Thursday, August 2, 2007

Ballet Counselor: Just for Kids

me as an assistant teacher & summer counselor
Having attended numerous dance “camps” growing up, I’ve met my fair share of counselors and mentors. It wasn’t until this summer, however, that things changed: I WAS a counselor (I guess the old saying is true: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em)! I have spent the last 6 weeks working as a counselor and assistant teacher for 18, 7-year old ballerinas, and yesterday I said goodbye to many little friends and memories.

I was a bit skeptical about the job at first. I have been assisting in ballet classes twice a week over the past year, and many of the teachers and administrators complimented my ability to work with the kids. It made sense for me to take the position, but before the camp started, and possibly more so after day 1, I wasn’t so thrilled about it. As the summer progressed, though, it turned out to be almost as fulfilling of a “camp” experience for me as it was for the little ones!

The days were long, but once we got into the swing of things it got easier. I was supposed to be at the studio at 8:45 every morning, with the kids arriving for check-in at 9am. I always ended up getting there at 8:30 to do the necessary preparations for the day (set up coloring supplies, lay out ballet slippers, line up tap shoes). The other 3 counselors and I would laugh over something one of the kids said the day before as we guzzled our coffee and got set up.

Then the herd arrived. One by one they trickled in, kissing their mothers in pearls goodbye (this is the Upper East Side, after all…). After taking attendance and going through the routine of “what did you do over the weekend?” with each one, we finally got to the dance activities.

Though it IS considered a regular summer camp, including other things like crafts, origami, gymnastics, swimming, and games, it is first and foremost a ballet school. With that in mind, it was interesting to me to see the schedule of events each day. Our group, the oldest of 3 age groups, was there Monday-Thursday, 9-3:30. In all that time they only had 2 ballet classes!

To supplement the short time for being on their toes they had a range of other dance classes: jazz, tap, modern, and choreography. Of course they each had their favorite of the selection, but they were all required to participate in each discipline. Granted these were beginner classes and attention spans were short. But the amount of material and choreography these children were exposed to was unbelievable.

I think it’s really important for people to experience a wide variety of styles so that we don’t become one dimensional in our art form. It is wonderful and so fortunate that these children were given the opportunity to learn about different ways of moving and creating movement at such a young, influential age. They even had their first Yoga classes (and, as funny as it is, it was MY very first time taking yoga as well)!

Once I got over the shock of responsibility to the these kids and the amount of constant attention they need, I was able to enjoy myself. Not only did I befriend many of them (and get babysitting jobs as a result) but I got to observe the process of teaching and learning dance from a new perspective. Over the course of the 6 weeks I saw physical improvement in each of them, not necessarily in the challenges of ballet, but in dancing in general.

It made me think back to my early days of summer dance camp. I attended regular day-camp at our local high school when I was really young, but I began traveling an hour out of town for dance camp at the age these kids are now: just 7. I don’t remember the specifics of what these days were like or even if I particularly enjoyed them, but I do know that they inspired me enough to enter that ballet school for my first year of pre-professional training that fall.

As far as I can recall, we didn’t have such a wide variety of classes outside of dance. It was truly ballet based, but we did get our jazz and modern classes on occasion. Another difference from today’s camp is that (to my knowledge) we only had one teacher in the room with us at a time, whereas here the kids had a teacher, and assistant, and at least 2 counselors in the studio at all times to help learn the steps. I think this factor may be truly unique to this camp, in which case it is really outstanding because the kids have that sense of personal connection and attention while dancing.

This sense and the notion of variety truly diminish in the later years of ballet training (even summer training). Gradually teachers become distant from students, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps some of it is about being politically correct, but that can’t account for all of it.

There is a major shift in attention and interest as students age. In addition to this change, the emphasis on diversity is replaced by a desire for a cookie cutter effect of perfection. Jazz and modern classes are often seen as a distraction rather than a useful cross-training supplement to strict technique.

Perhaps if the principles that make a youthful dance camp so successful were applied to older summer intensives I, and others, would be able to respect and appreciate ballet in a renewed way. But for now, I think I’ll remain in my role as counselor/teacher. As they say, “Those who can’t do, teach!”

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