Michelle teaches group fitness, yoga and dance. She lives in Illinois.
Do you remember your first ballet class?
I took my first ballet class when I was two years old, through the local park district. I don’t remember my first teacher, but I do remember that I wore a purple leotard and tutu for my first recital. Ever since I was young I was always dancing around my house. We have a few pretty embarrassing home videos of the costumes I would come up with for my “shows” (a bandanna and underwear, for example). Even when I stopped taking classes in order to horseback ride for a few years, I kept dancing at home and always made up routines to show off to my parents. Needless to say, that first class must have made a lasting impression because I am still teaching and taking classes!
What does dance mean to you?
To be quite honest, I think I would die if I weren’t able to dance. This year I have had to rehab back from two pretty serious ankle sprains, and it is one of the most frustrating things I have had to deal with. Dance has gotten me through many tough times in my life. When my parents couldn’t pay for classes any longer, I started working at my studio in order to pay for my classes. When I have experienced pain, heartache, depression… you name it… I always turn on the music and allow the movement and music to heal me. For me it is not just an art or a sport, dance is therapeutic for me. I feel the most beautiful and whole when I am on stage or taking class. I also believe that growing up a dancer taught me self-discipline, respect, focus, dedication as well as how to never give up and accept the small victories. As a teacher, I can only hope to instill some of these character traits in my students.
Is there a teacher who stands out in your life?
Ms. Lisa is the teacher who stands out most to me. She is the studio owner of the studio I attended throughout high school. She was the one who gave me a job in exchange for classes when my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my classes any longer. The studio became a second home for me and I spent every day there after school from 4-9. She is also the one who trained me to be a teacher. I started off as a teacher’s assistant in the baby classes and gradually she allowed me to take on classes on my own. What she offered me is a gift that I will cherish forever. Not only did she give me the knowledge I needed to grow as a dancer and a teacher, but she gave me the opportunity to continue to train and to stand in front of a class of students and impart my knowledge. Since I began teaching in 2003 I haven’t stopped.
How do you prepare for your own classes?
Honestly, sometimes I do not even prepare. I have been teaching for such a long time that I have a number of combos and exercises that I can use if I am subbing a class or if I have a new group where I am not sure of the level. Sometimes I create elaborate lesson plans and end up having to throw it all out the window if a group can’t focus, or if they aren’t getting anything. A lot of times I have to just go with the flow. However, I guess that not preparing a specific lesson plan doesn’t mean that I don’t prepare at all. I spend hours and hours creating playlists and finding music that are appropriate to each style of dance and age group that I teach. I also like to change up the music so the students don’t get bored. If I can find songs they relate to, they are more excited to be there and put more energy into their dancing. I also do a lot of research. I watch dance programs, youtube videos, research techniques, attend conventions, listen to chats, and take classes at various studios. All of this helps me stay up to date on the techniques and styles and this also makes for more interesting classes. Once the year gets into swing, I set goals for each group of students. I want group A to be able to execute clean double pirouettes by December, for example. Then I plan the across the floor exercises and warm ups and combinations based on that goal. Towards the end of the school year, the focus is more on maintaining the technique and working on choreography for recital. So– sometimes a lot of prep and other times all the previous work is enough to get me through a class. The key is that I continue to be a student as well as a teacher, I think.
What kind of advice would you give someone who is curious about learning ballet?
I think that ballet is an excellent activity for anyone and everyone. Obviously, there are certain factors that are involved if a student’s goal is to dance for a company. If that is the goal, they would ideally start at a young age and train for more hours weekly. Although there are certain genetic factors (height, weight, foot shape, flexibility) that contribute and make it harder/easier for someone to learn ballet, I think that the ballet world is gradually changing. More and more we are seeing ballerinas of different shapes, sizes and colors which I think is wonderful. It is also true that the younger the girls start, the more their body develops in line with the traditional aesthetic. Their muscles tend to be longer and leaner because of the way they are using and developing them through puberty. The vast majority of students aren’t looking to be professionals, though. A lot of parents sign up their children just so they can learn some coordination. As I mentioned earlier, ballet teaches more than just grace and flexibility. Students are exposed to classical music, they develop cognitive skills by memorizing short and long combinations, they learn terminology in French, they are required to focus and concentrate, they must arrive on time, they learn to respect their teacher and classmates, they also learn how to fail. Ballet is not always easy and there is not an immediate payoff. Some steps take years and years to master. For adults, it can help alleviate pain and injury by maintaining a healthy body. I also call it “Alzheimer’s prevention”– just like with crossword puzzles, the brain has to work hard to remember sequences and terminology. It can also be fun and a great place to meet people. If someone asked me about taking classes, I’d tell them to just try! And I’d tell them not to get frustrated after the first class. In the end, if they really didn’t get joy from the classes, I’d tell them to try another style of dance!