Guiding instructors to make more purposeful choices is deeply rewarding. I have been fortunate to work in this capacity for universities and schools. Let's teach what matters.
Juliet Remmers and I met in a 4000-level course I taught on how to teach ballet. It was a serious class and she showed up as a serious student. When class discussions waned, I could count on her curiosity and preparedness to re-enliven our conversation.
Teaching a class of student teachers who I hadn't trained reminded me of our tendency toward tribalism among schools of thought in ballet. The structure of ballet training seems to build an appetite for a singular right answers, even when they don't reflect the complexity of issues beneath the surface. Juliet doesn't slip into this kind of all-or-nothing thinking.
Below she writes about her experience as my student.
I was pleased to develop more understanding of the ways that different teachers and lineages approach concepts of placement, energetic work, directive and metaphoric language, and I developed a better understanding of the purpose behind some technique particularities that seemed to contradict what I had learned in my classes growing up.
I appreciate Finis Jhung’s practice of keeping and passing on only those technical methods that are mechanically useful and help students achieve the goals of ballet, rather than being a keeper of the flame of a cultural ballet tradition like Vaganova/Cecchetti teachers. The freedom to abandon or alter an exercise or practice that is perpetuated solely because it has always existed can make space for more effective exercises that help ballet dancers dance better, for longer.
Though I have in the past talked with students about the circular, energetic pathways and oppositional forces that initiate movements (from David Howard), I now have a better understanding of how to expand on those concepts and communicate the “hidden ingredients” (JoAnna Kneeland and lineage), especially regarding the activation of the intrinsic muscles of the feet, the back chain of the legs, the spiral action of the spine, “going to the end of the plié”, order of operations like “shoulder-toes-eyes” and “arm-head-arm” in pirouette preparation and execution.
Unable to get approval for funding for an independent study the next semester, Juliet attended my 1000-level introductory ballet class to learn by doing. Her work on the most basic of exercises was steadfast and inspiring. In floor barre we breathed into the pelvis, hugged the legs to the midline, and spiraled the thighs outward while rooting the big toes down. At the barre we rose to the balls of the feet by pressing down with the toes and sending forward the pinky ball held between our inner thighs. We repeated this practice countless times, harmonizing the efforts of the center, the extremities, and the breath until they became a unified mechanism of support. Juliet was always there with a notebook nearby to jot down her thoughts on the process.
I wrote down something you said, Jason. “Ballet class is not using a map to find a treasure, but a practice in drawing the map over and over”. This seems important to communicate with students about their developing practice, but also in my own learning about how to teach ballet well. You set an excellent example as a teacher. Your investment and vigorous interest in your own learning, attention to detail in feedback, and generosity with additional video and reading materials is inspirational.
Before he came to me, Michael Landez was already certified in all levels of ABT National Training Curriculum and Progressing Ballet Technique. At the outset, I wondered if such an invested teacher would be too set in his ways to reassess the internal workings of the body. My worries were unfounded.
Here is an excerpt from Michael's account of his learning under my guidance.
The greatest example of this education and re-orientation of mindset, for me, was the concept of "grasping" the floor. I'll freely admit, I absolutely hated it for the first few weeks we worked. I was grossly entrenched in the "no gripping" mentality of previous ballet pedagogues. However, specifically through the small article by Ruth Solomon, I saw the scientific evidence of the relaxing of the anterior tibialis tendon and the engagement of the intrinsic muscles of the foot.
The discovery of a charged versus a passive plié was revolutionary to my practice... The amount of ankle pain I experience in class has significantly decreased... When I remind myself of [Finis] Jhung's cue to "go to the end of the plié" or [Wayne] Byars's cue to "open a jar of jam with the back foot", I have never felt so clean in turns.
Until this course, I had aligned "old-school" teachers with intense, demanding teachers that can still pump out powerhouse dancers whereas "contemporary-aged" teachers were more lax, weak teachers. However, especially through your example, this preconceived notion was shattered. The contemporary age for ballet pedagogy is not static or weak; it is vibrant, informed and for everyone. I was continuously floored at what discoveries could be found in my body and the bodies of my colleagues around me.
The "no gripping" approach Michael references was part of my dance training as well. But the verb grip needs the right object before we pass it on in our classrooms. "No gripping your own joints" differs significantly from "no gripping the external environment when purposeful," but it is all too easy for teachers to conflate the two or for students to hear them as one and the same.
When performed properly, a plié that initiates by pulling the floor puts the work into the feet and seat. This takes strain off of the ankles and allows the pendular swing of the heel bone to emerge in relevé. Performed improperly, however, a "gripped" plié tense in the front of the ankle can cause problems starting with inefficiency and developing into pain. In my experience, ankle gripping usually begins as a problem of mindset—the dancer is trying to pull the ankles and knees into a plié shape rather than working the foot on the floor to initiate a plié action. In my own cueing, I replace the word grip with the word grasp because of its connotation of constructive interaction with external objects. This has also allowed me to extract myself from the perennial argument about gripping, in which teachers unwittingly talk past each other by never defining their terms.
I encounter many students who need to strengthen the foot. They are not using the toes energetically to protect the knees and ankles. I help my students get reacquainted with the intrinsic muscles of their feet, activating them for the work ahead. This process takes time and requires students to develop patience. It also involves exercises dancers have never encountered, the critical importance of which they will not recognize at the outset. The key is openness to positive change rather than attachment to what is familiar.
The structure of [your] class was much like some ballet classes; I didn’t understand the pieces and exercises at play, until the work was completed. Initially, I had restricted my mind to the idea that pedagogy class was meant for memorizing steps, discovering when students are prepared to learn them, developing exercises to build turnout, extension, and respect the tradition. Obviously, this is not all wrong, but I realized that in order to advance the field of ballet, we must continue to thrust into the unknown.
Ballet is not, nor has it ever been a static practice...Through the work done in [your] class, I was intrigued by a shift of my mentality. I became curious about how to be a respectful teacher cognizant of tradition, a forward-thinking teacher aware of the changing needs of students, a strong teacher that demands the best work from their students, and a master teacher that can encourage healthy habits across the minds and bodies of both students and myself.
You can follow Michael's work here: https://www.landezarts.org/
2017 Teachers Workshop in New York with Finis Jhung.