Dance talk: The pros and cons of having different teachers.
When I was fifteen, and had been dedicating every waking moment to dance for long enough that my parents began to realise my ambitions of a career in ballet weren’t just childhood fantasies of tutus and tiaras (although, a tiara wouldn’t hurt..) and that one way or another I was determined to succeed beyond the limitations of my little country town dance school and get myself into a prestigious full-time ballet school in the city where I could hopefully forge my way into the dance industry and (pointe shoes crossed) a successful career. And after my dad had recovered from the disappointment that I wasn’t going to end up chasing sheep, and driving the family tractor around the farm like a (comical) protegé for him to mentor, and mum had accepted with thinly-veiled dismay that I would not be discovering the cure for cancer or a new, exotic species of animal (as my eager-to-please six year old self may have intimated on several occasions) then it became clear that in order to continue advancing my technique and skills I needed to be doing more dance classes.
I was already taking every available class with my current dance teacher, and helping teach several classes a week as well, so we decided it was time to try and find another teacher to give me the extra tuition I was looking for. Luckily, by some miraculous turn of events my mother literally bumped into a woman who was not only a highly regarded ballet teacher, she was from South Africa, had owned her own dance school, judged RAD classical exams for years and was notoriously strict. I began taking private lessons with her twice a week, on top of the 5 nights I spent at my original studio. These lessons were amazing, and my new teacher not only challenged me, she picked apart every aspect of my technique and put me back together again stronger and more determined than ever.
It wasn’t long though before I realised that as much as these private classes were helping, there were also some disadvantages. For one thing, the fact that I was taking classes with another dance teacher made me even more conspicuous to the other students of my dance school, where I was already the odd 'bun' out in a sea of ponytails and t-shirts (the dress code at our school was very casual, and most of the students saw the classes as a bit of fun and somewhere to socialise with friends, whilst my approach was a little more serious), and I couldn’t help feeling a little excluded because of this (though this could have been just in my head, it still affected me). And before long I began to notice the many differences in the way my two teachers taught, and soon started to feel somewhat uncertain about what was the ‘right’ way. All this time I had never questioned the methods of my first teacher, but now that I had another one who I respected equally, yet who had different opinions on proper technique I became unsure, and this dilemma began to affect my confidence when dancing (‘In piqué turns is the passé foot held derriere, or at the side of the supporting knee like my other teacher said…), I’d go to do an exercise that once came naturally to me, and then remember that one of my teachers had told me I was doing a particular thing incorrectly, whilst the other one was happy with it. Then I’d panic, and stuff up.
Unfortunately, rather than being clever about it and talking to my teachers I decided to adapt my technique for each class, I respected them both so much, that younger me thought questioning their methods in any way would be unthinkably rude, instead of realising that a discussion about technique would not only be welcome, but most likely encouraged by any dance teacher.
After all, their job is to teach you ballet (or jazz, or tap, or contemporary, or anything) technique, and dance teachers love dance every bit as much as their students do (and if they don’t then it’s time to find a new teacher!). Foolishly though, I took the hard route, and ‘adapted’ for several years, before auditioning, and moving on to a full-time school in the city (just like I'd always wanted to) where I was lucky enough to be taught by not one but six incredible teachers who taught me why it is so important not just to have correct technique, but to understand what makes it correct, and the technical variations between different styles of teaching. My confidence as a dancer had definitely suffered a little (due to my own not speaking up) and this was something that I had to work harder to un-do and eventually overcame, but for the sake of every other dancer out there who has or is thinking about taking lessons with more than the one teacher for each style of dance, don’t do things the hard way, make sure you keep these rules in mind to ensure you’re getting the absolute most out of ALL your classes:
1. Make sure that both/all teachers are aware of the areas that need work...
One of my classical teacher's noticed that I wasn't holding my relevé position firmly enough during double/triple pirouettes (i.e. I wasn't retaining the locked position, instead my foot would drift fractionally downwards - tut tut!), so I made sure to let my other teacher know so that she could pull me up on it as well, if I ever forgot. That way everything was in tune, I was walking into both classes with the same check-list securely in my mind. It's no good if you're putting all your energy into 'fixing your arms', 'faster spotting' and 'tighter fifths!' every class for one teacher and then throwing that out the window because you've got to be all about 'higher relevés!', 'tighter core muscles' and 'deeper plies!' for the other. This is unbalanced and confusing, the body and thought process of a dancer should be in harmony when you're dancing in class, otherwise the added pressure and adrenaline as well as the addition of choreography to remember during performance time will more than likely overload your brain and negatively impact on your performance. Dance is supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful.
2. If there is an issue with what you are being told...
- for example if Teacher 1's instructions conflict with Teacher 2's instructions for a particular exercise or step - let them know. Seriously now, you might think 'Oh, so what if I have to aim for flat turnout with Teacher 1, and Teacher 2 insists that I don't ever go past 120 Degrees, I can just swap for each class...' This may be true, but the reasoning behind any dance teacher's instruction **should** be well thought out, and designed with the prerogative of giving you the best possible technique, whilst looking out for your welfare. Therefore if you went and talked to Teacher 2 she might tell you that her aim in limiting your turnout is to first strengthen your ankles and loosen your hip sockets as she has noticed your tendency to roll in when you go past this range. It's easy enough to then explain this to Teacher 1 and ask her opinion, she might just tell you that when she barks 'That's not flat turnout!' what she's wanting is for you to be constantly aiming and pushing for flatter turnout, rather than just sitting in you comfort zone, and that she expects you to actively resist rolling.
Now you know the logic behind what your teachers are doing, and with an open discussion an agreement can be reached, either through mutual compromise or sometimes through one graciously agreeing with the logic of the other. However, if your teachers don't want to compromise then either way, you now have enough insight to make up your own decision about which method is safer and more effective. It is still important to be respectful of your teachers. They are trained experts, and there to guide you for a reason, but if outside of Teacher 1's class you think that you would rather adopt Teacher 2's approach whenever you're dancing, then you now have the power to decide for yourself.
3. Remember, it's about you...
Yes, it's great to be pals with the other students, and even better if you have a great relationship with your teacher, but ultimately you're here for you. Whatever your goals, whether you're dancing just as a fun way to stay fit and healthy, you simply enjoy the discipline and challenge of mastering an art form, you just LOVE dancing plain and simple, or perhaps you're ready to go all the way to the top and make a living from your passion. Whichever the case, you're doing this for yourself and it's important you make your own goals the priority. If you don't feel like you can talk to your teacher about what you want out of your classes, if he/she doesn't respect your decision and understand that you could benefit from classes with another teacher then perhaps it's time to find a different school. Also keep in mind that in the dance world people can unfortunately be unnecessarily bitchy (it's what happens in any highly competitive and challenging environment). It's natural that there might be a little resentment from some of your classmates when they find out you're going to 'some other teacher' for classes. Most of us feel some kind of loyalty to our beloved schools, but a teacher should always have their students best interests at heart, and new experiences and the challenge of taking a new class and learning from a different teacher is all a part of helping you to grow as a dancer and performer, so trying new things isn't a betrayal to your school and it's important you realise that. In all likelihood some of the students will also be a little envious of you (in a sense you're getting double the skill set, and that might make them feel a little threatened), but just keep being your happy, positive self, focus on the dancing and they'll eventually get over it ...after all they're here for themselves too, and dance is a lot less fun if you spend all your time being jealous of another student.
So what are the Pros?
Well, aside from being a fun way to challenge yourself and mix things up...
- It makes you more observant; 'Coup de Pied you say? Well I wonder if he means Vaganova Coup de Pied or Cecchetti Coup de Pied? Better check....' And just like that, you're doing an audition and after demonstrating as he calls out the instructions, the choreographer turns around to find you're the only one who noticed he meant Coup de Pied Derriere, not a Cecchetti Coup de Pied... BAM - you just got hired.
- You get a better idea of why, not just what. Like in the example above, finding points of difference between your teachers' teaching methods makes you aware of the different technique that can be applied, and the specific benefits of these differences. Vagonova (Russian) relevés, require you to 'pop' up onto pointe, where as Cecchetti (Italian) ones roll up to the relevé through the demi pointe. The Vaganova method requires more strength and puts more emphasis on preparation (tick!) but puts much greater strain on the ankle and could cause a weaker dancer to injure or sprain themselves (not-so good...), however the Cecchetti method requires more control, as you rise gradually and there's much less chance of strain/injury (tick!), but it also won't build your strength as effectively as Vaganova, and leaves more room for lazy 'demi relevés' (You know when you're not 100% pulled up on your pointe? Yeah, not good.). So now you are much more aware of your body and what you need to be doing in order to demonstrate proper technique, and you're also able to analyse your own weaknesses better.
- You get more feedback - you're probably thinking 'well duh! ...double the teachers obviously means double the feedback, sheesh!' which is fair enough, but hold on because what I really mean is that it offers more thorough feedback. Yes, you could just double your lessons with your good old trusty teacher and hear 'Shoulders downnnn Elly!!! (**except with your name and not mine. That'd be weird...) seven more times a week than usual. Great, you're really going to be super on top of those shoulders now ('Shoulders, what shoulders Sir?') BUT! If you decided to make the effort and find another teacher, then I can guarantee that they WILL pick up on things that your first teacher has missed, because no-one's perfect. Teacher A might notice your shoulders, and Teacher B might have missed them creeping up towards your ears all day but only because she just noticed that you sickle your left foot every time you developé derriere and she's busy busting you for it. Now when you head back to class A you've got something new to focus on. Maybe Teacher B even also noticed that the reason your shoulders rise is because you're taking the strain from all your allegro out on your neck, shoulders and upper torso, instead of channeling it out through your legs during preparation and 'take-off'. Voila, problem solved!
Multiple teachers isn't for everyone...
Some dancers only want to work with the one teacher that they trust and respect, and feel stressed and uncomfortable if they have to juggle two or more studios or classes.
They don't see the benefit in getting taught from someone with a different style or method, and if that's you then that's fine, after all you know better than anyone what works best for your body. I will say though, that in the highly competitive dance industry it's virtually unheard of for a dancer to only ever work with the one Director, or the one Choreographer.
The reality is much more likely to be that you work with somewhere between a minimum of three Directors, fifteen choreographers and twenty or so 'teachers' taking class during your career, and that's just if you stay with the one company for the whole duration... if you're moving from job to job, and taking up different contracts each year then it's much more likely to be hundreds of directors and choreographers, all with their own methods and wishes, and their own style of 'instruction'. Some will be very polite and open to hearing your opinions and ideas and may even actively seek your input, and others will undoubtedly be very strong-minded and unwilling to accept any compromise or deviation from their directions. It's in these situations that having experience working with different personalities and teaching methods can give you an advantage over other dancers. You will adapt faster, because you're used to responding to different instruction and you're not 'stuck in your ways' which can be a huge asset when it comes to standing out in an audition; you will be the one jumping into action at an unexpected demand whilst your peers blink in surprise whilst thinking 'But my teacher never did it like that...'. You're more likely to have an awareness of the difference between Cecchetti, RAD, Vaganova, and Balanchine methods for example, and whilst your single-teacher friend might absolutely own her flowing, seamless (Cecchetti-based) Port de Bras, she suddenly loses all confidence and becomes awkward and uncertain when she's asked to 'Do it without the frills' by an impatient Vaganova-loving choreographer. You on the other hand are a master of all trades. And it's generally held that a well-trained dancer should be able to do any kind of port de bras.
So now you're aware of the drawbacks and the advantages of having more than one teacher when it comes to dance, and what to do about the issues that can arise. Hopefully you can apply this knowledge and use it to help you make the right decision for yourself (or your child) so that you're getting the most out of your own dancing that you possibly can. And I'll only say it this one more time (promise!) at the end of the day, the most important thing of ALL is that you're enjoying yourself, the rest comes second (or more accurately 'A la seconde' ... ;) hehe.).
So that's all for now guys, stay happy, keep dancing, and until next time...
Bye for now! :)
Article by Elly Ford