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

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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.

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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.

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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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Musings on RAD Exams

Recently I was chatting with a ballet friend about the Royal Academy of Dance examination. She is going to take part in one very soon. She told me she regretted signing up for it as it was putting major stress on her. I can totally understand how it feels. As an adult with a full schedule, preparing for an RAD major exam means extra work after work/in the weekends, and a lot of emotional pressure related to performance expectations.

Years ago when I first started learning ballet, I was constantly being talked into taking exams. But after seven years I still have not found the urge or the allure to participate. I doubt that I ever will. I did take classes that are designed to prepare students for such exams, but mainly because those classes were suitable for my technical level at the time. The old syllabus used to bore me to no end. However, since RAD has revised its syllabi and improved its musical choices, I find the content for the major exams—exams designed for those aspiring to become professionals—to be much more interesting. I actually took the Intermediate course for several months and really enjoyed the learning process. Here is me practicing in a rented studio (disclaimer: the movements are not entirely correct according to the syllabus!):

Generally speaking, I prefer to take “free classes,” a colloquial term here in Hong Kong meaning classes that don’t follow any exam syllabus. (In Hong Kong, many adult students take RAD classes—usually along with children—because there simply aren’t that many studios that offer “free classes” due to the small number of adult students. ) As I feel that my day-time job alone demands enough from me in terms of submitting a “report card,” I would prefer to keep my ballet hobby free from any judgment. I want to keep it sort of demand-free. The only true demand would be my own quest to improve. Of course, I love corrections and feedback from the teachers. I don’t regard those as “demands.” They are part of the learning process.

Some of my friends feel that they need the goal of taking an exam to motivate them, to keep them going to class and to do better. Others do have a practical reason for taking RAD exams—they aim at reaching a level that would allow them to become a ballet teacher. I have so much respect for those adult students who eventually got certified as teachers.

To my friend, who expressed regret in her decision—which somehow drove the joy out of her ballet experience—my advice is, just go for it as if performing for an audience, and don’t think about the end results, the “marks” and the “grade.” Enjoy the dancing itself!

As for myself, I don’t really need any extrinsic motivation to keep going (can’t wait for my body to completely heal from my surgery and get back to the classroom). The only thing that drives me is my insatiable passion for ballet—for the extreme beauty of its form, for the potential to express emotions through incredibly challenging movements, and for the never-ending desire for perfection.