When I started Oasis Dance & Drama School in Nov. 2009, I decided to teach the Living Dance Syllabus, developed by Beth Bluett, who was a ballerina with Rosella Hightower's ballet company in France, decades ago.
I had always said I wouldn't teach RAD, as, having gone through the RAD system and then meeting other dancers during my performing career who learnt other styles, I now believe that despite the RAD's stranglehold on the Australian dance teaching of children, it is far from the best method. It is rigid and limited in its teaching of lyricism and self-expression.
I saw the Living Dance Syllabus first-hand when I spent a day in Toowoomba examining the students of the Darling Downs Dance School of Excellence, Beth's own school. I spent a whole day viewing students from Primary up to Grade 5. I rated the content very well. I was very impressed by
a) the technical capabilities of the senior students. Their strength and stability was very impressive especially compared to RAD students of the same age.
b) the expressiveness they displayed, for their age.
Both of these things are what end up really counting in a tertiary dance context (not height of jumps, or flexibility, etc) so I was impressed by these elements. I attribute them to the way Beth has structured the material so that from a very early age children are being taught to use their abdominals in the correct manner, thus approaching professional body awareness far earlier in their training, something I had previously thought was NOT POSSIBLE - so, very impressed!
At Oasis we are currently teaching the Living Dance syllabus from Primary level (Year 1 at school) all the way up to Grade 6 (Year 8-10 at school), and they love it. I include a lot of creative material that is not included in the syllabus, as well, which most of the students just adore. This is not only necessary to keep their interest in the class, it is necessary to teach them self-awareness, teamwork, self-expression, and performance quality. Ballet is really very boring if you don't do this, I think! I begin each class with a warmup/stretch. For the younger ones it is heavy with imagery and imagination which they greatly enjoy. In most classes we include some kind of free dance or improvisation, either with scarves, or using the music as a starting point for visual imagery that the students then invent movement to.
When I was in Toowoomba in 2009 I found that the Living Dance syllabus material progressed really nicely according to the students age, presenting them with new challenges appropriate to the foundations they have built in previous grades, and appropriate to their emotional and mental maturity at each stage.
At each level of the class they are presented new challenges across the board of classical ballet technique. Most importantly are the strategies included that teach students to have a refined sense of their centre of gravity and how to shift it safely to facilitate the mastery of more and more difficult ballet steps. This is one of the things that really caught my attention when I examined Beth's students; the girls at the age of 12 or so had greater control of these things than I was used to seeing in RAD students who were even older. Dancers call this 'finding your centre' and it is vital to the difference between a mature professional and a recreational dancer. However I insist even recreational dancers should learn this at Oasis, because there is no doubt that greater self-awareness is the key to safe dancing and greater enjoyment in dancing.
Another beautiful thing is that each grade has a mime sequence, which teaches them how to express emotion and story with their face and body. Each of these mimes also teaches them a lesson appropriate to their social development - eg. 5 year olds do a mime about helping mother, 7-8 year olds do a mime about resolving arguments with their friends. I think this is just genius on Beth's part for combining stage training with life skills.
I have not yet found another ballet syllabus that offers so much to students and am thrilled with the advantages of Living Dance, especially now after having taught it for 7 years.
One night at a show I was performing in a few years back, whilst waiting backstage, I was talking with a fellow dancer who is also a physiotherapist. We were discussing the training methods of a local dance school that pushes their students hard and fast, much like Olympic gymnasts. The kids who attend this school can do eye-popping tricks at quite tender ages - we have seen eight year olds able to do perfectly executed spins WHILST holding a perfect 180* split. Neither she nor I can do such a stunt after more than 50 years dancing between the two of us.
It doesn't seem natural, nor artistic, to me, that an eight year old can do such things. I'm not particularly envious of the ability; to me, the art is removed when it is clear that a split-spin is being done mostly to demonstrate to the audience that the performer can do a split-spin. What does concern me is the future of said eight-year olds. Is that kind of training good for their bodies? I had serious doubts. Training like that involves dance classes and gymnastics training sessions pretty much every night of the week. Do these children have time for playdates with school friends? Casual imaginary play at home? Family time? Do the parents spend their lives ferrying children from class to class and sewing costumes? For some parents that is quite fulfilling I know, and gives them joy to see their child flourishing and excelling in something they love to do. So I don't mean to criticise the parents for that, but I wonder about the lives of the children.
I have been told by the mother of a gymnast that for these children, their peer group and friendship base becomes not their schoolmates but their gym and dance class friends. Fair enough; but when do they get time to play? Perhaps it is a sacrifice they are willing to make. But can an eight year old rightly make a decision like that? Eight year olds have no idea how *not* playing is going to affect their future lives. Studies have shown that children who do not have free playtime to indulge in imaginary play and games invented with friends have lower levels of social skills, conflict resolution, and problem solving.
What I did learn from my physio friend last night is that this kind of training is not good for their bodies. She was the one who compared the children to Olympic gymnasts, and she would know about this, as she both teaches ballet at a local ballet school AND treats the Australian Gymnastic team as a physiotherapist. She explained that by the time these gymnasts are twenty, they have osteo-arthritis in their spine, and arthritis in many of their other joints, compounded with injuries sustained through their (short) career, and are no longer able to perform at the level that they have been trained to achieve. And they live with pain from then on. The worst cases, she says, are the Rhythmic gymnasts, whose levels of flexibility are the highest. Of course the dance students would not quite be pushed to the same level, but it's really not far off, and so one wonders, what happens to these kids professionally once they become adults? Do they last? I suspect that it is only the tiny, tiny percentage whose bodies are preternaturally flexible + strong, and therefore impervious to injury who end up able to have a career at all, and the rest are burnt out by the end of their teens.
So, without even discussing whether 180* split-spins can be considered good art, I really don't think that the training involved in getting a child to such expertise is worth the price they pay, in the end. It cannot be good for the development and health of the child, the dance world, or our culture as a whole.
What we must do is train dancers who:
However I've had some parents express concern to me, reluctant to let their child pursue ballet too far, for fear that their young bodies may suffer injury or be pushed further than what is healthy. But in fact, in our classes the opposite is true! At Oasis I ensure that all the teachers are careful to teach within body-safe principles. So in fact, our students gain much more!
What are Body-Safe Principles?
It means that we always bear in mind the health of joints and muscles, and the overall health of the dancer, as we teach. Rather than insisting upon extreme amounts of effort to achieve perfection, we emphasise understanding and body awareness, encouraging slow improvement at a speed that matches the dancer's age and physical capacity. Our strategies are: warmups, an anatomical approach, body conditioning classes, Pilates, postural care, and appropriately targeted teaching.
We communicate to children a knowledge of their body that helps them understand what is safe for their body and what isn't. For example, keeping the hips, knees and ankles in correct alignment will prevent injury, and teaching this to a 12 year old is too late; it must be reinforced from day one. Likewise, if a student tries to lift their leg behind them in an arabesque, while using the wrong muscles, they may end up straining their back or hips. Our teachers have degrees in their field; they have studied anatomy, Pilates, sports science and injury prevention. We teach children to understand which muscles will help and which ones will hinder.
We hold a weekly body conditioning class, and although every single dance class is underpinned by our body-safe approach, Body Conditioning class is for the purpose of teaching how the body works. Students learn to progress more quickly but more safely, by practising stretching correctly, and strengthening key areas (e.g. core muscles, ankles) to support them properly during their dance classes. This class also provides opportunity for individual attention, and students who are having trouble in particular areas receive more focussed assistance. This ensures that we see very few injuries, and quicker recovery from any injuries children do suffer from causes such as trampolines, accidents and so on!
Pilates & Posture
Ballet should be taught from the inside out. Too many schools focus on the outward appearance of good ballet; pointed feet, high legs, etc., while leaving the development of correct posture to a wish and a prayer and the constant injunction to 'stand up straight!' 'tummies in!' or 'pull UP!'. These instructions are not helpful on their own. Posture is like the foundations of a house; without it, the rest of ballet technique will fall on its face through a lack of progress, or strings of injuries.
To develop good posture in a child is hard enough; to develop the carefully fine-tuned posture required of a good ballet dancer is an art in itself! This is why we focus on it so much, and we gently introduce kids to Pilates from the age of 5, so that slowly over time they realise the importance of this good habit, and develop the awareness to hold themselves safely and without twisting their hips, slouching, arching their back or wobbling (just to name a few common mistakes).
So the awareness kids gain, the strength, and good habits, are invaluable when we teach them. They will last their whole lifetime, helping them to have good posture, body awareness and injury prevention right into adulthood.
Why I like tap - By Mr Chris, our fab tap teacher.
I loved Tap straight away for two reasons:
In my years of teaching & performing tap, I often wondered why it always seemed to be handicapped by dated music & boring routines.
Everyone danced like a showgirl from the 20’s, which is fine, but why isn’t there anything else?
Tap, to me, is rhythm & rhythm occurs in all forms of music from Hip-hop, Jazz, Classical, Swing, Folk, Soul, Blues.
So if I can teach a student rhythm – if they can learn to hear the beats & respond naturally – then they can not only tap, but they can dance in any style to any thing.
So my teaching style began to revolve around a two key elements:
Oasis Dance and Drama School is about Excellence, Creativity and Encouragement.