The Best Ballet Syllabus

The Best Ballet Syllabus written by Nicola Rose principal of Oasis Dance and Drama School in Sydney 24/3/2016

When I started Oasis Dance & Drama School in Nov. 2009, I decided to teach the Living Dance Syllabus, developed by Beth Bluett, who was a ballerina with Rosella Hightower’s ballet company in France, decades ago.

I had always said I wouldn’t teach RAD, as, having gone through the RAD system and then meeting other dancers during my performing career who learnt other styles, I now believe that despite the RAD’s stranglehold on the Australian dance teaching of children, it is far from the best method. It is rigid and limited in its teaching of lyricism and self-expression.

I saw the Living Dance Syllabus first-hand when I spent a day in Toowoomba examining the students of the Darling Downs Dance School of Excellence, Beth’s own school. I spent a whole day viewing students from Primary up to Grade 5. I rated the content very well. I was very impressed by
a) the technical capabilities of the senior students. Their strength and stability was very impressive especially compared to RAD students of the same age.
b) the expressiveness they displayed, for their age.

Both of these things are what end up really counting in a tertiary dance context (not height of jumps, or flexibility, etc) so I was impressed by these elements. I attribute them to the way Beth has structured the material so that from a very early age children are being taught to use their abdominals in the correct manner, thus approaching professional body awareness far earlier in their training, something I had previously thought was NOT POSSIBLE – so, very impressed!

At Oasis we are currently teaching the Living Dance syllabus from Primary level (Year 1 at school) all the way up to Grade 6 (Year 8-10 at school), and they love it. I include a lot of creative material that is not included in the syllabus, as well, which most of the students just adore. This is not only necessary to keep their interest in the class, it is necessary to teach them self-awareness, teamwork, self-expression, and performance quality. Ballet is really very boring if you don’t do this, I think! I begin each class with a warm up/stretch. For the younger ones it is heavy with imagery and imagination which they greatly enjoy. In most classes we include some kind of free dance or improvisation, either with scarves, or using the music as a starting point for visual imagery that the students then invent movement to.

When I was in Toowoomba in 2009  I found that the Living Dance syllabus material progressed really nicely according to the students age, presenting them with new challenges appropriate to the foundations they have built in previous grades, and appropriate to their emotional and mental maturity at each stage.

At each level of the class they are presented new challenges across the board of classical ballet technique. Most importantly are the strategies included that teach students to have a refined sense of their centre of gravity and how to shift it safely to facilitate the mastery of more and more difficult ballet steps. This is one of the things that really caught my attention when I examined Beth’s students; the girls at the age of 12 or so had greater control of these things than I was used to seeing in RAD students who were even older. Dancers call this ‘finding your centre’ and it is vital to the difference between a mature professional and a recreational dancer. However I insist even recreational dancers should learn this at Oasis, because there is no doubt that greater self-awareness is the key to safe dancing and greater enjoyment in dancing.

Another beautiful thing is that each grade has a mime sequence, which teaches them how to express emotion and story with their face and body. Each of these mimes also teaches them a lesson appropriate to their social development – eg. 5 year olds do a mime about helping mother, 7-8 year olds do a mime about resolving arguments with their friends. I think this is just genius on Beth’s part for combining stage training with life skills.

I have not yet found another ballet syllabus that offers so much to students and am thrilled with the advantages of Living Dance, especially now after having taught it for 7 years.