Three tired Knoxville Ballet School monkeys after a <successful> video audition for American Ballet Theatre’s Young Dancer Summer Workshop in 2012
The same three monkeys at ABT in NYC later that summer, with their idol, one Catherine Hurlin
Last week during a discussion at a writers’ workshop I attended over in Cambridge, NY, I listened with great interest to a teacher lamenting a new generation of children whose parents are more than happy to complain to school administrators when they feel their young child’s genius is questioned by a teacher. Those are my words, not hers, but that was the gist, I think. The problem, she continued, is reaching a new pitch: last year she had been called into the principal’s office an impossible number of times to defend herself in the face of her cheeky parent critics. Nor had her comments to children been sharp or unfair. Her classroom demeanor had remained unchanged through decades, but she noted parenting attitudes emphatically had not.
So this seasoned professional decided she’d had enough.
That is a tragedy.
My mind wandered to a short video of Catherine Hurlin, a student at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre; the video was made four or five years ago, in studio 9 on ABT’s 4th floor—the very classroom where I undertook my own teacher training at ABT. In the video Catherine explains earnestly to the camera that school principal Franco De Vita could make you cry. She also nods to his humor, to which I can attest firsthand. We see her young self discussing her life at the school, alternating with moments from Franco’s studio company class into which she had been invited on occasion. This is a huge honor for a younger dancer.
I do not know of many scenarios where criticism is offered more intensely than in the ballet classroom. Not only that, once you’ve crossed the threshold from recreational study to pre-professional work (which happens for many kids by age thirteen or fourteen—Catherine was not much older than that in the video), you are about as vulnerable and exposed as it is possible to be.
Those who do not really, really want it will fall by the wayside quickly. There are too many others who do, and are more than happy to step up to the plate and take it.
Academia is different, of course. But if we are content to hand out honors like candy, how is that serving a population of children who do not deserve special recognition? The world will be less forgiving.
Earlier today I saw this thoughtful piece written by a friend who is a professional musician and music teacher. In it she opines about various aspects of feedback I completely understand. There are effective and ineffective ways to offer criticism to a young student. Being unduly harsh does not serve anybody, either.
Franco himself was pretty tough on me the first time he came to my school in Knoxville to look at my kids. After a full day of ballet exams, per the ABT/JKO rules, Franco met with me behind closed doors to critique my teaching. The kids had worked hard to prepare for their exams, but in the end I was accountable, of course. I put my head down and listened, took careful notes, silently kicked myself for some missteps I made in spite of knowing better, but realized I had so much still to learn about teaching classical ballet to a new generation of children. Franco was tired that day; he had a head cold and I imagine was possibly jetlagged. He was in no mood to suffer fools gladly, and I certainly had no intention of being a fool. I shut up and listened.
In the end, my kids did okay on their exams. A few received high marks, most were average, and a couple squeaked by. We had much work to do.
At the beginning of the next term I took my page of Franco notes into the classroom with me and kept them on the console next to my class planner. Every single class I built from that point forward reflected the wisdom he imparted to me on that Saturday in April.
All of us—my students and myself—worked so, so hard the next year; there were even a few tears, and a couple of kids threw in the towel. But when Franco visited again the following spring he was met with a very different looking bunch of young dancers.
With only a couple of exceptions, they blew the tops off their exams.
What if Franco had handed out honors like candy the first time around? How would we—my students and I—have benefitted from that?
The tenor of the ballet classroom has changed quite a bit since I was a young student in the 60s and 70s, mainly for the better: teaching methods have improved, dancer health is a much higher priority where it once was not. But even the ballet world suffers some from the “precious child” syndrome of academia, to wit: you can’t touch a kid in class, not even to make a teeny but important adjustment, for fear of legal action, or the threat of it anyway. I know about this firsthand—it was ultimately why I also left the classroom, ruled as it was at that moment by a very powerful nine-year-old kid. What a shame for all involved.
Anybody who has a real desire—a fire in the belly—to achieve anything, needs desperately to hear the truth from a loving, impassioned teacher or mentor. Undeserved accolades will ultimately extinguish the flame.
Here is the video of Catherine. Oh, and if you’d like to see what ultimately happened to her, you’ll have to go here. Thank you, Franco De Vita.