As dance educators, we’re always looking for ways to grow our teaching. While formal teacher-training programs may sound like the most logical way to do this, most of us don’t have a clear idea of what they’re really like, what tools they provide, and if they’re really worth the time and financial commitment.
Dance Teacher decided it was time we gave our readers an insider’s view. I attended the Getting Started program for ABT’s National Training Curriculum (Pre-Primary, starting at age 3, through Level 3, starting at age 10) myself. Here’s what it was like.
The Time Commitment
If you’re going to dive into a teacher training program like ABT’s NTC, you should know the schedule is not for the faint of heart. My husband joked that I was working investment banking hours during my 10-day stint. A fellow attendee told me she even had to fly her sister in from across the country to watch her children in order to keep up with the schedule.
Each day of virtual classes begins between 10:45 am and 11 am EST. No two days are totally alike in structure, but each typically includes a class for teachers given by ABT NTC creators Raymond Lukens and Franco De Vita; a multi-hour lecture; a Q&A; a study hall; and a breakout-room critique of previously assigned homework (more on this later). The formal day ends at 5:30 pm EST.
Now you may be thinking, “That’s not too bad.” Don’t worry, there’s more. At 8 pm EST almost every night, there’s homework due: Teachers are asked to create an exercise based on what they learned in lectures that day. These took me hours of creating and re-creating, filming and refilming, in an effort to incorporate all of the teaching tools we’d been given. Is this developmentally appropriate? Am I demonstrating clearly enough for my students? Am I using the specific language ABT expects? (For example, the words “passé” and “retiré” do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable—even if it’s the language you’ve used for the past 25 years.) I started working on my exercises almost immediately after class ended, and finished just in time to meet the deadline.
Once you’ve submitted your assignment, you have hours of footage to consume. These were typically videos of classes given by ABT-certified instructors. As the examination approached, I spent the rest of my nights studying—I went to bed most evenings at 1 am in a haze of classical ballet jargon and dancer-health reading material.
Then, you wake up and do the whole thing again the next day. There was one day in the program that did not include Zoom, but educators were encouraged to use it to study for examinations and watch more class footage.
Condensing a large amount of material into such a short time may make you wonder why they don’t extend the schedule to a multi-week event. According to Lukens and De Vita, the 10-day (9 when in-person) structure is meant to be more accessible to teachers who cannot afford to stop working for long periods of time, and, when the program was held in person, to lower the expense for out-of-town teachers. (The tuition for the virtual training was $1,700 but will increase slightly in 2022 to accommodate in-person and online sessions running simultaneously.)
The program culminates in a final examination to determine whether you’re considered an ABT-certified teacher. There is a written test (all terms must be spelled correctly and with proper accents) and an oral test in which you are expected to correctly demonstrate positions and communicate corrections.
Tip: There’s a lot of material covered in the 10 days of training (honestly, it felt like drinking through a firehose), and as the exam approached I got more and more anxious. Post-test, I can say that if you pay attention to every lecture (especially the reviews), you should be just fine.
How It Went
The most helpful aspect of this program for me was having my exercises critiqued. After learning about the appropriate skills that should be taught at each level, we were asked to create a combination that included them, and present them to a portion of the class as well as an ABT NTC–certified instructor. As we watched each exercise, we were asked to make comments about our peers’ work. Then, our teacher would give their opinion and share ways the exercise could be improved.
For my pre-primary combination, I was instructed to bring more energy to my voice so my students could feel like class was magical. For my Level 2 exercise, I was encouraged not to include too many new steps. (If they just learned how to do an assemblé, for instance, and you want to include it in a combination, don’t immediately add any other new steps—they should master each in separate exercises first.)
At every turn I was probed on what my purpose for each exercise was, how the steps I included built on one another, what common mistakes my students could make, and how I could correct them. It was hugely beneficial to learn how to make more effective exercises, and how to approach class more thoughtfully.
What I’m Taking Away
There are many ideas from the training that I’ll be adding to my teacher’s toolbox—here are three of my favorites:
- “Plan B”
When a teacher identifies a technical fault their student has made, they should identify the underlying cause and provide a “Plan B” combination that will retrain muscle memory while still maintaining the pulse of the class.
For example, if your student is moving their legs from front to back rather than side to side in entrechat quatre (fault), it may be because they aren’t engaging their rotator muscles (cause). Your “Plan B” could be an échappé combination. This exercise will develop muscle memory by engaging the rotator muscles in lateral movements from fifth. It doesn’t disrupt the flow of class because your dancers will continue jumping (rather than, say, returning to the barre to do tendus in à la seconde closing to fifth position), and is a more effective tool than simple verbal instruction.
- Creating developmentally appropriate classes
ABT’s NTC drives home the fact that you should only provide classes that are appropriate for your students’ development. Coming from a competitive background, my instincts are to push my students to exceed expectations for their age. This curriculum helps you understand what dancers are ready for physically and developmentally, so that you don’t push them to burnout or injury.
- Planning for year-end goals
We were encouraged to look ahead to the technical and performance-based skills we would like our dancers to have accomplished by the end of each year, and plan our classes so that they build to those goals, leaving space to reassess based on students’ needs. I think that having an idea of what I want to build up to will be incredibly helpful.
Do Virtual Teacher-Training Programs Really Work?
I think we can all agree that in-person opportunities are ideal. But given the circumstances of the pandemic, the current virtual structure of this program has its advantages. With more than a year in the Zoom world, ABT has worked out most kinks, and things run fairly smoothly. Plus, it’s financially prudent for those who aren’t based in New York City, and given the intensity of the schedule, it’s nice not to add a commute to your day.
Still, I noticed attendees struggling with a few Zoom hurdles. First, the administration had to be particularly selective about when to answer questions (unmuting, responding and re-muting for each question eats up valuable time). There wasn’t the option to get clarification mid-class like there might be in person.
Second, instructors can’t see the entire class at once, so they couldn’t correct as many mistakes. For example, one teacher lamented that she missed a question on her exam about an incorrect head, but she had been doing the same head all week and nobody had corrected her. Lastly, for those who didn’t have a large screen, it could be difficult to see. Attendees had to get close to their device to observe the demonstration, but were sometimes corrected for not stepping back and participating physically.
Who These Trainings Are For
According to Lukens and De Vita, whether you teach at a conservatory, a university, a public school or a small-town studio, it doesn’t matter—what’s important is that you have an advanced level of technique and vocabulary. My take? There were teachers in the program with a wider range of backgrounds than I had anticipated. That said, it’s rigorous and fast-paced, and if I didn’t already have a solid background in classical ballet, I would have been in big trouble.
Whether you’re attending a teacher training program or a simple weekend lecture, or earning a full-blown college degree in pedagogy, I can now speak firsthand to how rewarding further education for dance teachers can be. This experience was exhausting and difficult, and so transformative.