Classical Ballet in Higher Education

The formation of CORPS de Ballet, International

Early in June 1998 ballet professors and teachers from the United States and Canada gathered together at Florida State University for an unusual conference.  The topic:  Do we want to create an organization which will support classical ballet in colleges and universities?  The answer: A resounding YES!  As a result, “The Corps de Ballet International” has just been formed.

As founder and acting President, Richard Sias, Professor of Dance at Florida State University, planned and directed this initial meeting.  He invited Dr. Penelope Reed Doob from York University, a freelance writer and the author of the recent Karen Kain biography, to coordinate and direct the discussion. Guest speakers were Mavis Staines, Artistic Director of the National Ballet School and Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar, and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, who addressed topics such as expert performance along with excellence and expertise in teaching classical ballet.

Colleagues from thirteen states and Canada shared their experiences and concerns during these preliminary meetings. We floated ideas on teaching methods, mentoring of students and community outreach.  Discussion stimulated professional growth and considered these fundamental questions; How can ballet be taught effectively? What is its function in higher education?

In order to summarize the variety of issues examined during these three days, I would like to touch on several topics which merited further deliberation and relay some personal thoughts assembled from teaching ballet in my own unique academic environment.

Ballet is, I believe, an “art”; therefore, the criteria for its development is not thought of from an academic standpoint, at least not in this country. College dance began in the athletic departments but those historic ties have ceased to exist. The dance world has evolved to such a degree that it is no longer appropriate to couple the art of classical ballet with physical education. Ballet, however, can be taught effectively in an academic environment. Many colleges and universities have superb studios, equipment and funding.  They offer experiential learning opportunities through guest artist programs, choreographic workshops, pedagogy classes, production and performance experience. The difficulty arises in the expectations the institutions have for their students rather than in ballet’s viability as a four year program. Recreation and fun seem to be the expectation–really, the perception–of the administration and colleagues. Sadly, if the training in higher education is purely recreational, students become frustrated, and never gain the knowledge and desire to continue as active participants in ballet, either as dancers or perhaps, more importantly, as future audience members and advocates for the art form.  Teaching ballet in higher education should not mean that the instructor must compromise knowledge and expertise. Still, the question remains; How can ballet achieve the same commitment that colleagues and administrations have to the academic agenda in their respective fields?

Our training as ballet teachers must be inspirational and informative, fostering a passion and dedication for the art.  At first students, may have difficulty in applying a structured approach to the study of ballet. But eventually, they come to understand that in order to study ballet and gain a sense of accomplishment and artistry at any level, they must apply the same work ethic that is required of their academic subjects.  Beginners learn the fundamentals of technique while intermediate and advanced students strive to strengthen and refine their dancing. College and university education supplements the technique training with in-depth courses in dance, if that is the chosen major, while the electives or distribution classes broaden the students’ ability to place the study of ballet into a functional perspective. Students eventually deepen their knowledge and respect for the art form and become lifetime supporters of ballet.  Many teachers and professors are ourselves former dancers; we all realize the commitment necessary to become an artist in this profession. We recognize, too, the care and, at times, the compromises needed to produce quality training for our students at all levels of ballet.

As college and university ballet teachers, some of us have heard the familiar argument that our students will not all become professional ballet dancers and would make better use of dance as a “recreational” activity. The simple truth is, even in a private or company school a very small percentage of students will end up with careers as professional dancers. As professors of dance we continue to educate parents and administrators to recognize the inherent value of the study of ballet.  Many studies have shown the exceptional ability of ballet students to achieve success in other professions. Ballet develops committed, disciplined, passionate people with integrity and an innate sense of creativity.

Often we advise students whose parents are concerned that a college or university education is too expensive to graduate with ” just a degree in dance”.  We remind them that the dance profession is not limited to professional dancers.  The field encompasses dance therapists, trainers, writers, technical crew, production, choreographers, teachers, advocates, community outreach and television and film work. Entertainers who began as dancers include Buddy Epsen, James Cagney, Shirley McLaine, Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Seymour and Gregory Hines.  As with most undergraduate degrees, a dance degree can be used as a preliminary step on the road to the next career opportunity.

Naturally, not all students arrive at their school with a ballet career foremost in their minds, but many do have those aspirations.  As teachers we support the goals of all our students.  We want to make the most of our rare opportunity to stimulate our students and draw from them the best qualities that terpsichore demands.

In the end, the mission of the “Corps de Ballet International” is to support a high standard of teaching, creation, performance and research, and to serve and support the community of university and college teachers of ballet. We will promote the recognition of the contributions that ballet in particular, and dance in general offer to human society.  We will sponsor and initiate activities and research related to these goals. The enthusiasm and excitement generated by my colleagues and  their commitment toward their students and the art of ballet was truly inspiring, indeed contagious.

The formation of the “Corps de Ballet International” is crucial to the continued growth and development of the art form.  As dance teachers in higher education and advocates for ballet, we invite you to join us, “The Corps de Ballet International”.

—Charles Flachs