How one professor helps students of modern dance make the leap from basic technique to true artistry.
Assistant Lecturer in Dance, Coker College
MA in Dance Education, BA in Dance Performance/Choreography and Movement Therapies
In her first semester as a college-level ballet teacher, Coker College Professor Devin Jennings had a student in her Ballet Technique II class who did not appear to have found her connection with the classical repertoire. “She was an extraordinarily talented modern dancer but always limited herself in ballet,” Jennings remembers. “She seemed shut down: She listened, but she never seemed to enjoy ballet.”
In this course, Jennings assigns each student to choose a variation (defined as a 1- to 2-minute solo dance) from a classical work of ballet. Students then study, memorize, and perform this variation, bringing their own interpretations to the choreography.
This individual chose a particularly difficult variation that included a move that was unachievable for her at the time. “There was a challenging step at the end—called Italian fouettés, and there was a series of 8 of them—which she hadn’t quite mastered. I helped her learn how to modify the sequence so that she could work up to it at the end,” Jennings says. During the informal concert at the end of the semester, the student was able to complete half of the dance steps fully and half of them modified. “She performed her variation, [then] came up to me and said, ‘You finally taught me to love ballet.’ That was a pivotal moment for me as a ballet teacher.”
While dance, by definition, may seem driven by the “learning by doing” philosophy, Jennings feels that a greater emphasis on practical application of technique is something that can enhance pedagogy in many disciplines, even those remote from the performing arts.
The results speak for themselves: That student has gone on to a successful modern dance career, and her choreography has been featured at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “She’s our first student to ever have that happen,” Jennings notes. “We’re very proud of her.”
Challenge: A need to go beyond technique
Jennings is a 2012 Coker College graduate who earned her master’s degree at New York University. She has been teaching numerous styles of dance in private studios and schools for almost 10 years and ballet, pointe, and tap classes at the college level for 3 years.
“The Variations Exercise wasn’t something we did when I was a student here,” Jennings recalls. When the Coker Repertory Dance Company shifted focus to contemporary choreography (rather than classical ballet choreography), students had no opportunity to perform the ballet moves that they were learning in class.
The Variations Exercise, says Jennings, was her way of answering that challenge. “I was trying to find a way to incorporate more technique and artistry in a ballet course. I think it’s important that [students] learn to put character and performance quality into what they do in class.”
Innovation: Interpreting videos of classical variations
Coker is a small liberal arts college with a dance department predominantly focused on modern choreography. In modern dance classes, students typically get to make a lot of choices about what they study and explore, says Jennings. Ballet, by contrast, is more of a command discipline, where students are told what to work on.
The Variations Exercise Jennings has developed brings the best of both worlds together. First, it enables dancers to expand their ballet vocabulary, adding character and deepening their understanding of classical works. Second, it offers dancers more freedom—and an element of fun. “It’s a little more student centered,” Jennings says. “They can choose something that plays to their individual strengths.”
Course: DNC 205 Ballet Technique II
Frequency: Two 1-hour-50-minute sessions per week
Class size: 6
Course description: This course will continue progressing through the ballet vocabulary and becoming more complex as it progresses and expands the barre work and center combinations. There will be more focus on dynamics, alignment, and use of épaulement [placement of the shoulders, head, and neck]. Prerequisite: DNC 105 (Ballet Technique I; two semesters) and permission of the instructor.
In her words: “The class starts to take ballet beyond the introductory level in terms of performance. In technique classes, we tend to be so focused on the steps and the placement, but starting to dance through those steps, applying dynamics, the use of the upper body and really performing their work and use of épaulement. [DNC 205] incorporates what [students have learned] in modern dance technique, improvisation, and dance composition. It’s where dance students start to find their own voice.”
DNC 205 Ballet Technique IISee materials
Lesson: The Variations Exercise
Jennings does not introduce the Variations Exercise until partway through the semester, once she has confidence that the students, who typically have just moved up from Ballet I, have the requisite basic grounding in ballet technique.
To begin the Variations Exercise, Jennings has each student select a 1- to 2-minute solo selection from a classical ballet to study, memorize, and work on in a variety of ways (both alone and as a class) to develop performance quality and artistry. Here is additional detail on how she presents and delivers this lesson.
Take small steps toward a greater goal
Students are required to attend productions of professional ballet companies performing the classical works so they can see variations within those performances. “A lot of [dance students] feel they’ll never be good enough to [perform a classical work],” Jennings says. “With this assignment, they take a small chunk of the classical repertoire and get the sense of achievement from learning it.”
Make educated selections
Individual students are encouraged to find variations—typically from online videos—that speak to them. “If the student’s strength is really in jumping or turning, she can find a variation tailored to those strengths,” Jennings explains. “If I know that turning isn’t her strength and she’s picked a variation that’s all turns, we’ll talk about it, and maybe I can suggest another variation from that same ballet [that] might suit her a little better. It’s her choice, but within limits, because I do want her to succeed.”
Minor modifications are allowed, notes Jennings, as long as the movement supports the integrity of the choreography. “Professional dancers may be doing triple or quadruple turns in these works, and some of my students may still be working on clean doubles,” Jennings allows. “We’ll take it a step back. We often will adjust the tempo of the music to make the variation more achievable.”
Use technology to learn choreography
In one class session, students use their choice of electronic device (phone, computer, tablet, etc.) to learn their selected variation from a video. That is a critical skill in itself, Jennings notes, as learning from video (rather than from the actual choreographer) is increasingly common. “It’s a way of learning from the masters when you don’t have the opportunity to go and meet them where they are,” Jennings explains.
Isolate moves for everyone to try
Jennings will select certain steps or sequences from each of the chosen variations, then have the entire class work on them. In this way, all students benefit from the experience of learning a variety of classical sequences.
Embrace and apply feedback
Grading is based upon a detailed rubric and involves criteria related to three areas, each of which is equal in point value:
- Technical execution
- Learning, memorizing, and modifying
- Artistry and attitude (musicality, performance, and dynamics)
An example of a performance that “Exceeds expectations” in the “Artistry and attitude” category would fulfill these rubric criteria:
Dancer is working clearly with the music to add dynamics and perform to their fullest potential. The student shows clear character development and uses facial expression, épaulement, energy, and timing to portray their emotion.
Each student performs his or her variation in class for dance faculty members who offer feedback, which students can absorb prior to an onstage performance in an informal dance concert for a public audience.
Write themes about variations
Because dance is intensely physical, it may seem counterintuitive to note that dance students write a lot. However, the ability to express oneself in writing is vital to any modern career. That is why, during the course of this assignment, students write a 1- to 2-page character analysis outlining the ballet that the variation was chosen from, what character they are portraying, and how they intend to convey that character through movement using dynamics, gestures, and facial expressions. After the final performance, students also submit a 2- to 3-page reflection on the entire process.
Jennings began using the Variations Exercise in her first semester of teaching at Coker College. “Students have started to look forward to [this assignment] if they have me for their Ballet II class,” says Jennings. “I did a variant on it for my pointe class as well. We did a group piece—the four little swans from Swan Lake. And I’ve toyed with doing it in my other technique classes.”
The next phase for students is to go on to Ballet Technique III, where they are expected to demonstrate not only technique but mastery of character and artistry. Jennings feels the Variations Exercise is an important tool to help dancers accomplish this transition.
“After going through this class assignment, I not only felt a difference in my dancing, I saw everyone in class become someone totally different. I saw others move bigger, clearer, and most, if not all of us, danced with more confidence. A lot of the time I become an introvert when it comes to doing new things, like in class. When it comes to ballet, I get so focused on learning the steps that I forget to allow my personality to shine through. This assignment not only pushed me to tap into my personality, but it reminded me that ballet can be fun as well. I also realized that I have gained much more confidence than what I had in my past years of ballet classes, and I’m proud of my progression.”
“The highlight of this entire course was getting to perform a variation at the end of the year. I really enjoy performing ballet choreography versus just taking numerous technique classes. I believe it’s a great chance to showcase our technical abilities and what we have learned over the year.”
“My performance aspects have improved this semester, especially with working on the variation assignment for class. I tend to struggle with performance qualities in class and on stage at times. Working through the variation and performing it on stage at the informal concert has assisted me in this area.”
“I really enjoyed this class, especially the variation project. It allowed us to see how the steps we learn in class can be put into famous variations. Being able to perform these in the informal [concert] was also a great plus … because we haven’t done that before. This course has been so insightful, and I feel that I learned and improved so much! I am proud to be part of Professor Jennings’ first teaching class here at Coker!”