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How to Begin and Maintain a Ballet for Figure Skaters Program for Your Club

I wrote this article quite a few of years ago, and later incorporated it into my “Lesson Book” in 2011. At that time, I was still thoroughly convinced that coaches, board members and parents would be eager to employ a cohesive, and comprehensive skating program (both on and off-ice), which would almost guarantee the best success for each of their members. And, there were many who were as optimistic as I. Quite honestly, I had only experienced this kind of cooperation among artists and sports people a few times in my life, but the results were always so phenomenal, that I (again) assumed, when people actually saw the potential, they might drop some of the fear, pretense and self interest long enough (and deeply enough) to give it a chance. I admit that it takes a very strong leader to do this; one that everyone trusts on many levels, and that’s not at all easy to come by.

Having been in both the dance as well as the skating world for well over 30 years I also understand that each teacher, coach and board member comes from a different background, a different experience – both good and bad – as well as in technical understanding and approach. So that giving up something or trying it a different way in favor of the whole would feel like losing control over the process.

Through the years of teaching my on-line coaches course to both ballet teachers and skating coaches from around the world, I have increasingly become aware that other countries seem to cooperate a bit more as (I believe) there seems to not be as many options in training methods, gadgets, or “celebrity brand” teachers and coaches who travel the country as there are here in the U.S.. Also, particularly in Russia, they are focused on creating medalists and not on the individual making a living or paying for lessons – the good and the bad of gov’t funded arts and sports.

In these countries, they have what I call in my coaches’ course a “unified method of movement training” – both on and off-ice. Everyone works together to create the very best athlete possible. The coaches and off-ice instructors (including the ballet teachers) have all graduated from university in their field with required courses in anatomy and physiology, kinesthetics, biomechanics, sports/classical dance pedagogy, nutrition and psychology, so that the methodology is consistent throughout.

Here in the U.S. “recreational everything” is big business and we are not funded by the government so we DO have to make a living off what we do. Our backgrounds are so diverse as to sometimes have seemingly no “Venn Diagram” of intersecting points…even in the same field.

Having said all of this, I still firmly believe that we ARE truly better together – better in every possible way; socially, economically, artistically and technically. So, with this extremely long “Preface” to this rather old article (as in this age of “jump and spin fest” classical ballet training is rarely considered essential to skaters training) – I challenge us all to listen, cooperate, be humble and open – for the sake of the children in our care (I am referring to both infighting as well as overuse-injuries) – to create an environment of unity and true progress – a nicer/better place to work, learn and even, quite possibly, win more medals because of a more Unified Approach – to everything!

How to Begin and Maintain a Ballet for Figure Skaters Program for Your Club – By Annette T. Thomas

From the inception of my website “” in 1999 as well as the e-group by the same name which ran for several years, coaches and ballet instructors from all over the world have asked numerous questions on how to start and maintain a ballet program at their rinks. This is a compilation of suggestions and ideas which I have used over the years in helping others to form a viable ballet program for figure skaters. Of course, every skating club is run differently and some of the issues and applications discussed will be more applicable than others depending on the dynamics of your particular club.

After reading through this section you may be inspired to write up your own set of guidelines which you feel might best suit the club you work for and present it to the board or to the coaches you most frequently work with. Ongoing clear communication, mutual respect and visionary cooperation are the most important features to maintaining a workable program. Through my many years of teaching at rinks and corresponding with both coaches and ballet instructors of figure skaters around the world, I can say with some accuracy that ballet lessons most frequently fail at rinks because of the lack of on-going cooperation, respect and communication between the Ballet instructor and the coach.

I -Things to think about and discuss:

  • Unity of teaching method is imperative to training the figure skater…the more teachers/styles/philosophies of training methods abound the more confused the skater will become as to how to utilize the information given, especially for the very young. The result will be that a lot of money will be spent with very little artistic or technical finesse gained. This is not only frustrating for the skater; it is frustrating for the parents, coaches and club in general. Every type of instructor at a rink needs to be in tune with every other type of instructor so as to provide a unified and collaborative atmosphere in which the skating community as a whole can thrive. I think that everyone can agree that supercilious attitudes and words can spoil it all in a very short time frame.

  • Classical Ballet Technique must not be viewed merely as choreography or just another “style” of dance…it is the fundamental training technique for all Western Dance. Styles may change but the physics of movement does not. Correct ballet technique addresses accurate biomechanics as well as artistry so that any dance style learned afterwards will be more easily incorporated and used by the dancer/technician. Classical ballet frees the body to express the full range of emotion, ideological concepts, relationships and musicality

  • Correct body alignment/awareness and centering cannot initially be taught on the ice. There is too much going on for the average person when “velocity” as well as balancing on a blade are added into the mixture of proprioception. Initially these concepts must be taught off-ice, “flat footed”’ and with mirrors, as unambiguous focus is required to instill these perceptions within each individual.

  • Choreography can produce “quick fixes’ to specific pose related problems (outward appearance), but only “programming” the correct neural pathways will ensure that the skater can produce consistent, biomechanically sound movement no matter what the choreography.

  • Immediate results do not necessarily mean permanent results. In learning Classical Ballet technique, the student will obtain permanent results as the concepts are ingrained into the neural pathways (body, mind and musicality) simultaneously through repetition…There is no other form of movement training which does this in such methodical and minute detail. Learning to change and shape the mind, muscles and neural pathways will give permanent results to a whole range of movement possibilities.

“The purpose for dance class is to make the interior more visible”

-Alvin Ailey

II Why do you want a ballet program for your skating club?

Some common “reasons”:

  • the skaters need to learn be more graceful

  • the skater’s arms need work

  • to learn good posture, carriage and better “stage presence”

  • to help with style and musicality

  • to become more flexible and help with extensions

All the above can be learned to some extent through other venues!

If a skating club or individual coach is solely hiring a ballet instructor for the reasons listed above in mind, the program is sure to die out or be taken over by another type of instructor. As was mentioned previously: Classical Ballet Technique is not just another “Style” of dance…it is the fundamental training technique for all Western Dance and Movement training. In studying Classical Ballet technique the student will obtain permanent “whole body” results with significantly reduced susceptibility to injury as the concepts are ingrained into the neural pathways through repetition…there is no other form of movement training which does this in such methodical and minute detail.

If the understanding of the real purpose of taking Classical Ballet lessons is “diffused” it will become a slave to someone else’s agenda and eventually die out.

Figure Skating clubs as well as individuals within the organization (coaches, parents and the skaters themselves) need to be educated as to the real purpose and potential of Classical Ballet for the figure skaters as otherwise everyone including the choreographer, coach, Pilates and Yoga instructor will feel that they can do the same job….and to some extent, they can. This misunderstanding can and often does lead to superciliousness on the part of the skating community. To be fair, many ballet instructors, especially in the United States, have no pedagogical credentials and are simply teaching what they learned from ballet classes they took, so that lessons they give are based on choreography rather than on a true method of training.

III – Coach & ballet instructor involvement: The Creative Power of Collaboration

Although it is the responsibility of ALL off-ice instructors to support, respect and cooperate with each other, it is absolutely essential that the coach and the ballet instructor be on the same page – working together for the benefit of the skater.

Keeping it pertinent is the responsibility of BOTH the coach and the ballet instructor!

  • Exchange of lessons (building understanding and cooperation) I highly recommend that the ballet instructor take a month or two of private lessons from at least one of the coaches she/he primarily works with and that the coaches reciprocate. This will lead to greater understanding, respect and increase rapport between the two.

  • The Coach and Ballet instructor need to interact on a regular basis as lessons need to be customized according to the specific needs of each skater as well as the skating group as a whole; otherwise, if the skater (or coach) perceives that the lessons are not benefiting them personally they will stop coming. The coach and the ballet instructor also need to communicate on a regular basis as the ongoing needs of the skater will change through time. Momentum for the ballet program will build only as structure, skill progression and focus by all involved is maintained. There cannot be a “one size fits all” program as each skater, and group of skaters have different needs and progress at different rates.

IV – Requirements and compromises: The ballet room, time allotments for class; separation by age vs. skating technique level

1- The Ballet Room: Ideally, from the very beginning, the ballet program should be held in a completely equipped ballet room. This may need to be at a near by studio if the rink does not have a ballet room. Barres, mirrors and a sprung wood floor are truly essential in establishing a good start. Both technically and esthetically the ballet room needs to provide the correct tools for success:

  • Sturdy barres at the correct height for mastering internal technique.

  • Floor to ceiling mirrors for developing an eye for developing correct total body-line.

  • Sprung wood floors to execute proper jump technique (and preventing injuries).

  • Adequate lighting, good air ventilation and space for groups to move freely during jumps and spins.

If this is not initially possible, try to get a large, well lit room away from traffic areas at the rink. You can set up chairs as a makeshift barre (although it will be too low for most) and bring a dozen or so cheap “door mirrors” to prop up. This will not work on a long-term basis and should only be viewed as a temporary solution.

2- Age groups: It is very important that every skater begin Classical Ballet training at the beginning level. My suggestion is that two separate beginning classes be conducted, one for ages: 8-12 and another for ages 13 and up. I realize this is a problem at most rinks as the on-ice lessons revolve around skating levels rather than age. Older children dislike taking off-ice lessons with younger skaters specifically because their attention spans and maturity level dictates that the lesson must proceed at a much slower pace. Even though all students are beginning at the beginning level, the older students can progress physically as well as intellectually at a much faster rate, so if they are all in the same class, the older skaters will get bored and drop out. Grouping students by skating level also assumes that because one is “better” at skating one will necessarily be “better” at ballet, which is not a good or even accurate attitude to encourage. Keeping it appropriate to the mental and physical maturity level of the group being taught is an essential factor in holding on to a ballet program.

**Working with ages 5-7: As mentioned above, Classical Ballet training requires a certain level of concentration, body control and mental and physical discipline which would be constricting and even boring/frustrating to this particular age group. If there is a high demand for younger children to participate, it is advisable a 45 minute lesson twice a week consisting of floor work (The Vaganova preliminary Floor exercises) and creative movement/musicality specifically geared toward younger skaters.

3- Time allotments: Ballet lessons should be between 1 hour for beginners and 11/2 hours for Intermediate and Advanced levels, and taken at least 2X per week. Any less doesn’t really get into the body and will always be at the “mercy” of the skater’s on-ice movement patterns and perceptions of “style”. For the ballet lesson to be of any true biomechanical or artistic value the movements and exercises must be ingrained into the mind-body connection. In the first year of the program it is advisable to offer 2 beginning classes per week for each age group.

4- When to start: Skaters should begin as soon as they express an interest in private on-ice lessons. The longer a skater goes without Classical Ballet training the harder it will become to correct undesirable movement patterns. Since Classical Ballet training also improves attention span and attention to the detail of whole-body movement, this will greatly benefit their on-ice lesson time as well.

5- Boy’s Class: A separate boys/men’s class time should be encouraged if at all possible. This will help to encourage young men to dance in a manner which will not give them embarrassment or predispose them to a possibly more feminine interpretation of movement, unless it is something specifically desired by the student. Jumps and spins (and even lifts for the teacher who is well versed in teaching pas de deux) can be encouraged in a manner which is more suited to the male skater.

6-Class etiquette: Late entries or leaving early should never be allowed (make it clear in your flier). Each lesson is to be seen as a performance – it is part of the discipline of “taking class” (or even “having a lesson”) and teaches respect – to value every moment of class time as a privilege and not something to be used for their own purposes and interpretation.

© 2020 by Annette T. Thomas and Prime Radiant Press LLC. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be “curated”, cut and pasted”, used in a discussion outside this forum, whatever term you want to use, without the prior written consent of the author.

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