Dance Training

How I Grew To Love Teaching Adults To Dance

Kerollis and students in his 8-week Absolute Beginner Workshop at Broadway Dance Center

When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.

Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.


When I first started teaching, I assumed that an educator with my performing credentials—Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, BalletX—would be swept up by a prestigious ballet program and that I would begin developing the stars of tomorrow. Like many expectations in my life, this one didn't immediately happen the way I had envisioned.

adult ballet classes Kerollis giving his niece a private lesson

Throughout my performance career, I had gained some experience teaching kids in a master class format. But I had never taught any regularly scheduled classes. When I was presented with the opportunity to teach weekly open ballet classes for adults at Koresh Dance Company's school nearly six years ago, you can imagine my lack of excitement when I agreed to work with dancers who were very unlikely to become professionals.

Before I stepped to the front of the classroom, I did some research as a student in other adult beginner classes. I found that the focus was often on fun and charm. This meant that information was generalized, corrections were rarely specialized or hands-on, and classroom etiquette was infrequently enforced.

But I remembered how necessary it was to have instructors physically adjust me when I was training. I thought to myself, "How can these dancers ever understand technique if they aren't shown how it feels to dance?" I also found myself incredibly frustrated by the students' lack of awareness of certain etiquettes, like how to share a barre, when to ask questions and proper spacing in center.

Being a young teacher at the age of 28, I questioned whether adults (most of them my senior) would be open to me enforcing strict rules, or if they would adapt to me putting my hands on their bodies to convey placement or movement.

In the end, I decided to use the same approach with all of my students, from young pre-professionals to middle-aged recreational dancers and beyond. It is my opinion that whether a dancer plans to have a performance career or not, they all need to be taught to be ready to step onstage.

Once I finally started teaching, I was surprised to find how eager adult students are. While it took time for some to get used to my style of teaching, many would come to me after class to share how excited they were to be taught how to dance without being patronized because of their age.

I quickly learned that most adult dancers weren't just in class for fun. Many were there because they were impassioned dance fans who wanted to know what they were watching onstage. This group of dancers inspired me to start my classes with trivia questions to teach them about the inner workings of our world. Topics I have discussed include the differences in methodologies of ballet training, how rankings work within professional companies, facts about historic and modern day repertoire, and much more.

I've also found that many of these dancers are high-level professionals in non-dance careers seeking an escape from their stressful jobs. Other students attend classes on a doctor's recommendation to ward off the hazards of an aging body. Some didn't receive the support they sought to pursue a dance career as a child. And, yes, there are actors, singers, traditional and non-traditional dancers who have taken my classes to enhance their other artistic practices or to prepare for dance auditions.

adult ballet classes Kerollis and students in another 8-week Absolute Beginner Workshop at Broadway Dance Center

I have grown to love my adult students. While some kids I've taught take dance classes because their parents forced them to, each and every one in this group is lined up at the barre because they want to be there. Not only are they eager to learn, but they have a realistic outlook on their goals and know how to laugh at themselves. They are aware that they are unlikely to become professionals, but they still work just as hard as my kids with career prospects. And I have found that they are also the greatest supporters of my work as a choreographer and the biggest fans of my podcast and blog.

While my initial reaction to teaching adult dance students may not have been humble, I feel so lucky that they have shown me the value in teaching dance to all ages.

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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