One of my favorite teaching traditions is to show George Balanchine's The Nutcracker Ballet in the last few days before Winter Break. The Nutcracker combines excellent dancing (this particular version features the New York City Ballet), great music, and wonderful costumes and backdrops. It brings dance, art, theater and music together beautifully.
Face it, though--getting middle school students who have very little exposure to ballet to accept watching a bunch of men and women leaping and dancing is difficult. This year, I knew I needed to approach it delicately. Most of my students have not been exposed to ballet, and I know that the concept of seeing a man in a tight costume leaping across the stage might be cause for some mirth. I teach at a school that is predominantly Latino. My students are taught that men are men, and in this neighborhood, very few of them are exposed to artistic pursuits.
So I got creative.
I started early this last week, making my students work in groups to make posters about different ballet topics, like "How to Become a Dancer," "The Bad Side of Ballet," and "Boys and Ballet." After two days of doing group work and making a poster, they presented what they had learned to their classmates. I posted pictures of principal dancers in major companies who are Latino.
On Friday, I wanted to have my kids try the basic foot positions of ballet...but I knew that if I put it in the agenda on the white board as something they "had" to do, they would balk.
So I stood up in front of my classes, reviewing what they had learned by doing their posters, and slowly turning my feet out into a pretty darned good attempt at 1st position.
They took the bait.
"What are you doing with your feet?!?" Kids were standing and craning their necks to see over their tables to my feet. I smiled.
"This is first position...it's kind of hard."
"No way!!! I bet I can do it!"
Faster than you can say, plié, half my class was on their feet, trying for themselves.
"Turn out your toes more! Heels together!" I called out, smiling at their giggling attempts to master first position.
What amazed me the most, however, was not that I was able to trick my kids into doing the five basic positions--but that my boys were the most eager to show that they could do it!
We lamented that it was hard on our knees. I challenged them to plié in each position, seeing if they could bend their knees even slightly and still keep some balance and control (we don't have a barre, so that wasn't so easy).
Suddenly, my lesson had gone from telling them that ballet is difficult to showing them, and having them decide this for themselves.
Will they giggle this week when they see men in tights? Oh, probably. They're just kids, after all. But hopefully, they'll remember how most of us couldn't manage 5th position, and look at what those men are doing with a little more respect for just how athletic it is.