How to Choose a Ballet Teacher

As passionate as ballet is it is just as athletic. Any teacher you choose must be able to balance the art and the physics of this dance form to be able to help you reach your peak. This is true as a beginner or as an incipient professional ballet dancer.

1. The Physical Art of Ballet:
A baseball player does more than just pick up a ball and toss it unthinkingly. There are different types of pitches and each can be executed well or poorly. For the professional baseball pitcher there is a vast arsenal of science behind the analysis of a single pitch. Every movement of the pitcher’s anatomy can be analyzed. Through this, a pitch can be perfected.
An understanding of anatomy is no less important in ballet. The instructor must watch the line of the body and understand its momentary balance and its leverage for moving into the next step.
Ask the teacher to explain a particular simple move, such as demi plie, tendu or passe. Listen to the words in the reply. It is not as important for you to understand all the details of the reply as it is to listen to what it includes. If the teacher is precise and includes exact description of how the body is to be moved and placed, that is a good sign. A description referencing the full body is much better than focusing on one or two parts. A plie is not just in the knees. A tendu is not just in the foot. The hips are involved in both these movements and the teacher should understand this and be able to convey this to the student.
Furthermore, this understanding is critical to teaching safe dance technique. Every ballet teacher should be expected to stop students from forcing their turnout and rolling in on their feet. Alas, there are many people teaching ballet who not only fail to prevent these things from happening to their students, but actually encourage them to make these mistakes in order to give their students a false sense of ability and achievement at the cost of doing injury to their students’ bodies.
Here is a movement to watch for when observing a class: port de bras forward from first position. It will likely be performed early in the class while the students are standing at the barre. In particular, be sure to watch the hand holding onto the barre! The position is this: standing at tall at the barre with the heels together and the toes separated making a V’ with the feet, the dancer bends forward from the hips. There are lots of technical details that you could be watching, but the simplest one to observe is the movement of the hand on the barre.
To begin, the grip should be light. The dancer should not strangle the barre! It is there as a guide and as a gentle support. It should not be used as a crutch.
Then, as the dancer bends forward, the shoulders are moving forward, so the hand should slide forward on the barre. The hand should not be left where it started. That would force the shoulders to be pulled out of alignment, an imbalanced position that distorts the line and a sure indication of poor training.
If you see most of the dancers doing well at this simple detail of the movement and see the teacher correcting those who forget this, the training is probably pretty good.
2. The Aesthetic Art of Ballet
It is hard to describe ballet without naming the grace, poise and beauty of the dance and the dancers. It is why ballet has captivated the imagination of some many young dancers.
To evaluate the aesthetics it is time to watch the dancers’ arms as well as their feet. Without having to understand the technical details of the movements, watch for musicality in the dancers when they dance in the center away from the barres. Do they have musicality? Do they as a group have unity?
For musicality, watch that they start and end the combination together. See if there are times where dancers have to wait because they finished a step or a movement too fast and now they need to wait for the music to catch up with them.
For unity, watch of the feet all point when they are supposed to point. Watch that the feet rise to about the same level. Watch that the arms are all about the same level. Watch that the hands are not contorted into claws or spread wide into five rigid knives.
And listen to the corrections and encouragement the teacher gives the students. The students should be guided into improving their artistic expression as well as the technical details. Be sure the teacher balances both so the student improved in all aspects of ballet.
3. Experience as a dancer and teacher
You can also ask about the teacher’s own dance history.
What method of ballet is she or he trained in and teaches? If they say Vaganova or Cecchetti or Royal or French or any other formal method, this is encouraging to hear. If they respond with Classical, Contemporary or Neoclassical, that refers to a broader style and is less specific, yet it shows some awareness of the diversity within the ballet world. If the ballet style is a watered down mush of various styles, the teacher is probably not very technically proficient.
Who were their most important teachers? If it is Miss Mary, the owner of the school you might wonder about the depth and breadth of experience. If they trained in a school connected to a major ballet company or with a dancer with or from a major company (Joffrey, ABT, Kirov, etc.) that is an excellent indication that their training was thorough and exacting.
What dance companies have they performed with? This can tell you if their technical and aesthetic skills are up to professional standards and that their talents are worthy of emulating.
Have any students they have trained gone on to professional careers in dance? This is a good measure of teaching proficiency. If a teacher can pass on enough technical and artist understanding to create one professional, there must be some sound understanding in their class that is valuable to experience.
4. In Conclusion
You should now be armed with enough understanding to be able to compare the various schools in your region, even of you have never trained as a dancer. May you find a teacher to inspire!