The Art of Teaching Dance — Part 2

This is the sec­ond part of my inter­view with Laura Don­nelly, Alexan­der teacher and  pro­fes­sor of dance at Kansas State Uni­ver­sity.  If you missed part one, check it out here.

Nowa­days, bal­let seems to be at the core of all dance train­ing.  What do you see as the rela­tion­ship of bal­let train­ing to dance in general?

Right now a lot of dance train­ing empha­sizes tech­ni­cal facil­ity above every­thing else.  I think that the thing that’s unique about dance is that, while it’s highly ath­letic, it is a form of visual art and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the artistry and the con­tent are of equal impor­tance – at least equal — to the tech­ni­cal facility.

Dancers and dance stu­dents get really focused on the end goal.  Alexan­der said you have to look out for “end-gaining” – the belief that the end goal is worth any cost.  We know, as we get older, that that’s not true.  But the chal­lenge is to con­vince a stu­dent that it’s bet­ter to slowly develop your exten­sion than to tie a rope around your leg and pull your leg up over your head.  That’s not the way to achieve the goal you want.

Here’s where the psy­chol­ogy part comes in.  It requires under­stand­ing the psy­chol­ogy of the stu­dent – the panic to achieve every­thing that day – “I don’t have much time,” “I have to do this,” “I have to pre­pare for this con­cert,” “I have to win this medal or get this audition.”

You have to get them to let go of those thoughts so they can be in the moment danc­ing.  Then they have a chance to touch what really is the most awe­some thing about dance which is this total joy of move­ment in the moment.  And because every­body has a body, the lan­guage that you use is universal.


Group of Children Happily Jumping with Abandon

Total Joy of Move­ment in the Moment








Can you say more about your par­tic­u­lar approach to musi­cal­ity and dance training?

I think that even when peo­ple dance in silence there’s an inner rhythm to the move­ment which gives musi­cal­ity to the dance.  I per­son­ally love music and that’s one of the rea­sons I love to dance.  Because I can’t sing, danc­ing is the way I can be in the music the way a singer is in the music when they make sounds.

How do you teach that?

That’s part of the artistry. Peo­ple have dif­fer­ent lev­els of being gifted in under­stand­ing music.  But a lot of dancers think that it’s only about the counts.

You need to take time in bal­let class to incor­po­rate some of the old exer­cises – such as stand­ing port de bras where all you do is lis­ten to the music and move your arms.  Then you’re not so busy wor­ry­ing about your whole body, you have that moment to express the sound of the music with your arms.

Roni Mahler, who was one of my men­tors, includes this in a lot of the exer­cises at the barre begin­ning with the pliés.  She would just add in a beau­ti­ful port de bras at the end.  And that would teach peo­ple to fol­low the per­son who was at the front of the barre. That stu­dent would stand there every day and they would lead this almost impro­vised port de bras.  It teaches obser­va­tion and mov­ing together as a group and it allows each per­son within the highly struc­tured form of bal­let to bring their indi­vid­ual expres­sion start­ing from the very first exercise.

That’s an exam­ple of the oral-physical tra­di­tion of dance – what I learned from her and how I expe­ri­enced that in my body and how I pass it on to the bod­ies that I teach.

What do you see as the most com­mon or sig­nif­i­cant align­ment flaw in dance?

I’ve been think­ing about this — this is interesting.

What I most often see in dancers is a sway back ten­dency.  When I first started teach­ing, to make a cor­rec­tion for that, to get the hip bones to face straight front instead of tilt­ing down, I would tell them to imag­ine that they had head­lights on their hip bones and they didn’t want to light the floor — they wanted to light straight in front of them.

But if the lower back is really tight, short­ened, and the front of the back is not strong, then they end up cre­at­ing more ten­sion when they try to phys­i­cally manip­u­late the pelvis that way.

So going for­ward in incor­po­rat­ing the Alexan­der tech­nique to my teach­ing, the the­ory is that the begin­ning of the prob­lem comes from the head and neck rela­tion­ship and if that is off it will trickle down the whole spine.

Now I might say that the most com­mon align­ment flaw for dancers is a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the spine.  The spine is all con­nected.  The idea that they could put their ribs in the right place and not think about their hips, or that they could move their hips and not under­stand the whole rest of their spine includ­ing the rela­tion­ship between their head and their neck – I think that’s the essence of the flaw.

You see it dif­fer­ent ways – peo­ple tuck under or they over-curve their lower back or they stick their ribs out or they pull their shoul­der blades too much together.  They do pieces and parts — almost always in an effort to fol­low a cor­rec­tion they got from a teacher.

Dancers try so hard.  If you tell them to push the pelvis in class they tuck under because they push it and keep push­ing it instead of just under­stand­ing.  Actu­ally there’s not a “posi­tion” for the pelvis because when you’re danc­ing you have to be mov­ing all the time. You want it fairly nicely aligned in a neu­tral posi­tion most of the time but you don’t want it held in any posi­tion because then it’s not ready to do what it needs to do when you’re moving.

What’s a way of think­ing about breath­ing in ballet?

Hold­ing your breath is just the worst.   I stud­ied bal­let and mod­ern simul­ta­ne­ously, and I stud­ied a lot of Limon in the begin­ning.  Limon is all about breath and the move­ment being inspired by the breath and the move­ment rid­ing on your breath.  Say on a large leg swing, the exhale is the down­ward push and the leg goes up and the sus­pen­sion is an inhala­tion on the top.

I just took that back to my bal­let classes.  I tried so hard, I was one of these peo­ple who try to get every­thing per­fect, so I try to ease up on the per­fect thing when I’m teach­ing and instead encour­age pos­i­tive change in the right direc­tion but ease up on the per­fect thing.

Take Kobe Bryant, for exam­ple.  He prac­tices intensely but he had such a nat­ural facil­ity for bas­ket­ball there were a lot of things he never ever had to think about in order to do them right.  They just came nat­u­rally to him.

For dancers I try to get them to do a lot of breath­ing like they do in mod­ern dance class.  On grand bat­te­ments I have them make sounds on their bat­te­ment out.  They look at me like I’m crazy but I tell them this will make their dance bet­ter and it won’t be as great if they don’t do it, if I can’t hear them.

What’s an exam­ple of a frus­trat­ing teach­ing expe­ri­ence you’ve had?  

What frus­trates me the most is when peo­ple have an attach­ment to some­thing that they think they’re doing really well.  Leg exten­sion is one of them.  They’ve decided that hav­ing their leg a cer­tain height is worth any cost – shift­ing their pelvis, tuck­ing under, what­ever — as long as their leg goes high, they’re successful.

From my point of view, if the line is wrong, because anatom­i­cally they’re not using their body cor­rectly, I don’t care how high their leg is, they’re wrong.  To get them to back off of their goal, lower their leg and work cor­rectly and take the time to let the exten­sion go back up in the cor­rect align­ment, that requires that the stu­dent really trust you and believe that you have their best goal in mind.

It’s tricky.  Dancers are stub­born – if they weren’t stub­born they wouldn’t get where they get.

A lot of times to work on that I bring in a skele­ton into the class­room so they can see what’s inside their body and why it’s impor­tant that they not do this wrong.  They’re young and they’re strong and it doesn’t hurt now but repeated use like this is going to make a long term repet­i­tive injury.

Also I some­times pick another dancer and make them do the same cor­rec­tion so the one stu­dent doesn’t feel picked on.

A big issue in bal­let is that what they think they’re doing is not pro­duc­ing the results they think they’re pro­duc­ing.  For instance, some­times some­body is stand­ing up straight and they have their chin stick­ing out.  They think they’re stand­ing up tall but what they’re doing is they’re really pulling their head back and down.

Some­times if they see this on another per­son then they can see that they’re doing it too.  I often try to get them to work together as part­ners.  If they try to help the other per­son, then they’re not attached to the out­come — they’re try­ing to help that other per­son.  In describ­ing the exer­cise they say things to the other per­son that I was say­ing to them, but now they under­stand it.

How do you teach some­one to point his or her foot?

If you’re not bal­anced cor­rectly on your foot, then every­thing is going to go off all the way up because your whole body is con­nected.  If your foot is tense the rest of your body is going to be tense.

To teach tendu from the begin­ning, first you teach them sit­ting down so that they can iso­late the foot with no weight on it.  You start with a flexed foot, then you extend the ankle and the toes spread out, then reach the toes, then pull the toes back and then the ankle.

A lot of times I have peo­ple face each other so their feet make a draw­bridge.  In addi­tion, if they’re apart from each other, then their toes try to reach each other to make the bridge instead of curl­ing under.

In stand­ing up, as in tendu, I always empha­size feel­ing the floor – and again this is another thing from mod­ern dance that I took into my bal­let class because it made so much sense to my body to feel the floor all the way through the exten­sion.  The point was not the goal – it was the move­ment into the exten­sion and the move­ment out of the extension.

Point­ing the foot is not a posi­tion.  Some­times when peo­ple point all their energy curls under and it actu­ally short­ens the line of the leg.  So I teach point­ing as a move­ment not a position.

As you move through the class to the degagé and speed up every­thing it’s not always pos­si­ble to go slowly enough to really manip­u­late the foot artic­u­la­tions but I try to remind them that even in rend de jambe that you’re brush­ing to the front before you carry the leg to the side or back and back into first – you’re still going through the ball of the foot.  This is again musi­cal­ity you can put it into the music and give the brush a whole count.

It’s slower, but as you speed up it’s “Do you remem­ber how you did that in the tendu?”  It’s all the same action even though you’re going faster.

This pre­pares you to jump and to land from your jump because if you don’t go through your foot when you land you’re not going to get to your plié and you’re going to bite your tongue.  Or jar your mar­bles.  You’re not going to decel­er­ate correctly.

The feet are the foun­da­tion so if you don’t work the feet cor­rectly every­thing else isn’t going to work well on top of that.  I think peo­ple some­times think of the foot as the last thing – for some rea­son.  But in com­ing off the ground the foot is the first thing.  Actu­ally, I mean the stom­ach mus­cles are prob­a­bly the first thing.

Laura Don­nelly, MFA, BA is a chore­o­g­ra­pher, teacher, and dancer who also writes and cre­ates com­mu­nity based pub­lic art projects involv­ing visual and word art.

Don­nelly, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Dance at Kansas State Uni­ver­sity, teaches all lev­els of bal­let and pointe, Alexan­der Tech­nique, com­po­si­tion, and expe­ri­en­tial anatomy. Her research inter­ests include ped­a­gogy, oral tra­di­tion in dance, col­lab­o­ra­tive process, music for dance, and the Alexan­der Tech­nique. Her research has been pre­sented at the Con­gress on Research in Dance, the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­a­tion of Dance Sci­ence and Med­i­cine, the National Dance Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, the Hawaii Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Arts & Human­i­ties, the 5th Annual Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Civic Edu­ca­tion, and the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Men­tor­ing Con­fer­ence. Donnelly’s essay Med­i­ta­tion in the Dance Stu­dio is pub­lished in Teach­ing with Joy: Edu­ca­tional Prac­tices for the Twenty-First Cen­tury, Row­man & Lit­tle­field Publishers.


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