Teaching Dance: Practical advice for getting the best out of your students
Teaching dance is one of the most fulfilling, worthwhile jobs you can do, but it is also one of the most demanding. Aside from the long, unconventional hours and the physical aspect of the job, it can be difficult to know how to approach your lessons to get the best out of your students, particularly when presented with a class of mixed abilities or ages. Ultimately, seeing your pupils reach their potential, grow and develop as dancers, and achieve their goals is the greatest reward, but how do you get to that point? We spoke with Jayne Coleman, principal of the award-winning Jayne A Coleman Academy of Dance in the UK, and student teacher Daisy Oldland, who is currently taking her RAD teaching qualifications. They offer some practical advice on getting the best out of your students.
1. Tailor your classes
When you are teaching dance, it is vital that you are aware of each student's needs. Never approach a class by just going through the motions. "You have to work individually, it’s tailor made to the child, because not everyone is blessed with great feet, or perfect turn out, or great lines," Jayne says. "You work to each child’s strengths; for example, if I have a student who is brand new, rather than make them feel like I'm constantly correcting them, I just let them find their feet for the first couple of weeks," she says. "I tend to focus on existing pupils and ensure that every one of them, regardless of whether they attend several classes or just one class, has my time within the class helping them to realise their potential." Daisy also believes tailoring your teaching to the individual needs of the students is crucial. "I think you have to cater for everyone," she says, "so if I was doing a training exercise for something, in preparation for a set exercise, I would say ensure that they execute it at their own ability, and assist them where necessary. I encourage students who have a little bit more strength and understanding of what is required of them to progress it," she explains. "With the students who don't have as much core strength or turnout ability, you would perhaps do exercises at the barre as opposed to in the centre, and slowly bring them into the centre, whereas the other students may start in the centre. So you have to work accordingly."
2. Pace your classes
Ensuring that your class is paced appropriately can make a huge difference to how the information you present is absorbed. "On the one hand, you’ve got to work slowly," Jayne says, "you’ve got to work technically, especially when you have a mixed ability class, working methodically to allow all levels to understand the requirements. But then, a slow pace can be boring," she says, "so then you’ve got to let the class go for a bit. You might choose a less technical exercise to teach next, to allow freedom of expression and to keep the pace of the class moving." This ebb and flow allows you to hone in on certain exercises to improve technique, without losing your students' interest. "I think it’s important overall to keep the class fairly fast-paced," Daisy agrees. "Not too fast that they can't keep up, but to hold their attention. If it’s a slow-paced class then it allows them to switch off," she says.
3. Use teaching tools
Make the most of the resources and teaching tools available to you. Lesson planning can be a helpful way to ensure you cover everything you need to, especially for less experienced teachers. Daisy uses the RAD framework and the progressions and analysis she has learnt through her teacher training as a basis for planning her lessons. "I think it really makes you think about the structure, so for example if I was going to do a pirouette exercise in the centre, I wouldn’t necessarily do the adage at the barre or a rond je jambs at the barre, I would do the progressions," she explains. "So I would do the battement tendu, the battement glissé, the battement frappé, the petit battement, because it’s progression for your centre work." This kind of framework gives you a chance to focus on technique and giving your students a rounded understanding of what is required of them. Once you become more experienced as a teacher, you will find that you won't necessarily require a lesson plan, as it will happen intuitively. Jayne also recommends using video as a teaching tool at times. "It's a brilliant tool for me," she says, "because a pupil can see their correction and is more accepting, immediately looking to correct and improve. It ups their game, because they can then see the improvement and feel positive about it."
4. Balance honest feedback with genuine praise
Whilst it is important to maintain a positive and encouraging environment for your students to learn in, giving honest, constructive feedback will give them the best chance of success. "You’ve got to be honest," Jayne says firmly, "so when you do say something is good, you mean it." Your students might experience frustration with areas that they find difficult, but approaching this in the right way will make a huge difference. "I find that my students are quite responsive to corrections," Daisy says, "because you explain everything in a way that they can see the benefits of it, as opposed to thinking of it as a negative. You approach it in a constructive way, 'this is really going to help you, let’s start it at the barre and then bring it into the centre,'" she says. "You turn it into a positive." It is also important to tell them when they need to improve, and why. "When they’re three years old, of course everything they do is great, and everything must be positive," Jayne says, "but there needs to be some realism at some point, 'no that wasn’t quite up to speed, you weren’t pointing your toes,'" she explains. "As long as you finish each lesson positively, I think they are so much better off working to their absolute best and getting that seal of approval by way of an exam result or simply by a teacher saying 'you were fabulous today'. Success, achievement, that's a life skill," she says, "it gives them self-belief, they move forward knowing that they have achieved. Yes it was hard work, but they see what they can achieve with hard work - that has got to be so good for their self-esteem."
5. Give them something to work towards
Whether it's a concert, exam, or watching week with their parents, giving your students something to aim for can be a great motivator. "One way that I get my pupils to achieve is to constantly give them something to work towards," Jayne says. "Exams are hard work and essential to progression, and they motivate a pupil to want more. The catalyst is when they pass their exam, they get their exam result and take it into school assembly." Not every pupil will necessarily do exams, but concerts or shows involving the entire school give everyone a chance to work towards a shared goal. "I think you’re always trying to get more out of them, and you encourage them as much as possible to dance to their full potential," Daisy says. Giving them an opportunity to perform for their family and friends gives your students a tangible reward for their hard work, and a space for their potential to be realised.
6. Teach from the heart
If you want to be a successful dance teacher, you have to care about what you do. "You’ve got to love it," says Jayne. "There's two sides to it, because if you want success from a financial perspective, you can have the most amazingly large school, but you may have to accept it might not be the best standard," she explains. "For me success is not about the money. Of course it has to pay the bills, but you’ve got to love what you do," she says. "If you want successful pupils and a high standard I don’t think you can think of it as that hourly teaching," she says. "I build a relationship with my pupils, so I always want to make sure I give them my time as needed, which at times can be seven days a week," she says. " You’ve got to teach from the heart and you have to go and do your homework, you have to come in to the studio and have the energy to deliver so your pupils give you the energy back. Success to me is based on reputation and producing a certain calibre of dancer," Jayne says. "This also brings in people through the door for the right reasons and I do feel I have a balance."
7. Believe in yourself
With the rise of social media, everyone has an opinion on everything, and it can be difficult to operate effectively when you feel scrutinised. "I think going back to when I started teaching, life was very different," Jayne says. "You didn't have social media and you weren't so much in a fishbowl, it wasn't so transparent. You still had to have self-belief back then," she says, "but it's a different ballgame now, and you can’t self-doubt. I also think the perception of different syllabi, or different dance organisations, is irrelevant. If you're a good teacher, you’re going to do a good job, no matter what syllabus you teach." Daisy agrees that self-confidence is important for any dance teacher. "You have to be a confident person," she says, "you have to be prepared for highs and lows, and you have to deal with some things that are difficult. I think you have to be strong if you want to succeed."
Jayne Coleman is Principal of the Jayne A Coleman Academy of Dance in Berkshire, England, a qualified RAD ballet teacher and ISTD modern & tap teacher up to Advanced 2 level. Jayne has toured and choreographed extensively in her own professional career, and has a wealth of experience in both performing and teaching dance. JACAD pupils are All England National Champions, Dance World Cup gold medallists, and regularly perform on TV and at high-profile events including the Dance Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Many graduates of JACAD have appeared in the West End and abroad in shows including Wicked, We Will Rock You, Cats and Mamma Mia, as well as working for dance companies such as Matthew Bourne's New Adventures, for theme parks including Disney and Universal Studios, and on cruise lines including P&O and Royal Caribbean. For more information about the Jayne A Coleman Academy of Dance, visit the website here.
Daisy Oldland is a student teacher currently undertaking her Royal Academy of Dance teaching qualifications with Jayne's guidance. Daisy has performed extensively across the UK and abroad, including with luxury cruise liners Cunard, and with celebrated dance troupe The Tiller Girls. Daisy was a pupil at JACAD before returning to undergo her teacher training with Jayne, and she says, "I have learnt so much from Jayne, so so much. It’s been so lovely to work with such an experienced teacher."
Interviews & Article by Emily Newton-Smith
Photographs by Emily Newton-Smith
Bio Photographs supplied