Blurred Lines: New Trends in Dance Training

In the national dialogue about education reform, the latest trend seems to be emphasizing the skills that lead to creativity and innovation as the best way to prepare students for their future.

I hold that the same is true for dance education.

In looking at the work of current choreographers, it is harder and harder to classify dance neatly into genres. The cross-training that fueled technical development in recent decades has produced artists that are blurring lines organically.

So where are we, as a field, headed? It is anyone’s guess. So maybe our training practices in this decade need a new approach, too.

Cedar Lake Contemporay Ballet by Listen MissyRethinking Tradition

It used to be that if you were a ballet dancer, your training was predominantly in ballet. Same for jazz, same for modern.

Then, it was important to include other training in your repertoire but maintaining them as separate skills to be called on mostly if a choreographer required you to do so.

Now, we are fusing styles, ideologies, cultures, and genres so seamlessly that it can be difficult to know where one ends and where another begins.

Technique vs. Ballet

In my own classes, I have started talking about technique in broader terms and dropping labels such as “ballet”, “jazz”, and “modern” dance until we are specifically talking about stylizing movement or comparing approaches to common elements.

Those things usually occur later in the curriculum (middle school and high school) because the nature of the conversations are quite complex and rooted in movement analysis, not the imitation of lines.

Due to our conversations of Space, Time, and Energy and relating sub-distinctions, in grades K-5, students understand the differences on a deeper level rather than basic recognition. Their dancing is clearer and their expression of the differences in styles of dance are more articulate.

Understanding the nuts and bolts of movement is much more important for developing creativity than recreating the physical pictures of dance.

Conquering ballet-resistant attitudes

In my current position, there is a percentage of families- parents AND students- that are reluctant to study “ballet”. I have taken this re-occurring conversation as a prompt to retool our thinking about dance training and perceptions of dance for students and families.

When using the movement within a non-ballet class, is it still ballet?

This conversation deepens the critical thinking of dance students but also expands the tolerance of families more comfortable with their students studying other styles of dance.

I explain that…

  • This movement exists in many of the styles we will be studying and should be considered technique- an opportunity to discipline the body.
  • The purpose of the movement is not to turn their student into a ballet dancer.
  • Often this movement isn’t offered within a balletic context.

Furthermore, “ballet” is used to serve as a contrast of approaches to movement through movement analysis, just as would be done within various sports disciplines for athletes.

Other metaphors for technical training: grammar in the creative use of language, or the vitamins found in various types of foods.

(See Nichelle’s break-down in terms of letters in the development of words and writing.)

The Outcomes

With this approach, we are able to broaden the conversation- and analysis- more richly.

When watching iconic works of choreography, we are better able to search for how the movement defies gravity or utilizes gravity rather than looking for overly simplified examples of “ballet” or “modern”.

When it comes to creating their own choreography, students have more tools from which to draw. Their compositions reach beyond a regurgitation of steps. They more effectively take risks by rethinking traditions.

Instead, they may consider, “What constitutes an arabesque and can it be done with a different part of the body?” They can also answer why or why not that would be acceptable within a balletic context, or any other.

This also leads to conversations about where this arabesque line may appear in other disciplines- intersecting lines, angles, arguments, physics, leverage, surface area (pique arabesque).

Dancers know more than just dance. As educators, we must empower our students in sharing their understandings derived through dance experiences.

Let’s make this the new trend in dance education and pave the way for creative, innovative thinkers.

Read more:

Have your training methods changed to better equip dancers for their futures?

Tell us what you think about re-thinking tradition!

Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard


  1. The ballet conversation is so fascinating to me! The idea of “ballet” is, indeed, a turn-off to lots of people, but I see it like this: if ballet is a tomato, and “technique” is pizza sauce, it’s still got tomatoes. Instead of hiding the fact that it’s ballet, I say deliver the material and then say “oh, yeah, and guess what? this this that just happened…. it is/came from ballet!”

  2. Excellent point, Lauren. I agree with you for most class settings. Some settings, though, (i am thinking of my own teaching situation: K-8 in an urban district) have students reluctant to trust for deep personal reasons and with limited dance time making it difficult to establish meaningful relationships, (30 min per week) it could result in jeopardizing the trust you have established. And truthfully there students averse to modern, or their perception of modern as well. The negotiation of labels is a dance in and of itself.

  3. This article is AWESOME! It’s like we went to the same school. This is the Exact approach I take with all my classes when I’m teaching technique or composition. Acknowledging the source of material, ideas, theory and then introducing the freedom and ability to use it in new ways, ways that suit the individual the more they understand the rules, breaking the rules, that there can be no rules and not putting demands that everything has to attach to codified static notions of what is ballet, modern, etc. Great job, I have hope again for dance and dance education in particular.
    Peter Kalivas, Director The PGK Dance Project San Diego, CA.

  4. Heather Vaughan-Southard says:

    Peter, thank you for your passionate response! I, too, always find it a relief when I find like-minds and inspired guides within dance education. In checking out your website, it appears you are a great advocate for the breadth dance offers through your organization and in providing opportunities to people interested in many aspects of dance. Bravo! Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Rachel Avery says:

    Finally!!! Children do not always have the opportunity to study classical ballet and it is not always the best fit for the individual. I am tough enough as an adult to go into class, however in my youth I was terrified of the ballet teachers and making mistakes. I felt trapped at the barre and what appeared to feel like stiff movements. Now, I find with my students Folk dances are a great way to build strength and stamina as well as developing the elements of dance within the dancer. Although we can never replace the benefits of classical ballet training, those who are not ballerinas should not feel the lesser dancer.

    • Heather Vaughan-Southard says:

      “Children do not always have the opportunity to study classical ballet and it is not always the best fit for the individual.” Well said, Rachel. “One size fits all” education rarely services everyone- in dance education, too. Thanks for reading and replying!