Out of step: the need for change in ballet teacher training

Out of step: the need for change in ballet teacher training

A thinkpiece by Karen Berry, Teacher Training Manager at The Royal Ballet School


‘If Ballet is to survive as an art form, we need more truth seekers and less tight washers’
– Darryl Jaffray (Director of Education and Access, Royal Opera House, 1987–2006), 1987, p32, Dance and Dancers No. 452


This call-to-arms resonated with me profoundly when I read it as a young ballet teacher at the end of the 1980s. It not only shaped my subsequent career, but continues to drive me to constantly question and seek answers. Disillusioned at the time by ballet training systems and methodologies, I began my own reflective journey that led to many questions.

Despite sports professionals eagerly acknowledging and applying an abundance of new findings to their work – especially in how we learn – the teaching of classical ballet seemed sacrosanct, stuck and resistant to change.

There was a real dearth of available research and a resulting void of any practical advice for teachers or students, so I set out to find answers for myself. As my research grew, the answers came, and I found others on the same journey.

Dance teaching is imbued with tradition; accepted practices and standards are passed down from one generation to the next. Dance teachers often teach as they themselves were taught and this loyalty to tradition can unfortunately be the enemy of change.

Considering change may mean a fundamental examination into the roots of what and how you are teaching, and in turn could cause teachers to fear a loss of identity. This may, in part, explain our profession’s hesitancy in acknowledging developments in scientific advancements in the study of teaching and learning. 30 years on, and with an ever-growing body of evidence to support the need for change, we are still, frustratingly, a long way from the truth.

Content vs pedagogy

There is more to a dance education than passing exams.

Over the years, there have been an increasing number of teacher training courses available for private dance teachers focusing on content knowledge (the steps of classical ballet) rather than pedagogical knowledge (the science of teaching). Content knowledge courses, offered by many dance societies, often focus on assessment content and training exercises for a particular graded exam.

The concern with such courses is the implication of a hierarchy of ‘what to teach’, over ‘how to teach’. Teachers can falsely presume that the syllabus content is a training programme. A narrow focus on syllabus settings will not develop diverse and skilled dancers. The exercises, steps and variations within a syllabus are the tools for an assessment-not the recipe for a dance training.

Studying to sit syllabus exams can be rewarding but, as is often now heard in many contexts, can be at the detriment of broader and deeper learning: especially so where any learning revolves solely around a syllabus. Syllabus knowledge may help students pass an exam but will not help them learn and fully understand how to dance. High marks in exams do not necessarily equate to a well-rounded skilled dancer.

Pedagogy, by contrast, is the study of how teachers’ actions and interactions affect student learning. Pedagogical study includes subjects such as child development and learning; communication; motor skill acquisition and reflective practice. However, regardless of the subject taught, it is a well-established principle in teacher training, that effective teaching and learning rely on both content and pedagogical knowledge and the resulting ability to apply both in context.

The lack of teacher training courses providing informed, current and relevant pedagogical information has been detrimental to the advancement of classical ballet education and the art form as a whole. Only through education can we instigate change, help teachers understand the significance of developments in dance teaching and learning to their practice and then begin to see a real difference in student learning and performance.

A healthy balance

At The Royal Ballet School we are actively championing and implementing a step-change in teacher training. By providing progressive and innovative teacher training we can make a real difference to student learning in this country. At the forefront of teacher training and education we deliver and embed our philosophy to a wide cross section of teachers: recreational, educational and vocational teachers, and of course to our own staff, through regular INSET sessions.

Adapted to context, our message is the same regardless: we deliver the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of classical ballet teaching: ensuring that both content and pedagogy are given equal weighting.

What to teach is driven by the associated psychomotor, cognitive and affective skills aligned with the developmental and learning needs of students: skills such as placement, turnout, proprioception, coordination and interpretation. Without the foundation and associated skills in place, the ‘steps’ will lack depth of clarity and quality. There must be a balance between developing the ‘feeling before the form’ and the ‘form within the feeling’ – learning from the inside out.

Pedagogical study will enable teachers to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of student learning, helping them to adapt and apply strategies to advance the performance skills of their students. For example, an area of dance pedagogy that has seen rapid progression is within the field of motor skill acquisition. Appreciation of motor learning can enable teachers to rationally plan structure, content and methodology, helping students to avoid performance barriers and develop into autonomous learners.

Within this context of motor skill acquisition, Christopher Powney’s concerns over competitions , published last November, can be fully understood at a scientific level. Inhibiting what is learned, as a result of either excessive competition practice, or where learning is limited to syllabus settings, can result in students being one-trick ponies, failing to reach their dynamic movement potential. Fast-tracking skills at the expense of developing clean technique, can result in embedding ineffective neural pathways and bad habits that are impossible to eradicate. Perhaps short-term glory should be sacrificed for long-term gain?

The dance world has been painstakingly slow in accepting the need for change, but I believe we are on the brink of transition. We need to empower teachers with the skills that are required, not just to teach the students of today but those of tomorrow, in an ever-challenging and changing world. Not only will we see more children engage positively with the art form, but we will develop intelligent, dynamic dancers who in time may teach the next generation to eagerly embrace change and not ever shy from the truth.

Find out more about The Royal Ballet School’s teacher training opportunities

Shopping basket