Apr 12 2014
When I was little, I wasn’t exactly a likeable kid. I didn’t smile much and I said even less. In fact in my first four years at primary school I said practically nothing, and when I was forced to talk, it was in a voice barely above a whisper. I was perfectly OK and loud at home, so I suppose if I’d been assessed back then they would’ve said I suffered from selective mutism. My point is, I can see how it would’ve been impossible for a teacher to feel affection for me, although I gave no trouble at all, aced my tests, and handed in all my work on time.
But I did once have a form teacher who was fond of me; I remember her patting me on the head and putting my picture in the school magazine. And when I was too afraid to read out loud on my own, she asked another classmate to read along with me. I never thanked her or gave any sign that I appreciated her in any way, and when it was the last day of the school term, I dashed out of the classroom to get to my bus because I hated school that much, without looking back or saying a proper goodbye to her. I’m not sure if we kids knew ahead of time that she had resigned, but anyway she never came back to school, and I’ve always felt bad about that last moment. I don’t even know her name anymore, but I remember her face and how she looked at me with kindness and love.
Decades later, I’m a totally different person. I talk a lot more, that’s for sure! And I’ve had maybe two other teachers treat me with that “special” attention. Not in an obvious way, but with good comments on my papers and patience for my questions. I worked really hard in their classes and scored well, and I was proud of that.
And that’s what I look for when it comes to Layla’s teachers: Their ability to build a relationship with her. Layla’s Chinese tutor is genuinely affectionate towards her; she pokes fun at her during lessons (and Layla sometimes gets mad), they play games, and the tutor tells her stories. The tutor and I will usually have a post-lesson chat, and she’s told me many times that she enjoys teaching Layla because she has a good work attitude. Not that you can tell it’s work. Once, Alf even asked me what goes on during their lessons because he heard Layla giggling so much. Layla’s Chinese grades have been good so far, and eventually I’ll get the tutor to teach Z too.
But yes, this post is about ballet, and I’m getting there. I wrote some time ago that I was wondering if our time at the Singapore Ballet Academy was well spent. I decided that Layla should take her Primary grade exam (which she did a few days ago) and take a break after. She said she wanted a break, and frankly I was tired of the rushing and commuting–two hours on a bus, twice a week, to get to a one-hour class. And Layla didn’t seem sufficiently motivated because she would moan and cry when I repeated the teacher’s instructions at home to practise her stretching. Two months ago I sent in a withdrawal letter and made my intention known to Layla’s current ballet teacher, who simply said, “Oh! Ok.” When I asked her how Layla was doing in class, I got one of those “Oh she’s fine” answers that didn’t really mean anything. So I felt that I’d made the right decision to stop these lessons–there was no relationship here.
I don’t mean to say that her current ballet teacher isn’t doing her job. She’s detailed and attentive, and prior to the exams, she handed out little notes to all the students with the areas that they needed to improve. For instance, Layla’s note said that she needed to stretch her legs fully when jumping and to remember to look up and keep her shoulders down at all times. But here’s the thing, when I brought Layla for her exam, we ran into her first ballet teacher, who’s been away for a while. Her face brightened when she saw Layla and she came up to hug her, telling her she still has the hand-drawn card Layla gave her two years ago. When she heard Layla was leaving the school, she squealed and exclaimed, “Why?!” Then she lamented that they would be losing a good student, and asked me to reconsider. We’ll still be taking that break, but I told this particular teacher to call me when she’s assigned to a class that Layla can join. For her, we will return to SBA.
A mom wrote to me some time back saying that she had just enrolled her daughter in the Little Dance Academy; her daughter had taken a trial there and she felt it was a good school, with great instruction and enthusiasm. Another mom recommended the Palais Dance Studio, which she said was a good school that didn’t require twice-a-week training sessions leading up to the ballet exams. I also received an informative mail from a ballet teacher who runs the Russian Ballet Academy Singapore, and I’m including our conversation here:
How is Russian ballet training different from what my daughter is doing now to prepare for the RAD exams?
I’ve taught the RAD Pre-primary and Primary Grades before, prior to having my own school. The RAD is not to be used as a training method, as it is a syllabus- and exam-based system. In other words, the RAD does not teach new material outside of its syllabuses/exams. While the RAD system has much merit of its own, eventually, when the students are older and need to be learning more advanced material, this system may not be the most beneficial. For the primary level, many of its exercises are movement-based, and give the young students a sense of dance and movement, which is definitely useful.
In contrast, in the Russian system, classes for young students are centred around classical ballet technique, and exercises are set by each individual teacher according to the needs of her students. These exercises may include gymnastics or flexibility/strength training, and all of these help in building a strong classical foundation for the student. Classical ballet technique classes usually take in students from 7-9 years old, and there is a set curriculum for the 8 levels in the Vaganova method as well. Typically, the Russian method is used as a training tool to prepare its students for professional work in a ballet career, but even when done “recreationally,” where the student has no professional aspirations, the benefits they reap are the same as well.
Are there injuries or postural/foot problems that can result from ballet training?
Ballet injuries are rare among young students. When ballet technique is done correctly, using the right muscles, injuries should not happen. The teacher also has the responsibility to ensure that the pace is appropriate for each class and for the age group as well. Sometimes, other activities outside of ballet, such as high-impact sports, may be a contributing cause for injuries.
Is there a meaning behind the dance movements that the students learn? E.g. is there a plot/storyline to the dance, or are the movements related to the accompanying classical piece?
The Vaganova method actually does teach its students to know the purpose behind each step, and each student is expected to understand both mentally and physically how to work their bodies. Even though they are at a young age, exercises are set in such a way that they are simple enough to understand, and the tempo and the pace also allow students to be aware of what their bodies and muscles are doing as well. So at the end of the day, the students are not imitating the teacher, but doing the exercises with a clear understanding of how to work their muscles.
As for classical pieces or short pieces of variations/repertoire (ballet stories), they usually are not introduced until towards the end of a level/curriculum, when the students have a good grasp on their basics. Repertoire can include excerpts from a ballet classic (Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker etc), and it can also include a classical choreography from the teacher. In the Vaganova method, everything that we do in class eventually becomes something that we can perform onstage in classical ballet pieces, so both technique and artistry is given equal emphasis.
If a student shows little or no aptitude for ballet, would they receive an honest assessment and be advised to try something else?
I personally believe that all students can dance, and can have a good foundation in ballet, although not everyone can be a professional dancer. I do give honest assessments to students who wish to pursue ballet seriously, but as long as a student enjoys and loves ballet, I don’t turn them away. If they don’t have natural talent for a performing career, there are always other outlets such as teaching.
We keep a maximum of 10 students per class, and everyone is invited to perform at least once a year. It is good for all students to be able to perform, even though we may have varying talents within a class, because we do want all our students to have stage experience, which can boost their confidence, whether they take dance professionally or not.
The Russian Ballet Academy teacher had originally invited Layla to a ballet trial but that didn’t materialise, in any case this school isn’t in a more convenient location for us, compared to SBA. If you would like to contact the teacher directly, please leave a comment or e-mail me. To read my earlier ballet post, click here.