Monday, July 2, 2012

A Jazz Dance Teacher in Ballet Country

I’ve loved students at many different types of studios, but I particularly adore being the jazz or modern teacher at a ballet school.  

Bringing a new vocabulary to classically trained students is extremely rewarding for me.  Seeing them find a sense of groundedness, sassiness, play, sharp accents, fluidity, speed and even sensuality in their approach to movement is especially satisfying to me as a teacher.

Some students understand these qualities already, either innately, or from prior training.  They learn the combination, they hear the music, and boom! We're speaking the same language.   

Others ain’t buyin' what I'm sellin’.  They see me, a petite, athletic, African-American dancer, with her locs in a bun or ponytail, with obvious ballet training, but not a ballerina, asking them to do these "MOVES," and they want to run screaming into the street.

Usually, I can win these students over reasonably quickly, with a cool combination strongly grounded in balletic line and steps, but with clear contemporary influences.  Within a few classes, they have a breakthrough - moving bigger, more freely and with greater attack.  They realize that this is not just random stuff, but it has a method, that it’s challenging and it's fun, for flips sake!  

But every now and then, there are the kids who are so insecure and uncomfortable that they go out of their way to be disrespectful.

So went last Friday.  

I have the fortune to teach in the summer program of one of the largest and most prestigious dance schools in Chicago.  The directors are definitely old world, and, I have to admit, I'm still a little intimidated by them.  When, on Wednesday, the director said she wanted to meet with me, I wanted to throw up. Had I done something wrong?  Had someone complained? (These days if you look at a student the wrong way, parents are screaming for your head on a plate.) 

When we finally caught up with each other on Friday, it turned out to be a routine new teacher check-in.  I discussed how I was enjoying the students, and how, in the class I had seen four times, I was seeing students have some "a-ha" moments. I mentioned that I was having some issues with talking.  In turn, I was advised to explain why jazz is important, and to review my expectations in terms of etiquette. 

It was a good meeting. Even with the daunting task of setting a piece in six hour-long classes, I felt confident about things.

My first class of ten year olds went great.  But in the second class, I might as well have been filming It's The Students Teasing Their Teacher Hour!

A few girls began to whisper and talk during warm-up.  I wanted to ignore them, but parenting, while it has given me more empathy, has definitely shortened my patience, especially concerning kids who should know better.

I stopped the music, and stared down the offenders in the back row. Without mentioning names, I said, "When you are ready to work, let me know."

They smirked back at me.  

We continued warm up and began rehearsal.  Several times, I had to ask for quiet, and issue reminders to ask me, not classmates, questions about steps.  Sam* pushed Nicole as he walked past, and then Erin tripped Sam.  "Are you in third grade?" I asked.  "I have two little children at home. I will not deal with this here."

I tried heaping praise on those who were working hard, and ignoring the smirkers, who began deliberately mocking and bastardizing the choreography.  If I hadn't been a new teacher, I would have lost it on them.

But I was, and I had a piece to finish --my first showing--and that would have been self-destructive.

Class ended with each student coming up to thank me.  

I had to get the upper hand.  I called out the offenders to stay after for a chat.  

"We are on a bad path, so let's agree to start over.” I told them. “What happens is you do something rude, and I respond, and then you become even more attitudinal."

Two girls looked sheepish.  One looked angry, and one nodded, "This jazz is so different from what we've had."

"It is always going to be different! Ballet classes are different. I know it's been a hard week, but you have potential, and you are here to learn.  You cannot dance in an American company these days without some understanding of what I'm doing here.  You need jazz, modern, gymnastics, hip-hop even to dance in the U.S. these days.  Who knows, you may want to be in a contemporary company like Ailey or Hubbard Street one day."

I hated lecturing, but I had no choice.

"Next week you will stand in the front," I continued.  "You will not talk.  You will take class respectfully.  You will ask questions of me, not your peers.  Understood?"  

I shook their hands and said good-bye. Two seemed on board. Two seemed skeptical.

What pained me the most was that the two skeptics were the two African-American girls in the class.  Girls who see themselves as on the track to be African-American ballet dancers - a quest I support fully.  What a shame, however, to have written me off for all the wrong reasons.  

So any teachers with any advice?  Any dancers/artists with stories to share?  

*All students' names have been changed.  


  1. Erika Levine-IrigoyenJuly 3, 2012 at 4:52 AM

    I think you handled it beautifully. It was perfect to talk to them at the end. You took away their power when they weren't in front of an audience. You were respectful to them even though they weren't to you and you told them what behaviors were expected of them next time. But it was interesting to note the uncovered reason of their obnoxiousness. Kids haven't changed!

    1. Thank you, Erika. Just like with parenting, you always wonder if you came down too hard, or if you just made a doormat of yourself. All the other faculty (established faculty) said I could have made examples of them, publicly. You know the dance world... Glad you agree I did the right thing.

  2. I think you handled those girls in the correct way. You let them know who was in charge and that you weren't going to put up with it. They may do it again of course and try to be more subtle, but you will have to continue having these discussions with them. Maybe if they stop then you can ask them after and praise them on how matured they have become and how well they are doing in class if that's the case. This gives them a sense of appreciation and praise, but also let's them know in a kind manner your watching them still. But of course I'm not a ballet teacher so this is just my opinion. I took ballet when I was younger, and that's what our instructor did.
    Sounds like your doing a fantastic job of teaching.

    1. The vote of confidence always helps, Tori! And as a mom, you do know a thing or two about kids, so I appreciate the advice!

  3. I agree, this was handled beautifully. You've shown them that you can remain calm and in control and respectful toward them even when their choice is to be disrespectful. You've given them a chance and possibly the motivation to do better next time despite their insecurities. I think they'll turn around. If they don't, there are larger issues at work for which you'll probably need reinforcement from the school owners and/or parents. Best of luck and great job!

    1. The receptionist/studio manager and another teacher told me the sequence of events in case the behavior continues. They did say to fill out an incident report and to notify the directors first before any calls can come in. Then parents would have to get involved. It should be an honor for students to study at this renowned institution and their behavior is unacceptable on so many fronts.

  4. Sorry, I am not a dance teacher, not even a dancer (wish I was). Anyway, I as teaching a group of younger kids, I think about 8 yrs old? There was one boy that was extremely rude and obnoxious until I leveled with him and I have zero problems after that. I also know that this boy had some problems going on at home. Good luck!

    1. I know this isn't the way things are done these days, but kids have to know, sometimes harshly, sometimes publicly that rude and disrespectful behavior toward anyone, but especially the teacher, will simply not be tolerated.

      I will say that today was a success! Two of the girls found me and apologized, and turned out to be super sweet. Class/rehearsal went really well, even though the kids found the material challenging. The younger kids watched the final run through and loved it. I think my troubled class is going to be thrilled with their end result. Maybe all this will be the price of having a great final piece!

      Thanks for all the support!

  5. I agree, kids do have to know when they've crossed a line. And that kind of behavior takes the energy out of the class and pulls your attention away from those that are working their buns off. I didn't have this kind of blatant disrespect. But I DID have a student plagerize, word for word, a Jack Anderson obit of Anna Sokolow. And I was appalled. It was at that point that I realized the younger generation I was teaching had no idea where the line was, even if it WAS spelled out for them in the syllabus.

  6. I was teaching a 9 year olds. And I had 2 girls who was a little bit disrespectful during the class and who decided to run away to a washroom ( even tho I told them to wait) while I was showing new choreography for a new performance. I knew that they just don`t want to do anything. Well after they came back(25 minutes later) I put them in the first line and made them work 3 times harder than other kids. They learned this lesson. Now they always waiting for permission of the teacher.
    I think that all people are different and every teacher has their own ways to handled disrespectful students. You did it very well. And Im sure that your students will always remember you as an excellent teacher.)))

    1. Daria, I love your strategy...And had I been teaching longer at this school, not a mom, in a worse mood, and not in such a time crunch to produce a piece, that is exactly what I would have done.

      What I wonder these days is, what happened to the respect we used to give our dance teachers. Regular school might have been somewhat different, but I wanted my dance teachers to like me. Their respect for me, their knowledge that I was working hard was super important. I would rather have died than to disrespect a dance teacher, even when I thought their material was stupid.

      And this is the way some kids behave, even the ones who love dance?

      Thanks for the great feedback!

  7. Keesha,

    I truly appreciate your openness and honesty. Sometimes as teachers, we never want to even mention situations like this for fear of judgement. And then there is the whole concept of feeling 'less than' and asking, "What did I do wrong?"

    I applaud you for being brave and for handling the experience with professionalism and grace.

    I have to ask...
    Have you had the final performance? How did it go?

    1. Thanks, Christina for understanding and supporting. Means a lot. We didn't have the final showing yet. It will be on Friday. I am nervous. They did great last week, but not so well on Friday.

  8. I'm not a full time teacher, but I'm also a student so sometimes I sub classes when my teachers are out of town. One time I was teaching a clogging class and this girl was being continually disrespectful. I called her out and kept fussing at her and she kept on talking. I had it up to here with her and she dared to open her mouth again. I made all of the other students move off to the side and she stood in the middle and did jumping jacks, push-ups and down and dirty's (burpees) She still didn't take it seriously.

    You handled things a lot better than I did, because I pretty much lost it. My real teacher came back and she said the next time she does that, kick her out of the class.

    1. Thank you, Ashleigh for your comment. It sounds like you had someone who really wanted to undermine you. I agree with your teacher -- the best thing you can do is remove a student like this from the classroom. Why should she ruin everyone else's experience with her horrible energy? It is so hard to ignore behavior like this, but it is the best strategy for people like this.

      I hope this never happens to you again. At least not for a long time!


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