Dancers used to be finished by age 30 in the past, but these days dancing is taught differently: with respect for one’s own and others’ bodies

Teaching dance means making the body move, finding out how far it will let us go, and being able to teach that to others. “And practice a lot,” adds Marie Vrbatová Fričová who teaches a two-year dance course at the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague to external students.

The Faculty has been offering the Dance and Movement Pedagogy course into its tenth year now. The programme is intended for those who teach dancing, whether in elementary art schools or dancing courses, and seek to refresh their skills and learn about new trends.

“When Professor Ivanka Kubicová (ed. note: an educator, choreographer, and long-time Head of the Dance Department) worked at HAMU, a steady demand for combined studies existed all the time. Many applicants sought to obtain their professional qualifications and learn the dance teaching methodology,” Marie Vrbatová Fričová explains. The aforementioned course was a predecessor to a combined programme which the school recently got accredited by the Ministry of Education as further education for teaching professionals.

“The course remains available even with the combined programme open and is still very much in-demand,” the teacher says in the Hartig Palace, one of the buildings in the Lesser Town Square in Prague’s centre where HAMU has been located since the Velvet Revolution. She explains how teaching dance changes and evolves. For instance, more than in the past, today’s approach focuses on ensuring that practice will not ruin dancers’ bodies – so that they can keep on dancing until a high age. The school’s dancefloors also reflect the era in which dancing is taught: the demand for specific styles is evolving, and unlike in the past, one of the current concerns is how to teach dance with respect for others.

Who are the most frequent applicants for your course?
Many of them are elementary art school teachers, and others are teachers in dancing courses for adults and tutors in leisure dancing classes for children. They want to expand and/or refresh their teaching knowledge and learn about new trends. They want to keep up with the evolution of dancing. The field is constantly progressing, seeking and finding new processes and methods for teaching dance. The approach that was used when I was a dance student has been out of use for a long time now. Among other things, our alumni learn how to teach dancing correctly nowadays, making sure their students can avoid injuries and stay capable of dancing all their life.

How did they teach you to dance?
t was often forced and in pain. It wasn’t always a piece of cake. We faced the threat of facing lasting consequences, and injuries happened, but nobody really cared. We just had to stick it out. By contrast, today’s approach is based on the current knowledge in dancing medicine, ensuring that your body will not get hurt when learning. Another change from the past is that the current teaching approach is democratic rather than directive. Emphasis is placed on finding things out on your own. This means that everyone should seek and study their body to find out what it can do, what they can achieve, how far it will let them go, and where the limits are. In the past, dancers used to be ‘finished’ and unable to dance any more by age 30. By contrast, I see many people dancing at 40 these days, and I actually know people who are still dancing at 50.

What did you study?
I went to the conservatory, starting out with ballet, but I grew up quite tall, so I switched to folkloric dancing during my studies and completed the conservatory majoring in folk dances. Then I was admitted to AMU and, later on, became one of its first folk dance specialists. That was when programmes were beginning to spin off. The school taught classical dancing initially and everything else was secondary. Today, we actually have four separate directions: classical ballet, modern and contemporary dance, folk dance, and movement pedagogy.

Diverse dancers attend your course. Do they bring something to the table?
They certainly do. They share advice and experience. One obvious benefit of the course is that when they leave and go back to their own schools and courses, they can immediately try in real life what they learned here. Then they come back and can tell us if what we taught them actually worked. It is a reciprocal effort. Through them, we can constantly watch what is happening in the dancing field. At the same time, we must adapt our approach to the demand. Each new group that arrives is different, with different dynamics and needs. I have been teaching for 40 years, and students sometimes suppose that I have all my prep done, so that all I need to do is come to the class and teach. That’s not true. New questions, new issues, and new methods of teaching dance appear all the time.

Do you follow the developments on the dancing scene?
Of course, I do, and we also take part in various competitions and festivals. We want to know what elementary art schools teach and which dancing courses are offered as leisure activities.

Do different dance styles require different approaches to the way you teach their respective teachers?
I don’t think so; it’s more about seeking methods. We all have one head, two legs, and two arms. The style of work with the body remains the same. With that said, there are certain nuances obviously. For example, folk dances come much more naturally; children skip and jump spontaneously from an early age. This is a type of movement we all know, and it’s easier to teach. By contrast, classical dance requires a specific set of movement abilities such as rotating your lower extremities, body postures, and certain strength, making it physically more demanding. Modern dancing is based on natural movement to a greater degree and a lot is about seeking body movement that feels natural. We strive to see what is happening within the body and how we can achieve the right movement…

How difficult is it to teach a subject where actually doing it is better than explaining and understanding how to do it? I mean teaching stuff that you need to grasp with your body rather than your head.
It’s difficult to explain; you just have to try. It’s a bit like chemistry, if you will. Sometimes it’s a better idea to go to a lab and try out an experiment rather than speak about it in the classroom. With us, you need to come to the hall and sweat for hours. It may take time before the sensory-motor pathways in your brain ‘break in’, so you need to try the movements consistently, over and over again.

Modern times bring up the issues of corporeality, respect for one’s body, personal zones, and consent. How is the issue of harassment reflected in dancing and dance teaching?
We include this in instruction; we work to avoid situations where one could be accused of harassment. We also discuss things such as not raising your voice with children. In the past, we would get physically corrected in school and the dance halls, and sometimes in a rough and forced manner. These days, we still touch our students – but only with respect, gently, and subject to consent. The best approach is to make an arrangement before you even being teaching as to whether you can touch them or address them on a first name basis, especially with older learners. We discuss this with the students in our course, so that they can avoid problems in their classes. You also need to realise how and in what spots you may touch students if they consent. At HAMU, we are on academic soil, so we should act and speak on a certain level, but in the dance hall, it’s easier to work in a somewhat more intimate setting. Sometimes we don’t get the consent and have to deal with it differently. We seek examples and a better imagery for movement – just a different approach to teaching dance.

Do you cover anything else that was not a topic in the past?
Motivation is a new topic, as motivating children to exercise is not an easy task nowadays. It’s important for children to be captivated by what they are doing and to be really willing to work. Sometimes, we tell them what they can look forward to in the next lesson. Or, we ask them to come up with their own wish the next time. Everyone who attracts and inspires a child to exercise should be praised. It’s quite easy with young children – it is all done in the form of play. When I was an elementary art school teacher, a girl approached me once: “We just keep playing all the time; when will we get to exercise?”

How about motivating older children?
It’s similar with older children. A positive and democratic approach and natural authority usually work. When students sense your support and full involvement, that’s half of your work done very often. Things are not always perfect, though – sometimes you need to be a little louder and use a more authoritative tone. This is also why the students in our course attend voice lessons, so that they can use their voices efficiently when teaching.

What does your course look like? I mean, how often do you meet, and what do you teach to your students?
We meet once every two weeks on Friday and Saturday. We cover all three dance techniques: modern, classical, and folk. Our students attend movement, physiotherapy, dance medicine, and voice classes. In the summer, they take a one-week intensive course that involves three practice sessions a day and theory lessons – dance and ballet history and music theory. As dance teachers, they need to work with music. We teach a lot of dancing techniques in the first year, adding didactics and methodology in the second; that’s also when they get to try teaching, for instance their coursemates. With our supervision, they explore the ways to teach what they have learned to others; the best ways to share it all.

You said that the course includes music. In what sense?
The problem is that schools face a lack of funding today, so they cannot afford live music accompaniment – an actual person playing the piano in dancing lessons. They resort to playing back recorded music. Of course, life is easier now that we have YouTube and Spotify, as you can find anything there. The disadvantage is that you cannot always alter the tempo of the recording.

What makes the tempo and tempo changes so important?
When you’re listening to a piece, its tempo may seem lively and fine. When you dance, however, the same tempo may prove too fast to manage. Also, young children take shorter paces so their tempo differs from that of older children, and you need slightly slower music with them. If you can use an accompanist, you simply tell them what tempo you need. We have accompanists at HAMU, and some of our students never get to meet one before coming to us.

Is the demand for and interest in various dance types changing?
Only classical dance was taught in the past. We were all learning ballet in the conservatory, and other types of dancing were just secondary techniques. Then the period Czechoslovak State Song and Dance Ensemble needed to recruit new dancers, which led to the opening of a folkloric programme in the conservatory and a boom in folkloric art. Following the Velvet Revolution, the demand went down again. Folk dances are not a major programme in conservatories today. Those who do not pursue classical dancing focus on modern dancing, which has been much in-demand since the Velvet Revolution. People often feel like they can do whatever way they want to in modern dance. Usually, they soon find out that it’s not true – there are rules too.

Do you think folk dances are no longer in demand?
I hope that’s not the case. It seems to me that certain dance teachers have been revisiting folk dance recently. They are starting to realise that if they want to work with young children, tunes and rhymes such as [Czech folk songs and rhymes for children] Šla Nanynka do zelí and Kalamajka mik mik mik are the best to dance to. What’s more, children can start dancing to those tunes straight away whereas learning classical or modern dance takes time before you can perform. With folk repertoire, children join your course in September and you can have them dance for their parents in December. Of course, Covid-19 was a problem because many children did not exercise at all; then again, that was true of almost all types of exercise.

Did you teach online during the pandemic?
Yes, and it was very tough. There is always some latency in the transmission, so you never know if those on the other side of the line are in sync with the music and have the right rhythm. I thought dance instructors had it the worst until I met a colleague who taught swimming courses online during the pandemic…

One more thing: What if someone wants to dance but struggles with it?
If we’re talking leisure activities, it doesn’t really matter. Children aren’t exactly flocking in elementary art schools these days, so schools are grateful for every child they get to teach. We just learn how to work with all children, and if someone struggles, or struggles initially, this doesn’t mean they cannot pursue it as their hobby. I always tell teachers: ‘In an elementary art school, you get to raise one or two top-tier dancers in your entire career, but thank God that you raise so many future audience members. Picture it as a pyramid. A theatre needs one soloist, 20 to 50 choir members, and then some 2,500 viewers…