Where I Really Learned to Teach


Hey all. An informal note here, a bit more background to where I’m coming from.

I mentioned that I began teaching in New York City. New York is a wonderful place to live for a young, creative and interested guy from the Midwest. There’s so much to see, to experience, to do. I rode my bike across town every day to give class, hauled the bike up the stairs to my fourth-floor walk-up on getting home. Still, I wanted other activities, other exercise. Running never did much for me. Roller skating was fine when I lived nearer Central Park. In the end, I chose to take ballet lessons.

I had loved ballet from adolescence. I brought a book home from the library and while the family sat watching crime dramas on the tube, I stood behind the sofa and learned the five basic positions. Later, in university, as part of my MFA in theatre, I also took ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance classes. I wasn’t ever very good at any of them, but I enjoyed the exercise.

Not long after beginning my work as a teacher, I began taking classes from an excellent teacher named Colleen Pratt. You can Google her just to have a look at her face and read up on who she is. It will help you to understand what I learned from her.

Ballet class always began before the actual class. Ms Pratt would casually wander through the hall and mentally note all the students who were standing around chatting as opposed to those who were warming up for the class. If one of those chatters were to be clumsy in class, she would gently point out that it might have been better to have stretched the knees instead of the lips.

The class would then begin as most ballet classes begin. First position, plié, demi-plié, this french word or that, with Elena on the piano. Once an exercise were finished, Ms Pratt would always say “Thank you, Elena.” and then explain the next, progressive exercise we were going to do. From the simple to the complex, all the way to the grand-battement, Elena beating out Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on the piano, at the end of the exercise always turning and smiling to us and saying, with a distinct Russian accent, “That’s Russian”. And Ms Pratt would say “Thank you, Elena.”

Throughout the class, Ms Pratt would move up and down the line of students at the barre, adjusting an arm position, relaxing a crunched set of fingers with a smooth, delicate touch, crooning in her charming South African accent “good, revel, very good, stretch those knees now, you see how much more strength you’ve developed over the past month?”

It was a combination of the regular structure of her classes, her calm and positive feedback to the students no matter how clumsy they were (and there were some pretty clumsy ones in that beginner class) and her dedication to the progressive structure of teaching dance that most impacted me as a teacher.

As I was just beginning to experiment with pronunciation as a basis for my teaching, I adopted almost all of the techniques that Ms Pratt used in those ballet classes. When I Googled her yesterday to see what had become of her, I was not at all surprised that she had taught Pedagogy. She was a brilliant teacher and continues to be so. So, if anyone deserves my deepest gratitude for influencing my teaching, it would have to be Colleen Pratt.

Thank you, Colleen.



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