An Important Mission with Unique Ability to Deliver
The mission of AAB is to provide students with the healthiest artistic and technical dance training possible in an environment that holds mutual respect and well-being paramount. Some ballet schools may share a similar mission, but we are uniquely positioned to obtain these goals. As a parent or student trying to select a dance school you will likely appreciate our mission, but it is unlikely that you will be able to discern whether or not any dance school is able to impart healthy technique. This paper discusses the ways in which we are uniquely positioned to address this critical part of our mission statement and why it is so important.
If you are a parent or student who has never danced, or even if you have, you will most likely not be able to accurately assess the instruction. The problem is two-fold: few parents or students have any real dance knowledge, and quality instructors come in many forms that may or may not fit into any preconceived notion of what is immediately appealing to you as a parent or student. For example, the way a teacher is received by the student or parent does not necessarily coincide with a teacher’s real ability to teach; i.e., a teacher may have an inspiring personality (or not), may have an ability to connect with students (or not), may be able to dance well (or not), may look like a ballerina (or not), and may still not know (or may know) ballet technique as AAB wants it done. The different facets of teaching—the ability to connect and inspire students, the ability to disseminate information efficiently and clearly, as well as a true understanding of anatomically correct training do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. They are different skills—people skills, technical mastery skills, and communication skills.
It simply isn’t easy for a parent or student to sort through all of this. But it is imperative that someone truly qualified is evaluating the instruction, because the health of the dancer is at stake. The process of evaluating instruction should be taken very seriously at any institute that offers physical training. It is probably the most important role that a School Director can provide. For the safety of the dancers, the Director should be knowledgeable about the healthiest training methods and how they apply to dance. And it is here that many ballet schools fail. But ballet doesn’t just have a lack of technically astute Directors, it is far-reaching problem. Knowledge about healthy dancing is simply very rare—too rare in the ballet world.
In order to understand this, one must first understand the history and culture of ballet. It comes to us embedded in tradition, hierarchy, and a real lack of resources for progressive training methods. In addition very few dancers or teachers ever go onto college. Consequently, ballet suffers from a lack of educated voices to bring about any real change. In short, the ballet world often remains in the dark when it comes to true technical progress. Most dance teachers simply cannot afford the cost associated with some of the latest training systems such as Pilates or Feldenkrais that can bring about healthy awareness. So in effect, very few teachers are in a position to try to promote the healthiest training methods possible. The majority of teachers continue to push in well-intended but naïve ways in order to accomplish the standards of the trade which are quite high because they simply don’t have good access to the best information that seems to remain mostly outside of the ballet world. And for this reason, many dancers remain vulnerable to injury.
The injury rate among professional dancers is unnecessarily high. Many professional ballet dancers end their careers with debilitating injuries. Knee surgeries, hip replacements, slipped discs, and joint injuries, are very common in ballet even among these perfect-bodied dancers. Although some injuries are to be expected in a physical activity—a sprained ankle, an occasional ache or pain—the majority of injuries have to do with the way dancers train and can be avoided. The continual push by directors and teachers to move beyond a comfortable range of movement in the joints (namely extreme turnout and extreme extension of the hip, ankle, and back) without any real knowledge of how to execute it, leaves dancers open to injury. And perhaps at some point, we should look at just how high we want those legs, or how extreme we want that turnout, at the expense of a physical body that surely will need to function well long after a relatively short dance career. One can even ask why we are pushing so hard in this way? Does the audience really relate to and understand things like extreme turnout, and extremely arched feet? Regardless of the merit for these extreme standards, many schools are trying to keep up. But they do it mostly by focusing primarily on students with ideal ballet bodies, pushing in naïve way to create the “ballet look”, and/or requiring an excessive time commitment from their students. It is not uncommon for ballet schools to require fifteen or more hours of class each week at the advanced level which does not include rehearsal time. These students don’t need more class time, they need better and more efficient training. As parents and dance educators, we need to leave our students with a viable future that includes the option of going onto college or dancing professionally. Fifteen hours of dance class a week in addition to rehearsals, does not leave students the time to keep up with a heavy academic load. And at the very least, if we are going to require students take fifteen hours of dance classes per week, we better make certain that it is the healthiest training possible.
We can achieve this fine balance in dance by incorporating some of the healthy training methods like Pilates and Feldenkrais. It is encouraging that in the past ten to twenty years there does appear to be some recognition of the value of these systems. For example, some larger dance schools are now offering Pilates mat classes or the like. But unless you are working with a leader in the integration of these methods, it won’t be enough. It is not enough to offer dancers a Pilates class here and there, and think that will solve fundamental issues. We need there to be a fuller integration of these training methods. We need to rethink dance training. Dance teachers need to understand the fundamentals of these systems, create dance combinations that are influenced by exercises such as Pilates; and more importantly, dance teachers need to bring the fundamentals espoused by these techniques such as neutral line and finding the mid-line into the technique of ballet. The most prevalent injuries of the ankle, knee, and hip joints, are often a result of a dancer not understanding these basic concepts. And even if a student becomes aware of these concepts by taking a Pilates class here or there, this process will still leave a dancer wide-open to injury. We need dance teachers who understand these fundamentals to follow up with students in the ballet classroom, so that students can apply these basic concepts to dance.
AAB tries to address this need by supporting instruction that allows outside influences that build anatomically correct body awareness, strength and flexibility into the training system. Dancers at the intermediate to advanced level should be required to take classes in methods such as Pilates, Feldenkrais, Yoga, Alexander Technique, and Gyrokinesis. But one must be careful because not all trainers in those fields are equally qualified. The certification process in many of these fields is fairly quick for the exception of Feldenkrais, which is a 4-year program. The quality of instruction varies widely in these fields. Ideally, dancers should be taking these supportive classes from someone who also has some dance knowledge because application varies widely. And students need to be taking dance classes from dance teachers who have some background in the fundamentals these systems can provide. The problem is that very few ballet teachers have that kind of background. Again, these systems are timeconsuming, expensive, and the encouragement to do that work is not always there in a trade where outside influences are not necessarily part of the tradition or culture. In fact, it is not uncommon to find downright resistance to some of these helpful methods. This work is simply not yet a part of the handeddown tradition. AAB’s preference for teachers is that they have a background in one of these fields. This enables us to try to find a teacher who is capable of grasping the nuances of healthy vs. non-healthy teaching methods. Surprisingly, even some ballet teachers who are Pilates certified seem to be missing the boat in terms of how to apply these principles to dance. But regardless of background, there must be a desire to learn about these fundamentals and/or to receive feedback to make adjustments. We often hire teachers with a Masters, Minor, or emphasis in dance education because usually these teachers are coming from an informed perspective, or will likely be open-minded enough to use information outside of the ballet world. This is not to say that AAB ignores the need for inspiring teachers, or dancers who have danced professionally. But we do look for teachers who can either inspire or connect with students, or who can train with healthy training methods. Ideally we look for both, but very few candidates seem to exist right now. To bridge the gap we try to inform teachers through discussion, workshops, and evaluations about healthy training.
Many parents will be surprised to know that AAB is the only school I have been involved with that evaluates its teachers, or has offered teachers workshop classes. My experience teaching for seven different ballet schools showed me that teacher evaluation is simply not a part of the process of most schools, and I was never once invited to attend a workshop class. In the fifteen years I taught ballet prior to opening AAB, I was only observed three times for about fifteen minutes each time. It wasn’t until I taught at Stanford University that I received any real feedback on teaching. AAB believes that the evaluation process of teachers is very important, and that teacher workshops should be a part of their development.
Once hired, a teacher at AAB is supported and allowed time to make changes based on our feedback. If students are lukewarm about an instructor but the teacher demonstrates technical promise, we try to provide teachers tips on how to build a strong rapport and ways to inspire students. We have found that many of our teachers given feedback and a little time are able to meet our high standards. But they must demonstrate the willingness to want to do things from a healthy perspective, and understand the importance of using the healthiest training methods given the current state of knowledge within and outside of the industry.
All of this hinges on a School Director that understands healthy technique and who will oversee this process. There are very few ballet schools in this area or in the Unites States for that matter, like AAB that are being led by a School Director who has had a full-time professional dance career, holds a Masters in Dance Education from Stanford University, has taken basic coursework in biomechanical engineering that fosters a clear way of seeing the human body, and has completed 15-plus years of private Pilates and Feldenkrais instruction. Currently, there simply isn’t enough of an economical advantage to explore these more expensive educational methods that can help one to direct with a sense of healthy training methods.
Well-informed parents and students will understand the benefit of such a background, and will understand how an informed Director can help push for healthy training. Parents should be diligent when selecting a dance school. Parents should ask the Director if teachers are ever evaluated, in what ways they seek to integrate healthy training methods with students and teachers, what their background is in healthy training methods, in what ways they try to remain abreast of new information, and what sort of methods they use to create turnout and high extension in students. The dancer’s health must be held paramount. Healthy training can, should, and must be done. The information is out there, it is just very slow at reaching the ballet world. In the thirty years I have taken or observed dance classes from hundreds of teachers across the United States, I have only come across ten teachers with any apparent anatomical knowledge. Five of these teachers are currently teaching at AAB.
The students and teachers who come here will be involved in a process of change. We are committed to a push towards artistic and technical excellence through healthy training, and we are uniquely positioned to get us there. This sort of training will help students to maximize their ability with fewer injuries. Please feel free to ask any of our teachers about concepts like mid-line, and neutral line and how they can apply to healthier technique for a dancer.
Julia Dugan, Artistic Director