Her image is etched permanently in my memory. Auburn hair twisted tightly in a bun at the back of her head, a thick Russian accent, long flowing skirt. She was the teacher of my first -- and last -- ballet class.
I had always dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. Those dreams were fed by the countless dance concerts my mother and I attended. I knew, without a doubt, that I was to be the next Margot Fonteyn. But on that day I was consumed by pain from very tight, very new ballet slippers. My wretched feeling was compounded by my being a vision in pink, too pink for comfort, too pink to disappear.
I could not understand the directions the teacher gave us. I suspected she was not speaking English; that everyone knew this, but that no one wanted to speak up. It was my misfortune that on that day her watch stopped midway through class. As a result, the class ran an extra 45 minutes. It seemed like an eternity.
The moment class ended I swore off ballet and kissed good-bye to my future as a prima ballerina. Later, when I started dancing again, I chose modern.
The initial dance class a child experiences is pivotal; it will undoubtedly determine his or her attitude toward dance. It will also decide whether or not that first class will lead to more.
The first step in choosing is to assess as a parent what it is you are looking for. What is it you want to happen for your child in his or her first dance class? There are several possibilities:
1. A chance to explore creativity through movement while being with other children. These classes are called a variety of names, among them, creative movement and pre-technique. They offer a chance to improvise, to experiment with rhythm and concepts of shape, size and weight.
2. Exposure to movement forms. These classes offer a basic introduction to technique: modern, ballet or a combination of both.
3. Serious training that will provide a strong foundation in technique. These classes are for those concerned about developing and training their bodies for dance. Also, for those who simply want to become more proficient in technique. Classes are offered at all levels.
Ideally, you would like to find a class that will combine the best elements of both disciplines. If you reach a point where you must -- or want to -- choose between modern and ballet, there are some things to think about.
Modern classes offer great freedom of movement, an informal class setting and often a chance to improvise with other students. The movement style varies with the particular technique. Most classes introduce the correct positions for the feet, body alighment and basic vocabulary. The thrust differs from ballet in that modern dance stresses concepts of weight and gravity. The movement is less constrained.
One student described it this way " . . . Modern let's go a lot more, there is more giving in." Modern has an earthiness about it that makes it accessible, even to beginners.
"Ballet is like learning 25 words, and then you have a language," says choreographer, dancer and teacher Jan Van Dyke. "Modern is like learning a lot of different syllables and then putting them together to make your own language.
"In ballet, there is a definite right and wrong because you are always working for a pure classical line. In modern, there are rights and wrongs, too, but you can make your own style."
"Unearthy," "fantastical, "theatrical" describe the wonder of a full-scale ballet production. The glamor and beauty is irresistible to adults as well as children. The ephemeral, sometimes dazzling, world projected on stage is in stark contrast to the almost stern discipline of a ballet class.
Ballet is a stricter, more structured approach. The emphasis is on body placement and precision rather than expression. Theoretically, control leads to more "freedom" of movement and ballet can provide an excellent foundation in technique that also serves modern and other styles. Most professional dancers, whether they are members of modern, ballet or jazz companies, receive ballet training.
"Modern works the whole body, while ballet pays more attention to feet and turn-out," says Van Dyke.
Modern? Ballet? A combination of both? Whatever the starting point, the quality of the initial experience should be the key factor in choosing. Once you decide, try to keep up on how your child is responding to class.
Some children respond positively to discipline and formality, while others may be bored and restless. Some cannot handle the freedom of a more open environment.
Dancing is not always easy, but it should be a pleasure. Moving is fun! If your child is dreading going to class, perhaps there is a good reason why. A change may be in order.
Another factor to consider is that some studios, particularly ballet, pay a great deal of attention to body type. Students are separated into classes by physical size and ability, as well as age. For a young adolescent going through an ackward period, or just plain self-consciousness, this can be humiliating, with him or her feeling still another finger is being pointed at what they see already as blatant inadequacies.
The emphasis should be on a class that provides a positive, comfortable atmosphere. It should be a setting in which a child feels safe and uninhibited about expressing himself or herself through movement.
It is important to know that it is possible to observe a dance class before you commit yourself (and your child). An alternative to visiting a studio is to call and speak with its director. Ask what they feel they are trying to accomplish in their classes for children.
As choreographer-teacher=dancer Van Dyke says, "a first anything is a big impression. The first class can really affect how a child approaches taking class as a discipline. A sensitive teacher can help a child see it (the class) as a chance for exploration, rather than something to be endured."