Student Progress: Why Slow & Steady May Win The Race

"Plié is the first thing you learn and the last thing you master."                                                -Suzanne Farrell

            As spring performances and recitals conclude and summer plans begin, students will begin receiving information about level placements for the next school year.

            Since the educational system normally advances students each year, dance students and their parents have grown to expect the same type of advancement when studying dance.  The U.S. educational system offers twelve grade levels while most dance schools only offer five or six levels of dance for students ages 8-18.  Clearly this system cannot accommodate level advancement each year nor should it.
            Life has become a race to advance and achieve as quickly as possible, and parents often beg for checklists of what steps their children must know to advance to the next level.  It is difficult for parents to understand that simply knowing the steps is not enough for dancers to advance.  Dance is not simply about doing the movement.  Since it is a performing art, just as much, if not more, emphasis must be placed on how the movement is performed.  A plié is one of the very first steps a dancer learns, and although it is a bending of the knees, there is much more involved to execute a technically sound plié.  In a correct first position plié all five toes must remain stretched on the floor, the dancer’s weight must be centered over the balls of his or her feet, the outward leg rotation must be held from the hip, the knees must track over the toes, the pelvis must align with the ribcage, the ribcage must remain closed, the shoulders must be open and dropped, the sternum must be lifted and the head must be held high.  Once that is all accomplished, the dancer can begin adding port de bras, or arm movements.

            Dance steps can be compared to a cake.  Just as a cake must be put together and baked before frosting and decorations are added, steps must be learned and performed correctly before timing can be changed, variations of the step can be taught, the steps can be used in combinations and arm or head movements can be added.

            Moreover, dance steps build upon each other.  That same beginner plié is what must be used for preparing for and landing from relevés, turns and jumps.  There is a definite difference between learning a step and executing it well enough to be able to build upon it.  Sometimes the difference can be subtle and difficult for parents and even the dancers themselves to understand.

            It is of no advantage to a teacher to hold back any student who is ready to progress.  When a teacher recommends a student remain in the same level for another year, it is either to perfect certain movements, to wait for the body’s muscles to develop more strength and/or flexibility or to prevent the frustration that will occur if the dancer is advanced too quickly.  Dance movements are so difficult to master that there is always a challenge available no matter what level class the dancer is in.

            Although a dancer may be disappointed when asked to remain in a level after working hard, it is important that the student learn to cope with this disappointment.  The student will have to face future disappointments in life and in the dance world.  There will be summer camp rejections, roles not received, contracts not offered and promotions not granted.  The small disappointments along the way will teach the dancer how to face and cope with the larger ones that may be encountered in the future.

            Lastly, repeating a level can, and should, be seen as a confidence building opportunity.  Dancers who have already learned the basic steps at their level can begin to embellish them and work on performing them.  These students will be seen as role models in the class, and as a result, they will develop the self-confidence and determination that is a large part of dance education and is necessary to perform and succeed in the dance world.