Book: The Ballet Companion


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Parents & Teachers > Parent FAQ > Selecting a Good School


This is a hard question to answer because anyone can hang out a shingle and call herself a ballet teacher. In the United States there is no organization or governing body to license teachers and maintain standards. But parents can watch for some indicators of a school's merits, and they can also seek recommendations from well-respected institutions such as The Royal Academy of Dancing and The Cechetti Council of America.

The Royal Academy of Dancing (R.A.D.) is a British Organization with branches in over 80 countries across the globe. The R.A.D. syllabus is a carefully crafted training method, incorporating elements of English, Russian, French and Italian pedagogy. It is safety-conscious; it instills discipline and nurtures musicality. R.A.D. teachers must themselves be trained in the syllabus before they can teach it. Students have the option of participating in annual "exams" at which a visiting Examiner evaluates their dancing. (This, of course also reflects upon the teacher; if many of her students earn honors or commendations she is doing something right.) The R.A.D. also runs summer programs. For information about the R.A.D. school in your state send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and a note requesting a list of schools in your state to: Royal Academy of Dancing, 15 Franklin Place, Rutherford, NJ 07070

Bournonville and Vaganova are also styles and teaching methods that have produced many wonderful dancers.

19th Century dancer and choreographer August Bournonville created the great Danish ballet style characterized by brilliant, bouncy jumps, clear, precise footwork, open unaffected port de bras and charming mime. Its star pupils have included Erik Bruhn and Peter Martins.

Agrippina Vaganova created the Russian style as we know it today, especially the Kirov Ballet style. Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov and many other of the late 20th Century's greatest Russian dancers were trained with her syllabus and methods.

Health & Safety
Good ballet training can improve children's bodies and their self-esteem. Bad training can have the opposite effect. Beware of a teacher who pooh-poohs health and injury prevention in the name of Art; she may well have a long, sad history of injured pupils. If half the class has tendinitis at the end of term, parents might well question what's going on. Sick or injured dancers can neither create Art nor experience the physical joy of dancing.

Parents should take the following factors into consideration in assessing the health and safety-consciousness of a school. Do the students look happy and healthy? Are they lean, bright-eyed and eager or are they frighteningly thin and joyless? How much emphasis is being placed on being thin? Recent medical studies have shown that underweight female adolescents who exercise without sufficient caloric intake are at risk for serious health problems even if they have regular menstrual periods. And of course it is well established, (though sadly not known by every ballet teacher), that lack of a regular menstrual cycyle as a result of being underweight puts women at risk for osteoporosis and other maladies.

Pointe Shoes
At what age are the girls allowed to go en pointe? A teacher who permits pointework before the students are 10 or 12 would have to have truly exceptional students because very few girls have sufficient strength and technique at such a young age.

It is safe for a dancer to start pointework after the bones of her feet have finished growing if, and only if, she has developed the strength and technique necessary to pull up out of the shoe and maintain turnout and ankle stability. Thus beginners should never go en pointe. Adults can get away with dancing en pointe to a greater extent because their bones have hardened.

A good ballet school exudes a disciplined and serious, but cheerful atmosphere. Students should be neatly dressed, ideally in a uniform color leotard and ideally with sweatpants and other concealing garb not allowed after barrework. Hair should be strictly groomed; jewelry either tiny or prohibited. Dancers should not talk during class and should show respect to the teacher and - if there is one - the accompanist.

Forcing Turnout and Extension
Rotation of the leg in the hip socket so that the knees and feet point out to the side rather than to the front is essential for classical ballet. This is called "turn-out". A turn-out of 180° is most desirable. However, knees and ankles can be damaged by forcing the turn-out. A careful teacher will try to help her students achieve the desired flexibility without putting the joints at risk.

Is the emphasis on competitions or on progressive training? Performing experience is wonderful and should be encouraged; on the other hand an over-emphasis on rehearsing for a competition may be to the detriment of the student's technique in the long run.

Teacher's Credentials
The teacher with the most glamourous and prestigious performing credentials may or may not be the best teacher. The ability to dance brilliantly is different from the skills that make a great teacher: the ability to analyze, to break down steps, to explain, to inspire. Some people possess both performing and teaching abilities, some don't. Teachers who have studied with the R. A. D. or the Cecchetti Council of America know a particular syllabus with a track record of producing well-trained dancers.

Are the floors "sprung" (wood with air space underneath)? Is the floor surface an appropriate area such as non-slippery wood or marley? Are the dressing rooms clean? The ideal space is large, airy, well ventilated, with high ceilings, a good floor, plenty of mirrors and a piano (indicating an real accompanist instead of recorded music).