Many children who start beginning ballet will be coming with a background in creative movement. I think it’s important to retain some of the aspects of creative movement in pre or beginning ballet, because the fact that they are continuing their ballet education means they’ve enjoyed dance up to this point. So for the first few lessons I’d say it would be good to begin in the center instead of at the barre, doing some stretching exercises for their legs and feet. You can also work on posture in the center before bringing them over to face the barre.
Use of the Feet
There are so many things for beginning students to learn about using the feet. Try not to overwhelm them in the beginning or they won’t be able to retain any of what you say. It’s all right if they don’t do everything right, as long as they are working on the aspects of what you’re trying to teach them that day. You can also work on some of the foot exercises while seated on the floor. You can begin with flex and point, stopping midway between so they can see what it looks like when their toes are flexed and their foot is pointed (you can show them that this is demi-pointe when standing). Holding their feet in a pointed position while they are seated on the floor, you can have them practice just lifting their toes and then pointing them repeatedly, and instill an understanding of the phrase “working through the metatarsal”. I don’t think they are too young to begin hearing such references to the anatomy of the foot, as long as you clearly explain to them what you mean when you say it.
Standing at the Barre
Once they are at the barre, it’s important to teach them the proper way to use it. This might take a good portion of the first few classes, just having them standing facing the barre with a light touch and elbows bent. Teaching them how to recognize if they are too close (elbows scrunched into the body) or too far away (hips pushing back) is an important lesson that they’ll use throughout all their years to come in ballet.
Using Good Posture
It’s hard for children to stand with their tummies in and their spines lengthened for any amount of time. Making a combination of this alone would be good a good exercise to include in each class, so that when you remind them to “pull up” and “lengthen your spine” during tendus or plies they will know exactly what you are wanting them to do. I think including breathing techniques would be an excellent thing to do when children are first learning ballet, so they do not equate pulling up with holding their breath.
Use of Turnout
If ever there’s a topic for disagreement among ballet teachers this is it! My point of view may not mesh with that of the directors at the school where you are teaching, so please understand that this is only my recommendation. I don’t believe in forcing turnout. Now that I’m over 40 and suffering the effects of forcing my own body into positions it wasn’t naturally inclined to make, I’m even more against it. I think it’s possible for someone to achieve a beautiful line and to dance with great technique and grace without having perfect turnout. To me, working with what you were given should be a top priority. If anyone tells you that you should consider buying fancy contraptions that stretch your limbs to an unnatural limit, or that you should even consider surgery, cover your ears and run in the other direction! This is not necessary, and it is definitely not healthy.
Again, sitting or lying on the floor is a great way to work on demonstrating turnout before involving the traction of the floor. Having the students lie on their backs and flex their feet, then slowly open their toes as far as their hips allow will show them where their natural turnout is. Of course, dancers work on increasing and improving their range of turnout, but I’m firmly against standing in a perfect 180 degree first position or working your leg directly to the side when à la seconde. At the barre, it’s good to teach the basics of plié and tendu and degagé from a parallel position before introducing the steps using turnout. This means mostly working to the front, but there are a lot of mechanics involved in using the feet properly, lifting the metatarsal and lowering it back down when closing. And for plié, keeping the body lifted as the legs bend and not letting the torso drop forward. After they have mastered tendu and degagé to the front from a parallel position, you can introduce the steps working to the side with their feet in a V (I wouldn’t necessarily call this first position right away, or they may begin trying to force their toes out too far).
In addition to working on plié, tendu, and degagé, you can begin working with epaulement in pre or beginning ballet. Teaching children all the ways to use the head is important, and will greatly aid them later when they are asked to use their head and arms along with their legs and feet. Just doing exercises that involve keeping the neck long when looking up, down, side to side, and inclining the head so the ear bends toward the shoulder is good for them. Slowly adding these head movements to plié or tendu facing the barre will help them to incorporate such techniques more quickly when they become more advanced. It’s a little like teaching someone to play the piano with two hands instead of just one. You don’t want to put this off for too long, or they’ll never feel comfortable with it.
Other Positions to Practice
Second position of the feet, Sur le cou de pied, sous sus, retire. Gradually add ¼ rond de jambe á terre en dehors after introducing tendu from 1st position.
In the Center
Easy steps for beginning students to practice in the center include temps lié through second position, which is also a good preparation for glissade, which you can break down for them to learn slowly. Using port de bras with head is a good exercise to do in the center. Kids love to jump! Teaching sauté in 1st and 2nd positions usually goes over well, emphasizing the importance of keeping the arms still and the torso upright. In preparation for turns you can have them practice spotting the front of the room while shuffling their feet in a circle.
Across the floor
It’s pretty easy to transform gallops into chassé across the floor, and prancing into embôité in low attitude devant. I also enjoyed teaching this age how to do chainé turns. I usually did this with their hands either on their hips or on their shoulders so they don’t have to worry too much about what their arms are doing and so they don’t get twisted up. We would practice just stepping on the flat foot to the side with head looking over their shoulder, then flipping (like a playing card) so their body is facing the back of the room and they’re looking over the other shoulder. Getting them to continue turning in the same direction is the biggest trick! 🙂
In all, this is a very fun age to teach. I think being sure to make the transition from creative movement to the more structured ballet class slowly is what will keep them wanting to come back. If you make too drastic a change they might just lose interest in ballet. Good luck! And if you have other ideas that work well for pre-ballet or beginning ballet classes, please share them in the comments!