David Mead looks at Cadence Joy Whittier’s new book.
In dance, it’s long been recognised that past experiences play a large part in our personal approaches to the subject, not least in how we teach. We imbibe a lot, good habits and bad, from those who taught us. Like any of the classical dance forms that have a similar long history and strict hierarchy, ways of teaching in ballet tend to be deeply set in the ‘teacher-centred model’, whereby the teacher is the expert, the sole giver of information to the students, who then try to attain the standards set by the teacher, who in turn may be taking them from a higher body.
Such an approach may foster excellent technique as seen from the outside, but it has always been highly questionable whether it encourages artistry and understanding. Of course, technique is important, but in fact it has never been enough on its own. Today, when students are more questioning, when choreographers seek more input from dancers, that is even more so.
This is where Cadence Joy Whittier’s new book, Creative Ballet Teaching, comes in. She observes correctly, contemporary dance has long sought to develop versatility and creativity, but they are needed in ballet too. So, how can teachers create a ballet learning environment that promotes collaboration and enquiry? How can they impart ballet’s essentials and any particular overarching style, while also supporting each dancer’s artistic instincts?
The book contains a wealth of excellent teaching strategies, although it has to be said that there’s not exactly a huge amount in here that’s new. Whittier gives a whole host of ways in which the teaching and learning process can engage students more: actually discussing things with students, asking them to think about what they are doing and problems they may be experiencing (for example, if someone is falling off a pirouette, ask them to analyse the problem and suggest solutions rather than just correcting), constructing exercises together, reviewing exercises together, using imagery and metaphor, experimenting with dynamics, characterisation, use of space, breath… The list is endless. It’s all the sort of stuff a lot of contemporary dance teachers have been doing for years, but yes, it can be done with ballet and any other classical form too.
Creative Dance Teaching is neatly divided into three sections. ‘Rethinking Creativity, Community, and Technique in the Ballet Classroom’ takes us back to the basics of dance generally and how discusses how ballet teaching style can mesh with that used in creative movement classes; how inspiration can be taken from the way those classes help develop body knowledge and improvisation skills. It’s here she also discussion how students can learn from their peers.
Whittier is professor of dance at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York; and faculty and co-director of Laban Movement Analysis/Bartenieff Fundamentals Certification Programs at Integrated Movement Studies, a team of movement educators based in Santa Barbara, California, that offer certificate programmes in Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies. If you hadn’t already picked that up, the latter in particular hits you in the face in Chapter Five, which is where she introduces Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analysis: a tool for facilitating creativity and technique. The abbreviation ‘L/BMA’ hits you time and time again. So much so, that, at times, I felt I was being ‘sold’ it. Going forward, and while she does state that it’s only one tool in a teacher’s workbox, the books feels like a treatise on how to use Laban and Bartenieff Movement Analysis in teaching, and less about encouraging creativity in ballet classes generally.
As Whittier moves on, the Laban and Bartenieff influence is obvious in chapter titles. ‘Balancing three-dimensionally: Spatial Intent and Countertensions’ do not exactly invite the average ballet teacher in. Neither does ‘Moving three-dimensionally: Traceforms and Kinesphere’. Part II of the book concerns itself with ‘Improving Balance and Motion’, while Part III looks at ‘Deepening Dynamism’ and is jammed with all the usual Laban terms: effort, free and bound flow, weight, time and so on.
Within the text, the book takes on a much more academic feel too. Although Whittier still includes excellent teaching ideas, if you are going to reach everyday teachers in studios around the world (not only in academic seminar rooms), you need to engage with them in their own way. Whittier instead constantly reverts to technical Laban and Bartenieff terms and abbreviations, again emphasising that this is what it is really about. Teachers do and have always used these concepts but not so much the technical terms. While they may be common in American universities (it’s not elsewhere), and in teacher-programmes, I doubt strongly that they’re used much in day to day studio work even there, certainly not in my experience.
Whittier’s use of boxes to present teaching ideas is good. It separates them from the main text. Not so good is the way those boxes are frequently split across pages, and even worse over pages, even when they would quite happily fit on a single page. That’s unfortunate, because, and I’ll say it again, there is a lot of good stuff in here and a lot of very common-sense ideas that are worth repeating. They are just not presented in a particularly user friendly, or dip in and out, sort of way.
How one finds time to incorporate Whittier’s ideas in a class where the teacher is probably already struggling for time is another question of course. That brings us to an important point. While individual strategies here can be incorporated into or even bolted on to a regular, traditional class, what Whitter is really calling for is a whole new approach. Quite where that might leave ballet exams, where the examining organisation may demand a very particular way of doing, leading to pressures to teach in a way that subverts individuality, I’m not sure.
There is a short and not surprisingly heavily Laban/Bartenieff influenced glossary, and a good index that points you at appropriate pages for particular ballet movements or positions.
Creative Ballet Teaching is an important addition to the bookshelf, definitely, but ‘exciting’ is not a description I would use. It looks like an academic tome and feels like an academic tome. I suspect it’s a book that will sit happily on university library shelves or be used in teacher programmes (including Whittier’s own), but that won’t be picked up much by already qualified teachers in studios large and small, national and local, which is unfortunate.
Creative Ballet Teaching: Technique and Artistry for the 21st Century Ballet Dancer
Author: Cadence Joy Whittier
279 pages, paperback
Regular price: £29.99