Ballet is hard, and seeing students discover this fact is both exciting and painful at the same time. Once serious ballet training begins, a student will spend a lot of time facing the barre, and in most studio settings, this means they’ll be staring at a blank wall for months. So how does one instill the joy of dance and foster that passion from the first class to the final bow? Here are a few ideas.

Training isn’t entertaining. Allow the hard work to hook students.

Sadly, in our insta-culture where everyone gets a trophy, many teachers fall prey to the “ballet is boring” trap, and they try to keep their students engaged by bribing them with theatrics or prize rewards.

Guess what? Ballet is engaging on its own if it is taught correctly. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Dancers love to work hard. The excitement and eventual satisfaction a young ballet student feels when required to work on a step over and over is brand new to them. Allowing a dancer (of any age) to fall in love with hard work is paramount to falling in love with ballet – for life.

Encourage personality from the beginning

“The world doesn’t need another mean ballet dancer,” I tell students. First impressions are key. What we say with our faces sets the tone for the entire experience for the student, the teacher, and eventually the audience. I firmly believe that encouraging expressiveness is key to helping the ballet dancer enjoy the work.

What we say with our faces sets the tone for the entire experience for the student, the teacher, and eventually the audience.

When concentrating, we often forget about facial tension. The muscles are memorizing an expression of the face at the same time as gaining the strength to stretch the legs, hold the arms, etc. Proper epaulement uses the head, so why not also use the eyes? Not only is it engaging to watch, but  it helps the dancer begin to discover their artistry.

I explain to ballet students that the difference between looking like a student or a professional is often as simple as the facial expression you’re making. In an audition, if there are two dancers of equal ability, but one looks pleasant and the other looks nervous, guess who’s more than likely to get the school acceptance or the job?

Focusing primarily on the performance is an opportunity missed for joy

We live in an impatient society, and with all of the instant access to everything; we’ve lost the joy that comes from anticipation. Ballet students need to be encouraged to see the work in the classroom as rewarding in itself, and then, when they finally make it to the stage, they will have the entire experience to relish for life – not just the time from curtain up to curtain down.

Performing is a goal. It is a reward. It is the cherry on top. But in the training of ballet dancers, if we don’t teach how to enjoy the journey in its entirety, our artists are going to miss out on the chance for a huge love affair with ballet.

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.