Should I Teach “Hands-On?”

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Teaching my Contemporary Ballet Workshop in Anchorage, AK (Photo: Pamela Montgomery)

I was probably about 15 years old when this conversation occurred. It happened around the time I became extremely serious about the prospect of having a dance career. The director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She had asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. Initially, she explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position, and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn’t expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did. “Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn’t do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field.” The look on my face must have been utter shock, as the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my art form had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

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Peter Martins (Photo: Jakob Dall – NY Times)

Unless you’ve been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the grand ole U.S. of A. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years began to bubble to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly and those interested in our performing arts world were beginning to speculate if something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers, and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month as I was given a heads up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years). While the subsequent investigation into Mr. Martins’ behavior has yet to be complete, this has reignited my childhood concern about misinterpretation of touch in a class or rehearsal setting.

I’ve struggled throughout the entirety of my career as a dance educator with the decision on whether I should be a hands-on teacher or not. Dance is essentially the art of ultimate control of one’s own body. Understanding how to use your body correctly could mean the difference between an amazing feat or a debilitating injury. For example, proper execution as a student lifts their leg in adagio could result in greater height, better line, and exaggerated lift in the working leg. But more important than how it looks, a student who is not properly supporting and lifting their leg at superhuman heights can cause bulky muscles, seizing cramps, painful hip tendonitis, or worse. Sometimes, a teacher has to put their hands on a student to show them what their body should feel like when they aren’t properly aligned or are supporting themselves incorrectly. I know for a fact that this is effective. And I look back fondly on my teachers who were willing to get hands-on to show me how to work properly and assist me on my path towards my performance career. For this reason, I have made the decision to be one of those teachers that shares a very hands-on approach to teaching. Though, to be completely honest with you, I’m frightened by the idea of a poorly placed correction or an extremely sensitive student misinterpreting the intended purpose of physical adjustment.

I feel that this item isn’t as much of an issue for female teachers (though, I do know for a fact that they also have to deal with concerns about physically touching students for corrections) because of a few sensationalized cases of inappropriate teacher/student contact, which historically have been committed by males. In fact, there was recently a guest instructor who was arrested on the premises of a well-known New York dance school for sexually assaulting an underage boy at another one of his jobs. I was shocked to hear about this just as much as anybody else, especially considering that he hired me to teach master classes at his school in the past. But what was most disappointing for me here was that it gave dance parents fresh reason to be concerned that their kid’s teachers could act inappropriately towards their young ones. It is easy for protective parents to focus on one negative story. But for the few stories that have ever come out about these unfortunate circumstances, there are millions of positive experiences that students have with their teachers every day. It is important that schools focus on this and cultivate a safe environment that also includes educating parents/families on what is happening inside their studios.

Since dance is the art form of controlling our own physicality, we require students to wear skin tight clothing that shows physical alignment and muscle movement. This uniform leaves eager to please, impressionable children and teens exposed in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable in many places outside of a dance studio. If a student’s school isn’t educating their student body and their respective families about what is happening in the studio, this could lead to a more sensitive environment that could potentially be harmful to a qualified teacher’s career. Every school that I work for must have a waiver that is signed by all parents explaining that physical touch is an integral part of the learning process of dance. I refuse to work for a school that doesn’t have this protective measure in place. Beyond this, it is important that schools have regular parent observation days. Allowing parents to take a step into the learning process can offer them a better perspective on why certain practices are necessary.

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Hands-On Teaching (Photo: Pamela Montgomery)

I feel that my hands-on approach has really helped push my teaching career forward at a faster rate, especially in my open classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, where corrections are often less frequent than other educational settings. Like I said, I am still a bit nervous that a misplaced hand or a sensitive student could cause issues. But I have enforced a handful of practices that I hope will continue to protect me as I offer the best training I can in ballet and contemporary dance techniques. First and foremost, whether I am giving a private lesson or conducting a large master class, if there are no windows into the studio, I will try to keep the door open. I have nothing to hide, so I feel that an open door policy allows anybody to view the classroom/rehearsal process. From here, I try to fashion the touch in my physical corrections into the most obvious, non-sexual type of touch possible. If I am working with a group of students that are not used to my physical corrections, I will often ask the student before I adjust them, “Are you comfortable if I move your body to show you how to do it correctly?” This is often met with a positive response. Though, I am respectful if the student tells me no. When correcting, I adjust students with the sides of my hands or with my palm while my fingers are glued together like a spatula. Fingers tend to be more touchy-feely and can have misinterpreted intentions, so I try to avoid using my fingers as much as possible. If I do absolutely need to use my fingers, I will make sure they are rigid and avoid any inappropriate places. When a student requires corrections anywhere near any private area, I absolutely do not apply physical corrections. Instead, if it is a correction near or on the pelvis, I will show by pointing to myself. If it is close to the chest area, I will often pretend like there is an invisible string attached to their chest and imitate the act of pulling on the string to get them to shift their chest placement. If there is anything involving the rear-end, if it is along the sides of the hips or high enough like the gluteus medius, I will use the sides of my hands or a knuckle with my fingers tucked into my palm. The final protection that I enforce as a dance educator is that I will ABSOLUTELY NOT follow a student into a private place. If I need a student who is in the dressing room or in a bathroom, I will ask a parent or a peer to get them. This way there is never any question that I have been around a student in a private setting.

There is no better teacher than one who can build you up with confidence as they teach you our deftly difficult art form. It is pertinent that students receive information with clarity. I honestly don’t feel that anybody can become a professional dancer without any physical adjustments. Our American culture tends to be touch-sensitive, which can sometimes leave students feeling extremely cautious about any type of physical adjustment from teachers. I made the decision at the beginning of my teaching career that I would be one of those teachers that risk their livelihood to offer the best training to my students possible. And, it has worked thus far. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I approach each and every classroom I teach with tentativeness and an ounce of fear that one of my well-intended corrections may be misinterpreted as the worst of intentions. What has your experience been with physically correcting your students? Do you do it or not? And, if so, how do you approach making these corrections and protecting yourself as a dance educator?

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