Often when dancers come to see me at the clinic, the first questions I ask are how many hours of training they do per week, how long their classes are and how many of their classes are technique based classes as opposed to troupe class or solo lessons. The answers I am given often surprise me and in turn concern me.
When I was young, I went to a ballet school that focused on exams and end of year presentations. I would dance 3-4 nights a week plus all day on a Saturday working on RAD exam technique, jazz and tap (1 night a week) and limber and pointe classes. The principle of my school did not agree with competitions, as she believed dance to be an art, not a competition like sports. We would do one or two exams per year depending on our age and if we were doing a major grade and we would only do an end of year performance in a theatre every second year. The focus of our classes was on perfecting technique, learning new steps, gradually building strength and flexibility as our age and ability allowed. I took nearly 3 years to do one of my major grade ballet exams, as my teacher did not think I was technically ready. This was normal and there were many dancers that would take 2 or more years to be ready to complete a grade.
These days I am seeing dancers progressing year to year because of their age, not because of their technique, strength, control or ability. I am watching dancers learn a full exam syllabus just a couple of weeks before the exam date, often doing more than one grade at a time just to get through them. I also see dancers who come from studios where the major focus is the next competition. There are young dancers doing more than 20 routines in a competition season! Personally, I question the capability of these dancers to perform 20 routines with perfect technique, control and strength and perform them safely!
In order to fit all these classes into these dancers schedules – the ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary, lyrical, hip hop and acrobatic classes, the solo and duo lessons, the troupe classes and the stretch and conditioning classes – I am seeing the length of classes get shorter and shorter. In fact I have seen on some timetables that classes run for 30mins or 45mins. That isn’t even long enough to do a full ballet barre or jazz warm up! Then we wonder why the students are lacking endurance and getting injured… it’s because they never work their bodies to fatigue by building layers on technique. Classes used to ALL run for 1 hour to 1.5 hours and even then you may not get through a full class of barre, centre practice, adage, pirouettes, petite allegro, allegro, grande allegro in ballet, or jazz warm up, progressions of kicks, turns, jumps and a few counts of 8 of a routine to build on technique, style and endurance. I have taught classes with 35 dancers in them – how on earth can you (as a teacher) ensure that all 35 young dancers are working correctly and safely? There was a time when we didn’t have to schedule “technique” classes into the timetable. Technique was part of every class; it is what dance classes were built around. Technique classes are not a “bonus” class – they should be the consistent class – routines and performances were something that you worked towards after the technique.
For young dancers looking at starting pointe work, the International Association for Dance Medicine recommends that dancers have a minimum of two ballet classes per week and be in her fourth year of ballet training. Those two ballet classes need to be at least 1 hour in length and not troupe, solo or competition classes. That is just to be considered to start pointe work! I often have dancers coming to see me for their pre-pointe assessment who only do one hour of ballet per week. I understand that dance classes can be expensive – but these are our children’s bodies that are at stake. Would you allow your child to jump into a pool for the first time and expect that they can swim without being taught?
The number of dancers I see who are unable to perform a plie or a tendu with correct technique or alignment (or even knowledge of what these two things are) is alarming. All dance steps, regardless of style, come from these two steps and yet there are young dancers performing advanced “tricks” without the basics to support them. Just one of the many examples I have is around knee injuries. I have dancers who cannot perform one single knee bend in parallel with control of their alignment. If they cannot stand on one leg and bend their knee without wobbling or allowing the knee to “roll in” in a controlled environment how can we expect that they are preparing or landing every jump, hop, leap, turn (the list goes on) with correct alignment? These young dancers are not learning good motor patterns of movement and will continue to make these mistakes long into their careers to the point that their body ends up with overuse/chronic injuries.
I often liken the dance training that focuses on competitions and performances to athletes that just play the game or compete in the event. If you watch a footballer train – they run for cardio fitness, they sprint, skip and jump to develop power, they do weights, ball handing drills, kicking drills, goal kicking, tackling drills, marking drills, agility training, plyometric training, stretching, core stability and so much more. Without all these areas of training and skill the players would not perform well during games or be as versatile in unknown situations. The same is true of dancers. Every dance company starts their day with class, a full 1.5-hour to 2-hour class, continuously getting back to the basics to ensure that their body is aligned and functioning correctly to start the day.
When it comes to looking at a career in dance, it is the habits that we teach our dancers now that will stay with them for life. Teaching them the importance of class work, the importance of correct technique and building on the basics is what will help them have long, safe, injury free careers. There will always be performance opportunities but it is much harder to take dancers back to the beginning and correct the problems they have developed after they are ingrained into their muscle memory than it is to teach them from the start of their training. Whether you end up auditioning for full time courses, professional work or companies, or become a dance teacher or health professional it is the technique that will build the foundation of your career, not the trophies on your wall.