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.