How the Right Word Choice Can Reinforce Learning
January 9, 2020

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. “Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible,” he says. “But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand.”

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think “lame duck” or “step-up turn” in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Vocabulary First

When teaching young dancers and beginners, Lorin Mathis suggests using the proper names of steps repeatedly. “I try to keep ideas and concepts simple so that their minds make an immediate correlation between movement or positions and the appropriate terminology,” says Mathis, faculty member at the University of Arizona’s dance department and artistic associate director for Kaatsbaan summer programs. He will then reiterate the concept throughout class, pointing out connections from earlier combinations. “Once they begin to grasp the concept, you can build on it. But repetition and simplicity are vital for beginners to build a solid foundation.”

Valerie Amiss, a faculty member at both the School of Pennsylvania Ballet and Princeton Ballet School, first teaches the proper names of steps for young beginners. “Then I’ll add imagery to help develop the right look,” she says. “I tell students that arabesque is not a position but a feeling! I also say ‘mermaid legs’ to encourage students to keep their legs together in assemblé or sous-sus.” Using vivid and relatable language guides even the youngest dancers to better understand technical concepts.

Try a New Approach

Keep in mind that a straightforward verbal correction may not resonate with all students. Because everyone learns differently, Mathis tries to express one idea in several ways. If dancers carry tension in their upper bodies, for example, Mathis might say: “Let your port de bras soften like a weeping willow.” Or if the image of a tree doesn’t evoke the right response, he might try focusing on the student’s use of breath. “As a dancer, I always found it easier when I could compare it to something I already understood,” he says.

Nelson uses the same strategy when it comes to using imagery and descriptive language. He points to turnout as an example. “It’s hard to get a young body to understand how to rotate and pull up, not tuck under,” says Nelson. “Turnout must be worked, not forced, and students need to know the difference. I use different words in the moment to get the dancer to understand the feeling, so I don’t have to always physically manipulate them.” (A favorite example: “Wrap your cookies.”)

Some days, Nelson finds it might be more productive to leave a dancer alone. “You have to be sensitive because a dancer’s mood is very relevant to how hard they’re going to work. Remember that they’re human, and not robots.”

Lorin Mathis. Photo by Autumn Eckman, courtesy of Lorin Mathis

Be Positive

Creating a space where students feel they can express themselves fully is crucial to the dancer’s development. For the youngest classes, Amiss finds greater success when she talks less and watches more. “Allowing very young students to explore their own feelings and creative thinking is amazing to see,” she says. With intermediate and advanced students, Amiss encourages them to start a dialogue, ask questions and not be afraid of being criticized by their peers. When working with children with special needs, she takes the same approach. “I might focus more on body language and staying engaged, but like all children, they just need a classroom where they feel loved and respected.”

Mathis takes the same positive approach and feels that students are much more receptive to corrections when they don’t feel threatened or belittled. Instead, they have the confidence to try new approaches, make mistakes and try again. “Insults and shame do not help a dancer improve,” he says. “When there is mutual trust, everyone comes out better, happier and healthier.”

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