Attention Ballet Studio Owners: 5 Things You Need to Know about Adult Students

SJBallet_Library_View
Recently I was invited to a press conference of a new ballet studio in town. Unlike most studios in Hong Kong, this one, SJ Ballet Des Arts, is relatively large in size (two 600+ sq. ft. studios), with an exceptional sea view to boot, and located in a porsche tourist district where the rent is predictably high.

SJBallet_Studio2

I had the chance to sit down with the founder of the studio, Song Hai Feng, who has just retired as a coryphée of The Hong Kong Ballet. Song emphasized that his school will focus on nurturing students’ artistry and spiritual fulfilment through a holistic approach—ballet books and music will be available in the library corner, and lectures will be provided to parents in the art of ballet, nutrition and safety, so that they can become a source of support for their children’s artistic development. Song’s wife, Jin Yao, currently a principal dancer of The Hong Kong Ballet, explained the goal of the school is to build a solid foundation for ballet students based on correct methodology from Day One. She said that she has seen innumerable young ballet students who went on auditions for Hong Kong Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, and was surprised to find that most did not exhibit the basic techniques correctly.

It all sounds wonderful—not many ballet studios in this over-commercialized city would have this kind of lofty approach. It remains to be seen how these goals will be accomplished.

SJBallet_Studio2b

SJ Ballet Des Arts is going to offer two types of adult ballet classes on top of its elite pre-professional track, one-on-one coaching, toddler classes with parents and Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) track for young hobbyists. One type of adult class is for beginners who have zero experience in ballet. The marketing angle is “Beauty and Slimming,” and the content of the course is a combination of Pilates mat exercises, stretching and some basic ballet movements. The other type is for those who have some experience of ballet. While I think that it is a great idea to require absolute beginners to do stretching and floorwork—which are usually omitted in Hong Kong’s adult ballet courses, the marketing concept of “Beauty and Slimming” is geared toward a clientele who may not be seriously interested in ballet as an art form. And the fee of HK$350 per lesson (students must pay three months’ fee in advance) is really prohibitive for many. Perhaps I’m wrong about it and perhaps there are plenty of wealthy ladies out there who don’t mind parting with what is equivalent to about US$45 for each session. But I definitely cannot afford to do this. In terms of class structure, I would rather that the school offers adult classes divided into different levels, with Level 1 consisting of floor barre and stretching on top of the basic movements, and then progressing to higher levels thereafter.

According to the studio founder Song, the plan is to introduce ballet basics through this class, and those interested in taking serious ballet lessons can move on to the regular adult class. Well, over the past few years, we  have seen the growth of interest in adult ballet around the world as a result of non-traditional classes geared toward those who want to keep fit and achieve a beautiful body shape (such as Ballet Beautiful, Xtend Barre and Sleek Technique). So maybe this will create a similar effect. We’ll see!

When I introduced myself to Song, he asked me what the challenges for adult students are. One of the things I told him about was that adult students often get injured as most of us do not receive core strength training in class, and some of us are not taught the right placement and technique from the start. Instead, we are often just asked to copy the teacher’s or other students’ movements, without understanding how to use the muscles in a correct manner. He was very surprised to hear that adults could get injured in ballet class! He told me that children in China who receive professional training almost never experience injury until quite late in their training or during their career, when they over-exert themselves.

I realized that for experienced ballet dancers and new studio owners, there may be specific aspects of adult ballet training that they may not be aware of, given their professional background and their relatively young age. So I decided to jot down a list of things for them to take into consideration when designing course content for the mature group:

1) Adult students come in vastly different body types and physical conditions that may include serious muscle imbalances, inflexibility and even deformity or diseases that affect the body’s alignment or stamina. It would be helpful to observe and check our body conditions, talk individually about our needs and make some effort to give us exercises that cater to our specific conditions. Treating everyone equally—or worse, treating us as if we were kids or teenagers—would not necessarily yield the best result.

2) Adult students come with baggages in life. We may be parents with tons of obligations. Or office workers who have to put in long hours or overtime regularly. We may have to go on business trips from time to time. Or we may have illnesses or diseases that prevent us from attending class regularly. Heck, some of us may even have dramatic family or life situations that cast a shadow in our minds, making us a little less capable of focusing and fulfilling the demands in class. These are some of the things that a young ballet student would not normally have to contend with. So beware of adult students’ erratic schedules and the impossibility to attend classes regularly. Try to pace the classes in a way that allows for us to make up for our lost progress. Many of us adult students wish to do well in class so badly, that missing a class itself is a source of stress. And the more stressed up we are, the more easily we get injured. So putting adult students’ mind at ease by offering some make-up classes or words of encouragement would be highly beneficial.

3) As I mentioned above, most ballet studios in Hong Kong do not offer core and flexibility training as a preparation for ballet training. At the same time, most adult students in Hong Kong are impatient and want to learn those “stylish” and “tricky” movements right away—and ballet teachers would give it to their “customers” without hesitation. Unfortunately, skipping this crucial preparatory stage could lead to bad habits/wrong muscle usage down the road, setting the body up for injuries or even repeated injuries. A serious studio would insist on this kind of foundation training for beginners before they are allowed to proceed to the next level. In addition, even though we all know that warm-ups and cool downs are necessary routines before and after a class, how many of us really know which movements are safe and helpful to do? (Read this article about warm-up frustrations.) We need explicit guidance, so it would be a good idea to build those into the class time—and that may mean lengthening the class by another 20-30 minutes. Some teachers or adult students may appall at the extra time they have to put into class time (there are those who habitually show up in class after the plié and leave the classroom as quickly as the reverence was finished), but this is about changing the mindset and creating the right routine for serious and safe training.

4) Adult students can be serious about technique and artistry too! So don’t assume that we are in the studio just to pass some time, have some some fun or get some exercise done to lose weight. Yes, those are some of the common motives. But many of us really want to learn to do ballet properly,  seriously and beautifully. So correct us properly and don’t be stingy about it. Yes, some of us may be a bit sensitive about criticism. But only giving compliments would not help us improve. Instead, make it part of the education process to let adults know that constructive criticism is part of ballet training and necessary for progress. On the other hand, do give confirmations or compliments whenever they are due. I know some teachers who never openly give praises for fear that certain students may get jealous. Well, if you give compliments to individual students for the improvements they have made over time—whether obvious or small, and take turn in giving each student some attention and correction from time to time, I don’t see why there would be an issue.

5) This last point is as much for the studio owner/teachers as for adult ballet students. Interesting enough, many adult students in Hong Kong wish to take RAD class. Their goal is to obtain certificates to prove that they have achieved a certain level of technical ability and artistry. Based on my observation over the years, I have come to understand that some adult students take the exams so seriously that they would risk all kind of injuries to get enough preparatory training for the exams. And in some rare cases, angry birds might surface when their scores come out and they don’t get what they expected or if they get lower scores than their classmates! Perhaps due to the fact that Hong Kong is a former British colony, most ballet schools’ syllabi is based on the RAD system and would enroll their students—even adults—in exams. The system is also an easy way for studios to maintain profitability because students enrolled in the exams are told they would be required to take X number of classes per week to achieve the right amount of training for their respective levels. Of course adult students are easy targets because many of them are willing to splurge on a hobby that they were often denied of in childhood, now that they are earning money as adults. So, enrolling adult students in exam classes is a sure-fire way to maintain a steady stream of income. And many new adult students are so impressionable, that RAD exam classes are the only way of taking class that they know of. The truth is, not every adult does well in an exam-oriented environment. While some claim that they won’t be motivated to take class if it wasn’t for the exams, some thrive without the constant pressure in the back of their minds. Others really just want to take class and do well. Still some others want to have an opportunity to eventually dance en pointe or/and perform on stage. Regardless, it is important to provide a friendly environment to adult students in which they would not feel pressured to follow the exam track.

Oh, one more thing: As women age and go into the peri-menopausal, pre-menopausal or menopausal stage, some of us have to deal with hormonal changes, which affect us both emotionally (e.g. mood swings, depression, etc.) and physically (weight gain, loss of bone density,  hot flashes, etc.). These are things that most young teachers would have not experienced themselves. As more and more adults start to take ballet classes, and some of them do fall into the age groups that experience these symptoms (the onset of peri-menopause could be as early as in the late 20s but is most common after the mid-30s), there is a whole new area of knowledge that ballet teachers need to equip themselves with. When teaching those of us who are going through these stages of our lives, please try to add a little extra sensitivity and gentleness.

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14 thoughts on “Attention Ballet Studio Owners: 5 Things You Need to Know about Adult Students

  1. So many thought provoking comments in this piece. I will definitely come and try class at this new studio when I’m in Hong Kong. The “Beauty and Slimming” concept is big business in America – most of the programs are called “Barre”-something (Pure Barre, Cardio Barre, etc.) and they have little to do with ballet except that they use a barre for many of the exercises, which is an excellent stabilizer for movements like lunges and leg lifts. I haven’t heard of adult students going for exams like RAD, but that could certainly be an incentive for adults to stay committed to their exercise program. Some adult programs have recitals, which can be a nice idea for those who want to show their family and friends how hard they’ve been working. But studios have to accommodate students who don’t want to perform, and therefore separate rehearsal times have to be worked out. What I didn’t see mentioned in this piece are male students and their needs; it’s possible that these studio owners don’t expect any men to be interested in their program. But I think that might be short-sighted (after all, they are half of the population! And the studio owner is an accomplished male dancer so presumably would be a great role model for male students.) A savvy marketer would try to create interest either by tailoring a program specifically for men, or by making sure that the marketing and design of the general program appeals equally to men and women. (“Beauty and Slimming” sounds like it is geared more to women – though I could be wrong!) Men might be keen to try ballet if it is pitched as a program that builds strength and flexibility and improves muscle tone, that works the mind as much as the body, and plays great music. (Who wants to listen to that dreadful stuff they pipe in at the gym?)

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Carla. I hope this studio will let you take class when you are in town. From what I know, they do not allow any trial classes and no single classes are available. But do check with them when you are here! I did not write about men because my article was getting a bit too long already 😉 I like your suggestion that studios should accommodate for students who don’t want to perform (or take exams, in Hong Kong’s case) and provide an environment where these “minority” students can still feel comfortable rather than ostracized. Regarding the male dance student, yes, you are absolutely right about men as a potentially important clientele. The studio founder told me what he has observed: that in the entire Asia, boys are not that interested in ballet—or rather, their parents are not interested in enrolling them in ballet, because they don’t see a “future” in this artistic profession (our societies are so business-oriented!). I totally agree that ballet class for adult men would be so much more interesting than working out in the gym with the dreadful music, ha ha! There are a handful of die-hard adult male students in Hong Kong whom I know of. I think if there are repertoire and partnering classes available for men, the interest level will increase.

  2. Hello Dear Louisa,
    And thank you very much for this article. As an adult ballet student myself, and a highly dedicated one at that, I agree with most of what you say. I particularly appreciate point #4 of your demonstration, and I would like to add that many ballet teachers don’t take adult students seriously enough. While it is true that an adult ballet student, however motivated and dedicated he/she may be, cannot make as much (and as fast) progress as a child, thus not offering as much gratification to the ballet teacher, the serious adult student is nonetheless in need of attention and corrections. I think that too many teachers seem to take a lenient stance toward adult dancers. We, adult students, are totally aware that we’ll never have perfectly arched feet and that we’ll never perform on the Paris Opera House stage, but we need to be treated as if that was our goal!…

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Freddy! I totally agree with you. Even though most of us will not make it as professional dancers, we do want to learn the real thing and be treated seriously. Kudos to those teachers who make the extra effort to looking after adult students’ needs!

  3. Hello, I am travelling to Hong Kong for two weeks starting tomorrow. Do you know of any other adult drop in ballet, jazz, contempoarary, or modern classes? Also, I don’t know Cantonese.

  4. A few months ago, I actually worked up the courage to contact and visit SJ Ballet Des Arts because of your excellent review. The facility was quite magnificent and that alone nearly made me stay. A conversation with the administrators there, however, made me leave feeling convinced that it was not the place for me. I personally prefer teachers whose styles draw from Maggie Black and George Balanchine, but it sounded like their higher-level adult classes leaned more towards the Vaganova style. I was also put off by the fact that the teachers rotated without advance warning (i.e. Thursday classes might be taught by any of five teachers) and the price was at least twice to three times what I was used to paying for. It sounded like there were 1 or 2 teachers who I might have liked but without knowing when they might teach, I was hesitant to take a gamble on a class. In the end, I ended up at Gravity Ballet which has a tinier space but the style is a good fit. If anyone is wondering why I’m so picky, it’s simply because after years of chronic back ache and acute tendonitis in both ankles, you can be sure that I’m going to be cautious! I’m also more of a contemporary/jazz dancer, so I like having a bit of freedom in my ballet classes. In any case, would love to discuss more other adults taking ballet class in Hong Kong if anyone is interested!

    • Thanks for sharing your observations. Indeed, the Vaganova style is not every student’s cup of tea. Regarding the administration of the school, even though I have not taken class there, this system does not sound very appealing. The thing is that if you don’t have the same teacher follow up on your progress over time, it could be a frustrating experience if you like proper correction and advice. I suspect the constant switch in teachers is a “convenience strategy” to make things more flexible for the teachers’ own schedules. The fee is definitely prohibitive for many of us. And don’t even get me started on their administration and business ethics!

  5. I was glad I started my first serious ballet classes in Beijing at a studio almost dedicated to adult ballet (2 studios full days Monday to Friday plus 1 studio every saturday and sunday are for adult ballet classes. They split the classes into fine levels, especially for the lower levels when laying the foundation is of utmost importance. I could almost go in any evening and find a class suitable for my level. My first 6 months were mostly spent on sitting upright on the floor or lying on back, doing turn outs, feet pointing and flexing, fondus, frappes, adagios. Crunches were part of every lesson. We only stood for plies and tendus and maybe grande battements after floor exercises. This helped built core strength and correct use of muscles. Myself and many other more experienced students still go back to the beginners classes as we agree that class is more muscle building and tiring than the higher level classes and we can always improve on the basics

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