How To Structure A Ballet Class
Once, when I had the privilege to train in the same class as a famous principal from the Royal Ballet, she told me although she loves coaching she could not teach a ballet class because she cannot remember the order of the exercises.
I am not sure how literally she had meant it as I think it is quite impossible, even if one wanted to, not to know the structure of a ballet class if it was part of one's daily routine since childhood.
And the structure of a ballet class is what I love and what I get excited by. If you read my article Making Of The Holistic Ballet Class DVDs you get an idea of how far I like to take it.
on set of filming the Holistic Ballet DVDs, November 2012
As some of you know, I never intended to teach but I was very lucky to have been ‘forced' into it by my then-teacher Renato Parroni, who in 1998 left London for two months and declared: ‘Franziska, we are making a deal: I go to Brazil and you are going to teach all my classes.' Since I never learned how to say ‘no', I did.
In the beginning, I took Rescue Remedy before each class to calm my nerves but I also enjoyed the new experience and I fell in love with teaching.
intermediate Holistic Ballet class at Danceworks, 2017
Should you ever get into similar circumstances, how would you start?
1) Class Structure
Know the order of the exercises, obviously. In Holistic Ballet, I changed the traditional order to allow more time for the hips to warm up.
Each exercise increases the difficulty of the one before, working from:
• wide to narrow (2nd, 1st, 5th)
• low to high (pliés, tendus, dégagés, foundus, grands battements, from 'flat' to relevés)
• static to moving (on the spot, transferring weight, travelling, 'flying')
• slow to fast (increasing speed of tendus for example)
The barre work warms the body up and prepares it for the centre work and allegro (jumps).
The sequences need to develop in a logical manner and build upon each other. Each exercise ideally prepares for the next so that throughout the class the muscles are trained to respond correctly and the risk of injury is reduced (I wish I could say 'eliminated').
2) Develop a Theme
Following on from the points above: set an intention, a recurring theme. This could be a particular:
• movement coordination that is repeated in different forms throughout the class
• anatomical fact relevant to movement or alignment
• use of a body part, e.g. usage of the foot, pelvis, shoulder blade
• metaphor that can be applied to various ballet situations
People do learn differently, either by primarily watching the demonstrations, or listening to the explanations, or by experiencing steps with their own bodies. A metaphor addresses most people as it is concrete yet leaves enough room for the individual to add their own creative details.
3) Design/ Choreograph
Based on the chosen theme, design the class.
Renato advised me to create the centre exercises first: grand adage, travelling steps, grand allegro (big jump) and then to work backwards, devising the barre work.
It is how I prepare most of the time, especially the more advanced classes. I have an idea of a movement, e.g. renversé, and then I aim to incorporate its different elements like a ronds from plié to straight leg, tombé-coupés, in the barre routines, the centre tendus, and adage.
Gretchen Warren Ward quotes Asaf Messerer, ballet master of the Bolshoi Ballet, in Classical Ballet Technique:
'The teacher is obliged to come to class with a distinct knowledge of his problem for the day; he must know what he wants to achieve through the study of certain ballet exercises....Each class must have its special purpose, theme, problem or leitmotif....Of course, one can always give a class in which there is a bit of everything, but such a class is like a lecture where one talks of 'everything and nothing.' In a ballet class, logic must prevail as it does in the lectures of university professors." (p. 80)
But it can also be interesting to start the other way around: noticing a movement or position at the beginning of the class that is little understood, hence causes problems, then tailor the lesson to the specific needs of the students by analysing, elaborating and creating many different variations of it. So that at the end students gained a deeper understanding, hopefully.
This method works best with more elementary groups and has the advantage of being able to respond directly to the class. With this approach, one cannot really prepare a class in advance. It requires experience and confidence of the teacher and has the benefit of teaching according to the students' abilities.
In the beginning, I spent two hours preparing a class, writing down each exercise and trying them out to the music, on cassette tapes, which back in the days were another reason for nerve-racking situations. It was too easy to miss the right music track and to fast-forward or rewind too much searching for it whilst students or dancers were waiting. Blessed be the moment CDs and iPods appeared!
Being accompanied by a pianist is fantastic but not without difficulties either. For me as a novice teacher working with a pianist brought a further element uncertainty that I could not fully prepare for. The music that fitted the exercises perfectly at home or in my head did not so in real life classes with the adage in the centre being the most 'dangerous' exercise. Therefore, I used to prepare two different endings so one would definitely match the ending of the musical phrase.
London has amazing ballet class pianists. I think learning to play the piano and how to communicate effectively with a pianist should be part of every ballet education's the curriculum.
In contrast to company classes and school training, preparing an open or 'drop-in' class can be tricky as it is unpredictable how many students attend and what level they are.
It tasks the teacher to be utterly flexible in terms of complexity of movement, spacing, and time management and at the same time trying to make everyone feel challenged, included and welcomed.
practising arm and neck lines, at Danceworks, 2017