Teaching teenagers ballet – the challenge
I know we’ve all been there. We love ballet, we love teaching, but then, you are suddenly faced with the class from hell….Teen Ballet. The challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out how on earth to go about teaching teenagers ballet. And I’m not talking about a class of bunheads eager to extract every last piece of wisdom from you. I’m talking about a bunch of recalcitrant teens who simply don’t want to be there…who are being ‘made’ to do ballet because it is part of the program. . You know the ones, too cool for school, dripping in uniform infringements, hair twisted into a messy knot mascerading as a bun. This ladies and gentlemen is the particular challenge of teaching teenagers ballet
I had one such class a few years back. I would dread them from the moment I woke up in the morning. Forget about teaching teenagers ballet, I felt like i was in a war zone. I felt like I was failing in every level. The worst part was that there were a few well behaved girls in the class who actually wanted to learn and I felt that I was failing them miserably.
Teen ballet mayhem -the struggle
I tried everything I could think of and then some more. I tried to find resources on teaching teenagers ballet. Because the class had limited ballet experience and weren’t that into it, I thought the best approach would be to make it fun, pick out things they’d like, turns jetés etc. They found those things fun but their behaviour was terrible and I felt like they were learning nothing and gaining no appreciation for ballet. I got mad and screamed, I sent people out. This just seemed to make them disengage further. I tried using more modern music, it just seemed to make the class rowdier. I tried to be relaxed and fun with them like I was with my other teen class who were more devoted to their craft. What eventually worked totally surprised me and was the very last thing I thought to try.
At the time I was teaching 15 preschool classes a week and I had them down pat. I was firm but loving, I was strict but empathetic, I oozed a love of ballet, I rewarded good behaviour and ignored bad, I imposed (in a preschool way) consequences. I was encouraging and celebrated achievement. If there was a ringleader I would win them round. When the kids came to my class they knew what to expect and they thrived. Finally, after a particularly harrowing display of teen mayhem where I had sent people from the room and snapped my way through a most unrewarding class it dawned on me. I could try teaching teenagers ballet just like my preschoolers.
A remarkable solution
Now, I’m not going to pretend it was an overnight solution but with perseverance it worked. I applied the same techniques I did to my preschool classes but in a more teen friendly way. To start with a I was very firm and strict but not unreasonable or unapproachable. I sat down and thought about their standard and what i would like to cover with them. I settled on a mix of syllabus work mixed with some of my own exercises. I kept my classes consistent and started covering the same basic class each week. This enabled me to implement phase 2 of my cunning plan for teaching teenagers ballet. As we started to do consistent steps and I was consistently giving the same kinds of corrections, I started to JUMP on even the slightest improvement. They were shocked. They laughed it off a bit at first, a bit embarrassed at the thought that they might be good at something so uncool as the dreaded ballet. I praised them to encourage a growth mindset. It began to occur to me that part of their posturing and misbehaviour was stemming from them feeling threatened by ballet. They didn’t feel they could do it. They weren’t ‘ballerinas’ . They ‘knew’ they couldn’t do it so there was no point trying. Better to put ballet down rather than let it put them down. As the weeks wore on I saw them, sometimes in spite of themselves, actually enjoying parts of their class, trying new things, feeling proud. I introduced new steps. I reminded them of other steps they’d struggled with. We broke it down, we celebrated achievement. I targeted ringleaders. I’m not one for rewarding bad behaviour or playing into squeaky wheel syndrome but this was an emergency. If one the heads of the anti ballet brigade did something even remotely decent, I showed how impressed I was. They didn’t quite know what to do. Here was the ballet teacher praising THEM. They would snigger with their friends at first but you could see them start to think, ‘”hey, maybe I’m not so bad at this ballet thing after all”. The energy and class dynamics shifted.
Most of all, I realised how I had let this recalcitrant, anti ballet class alter not only my teaching but my demeanour. Their anti ballet sentiment was so strong, I let it dull my own passion for ballet. They thought ballet was uncool. I didn’t want to act like I loved ballet, they clearly wouldn’t like it. What a mistake!! As the old saying goes, always be yourself. By showing them how passionate I was about ballet they got to see the real me, they liked it, the thought it was funny or silly or maybe they thought it was great, but, whatever they thought about it, they responded positively. And that’s the great thing about ballet.
Once you begin to understand it in all it’s complexity, ballet is its own reward. If you can help your students begin to understand this, even a little, you have done your job.
The end result
I’m not going to pretend that I created a class full of budding ballerinas BUT I did feel like the year ended as a success. I feel I did my job. I taught them some ballet, they experienced what an actual ballet class was like, they felt a sense of achievement, we had some fun along the way. At the end of the year, when they did their dance in their end of year performance, (a dance that, to my great bemusement, they absolutey loved) they made a little error of timing. It didn’t matter, it was fine, nobody would have known. They rushed off and flocked around me apologising for ruining their dance! I realised with a jolt that they actually wanted to well for ME! I told them nobody would have known, that I thought it looked really great and we all had a good laugh. As I watched them walk back laughing and chatting to their dressing room, I could not help but reflect how different we were from the class of ballet haters with messy buns with a grumpy, stressed teacher that we had been at the start of the year. The solution, as it turned out had been under my nose the whole time, I just had to ditch the fairy wings and nursery rhymes!!