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Teaching Via the “Telephone Game” method: Choreography Versus Pedagogy (revised and expanded)

Updated: Jan 6

As kids we used to sit in a circle and play a game where one person would start by whispering a phrase into the ear of the person next to them, then that person would in turn pass the message along to the next one until it got around and back to the initial player. The fun was hearing how fantastically far off the end message was from the original. Unfortunately teaching dance movement of any sort can be just like playing the telephone game with just as random and confusing results.

For instance, say a dance student “takes ballet” for 10 years at a local studio and now feels that they are ready to begin teaching on their own, based on the notion that since they have observed and participated in how their teachers (who may only be teaching what they in turn experienced in their ballet classes) conducted classes for all those years, they are now equipped to open their own studio. Taking classes – no matter how long you’ve been doing it, is a very far cry from actually teaching those very same lessons.

The phenomenon is almost a universal problem but possibly more prevalent in the United States* than elsewhere, as practically anyone can open a studio here. If you have funds and good advertising – a “Dolly Dinkle’s School of Dance” is up and running in no time, with tap, jazz, tumbling and “ballet” all in one hour! All based on choreography and the telephone game of trying to remember and reproduce what their teachers taught them.

When one takes a ballet class one is focused on the choreography of one’s own personal movement, not the actual biomechanics of the movement. You aren’t thinking about how it might work for a 6 year old in contrast to a 10 or 15 year old. You are not cognizant of the development, methodology or the process of how to get to the point of mastering each movement – you are observing the teacher and trying your best to COPY what they just did. As I ask all my online students: “Just because you graduated from high school doesn’t mean that you can teach it, right?” Process in any field is much different than copying.

Learning from someone who teaches by “the telephone game” approach will lead to spotty results at best, with no knowledge of THE PROCESS, the classes will be taught as “an idea of what ballet is really like”….like the ending phrase in that telephone game – with little resemblance to the original. I honestly believe that it is THIS experience, which leads many skaters and coaches to believe that taking ballet is only good for “arms, flexibility and grace”. I have even had someone tell me that “anyone can teach ballet”, which shows how far ballet teaching has fallen in the eyes of the general public.

In searching for the right studio, many, more savvy parents look to whether the director has a degree in dance but, at most universities classical ballet pedagogy isn’t even taught – and when they claim that it IS taught, what they often mean is that the student does research and comes up with their own ideas of what a teaching method might look like. It is still more about choreography than pedagogy, and still from the standpoint of remembering what their teachers taught or are even now teaching them.

Frequently, the director and a few teachers in these types of business oriented dance studios, have either a business, or child development degree and a minor in dance. All good, but not at all the same as studies in Science Based Dance Pedagogy and Methodology – and nothing in a teacher’s actual training can take the place of Pedagogy – not even weekend teacher workshops or seminars. When a person takes lessons in true, science based pedagogy (the word literally means the study of how to teach children) they are equipped with the blueprints of movement training from the first day of a dancer’s training through the professional level. Pedagogy has built into it child development classes within the context of what is proper at each level of development, physically, mentally, emotionally and artistically. Pedagogy provides the building blocks for true training “from the inside out”, not merely the choreography (appearance) of the movement. I am always talking about a “unified method of movement training” and Dance Pedagogy is “IT” – not only for teaching classical ballet but, for ALL dance/body movement – including sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. Science based classical dance Pedagogy takes into account the entire development of the dancer/artist through every point of their progress in a completely methodical and science based way, so that the dancer can confidently apply his/her training to any field of movement and be thoroughly equipped to learn other styles. – Because the science of movement is applicable to all fields.


In asking the question “How is skating like ballet?” the answer is usually based on outward appearances: “well, a spiral is like a penché arabesque” or “a spread eagle is like a second position” (which, by the way, it is not). A better question would be: “what are the differences between skating and ballet” but even here the answers are often more about physical appearance than physics or kinesiology. The problem with comparing and contrasting ballet with figure skating in these terms is that the most important concept is left out: that all biomechanically sound training is valuable because we all have the same “physics”. What makes classical ballet in particular so valuable for figure skaters is that when taught correctly (pedagogically and not choreographically) there is no other single off-ice conditioning class that combines so much of what the figure skater needs. It is the most “Unified Method” of off-ice training for the figure skater because it forms the body, mind and sensibilities from the inside out equipping the skater with the confidence and very real mind-body connection to achieve their greatest potential.

In returning one last time to “The Telephone Game” approach, consider that skaters have always had an “on-off” relationship with ballet and not solely because ballet in itself may temporarily be out of fashion. Is it possibly because skaters and coaches found it lacking because of the teaching approach? Has it been relegated to improving posture, flexibility and “choreography”, because the ballet teachers themselves tend to have that approach? In this new wave of interest in ballet training for figure skaters my fear is that everyone will rush to it (now that a number of high level skaters, most notable Nathan Chen, have found it works well for them) – and on the local level will find it lacking. And inevitably it will be dropped again in another wave of disillusionment.

Could it be that ballet teachers AND coaches (for, to be honest, they too often teach by way of the telephone game approach – copying what they learned from their coach) need to up their ante with some authentic, scientifically based Pedagogical courses? Something to think about.

*The U.S. was introduced to Classical Ballet by choreographers and professional dancers, NOT pedagogues; so their entire experience is skewed as to what and how ballet is taught. Mikhail Baryshnikov once said in an interview it is both a good and bad thing that anyone in America can open a ballet studio.”

© 2020 by Annette T. Thomas all rights reserved No part of this article may be printed or quoted without the prior written permission of Annette T. Thomas and Prime Radiant Press LLC. Photo credit: Dr. Peggy Willis-Aarnio

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