Teaching With The Stars

What it’s like to step from the spotlight to the head of the class.
Published in the August/September 2011 issue.

Walsh in Stanton Welch’s Tutu

Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Some professional dancers start teaching before they even start performing; others teach to help refresh their technique and prepare for the future. Training younger dancers yields fresh insights that can’t be found in the rehearsal studio or onstage. Seven dancers who find time to teach spoke to Pointe about how it helps their dancing and how they have grown as artists in the process.

Connor Walsh
Principal, Houston Ballet
When I’m teaching ballet at the Hope Center in Houston, I see my own flaws in other people. It’s a different way of understanding than catching yourself in the mirror. There are habits that we get from taking class day after day: So often dancers face straight ahead without any épaulement, and we can get comfortable. Now I really pay attention to how I use my head and try to bring more quality to everything that I do in class. And teaching has given me even more respect for the person in front of the studio—I know now how difficult it can be. I think every dancer should try teaching to better understand their craft.

Julie Diana
Principal, Pennsylvania Ballet
When the opportunity to teach at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s summer intensive came up, I took it. I married into a ballet family—my husband and mother-in-law teach there as well. In the beginning, I gave the kind of class that I like to take. I’m a lyrical dancer and stay away from certain kinds of steps. Now, I give the very same steps I find difficult. When I break them down, I understand them better. For example, if one of my students falls out of a double attitude turn, I can see that maybe she arched her back or didn’t push off the working foot enough. Watching my students try to coordinate everything reminds me of the fundamentals and refreshes my own technique. But teaching doesn’t come naturally to me! I’ve gotten some great advice from Marcia Dale Weary and Leslie Hench at CPYB. They helped me realize that I don’t always have to make it fun. Sometimes, you have to get down and dirty and go back to the basics.

Jennifer Kronenberg
Principal, Miami City Ballet
I started teaching at MCB’s summer intensive eight years ago. I’ve always liked deciphering and explaining things. When I get an idea across to my students, I’m amazed at how much clearer it becomes in my own mind. Often the things I end up explaining are the very ideas I’ve overlooked in my own dancing, like my habit of not bringing my shoulders with me. When I see it in my students, it registers.

I started with the 12–14-year-olds; they were a little starstuck and treated me like the all-knowing ballerina. That’s not true for the older girls whom I teach now. I’m not that much older than they are, so there’s a bit more attitude. Posture and body language say a lot. Growing up, I was never allowed to stand with my weight on one hip and my arms crossed across my chest because it was seen as rude. Now, as a teacher, I can see that’s true. It shows a sense of disinterest or annoyance at what the teacher is explaining. I’m there to share what I know. It’s their choice to take it or leave it, but they should show respect to me and their fellow students who do want to learn and improve as much as they can.

Caroline Rocher
Dancer, LINES Ballet
I’ve been teaching for several years. I am learning myself, and my students are learning from me, so it’s an exchange—I love that part of teaching. It’s not just about doing five perfect pirouettes; I can help with so much more.

I am also pursuing a college degree through LEAP. I just finished an anatomy for dancers class and now I apply all that I learned in my teaching and in performance. I like that I get a chance to analyze certain movements while teaching. For example, I can get to the origins of a piqué arabesque. I love to use images in class as well. We were doing an adagio the other day, and yes, it’s difficult to hold your leg in the air for a long time. Yet when I gave them the image of dancing underwater, something started to change. But it’s not just about improving technique. At LINES, we want to develop creative and innovative artists, not robots. I share that, too, with my students.

James Whiteside

Principal, Boston Ballet
I started subbing at my studio when I was 16—jazz, tap, ballet, I taught it all. I hardly remember not teaching. I was just thrown in. Now I teach at Boston Ballet’s summer intensive. Teaching is such a revelation. By verbalizing corrections, I understand key elements that I need to work on. I remember watching one student whose knees were facing the wrong direction during a forward port de bras. I really pay attention to my turnout now during that movement. My musicality has gotten so much better, too, because watching students dance off the music is like nails on a chalkboard. I really crack down on myself so that, even if the music’s fast, I keep up with it.

I try to inject my personality into my teaching, be it with an anecdote or the way I give a correction. I want them to enjoy getting better and working on their technique. I do well with teenagers. They tend to be a little bit sassy. I was a sassy teen; now I’m a sassy adult.

Nicole Graniero
Corps Member, American Ballet Theatre
I teach at Manhattan Youth Ballet and Dance For Joy, where I studied. I first became interested in teaching after choreographing on some students at the JKO School. It has really changed my dancing. There’s nothing quite like having something come out of your own mouth to really learn it. I find myself telling my students things, then thinking later, Oh, I need to do that too.

I don’t really teach differently for students who are pursuing a career or just having fun; I want both to dance their best. Sometimes, I dance with the little ones, encouraging them to travel with me regardless of whether they are executing the step correctly. When I dance with them, they have a model right there showing them that it’s not scary to move and try something new. As long as they’re moving and understanding the beauty of dance, I think they’ve accomplished a great deal.

Garen Scribner
Soloist, San Francisco Ballet
I taught ballet last year at Stanford University. When I wanted a dancer to do something differently, I began by affirming something they did correctly. Although I remember a lot of negative corrections from when I was a student, I also remember every bit of constructive criticism. I’m often surprised by some of the students’ questions: “Is it turned in or turned out here?” “Is the hand flexed?” “Do you want that on the one or to finish on eight?” I don’t like absolutes. I encourage the dancers to make discoveries, to make sense of their physicality and express something interesting. Dance is really just physics, cause and effect, force and motion. It’s the blending of those natural laws and the mind and spirit of the dancer that creates an artist.

Diana in Matthew Neenan’s Keep

Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Kronenberg teaching at Miami City Ballet’s intensive

Courtesy of Miami City Ballet

Rocher in Alonzo King’s Scheherezade

Photo by RJ Muna

Whiteside in class at Boston Ballet

Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Photo by Roberta Humphrey

Scribner rehearsing Wayne McGregor’s Chroma

Photo by Erik Tomasson