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The process of learning in adult ballet


Thecatsmother
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Given that there has been considerable debate around what is not helpful/helpful to an adult learning ballet, I thought it might be interesting to address this from a different angle and ask teachers and those attending adult ballet classes what they had found useful in understanding and enhancing training. Not intended to be a post about named people's classes just more on the specifics of what enhances learning such as the way steps are taught, learning to use the right muscle groups, developing fluidity, flexibility and all the other facets of ballet that may be challenging to an adult. Hopefully by sharing there is something for everyone to learn whilst being respectful that there are different learning styles and no hard and fast rule about how things 'should' be.

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Great idea! I find at my age (42) brain to feet messages get lost along the way. I blame my height as the messages have a long way to go so stand more chance of getting lost!

 

I can watch a sequence and then write down what it was or verbally describe it, but the only way to get my arms and legs to listen is to repeat it 500 times! But once it's programmed in, I don't often forget - I just need to hear the music :)

 

Interestingly if asked to do the same enchainment to different music, I struggle!

 

I also find it very hard reversing steps to the left - I hate the left!

 

For placing movement across the floor I plot the enchainment out on the floor in my mind, as if I were drawing directions out with a big pot of paint.

 

I find characters hard to get into, which makes the performance side hard - of I'm being taught a dance I try to make up a story in my head to imagine what the character is feeling. I guess it's easier when you're 5 or if you're in costume - I do struggle to put feeling into my dance..funnily enough I "clicked" with all the grade 7 dances and got a distinction, so I guess the performance switch is in their somewhere, just not reliable!

 

I videoed myself before exams and it was useful for spotting corrections needed. We also learnt grades 6-8 by video, which my teacher seems to be able to watch, flip the images and perform, easily. I found it easier to learn by reading the steps from the syllabus book!

 

I'd be interested to hear everyone else's views :)

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Balleteacher will give this some thought as want to make an effort to keep my posts a bit shorter. But would like to say at this point that I agree with Just Ballet on her experience of having to repeat often physically to remember an enchainement and that sometimes in a newish piece it's not until I hear the music that the memory of the steps kicks in. Body and music together seems to ingrain the memory.

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I find it really helpful being hands on corrected.

 

For example, teacher says,"stand on both legs in 5th, especially from closing from the back." I'd think I was standing on both feet, but not really... Until my teacher came and put me in the correct position.

 

Or the " stretch your leg in arabesques". I actually actively tell my leg to stretch, and just when I think I'm stretching to the max, teacher comes along and lightly touches the back of my knee and magically there's more stretch...

 

But I suppose teachers have limited time in class and cannot always hands on correct, but whenever I get it it always leads to a " light bulb" moment.

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It probably comes down partly to different learning styles but I prefer demonstrations to verbal explanations. A lot of teachers seem reluctant to be 'hands on' but being 'moved' into the correct position also often helps more than being told something. I'm not sure what the reluctance is, when I go to Pilates/ yoga the teacher usually just asks everyone to let them know if they'd rather not be touched which seems to work well. I'm definitely a right turner too!

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Another useful aid in a non syllabus class is where in the centre practice for say an adagio or allegro section is repeated over a number of weeks (4 seems about right) before it is changed. This gives one time to get to grips with the sequences and to give it ones best shot at attempting to actually "dance".

 

Yes being moved into correct position can be very helpful. I remember a teacher moving my body back (I had not realised I was so far forward even though had been told) at the barre. It felt very strange at first as felt as though I was leaning back now but the rest of the class was asked to confirm that I was now actually straight up (in a nice way) so this helped a lot in being more aware of being correctly placed over ones hips etc.

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adults - particularly beginners - all seem to find anything on the left challenging. Also, the combination of putting 'arms' with 'legs' is hard, so I always try to teach the legs and arms separately and then those who wish can try to put the two together. 

 

Knees generally are an area of concern in adults - as a teacher one should exercise caution with excessive grand plies or lots of plie unless the class is known to be experienced and fit and healthy. Turns should only be attempted once the dancers have a really secure releve with a pulled up knee otherwise the knee could twist. turning is also scary if you've not done it since you would spin yourself round until you were dizzy as a child!  Adult beginners also have less 'body awareness' or proprioception than younger dancers. This is mostly due to experience but also due to age. Thats why hands on feedback really helps to tune in the sensory nerves to what's going on. 

 

Enchainements should be simple to allow the focus on accomplishing the movement rather than trying to remember complex combinations, and repetition of work is key. A longstanding adult class I used to teach would love it if I got mentally tired and used the grade 8 barre! It is simple and they were familiar with it.

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Generally speaking, I found in teaching adults that the biggest obstacle was not the body - but the mind.  For many the first thought upon seeing something new they were being asked to do - or try - was either "I can't do that" or "I'm not sure I can do that"  - depending upon the severity of the mental obstacle.

 

My message back was - this is not a test - there are no grades - there is no "perfect" and there is no "failure."  There is only "try it."  Just as there are no stupid questions - there is only a request for help and information.

 

And - no one else in the room is busy critiquing you - everyone else is too busy with their own attempts and efforts.

 

I did a lot of demonstrating and in the course of that I had my own efforts sometimes go awry (a pirouette that didn't work as well as I'd like) and thus I let my students know that I, too, was not afraid to occasionally stumble in front of them.

 

This set up an environment in which we were able to attempt things without fear of looking awkward, or asking questions, or needing help. 

 

As for repetiveness - every class (barre and centre)  I ever taught was different.  Even if the step was the same - such as practicing assemblés - the direction might be different, or the tempo, or the sequence, or or ....  I am not a syllabus teacher (by choice).

 

I felt that learning through repetition (if 8 is good then 80 must be better) was a trap of a sort.  The student becomes convinced that unless she is able to do many repetitions she cannot learn the step.  I am not saying that we didn't repeat things  - but always with a slight difference.  When this is done from the beginning the body and mind accept new learning more readily. 

 

Also from the beginning we always did things to both left and right.  This kept the student from dreading the left. 

 

Except from the very first time in learning a step, it was always thereafter learned together with other (one or more) other steps because that is how dance occurs. 

 

So, if we were learning glissade - it would be learned from the very beginning to both right and left and with the closing foot in both front and back.

 

In the next class if we were learning assemblé - it would be learned both to the right and left - with the closing foot both front and back.   Then it was put together with the previously learned glissade.

 

When that sequence of glissade, assemblé was learned to right and left as well as foot closing front and back - then the work became to clean it up - in time - not through endless repetition of just those two steps.  Arms were fairly quickly put together with the steps so they were seen as a "whole."

 

From the very first class - it was divided into its component parts - barre, centre, adagio, allegro, waltz, turns, and reverence (simple though each may be for beginners).  We never spent the entiire class (or even most of it) on just one or two components.  This kept the mind and body from tiring.

 

I did not polish each thing before moving on - the polishing happened over time and in context of other steps - not alone by itself.

 

Thus the student took on new work without as great a mental obstacle, was used to change (steps, sequence, tempo,  music), and realized that the task of cleaning up was a perpetual one,.   I found this method kept mind and body sharp and quick.

 

It is not easy to do it this way but the rewards were worth it.

 

I also think it is important for the teacher to know something of the physical history of the student - such as previous knee problems, surgery, etc. 

 

The adult classes I taught over four decades were among the most gratifying  - I loved teaching adults.  I've ocassionally been asked which age (children, teens, adults) I preferred.  There is, for me, no comparison - they are apples and oranges - each group very different, each with its challenges and each with its rewards.

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Lots of points there Anjuli......have to dash out to class now but would like to go through some when more time.

Just to say that enquiring about injuries joint probs etc is very important with older people especially the 50+ and 60+.

I did have one teacher who when I first went back didn't seem to understand why I wouldn't attempt a full plié in the centre.....I had just about started again at the barre with these.....but (and in a nice way) I held my ground and refused to do them!

 

I think if the centre is still at a fairly simple it's okay to keep changing the way steps are presented etc slightly each week however once just a little more complex routines are being learned it does help to run them over a few weeks I think.

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adults - particularly beginners - all seem to find anything on the left challenging. Also, the combination of putting 'arms' with 'legs' is hard, so I always try to teach the legs and arms separately and then those who wish can try to put the two together. 

 

Knees generally are an area of concern in adults - as a teacher one should exercise caution with excessive grand plies or lots of plie unless the class is known to be experienced and fit and healthy. Turns should only be attempted once the dancers have a really secure releve with a pulled up knee otherwise the knee could twist. turning is also scary if you've not done it since you would spin yourself round until you were dizzy as a child!  Adult beginners also have less 'body awareness' or proprioception than younger dancers. This is mostly due to experience but also due to age. Thats why hands on feedback really helps to tune in the sensory nerves to what's going on. 

 

Enchainements should be simple to allow the focus on accomplishing the movement rather than trying to remember complex combinations, and repetition of work is key. A longstanding adult class I used to teach would love it if I got mentally tired and used the grade 8 barre! It is simple and they were familiar with it.

 

 

Drdance - does your first sentence apply to left handed people too?  I'm not, but I'm curious!

 

I don't aspire to dance (only watch!) but I have terrible difficulties with narrow spiral staircases.  Depending on which way they spiral, I can get up but then have serious difficulties getting down or I can't get up them in the first place!

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Reminds me of climbing up that last bit of St. Paul's Catherdral where there is a spiral staircase bit. It's much easier going up than down I can't remember if for all of it but I think I went down backwards for part of it. The trouble is you can see the distance down with the spiral bit which is a bit more vertigo inducing!

Even walking down the Amphitheatre at Covent Garden gives me the heebie jeebies these days......don't know what happened to that tree climb-loving girl!!

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I agree that half the battle is a mental one!!

One goes through various mind states all the time and if I'm in a less confident mood for some reason then there is that little condemning voice which tells you....you can't balance...can't turn ....can't do a decent arabesque or attitude and so on. On days like these I definitely will not be performing so well......if give in to this negativity.

Some days you can get a grip on yourself and override these insecurities and just concentrate on the practice....then there is a bit of success and you feel better and your mood can even improve during the class but other days not so easy to do this.....especially if body is not 100per cent either.

 

Sometimes you just feel very together.....perhaps the head connected to the body a bit more....and can really feel free to concentrate and get the best out of yourself. Then you definitely have more success in what you are doing. Then the inner voice is more friendly......you can do this if you give it your best shot....just stay focussed on the exercise....you'll be fine.....remember teachers advice on this....and so on.

So yes mental state very important......and because one knows that staying positive is going to be helpful to ones practice I think there is a certain discipline involved here when taking part in any class to try to keep more connected to ones "up" side so to speak.

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DrDance I can certainly identify with your comment “Knees generally are an area of concern in adults”, especially as I have been suffering from knee problems recently and have had need of knee support. I have also noticed others at my fitness centre and at ENB, so its not unique to ballet. In my case it was down to jumping on a hard floor in ballroom shoes during a Salsa party.

 

One of my teachers will not teach pirouette to senior adults through fear of dizziness causing them to fall and injure themselves. Similarly, no travelling turns across the room either.

 

As regards Plie I'm not sure what you will make of this, this is part of my daily home gym workout prior to barre work in my studio. After 10-15 minute on the treadmill for warm-up, I do 50 reps of demi-plie in first with a pelvic floor exerciser to add resistance, then I go on to do 30 reps of Grand Plie in second on releve carrying an extra 20kg using a spinnaker bar. This I have been doing for lots of months now, recently with my knee problem I have scaled back the reps with the spinnaker bar as a precaution.

 

I find dealing with combinations probably the most demanding. Today we danced a lovely sequence to really nice music, I really enjoyed it. I found I could remember most of it in class, and what I couldn't I copied. After class as usual I went to the little café almost next door for some lunch, while waiting I thought I would try and write down what I could remember of that sequence. I recalled 21 steps of a total of around 27-30. I think we danced this sequence twice from either direction.

 

In the Salsa groups I belong too, we have a saying , that it takes 9 repetitions to create a muscle memory. It is taught dance a step or two at a time, then add a step or two and dance again. Sequences are built up that way. Many a times when we have had guest teachers and they have demonstrated the sequence to be taught before the teacher it. I have thought Awesome I will never remember all that, and step by step you do remember it and are able to dance it socially afterward. However unless you keep that memory refreshed it will fade very quickly, consequently I always video them.

I also find my favourite Salsa sequences that go out of favour for a month or two even though I have danced them a lot do begin to fade. The video provides me with a wonderful long term backup of things I used to do and are easy to recall and dance again.

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Going back to Anjuli again....yes I love the class to have all its sections and even though I'm not exactly what you would call that brilliant at it I do like the adage section to be there which is often missed out if too much time has been spent on pirouettes etc I find.

It must be difficult for teachers to decide sometimes whether to stay with a particular section to "polish" up a bit if they sense that this is what is needed maybe on that day...or just continue to the next section and come back to the "polish" the following week. Sometimes if you do spend too long on one aspect you do tire and then start to get worse!! But good teachers can usually sense this in the class energy and know when enough is enough!

So yes it does feel good having a balanced class.

 

And ballet is such an ongoing process.....will we ever be perfect enough....I should imagine each person from beginner to starry professional feels the intangibility of this. But you can only have a go at your own level at any one moment in time and hope for the best!

 

One thing I do like especially when at the barre is the explanation of which particular muscle groups are involved to execute an exercise.....not the names of the muscles just...where does the execution arise(seems to be the core muscles are important for most) is it the inside or outside muscles of the thigh which are needed. And what is happening with the supporting leg etc. For example in ronde de jambe a terre how do you maintain the turn out going from second position to the back when moving en dehors and how does this relate to supporting leg while executing and hip connection in all this etc. I do tend to like full explanations......at least in the more beginner level classes say...up to Intermediate level. Obviously there comes a time at more advanced level when the teacher is setting the class to be danced and expects students to know the basics.....but important at beginner or refresher levels I think.

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Michelle I don't want to pre empt Drdance (or sound like some old granny) but you need to be careful with your knee. If you are having to wear a support on it you have stressed it in some way so perhaps leave out the extra plies at home for a while and just do those required by your ballet classes.

You obviously have good fitness levels anyway and after all lots of people in their sixties go in for marathons and "ironman/lady competitions etc( I know one such lady personally and inspite of my ballet classes she can knock spots off me with her level of fitness) however you do have to listen to your body as you don't want to end up with a permanent or more serious injury.

 

I don't agree though with the teacher who won't let anyone who is older regardless do pirouettes or other turns. Perhaps these were complete beginners? So then they do need to build up to turning.....but refusing point blank to teach or allow is not necessary in my opinion. Each individual should be assessed on their particular ability whatever their age.

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Hi Lin

 

Yes I damaged it being stupid and jumping higher than I should at a Salsa Party (just showing off) and so I have reaped the consequences. I do understand long term injuries as I have been there before, both with my arm in my days of Tae Kwon-do and last summer hurting my back lifting a ride on lawn mower, the first took months to heal, the second several weeks. Plie’s are not the problem, as weight is distributed between both feet. However I do have to be careful with jumps, especially lots of them and particularly if they are on a hard floor which is the case with my dance fever class and local ballet class too. I did the dance fever one today with new Bloch split sole trainers, firstly I hated them, they felt far too hot, heavy and awkward, balance was also difficult at first. I guess I will just have to get used to them as they should cushion my feet better from impact through the thick shock absorbing soles. The worst one is fondu’s where all the weight is on one bent leg, if it’s straight it no problem, if it’s excessively bent its also ok. For a normal fondue bend its maximum aggravation, so I deliberately limit it for the moment to a token bend. It is improving all the time, as three weeks ago I had to suspend all ballet classes except my rehearsal and ENB. I think the last time my knee support was on, was last Wednesday, but I am aware that it’s not quite fully healed yet.

 

As we are talking about prevention of injury to joints etc, this is one that has concerned me for some time. What is beneficial cold stretches as with most classes I attend do not do a warm-up prior to barre work, however two do. I always see student dancers stretching when they are stone cold. I remember one evening at ENB I was carried along with seeing this and without thinking I dropped down into front splits (showing off again), although I cant go all the way down , I can get quite low. I knew where the bottom should be and I went for it, immediately the pain hit the muscles in my leg, I though “how stupid”, it really hurt and I should have known better, fortunately no damage was done.

 

I know if I don’t do hot stretching from my experience at home, I will be around six inches shorter on my high leg extension, basically because I try and measure everything. So I'm curious to see the answers on cold stretching.

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Hi Balleteacher

 

I am aware of Lisa, since I downloaded one of her reports I get regular newsletters from her, basically trying to promote her front splits fast program. The contents of which I am fully aware. I also have some interesting advanced Pilates DVD’s for dancers by Drease Reyneke which I picked up from the ROH shop. But none of them specifically covers cold stretching prior to commencement of class.

However I have come across a couple of references that discourage it though, so what are your thoughts as an experienced teacher

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Maybe when the dancers you saw were cold stretching they weren't actually stretching their muscles to their full extent, you can gently stretch muscles without pain or injury. If they were very flexible maybe sitting in splits wasn't much of a stretch for them? Or perhaps they had warmed up beforehand, come straight from the gym or jogged there maybe. But the chances are they WERE stretching too far without being warm which is definitely not a good thing!

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Lisa Howell discourages any deep stretching before class and says this should be done afterwards as it can reduce muscle power. She also has a number of free articles which give good advice due to her experience as a dancer and dance physio. You can also post questions on her website.

 

Warm up for adult ballet classes is likely to involve a 'gentle' mobilisation of the muscles and joints prior to class. That being said, some people attending class may be on the hyper mobile spectrum so a warm up needs to be personalised to the needs of an individual.

 

Massage of any stiff areas can also be of use. If you are feeling pain before class or consistently when doing an exercise in class then it is usually best to discuss with a teacher. Adult ballet should be about enjoyment so you should not be required to work through the pain of injuries and this may set you back in terms of ability to engage with classes.

 

Whilst it may 'look' impressive to see individuals doing splits before class it is unlikely to be in the best interests of an adult beginner to attempt this cold when the body has not experienced it in the past. Warming up is about the individual and what their body needs and not intended to be a spectator sport

 

For beginners whose feet tend to need a lot of strengthening, foot exercises with a theraband can also be incorporated into a warm up.

.

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I agree, balleteacher. My daughter's teachers and dance physio all say that "cold stretching" - i.e. prior to warming up - should never be done as the risk of injury is so much higher. Theraband foot exercises and using a foam roller to massage are both fine, but actual stretching and especially splits are never done until after a full barre session.

 

There was a discussion about pre-class "competitive stretching" on the RBS JA thread.

 

Edited to add that I know this thread relates to adult learning but wrt stretching I would have thought the same principles should apply to adults as teenagers?

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The most stretching I do before a ballet class is to see if I can still touch my toes from the day before!

And after the barre I often just like to get into what's called "hare pose" a version of "child's pose" from yoga where you kneel down(as opposed to kneel up) with knees spread out and toes touching and stretch body forward onto the floor. This opens up the lower back joints(lumbar area) which can sometimes get a little stiff after the barre. On a lighter note it also prevents you from seeing all the extraordinary stretches others.....usually younger members....are getting into!!

 

I agree that for some people dropping down into splits(if only) isn't that much of a stretch.....for them.....however much I can't imagine this!! Ive never been able to do the splits properly not even when in my twenties but I did use to be able to put my leg up on the barre and lay flat out against it whereas these days just getting my leg up onto the barre and trying to stand up straight is a good after the barre stretch when I can face it!!

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I've always been told that it's expected that you should do 10 minutes aerobic exercise before class to get the blood flowing to your muscles. I think it's useful to incorporate it into an adult class as most people have probably rushed there from work or other commitments and haven't had time to warm up. I've never stretched prior to class and wouldn't personally as it risks injury and the last thing I want is to be hobbling about in pain for weeks! Sometimes I will do a roll down through the spine but I can get fingertips to floor without stretching so it does depend on your body, although its also difficult for me to imagine that splits are not stretching for anybody!

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I would never advocate anything like splits - or even close - before class.  However, there are other benign things one can do - passive warm up:

 

Rotating the ankles, pointing and flexing feet, gentle head roll, some port de bras, relaxing forward through the body and testing out the body's balance point for the day, stepping back in parallel to gently open the calves.

 

Ballet class properly conceived and properly executed will warm the body for the demands made upon it.  Real stretching occurs, for me, between barre and centre - with a wind down stretch afterwards.

 

I think its important to remember that coming to ballet class and leaving ballet class often entails a fairly steep degree in temperature change especially on cooler days.

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