steps, can do them correctly, and are starting to look like dancers.
I know this is controversial, but I felt compelled to put this out as I have had many parents in the last week tell me how hard it is to find ballet teachers who teach technique and one of those parents used to run a ballet school.
I taught the conditioning program at QUT a couple years ago for their Bachelor of Arts dance program. I would always ask the students what they wanted to do after they finished their studies. Often I would hear that they wanted to teach. This always struck me as interesting since the teaching of ballet traditionally is done by passing down from one generation of professional dancers to the next and yet here were young adults who hadn't experienced the very thing they wanted to teach.
I don't know what the answer is, as I know that I alone cannot change how dance is taught. All I can do is vow to my students that I will give them the foundations they need to become dancers and a deep understanding of those foundations so that if they ever do decide to become teachers they can give their students the foundations they deserve.