Loaded Terms: What are they and why are they ruining our students dance experience?

In this blog I will explain how the loaded term has crept its way in to dance instruction; creating a teaching philosophy that has slowly erased teaching as a scientific, experience based method to a regurgitation of words along with a transfer of responsibility from teacher to student.

It is so hard to put my finger on the exact moment that teaching took a back seat to the art of seeking only naturally gifted students and putting their name on them; but I would say it came as a result of the “soloist” era. Really wonderful shows that brought so many great things to our industry also began to erode the importance of building up an entire team to produce beautiful, meaningful and technically correct performances. I get it!! It is so much easier to teach certain children – and to have a whole room of those naturally gifted, focused, nearly problem free children is something we can’t help but want to experience. As a result of always seeking out the “chosen few” a large majority of dancers are overlooked. You see, if those children, who are not given absolutely everything straight out of the womb (which is 99.9% of children), want to be good at dance then they would have to find a studio that has talented, experienced, and knowledgable dance teachers. So as choreographers, teachers and studio owners get better at attracting talented children they have seemed to get worse at actually teaching and/or finding great staff. And hence the loaded term was born!

So what is a loaded term? Loaded terms are general expressions and corrections used in dance that are often thrown at children but have no real meaning to those children at that time. Loaded terms will change depending on the skill level of the student. Unfortunately for the students they are used at all levels and only those students with sheer luck or natural ability to “figure it out themselves” actually appear to improve while in the care of these kinds of teachers.

Pull up

Point your toes

Stretch your knees

Fix your posture

Lift

Jump higher

Use your feet

Deeper plie

Use your turn out

…And the list goes on. It’s important to note that these may not be loaded, although some are just bad, depending on the level of the student.

The principal is that if a student does not understand everything that encompasses that term regarding the step, their body and how it functions then it is a loaded term and ultimately incredibly ineffective and frustrating for the students to hear during their  training. In many cases it can actually create more problems for that student. Let’s look at a scenario and how the loaded term can create a stressful and regressive training process for the student.

Deeper plie

Here are some reasons why saying this to a student would be ineffective:

  • They don’t understand how “deep” to go. If they haven’t learned plie and grand plie for example then the student simply cant determine the appropriate depth to lower their hips.
  • Deeper plies may not be feasible based on the flexibility in the achilles; so achieving this physically may not actually be possible at the time. The actual correction would be correcting the lack of flexibility not the level of plie.

These are just two examples but I am sure you can think of so many other scenarios where using this loaded term would not actually produce the intended result.

Now let’s use the same example to demonstrate how using a loaded term could create bad habits that can even lead to injury. Using the short achilles example we can have the following outcomes by telling a student to deepen their plie:

  • Not landing their heels in sautés.
  • Rolling the ankle to compensate for the lack of flexibility in the achilles.
  • Leaning forward and throwing the body in order to get the needed power to jump due to inefficient use of feet and lack of alignment.

Having to learn all that stuff that makes up the loaded term would mean that teachers have to read and educate themselves in dance physiology, assist excellent teachers, teach beginners, or even attend PD throughout the year…And doesn’t that sound like way too much work when you can just take a dance class and open a studio…and make the same amount of money as someone who does all the right things?!

I hope the industry, parents and students can begin to recognise the teachers that spurt out loaded, ineffective terms and corrections that have no actual ability to educate the student. I don’t blame them for it though because they had to learn that from somewhere. And let’s be honest; there isn’t any regulation in our industry and studios that shouldn’t are still making money; so the first step in moving towards safer teaching practices that are experience and evidence based is doing two things: 1) educating parents and 2) educating teachers.

So, how can you determine whether a teacher is using a loaded term while teaching:

  • The term is being repeated over and over throughout the entire class to the majority of the students. Corrections need to be foundational or skill based as well as student specific. If foundation technique is missing then the teacher needs to re-evaluate their conditioning (stretching and strengthening) in order to develop that part of the body. If skill based functions are not there then the teacher needs to go back to earlier progressions and emphasise the proper use of their body throughout more basic skills to ensure physical efficiency and effectiveness are present before more difficult skills are introduced.
  • A large portion of the class is struggling to achieve the skill. This one is pretty self explanatory. However I still see 1 or 2 dancers doing the vast majority of hard skills in routines and that is very indicative of teachers who use loaded terms.
  • Students progress very quickly and then stop abruptly. I see this with very talented students. Beginner and mid level skills are easily achieved however vital habits and foundation technique are missing meaning that difficult skills performed consistently and safely are almost impossible to achieve.
  • Many students in a class have recurring lower body injuries. I am not talking one or two. I mean a noticeable amount of students are injured in the same class. Knee and ankle injuries are quite prevalent in students who attempt skills they are not ready for. Poor alignment and training on both sides of the body for example are overlooked when giving general corrections like “you need more height in your jump” type of corrections. Lots of throwing of the body makes for a very unsafe and unstable base which ultimately puts enormous pressure on the ankles and knees causing more than just ineffective dancers but a lifetime of physical problems.
  • They seem to work with the same individuals in class. If a child feels left out in class it may be because their teacher does’t know how to fix their issues. If they are using loaded terms and when a select few are fixing themselves the way the teacher wanted than they will gravitate to those students.
  • They skip warm ups. Warm ups determine the dancer. However if a student grew up on loaded terms then they most likely haven’t been taught the importance of developing the body through very necessary, carefully planned warm ups. That will translate in to their teaching and students will be expected to jete prior to learning the mounds of techniques that go in to that jete.
  • The teacher cannot explain how to specifically help a child with their body. Hip rotation is a great example of this. Yes, you can be born with poor hip rotation (raising my hand so high right now because my hips are naturally horrible), but that does not mean that I am doomed to suck at ballet and dance in general. It means that I need specific teaching techniques, exercises and explanations that will give me better turn out and the illusion to the audience that I have superb turnout. Blaming a child for their limitations is a reflection of a teacher and often not the ability of the student.

I think this is why I have such a massive problem with performers teaching and hosting workshops. Teaching takes a life time to master; Performing and mastering ones body also takes a lifetime. Doing both is very difficult. I know it can be done but I simply don’t see it very often. They teach with loaded terms because at the point in anyone’s life when they are dancing for a living it usually means that they have a strong grasp of foundation and skill based technique. Therefore the above terms make sense and are used as reminders not skill building. Professional skill building and maintenance requires very different teaching methods than foundation and progression based teaching. The result of hiring professional performers often means that they gravitate to the students “just like them” who most likely have the ability to decipher and apply loaded terms. This is not always the case of course, but it happens way to often in my opinion.

Teachers, if you didn’t know you were teaching this way then it’s not too late to fix it. Here are some suggestions as to how to work on removing loaded terms:

  • Pick a correction that seems to be affecting everyone in the class. Now its time for some good old fashioned problem solving. Put that pen to paper and write down all the possible issues it could be. You know more then you think!
  • Choose 1 student who seems to be falling behind in class. List 2 technical and/or skill issues that could be affecting them. Now list as many exercises and/or progressions as you can think of for those issues.
  • Go back to basics. If you aren’t prepared or able to think of progressions or exercises that will create meaningful change for whatever reason, than seek the help of a syllabus. Go right back to the beginning and work your way through. Since they all come with DVD’s your students will have the ability to see exactly what the skill should look like. Video them and let them witness the difference.
  • Spend an hour or 2 a week with a teacher that has proven results. Learn from others in the industry who have had a more comprehensive dance education than maybe you have had in order to gain experience based knowledge.

Dance teachers are educators like every other and need to remember the incredible responsibility we have to our students. If you have any questions and or would like someone to review your work then please do not hesitate to contact me: everythingdancewithashley@gmail.com. The first consult is free. I am always excited to pass my knowledge on to others the way others have graciously passed it on to me.

 

Support for each other is the best thing we can do for our students!

Published by everythingdancewithashley

Ashley Grottoli is an award winning dancer and choreographer who has helped thousands of students achieve their personal and professional goals. "Teach a dancer tricks and they are impressive on Instagram; Teach a dancer to harness their mind and body’s full potential and they can become anything they want to be" says Ashley.

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