Teaching Adult Beginners: They Grow Up So Fast!

My Sunday class is making amazing strides — their tendus, dégages, and even ronds de jambe looked so great this week.

I also experienced one of those great moments in which I grabbed a student’s leg and demonstrated how rotation and placement could help her A) keep her RdJs smooth and B) balance her arabesque, and then got to see that amazing thing where the light-bulb inside just clicks on.

And then she did it again, completely on her own, without my meddlesome, grabby hands 😀

That was the best part, and really the highlight of the day. Such a cool moment!

I also guided her into a first arabesque (really, I just offered her my hand so she’d extend her arm to the right spot) so she could feel how the working leg and opposite arm connect through the back and counter-balance each-other, and she totally got it.

(Also, her arabesque looked awesome! Her back is really strong and flexible, which really helps — thanks, aerials! Likewise, because she wasn’t fighting to try to get a super-high extension, she was rock-solid.)

Something I’ve learned through my own experiences returning to ballet and teaching:

New dancers don’t just find it hard to locate the center-line of their bodies when the working leg is to the rear.

They also (and perhaps more importantly) often find that working to the center-line seems a little weird, unnatural, and sometimes even scary … until they try it and it clicks!

For me, that light-bulb moment came when I realized that I could keep my turnout more easily and effectively in RdJs if I really got the working leg all the way back to the center-line, and then that the same applied to tendus. This happened more recently than it should have, if I were better at A) listening and B) applying corrections :/

Prior to that moment, I guess I kind of felt like I’d lose my turnout that way. Sometimes, ballet can be pretty counter-intuitive.

If you’re engaging all the (right) things, though, drawing the arc of the RdJ or the line of the tendu right freaking back from the tailbone lets you stay turned-out without lifting (or dropping) a hip.

(That, by the way, is the other part that’s hard for people: they feel like they need to lift that hip even when they don’t. Which, if they’re using correct technique and working within the ever-evolving limits of their own bodies, they shouldn’t at this level, or almost ever.)

This is still one of the best ways I know to gauge my own placement: if my working leg is taking too much weight in a tendu to the rear, or I’m hiking a hip in a RdJ en dedans, usually the problem is that I’m not getting my working leg behind myself.

Exception: if my pelvis is jammed — which happens with ridiculous frequency at the moment because Bodies Are Weird™ — I can’t RdJ without lifting the hip on the jammed side (very nearly always the right).

Instead, my working leg is usually kind of camping out in … I don’t know, 2.5-ième position? Working back to the center line by rotating and reaching generally resolves the related problems.

In some ways, and as much as part of me really hates to admit it (in part because I feel weird in third because I use it so rarely), I feel like this is a really good reason to teach adult beginners to work in third position before introducing fifth.

Then, when they come to tendu derrière  or RdJ derrière, they have to think about moving the working leg in towards the center line (by rotating the heel forward and adducting, of course, rather than just by unraveling the working hip, letting the knee point to the floor, and shoving the toes over), which creates the opportunity to feel the difference that it makes when that happens.

Working from fifth, new dancers often tend to let their legs turn in when they extend back (see above re: unraveling, etc.).

Likewise, they often finish an RdJ or point a tendu a little to the side when working from fifth with the working foot closed in back — possibly because early on that seems like the only logical way to get your foot out there.

Later, of course, we get better at pulling up through the pelvic floor and lower core (also known as “pulling up through the hips” :D) and placing our weight to keep the working foot free when it’s in back — but early on, really subtle core cues and weight shifts are anything but intuitive.

With a little hands-on guidance, the sensation of bringing the leg back to the center line through (for example) a rond, on the other hand, can become a powerful physical illustration.

I doubt my student, C, will soon forget what it felt like to “get it” any more than I’ve forgotten.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that she’ll be perfect all the time — but it does mean she’ll be more perfect a lot more of the time, because now she has a memory that connects body and brain through the awesome feeling of an “Ah-hah!” moment.

In other news, the class as a whole is coming on like a house on fire.

Today we worked piqué balances at retiré going across the floor, and so many of them were bang on. It’s really cool to see a group of new dancers experience the thrill of springing on to the supporting leg and being able to just hover there, perfectly balanced, then come down.

We gave them a simple combination: piqué balances at retiré along the diagonal, to the count of:

Brush up – stay – stay – stay – down up – stay – stay – stay – down up – stay – stay – stay 

(..etc. The number of piqué balances varied based both on the length of any individual dancer’s legs and how willing she was to really step out beyond herself.)

On the first run, we let them try it on their own. A few really nailed it, but several were shaky because, as is often the case, they felt unsure and tried to bring the supporting leg under themselves instead of launching themselves onto the supporting leg.

(Really, it’s kind of like throwing a BBQ skewer into the lawn — I’m not old enough to have experienced proper lawn darts, so I can’t say that’s exactly spot-on. Either way, that’s the image I should give them: your leg is a lance, and you’re spearing a reclining mammoth … or maybe something flatter, like a giant crocodile.)


What could possibly go wrong? (1)

On the second run, we simply rolled out the very-most-basic partnering, offering them a hand on which to steady themselves. Most of them literally put no weight on the hand in question, but knowing it was there made them feel safe, and the piqued more boldly.

So, lesson of the day for me: hesitant piqué balances might be the result of a little bit of fear. With new dancers, a little hand-holding (or, well, hand-offering) can really help.

(With more experienced dancers, though, yelling works just fine :D)

Anyway, that’s it for now. Sadly, I won’t be checking in with my students next week, as I’ll be off in the desert, doing tendus in the pool (and then building a freaking enormous theme camp at Burning Man).


Edit: fixed a thing. I don’t know why I was thinking these piqué balances were at coupé. They were at retiré. We’re planning on teaching these guys piqué turns sometime soon.

Further edit: just so you don’t think my Sunday class is really, really perfect, we still have to remind them about thinking of plié as a continuous movement. Today I explained this as:

Don’t drop and pop — melt and … um … smelt. Yeah, we’ll go with “smelt.”

Thank dog that Aerial A backed me up on that mnemonic 😀

Further, further edit: They have definitely turned into a dance class. Before class today, several them were attempting to figure out pirouettes (and kinda-sorta succeeding: they were upright, weren’t falling over, and were getting around, but they weren’t turned out or spotting).

Kinda warms my heart a little 😀


  1. By Mushy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2016/08/14, in balllet, class notes, teaching, work and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Nice! I love the lightbulb moments! I’m totally using “lancing a mammoth” as an image next time I teach piques. That’s great.
    We also worked on arabesques this week–reaching and rotating as we lifted our legs. My back and hips are sore from the class I taught!

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