A student in ballet cannot learn the art in isolation and no one can know what great dancing is without seeing examples of it. Not only can the dancer not be separated from the dance, she also cannot be separated from the history of dancing, from the line of dancers and teachers leading to her.
This is a quote taken from an article written in Dance Magazine in 1995 regarding the film The Dancer. This sentiment holds true not just for ballet students, but for dancers in general. So, in honor of National Dance Week, I wanted to offer ways in which teachers of dance can include dance history in their everyday classes.
I know how hard it is sometimes to fit it all in. As a dance instructor I often find myself pressed for time when including just the technical principles of dance in my classes, let alone guidance in music, vocabulary, and other areas vital to performance and execution.
However, having experienced the degree to which understanding the evolution of dance has enhanced and improved my own performance and desire to achieve proficiency within my classes, I know that it is important to draw attention to this “line of dancers” (past and present) whenever possible.
Below are some ideas for how to incorporate a little history into your classes. These are taken from an August 2000 Dance Teacher Magazine article on teaching history in jazz class:
- Connect the movements you teach to dance history.
- Bring in master teachers of unfamiliar combinations or styles.
- Use visuals – posters, artwork, videos.
- Host special events that encourage an interest in dance history.
The article goes into detail specific to jazz dance, but these small actions can easily be applied to any dance style.
Connecting dance movements to history can be as simple as tossing out facts during class that get the students thinking about the origins of what they are doing.
For example, as you correct your student’s turnout, mention why dancers stand with their legs turned out and the origins of ballet as it made it’s way from the royal court to the proscenium stage. Better yet, encourage their critical thinking skills by asking if they know or can guess why dancers use turnout.
Or, when working on fouette turns, explain that Pierina Legnani was the first to perform 32 consecutive fouettes en tournant.
The students may not remember everything you tell them, but you may be surprised at how much of these tidbits they do retain.
Master teachers can be hard to come by in small towns, but re-creating famous or historical works from video can be fun and exciting for student dancers.
One summer at my hometown studio, we focused on the work of Alvin Ailey in a workshop. The dancers learned portions of Ailey’s Revelations (skirts, fans, and all) from video. Although we did not benefit from a master’s instruction, I recall a sense of excitement, accomplishment, and commitment to the choreography as the dancers re-created this landmark work.
Working to execute professional-level choreography may encourage your students to perform with as much accuracy and dedication as the pros.
Consider the artwork you display at your dance school. I’ve noted that many studios throughout my teaching career have displayed only a) cute teddy bears and bunnies in tutus, b) the awards and trophies of their own dancers, or c) pictures of the studio owner in all his/her glory.
I think it is important to recognize the hard work of the dancers and show the experience and accomplishments of the teachers (I’m not sure I can find a way to justify the bunnies… ). But to instill in your dancers a sense of the scope, importance, and history of movement arts, I encourage you to look for visual representations (like this poster art) (or this poster art) that will inspire them to look beyond the little bubble of their own studio.
If you teach children, it’s ok to show children dancing (including pictures of your own students) on your walls but give them something to aspire to, as well.
Hosting an event can be as simple as movie viewing parties at the studio or as elaborate as taking a field trip to a nearby city for a dance performance.
Some of the most eye-opening experiences of my life as a young dancer included traveling away from my hometown with my classmates to view dance and musical theatre productions, attend conventions/conferences, and visit art museums.
Opportunities like this allow a student to understand dance art in a wider context and will inspire them to reach higher in their classes.
If you need to brush up on your own knowledge of dance history, the following texts may be helpful:
- Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History
- Jazz Dance: The Story Of American Vernacular Dance
- Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing
- Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution
- Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader
If you are a student and want to find ways of expanding your knowledge of dance history (it really does improve your dancing), try these tips.
- Use school projects like book reports, oral presentations, and writing exercises as opportunities to research and discover dance history.
- Join websites and blogs that offer historical dance facts and resources.
- Make it a point to see other dancers perform whenever possible – when your family vacations check out dance in the area or even take classes and rent dance videos (don’t forget your local public or college library may have videos available).
- Read biographies of dance artists, texts about dance throughout time, and profiles of famous dance works.