Syllabus. Curriculum. Dance Teacher Training.

These are terms, which have garnered some negative attention in the ballet world as of late. I have witnessed school directors and teachers back away from them as if they were dirty “four letter words.” I believe this is simply because ballet teacher training has rarely been required in our current American dance culture. Simply having an amazing performing career does not constitute one’s ability to be a successful teacher, and vice versa.

Teaching is an art, and it is one that must be cultivated. Yes, there are those to whom it comes more naturally, but still, just as one needs to know their ABC’s before being able to form words and sentences, the vocabulary of ballet needs to be taught correctly, and in proper order before one can truly grasp its intricacies and become a ballet dancer.

Early Training

For the beginning student, ballet needs to be taught slowly and with much repetition. Many teachers give class rather than teach class. Combinations made up on the spot from class to class do not instill the correct muscle memory for a dancer, and they become confused.

I have heard the argument, “How will the dancer learn to pick up choreography if they are repeating combinations?” To this I reply, “How many times did you write your own name before learning to write someone else’s?”

A tendu is a tendu is a tendu. If a step is properly taught, learned, and executed over and over, students will recognize the steps when they are presented with different combinations and choreography later on.

Why the resistance?

I believe that the resistance to teaching a ballet syllabus or adhering to a curriculum simply comes from the fact that many teachers have not researched and received proper teacher training. I was definitely one, who like many, taught during my ballet career and after, and I now realize that my classes were built on my own memories from being a professional dancer – not a student. It wasn’t until I began taking teacher training courses that I began to reconnect with what it really takes to make a dancer from scratch.

Freedom in structure

Teaching takes discipline, preparation, and continual self-education. When I look back on the teachers who were the most instrumental in my training, I see one common thread. While they may not have come from the same background, they all had a clear class design.

Carefully designing one’s ballet class and sticking to the structure allows the instructor to hone in on the details of training and help the student perfect their craft. Time spent “choreographing” a combination on the spot is time taken away from the student, and thereby, class becomes more about the teacher.

I encourage ballet teachers and directors who are reading this to think about what a gift it is to pass on the language of dance to the next generation. Let’s speak that language as clearly as we can. My most influential teacher, Duncan Noble used to say, “There are only two types of dancers: Good or Bad.” I know now how true that statement is and how crucial the instructor’s role is in that statement.


About the Author: Matthew Donnell

Matthew Donnell
Matthew C. Donnell, a native of Mt. Airy, North Carolina is the Director of the Preparatory Dance Program of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he is also received his early childhood and formal training. After graduating from UNCSA in ’99, he trained at the Rock School in Philadelphia, and while there, he performed with Pennsylvania Ballet and placed second regionally in the inaugural season of Youth America Grand Prix. From there, he enjoyed a ten-year career with the Kansas City Ballet, where he performed soloist and principal roles by the great ballet and contemporary masters to critical acclaim, and was named “30 under 30 artists to watch” by the Kansas City Star. Following his time in Kansas City, he moved to New York City to focus on acting. His theater credits include Kansas City Starlight Theatre, Kansas City New Theatre (where he also served as Dance Captain and Assistant Choreographer), Houston Theatre Under the Stars, and the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Together with partner Alana Niehoff, he wrote, produced, and performed in his first one-man clown/physical comedy show The Chapeau Show in NYC benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. His silent short film series, The Adventures of Jim has been screened in film festivals based out of Winston-Salem and Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for the online publication DIY Dancer, and currently sits on the board of governors for the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents ballet and opera performers and the board of The Arts Based School, Winston-Salem. As an instructor he has taught for and rehearsed professional ballet companies and schools across the country including UNCSA, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Dance Festival, Montgomery Ballet, Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, The University of Alabama, and Alabama Dance Theatre. He is an ABT® Certified Teacher who has successfully completed the ABT® Teacher Training Intensive in Pre-Primary through Level 3 of the ABT® National Training Curriculum.