The Rehearsal Trap

How to keep your students focused on technique during recital season.

Nancy Davis leads class with her Portland Ballet students.

Anxious thoughts circle through the minds of teachers every season as they try to balance recital rehearsals and competition preparation with curriculum classes. Studio space is limited, and rehearsals never seem long enough—but you also don't want to overwork your students. It's a tricky juggling act to master. Does it hurt to devote a technique class here or there to rehearsal? Or will the students' technique suffer? Will they start to see class as disposable, less important than getting onstage?

The "technique class is non-negotiable" ideal may have to be compromised occasionally. But even in less-than-perfect situations, there are ways to let your students know that technique comes first.

Rehearsals in Class

The solution to the rehearsal conundrum will depend on how committed your students are. Older, more serious dancers, who are willing to sacrifice free time on weekends for rehearsals, might be able to continue their full roster of technique classes right through recital season. Younger students who come only two or three times a week probably won't be willing to rehearse outside of class. But that doesn't mean their entire focus has to shift to the recital.

When preparing for her school's annual spring showcase, Angela Cibelli of Wayne Ballet in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has to have her youngest students practice for the show in class, but she designates only the last quarter of certain "show classes" as rehearsal periods. All other classes remain intact, ensuring a continued focus on technique.

Sometimes, however, emergencies do happen, and sacrificing a full class period to rehearsal becomes unavoidable. When that situation arises, Cibelli replicates the discipline of classwork by emphasizing clean technique and making technical corrections as the students work on choreography. And she makes sure students understand that the year-end recital isn't just for fun: Learning how to absorb choreography is a critical part of their training, too.

The Power of Incentives

Most students are more excited about rehearsing for a show or competition than about mastering the finer points of technique—a frustrating truth that can, however, be used to the teacher's advantage. Cibelli has found a way to channel the students' enthusiasm: "My dancers start buzzing about the show in the springtime, but they know that if the first half of [their shortened technique class] is not stellar, I am willing to forgo rehearsal time to work on technical problems," she says. "After one missed rehearsal they get back on track pretty quickly. And it helps even the youngest students understand that class is the heart of everything."

The Dance Zone in Las Vegas, Nevada, achieves similar results with a strict attendance mandate: "We've made it clear that the only way the students can compete is if they're attending all assigned classes," says co-director Jami Artiga. "Once we really started cracking down on absences, the system worked perfectly. Now we hardly struggle with that at all."

Maintaining a Technical Focus—Even on Show Day

It's important to make sure that the "technique first" emphasis carries over to performance periods, too. Nancy Davis of The Portland Ballet in Portland, Oregon, gives her students a sense of responsibility by creating a professional atmosphere during performance runs. On tech, dress rehearsal and performance days, the schedule includes a full class onstage, as well as time for a warm-up in between shows. That sends the message that disciplined classwork equals better performances onstage. "The students learn that technique classes are an important means to an end," she says. "And they love the carrot of getting a better part next year." DT

Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches dance in Portland, OR.

Photo: Nancy Davis leads class with her Portland Ballet students, by Blaine Covert, courtesy of The Portland Ballet

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