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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Constructivism in a PreProfessional Ballet Program

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Luke Muscat, M.S.Ed Candidate and Teacher, The Hewitt School; Steps Youth Programs; The School at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

The constructivist approach to education is rooted in a student driven, inquiry-based approach to learning. Using constructivism has proven to improve student motivation, commitment, satisfaction, and learning retention (Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2012). In a pre-professional ballet program, however, such a contemporary outlook on learning is scarce. Due to its tradition and high standards of acceptability, ballet is almost completely teacher led: with all exercises, choreography, and artistic choices stemming from the teacher rather than the students. This leaves students potentially feeling powerless in the decisions that impact them greatly, such as the choreography they perform, the costumes they wear, and the music they dance to. In the 21st century, dance teachers in pre-professional programs, not just those in PK-12 environments, ought to explore ways in which students can feel in charge of their learning without losing the foundation of scope, rigor, and the trajectory of a pre-professional program. 

As a teacher in the pre-professional program at Steps Youth Programs in New York City, a professional environment that encourages teacher creativity and innovation, I have been contemplating ways in which my students could be more inquiry-driven in their learning. While I pondered this, the answer presented itself. The theme of our Spring Showcase was released: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was the perfect opportunity to apply the constructivist approach with my 9- to 10-year-old students. I took some post-it notes, crayons, and blank paper from the supply closet and marched down to my studio, eager to get my students involved in planning their showcase piece.

When I explained to my class that I was asking them for their input in constructing their piece for the Spring Showcase, their faces changed to an expression of equal shock and excitement. They could not believe what I was saying nor could they contain their enthusiasm; nothing like this had ever happened to them before. Using one of my favorite books, “A Child’s Introduction to Ballet: the stories, music, and magic of classical dance” by Laura Lee, I read the shortened, age-appropriate version of the famous Shakespearean story to my students. As I read aloud, I had my students write themes that stood out to them on post-it notes. After I had read the story a few times, the students pooled, organized, and displayed all their ideas on the mirror. Themes that arose included: magical forest, sprites, fairies, love, kindness, nighttime, dreaming, trickery, magic, flowers, transformation, and royalty. We decided to consider the three themes that had the most sticky-notes as the foundation for our showcase piece. 

The results were in: our dance was to be centered around the themes of mystical forest, sprites/fairies, and love. Since these themes could be interpreted in many ways, I asked the students to isolate the semantics of each theme. For the mystical forest, the students decided that the imagery of flowers, trees, and fog be their movement stimuli. As for the sprites and fairies, my students clarified that they would like elements of mischievousness or trickery within their ballet. Lastly, I asked my students to elaborate on what love meant to them. My students decided that love, to them, included the concepts of unity, connectedness, and kindness. 

With their themes in mind, I had the children draw pictures of what their ideal costume would be, including the color schemes, style, and accessories. The color palate that arose included light greens, light blue, dark blue, and some purple. Most of the students wanted a long skirt as opposed to a short skirt, with sleeves being a nice touch but not a “necessary” part of their costume. Their ideal headpiece, however, would be something that “looked like twisted vines.” Although their costuming is logistically limited by budgeting and what is in the costume catalog, having an idea of what they want to wear will help me choose costumes that they will love, feel good in, and help transcend their dancing. 

Music was the last thing to be decided. The following class I brought my students a few pieces of music. I played each piece of music a couple times and we did a blind vote (heads down, hands up style). With each blind vote, I eliminated a piece of music until the last piece was left was a unanimous decision. Although I had many ideas swirling in my head, I asked my students if they would like to share what they imagined their dancing to be like as they heard the music. All of their hands shot up and every student could only illustrate what they imagined with a quick solo; there was no other way to communicate their ideas but through their own authentic movement. Furthermore, their discussion of the music that followed their mini solos was incredibly rich, descriptive, and analytical. The students shared, listened, and delved into a deep discussion on what the music seemed to embody and evoke for them. While I am in charge of the choreography, getting a sense of the movement they wished to perform – like the costuming they wished to dawn – gave me both an inspiration and a starting point to further personalize their choreography to suit how they saw themselves.  

Drawings by students posted on the wall

Teaching in a pre-professional ballet program comes with a certain pressure that leaves educators feeling like there is never enough time: never enough time to drill a step, rehearse the piece, or coach artistry. The reality of the constructivist approach is that it is very time consuming, and teachers who feel crunched for time may be very unwilling to commit to such a process. However, the feelings of control, contribution, investment, community, joy, motivation, pride, and collaboration (not to mention an experience so episodic they will never forget it), I believe, outweighs missing time at the barre. 

References: Woolfolk, A., Winne, P., & Perry, N. (2012). Educational psychology (Fifth Canadian Ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson Education Canada.

Luke is a man with dark hair against a black backround

Luke Muscat is a dance educator in New York City and a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education. A graduate of The Ailey School, Muscat founded the lower school dance program at The Hewitt School, a Manhattan independent school for girls, and as well the young boy’s dance program at Steps Youth Program. He is on faculty at The School at the Mark Morris Dance Center and has taught for The Ailey School Junior Division, Ailey Arts in Education, B&B NYC, and the New York City Ballet Education Department. His article, “The Weight of Words: A Message to Dance Educators, Caregivers, and Members of Society” will be published in Dance Education in Practice this June. Headsot by Nir Arileli.


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