Teachers Corner

28 Years of Nutcracker – By Judy Russell

It was around the New Year of 1991 when I first discussed the idea of a full length Nutcracker with my friends Mark Erikson and Macarena Ganderillas while visiting them at their North Hollywood home. Mark had some experience with a Nutcracker Ballet co-production while attending ballet school in Fort Worth Texas, so he was excited about the idea and encouraged me to pursue it. Once back home, I discussed the idea further with family and friends, contacted the Prince George Symphony Orchestra and set the wheels in motion. We presented the first annual Nutcracker Ballet in December 1991. Judy Russell’s Enchainement Dance Centre would provide the dancing cast, the costumes, the set, the lighting design and special effects. The PGSO would provide the music. Our goal with the work was to not only start a family tradition for our community, but to also give inspired young dancers the opportunity to perform in a classic full length ballet complete with a live symphony orchestra. Experiencing the joy of performing with a live orchestra is rare, especially in smaller communities. Prince George is one of a select few communities that can boast having a professional symphony orchestra. The raw energy and deep inner emotion that is elicited by the forces of the live music and the strength of the dancing core is palpable. The live ballet can be visceral for both the audience and performer. Casting the first ballet was an exciting challenge. It was my hope that we could draw on dancing talent from all of the dance schools in the City. The only exception would be casting a local Prince. Luckily, I had an ace-in-the-hole. A year or two prior, we had sent off one of our young male dancers to train at the National Ballet School of Canada, Toronto. Chris Larsen was just 13 when he left home to start his ballet career. By the time he was 15, Chris had developed into a strong young man. I mentioned the idea to him and he was eager and able to return home to fill the role of the Nutcracker Prince two years running. After Chris could no longer leave the Ballet school it became necessary to “import” successive professional Nutcracker Princes. Eventually an increase in boys training at the dance studio meant that we would be able to cast our Nutcracker Princes locally. And have done for each biannual Nutcracker since 2001. This year marks the 16th production of the Nutcracker Ballet. My Nuts team and I continue to draw on talent from within our community, but for the first time in a long while we have had to look outward for the Nutcracker Prince. Again good fortune hit. This year our Nutcracker Prince hails from Terrace. Last March, I spotted Julian Hunt at the Prince George Dance Festival and saw immediately his potential to fill the role of the Prince. Julian is a lovely, talented young man who will have a great career if he wishes. Of course, the ballet would be incomplete without a ballerina or two, or three. Over the years I have had the great pleasure to cast many wonderfully talented young women in a variety of roles. This year is no exception. From Clara, to the Snow Queen to the Sugar Plum Fairy I continue to be blessed with many inspired and dedicated young dancers. In fact, I have double cast various principle roles again this year, as there are multiple able dancers. The dancing roles in the Nutcracker are challenging and much coveted. The dancers selected for the principle roles must be well trained, quick learners and strong. The partner work alone requires unbelievable strength and stamina. Not to mention the intestinal fortitude needed to dance two full shows per day en pointe. We do our best to shift the dancers on and off, so that they are able to restore their bodies, but they are still required to dance something in each show. These young people troop on with little whining and fanfare. Truly inspiring. One of the strongest traditions associated with our production of the Nutcracker is that of the adult participation in various scenes throughout the show. In fact, scene one, “The Party Scene”, features nearly 100 performers of various ages from 3 years to 60. Costuming this cast is a huge job. Not only are there 100 performers, but several of the children’s roles in the scene are double cast meaning that in some cases there are two costumes for each role. There is at least one very important adult role in the Nutcracker. Clara’s mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer. A clock maker, a magician and a bon vivante, Drosslemeyer appears in Clara’s dream to help her navigate her dream world. He helps her avoid danger when she encounters the scary life sized mice, led by the menacing Mouse King. He enables her meeting the Nutcracker Prince. Uncle Drosselmeyer escorts Clara through the lands of snow and sweets. And he is there to comfort Clara when she awakes from her magical journey. This role was originally performed by Bill Russell. Bill began taking adult ballet classes in 1989 with the hope of getting in shape and working off a growing bulge above his belt. Little did he know that it would lead to 10 successive productions as Drosselmeyer. Bill describes the role as a unique combination of movement and acting. Mostly acting, but also physically demanding. The various dance sequences that require motion and lifting are difficult to make look easy. Luckily, this year the role of Drosselmeyer is being played by the impressive and strong, Andrew Russell. A student of ballet since his early youth, Andrew has taken on the role and has made it his own since 2013. This year’s Nutcracker has been in rehearsals for almost two months and promises to be one of the best ever. The costumes are now out of mothballs and are being restored and fitted, some are the original ones designed and built in 1991. The props, headpieces and masks are all being fluffed up and repaired as required. Soon the set will be hauled out of storage and inspected for necessary repairs and repainting.

The Benefits of Examinations in Dance – By Anna Russell

One of the most common questions I am asked as a ballet teacher is “What is a Ballet Exam” and “Should my child Participate, what are the benefits?” I have outlined below why I believe examinations in dance are particularly valuable in your child’s extra-curricular activities. While I have specifically outlined the criteria as it relates to ballet students, similar styles of testing take place in most extra-curricular activities from swimming to piano to tae-kwon-do. Unbiased Feedback. The exam process allows your dancer to be graded by an outside examiner and compared to an international standard of dance technique NOT to their peers. By using an outside syllabus, you know that your dancer is being graded against an international standard of dance technique rather than the teacher’s personal likes/dislikes and is also being tested on skills that will be developmentally appropriate to their age and build skills in safe and logical increments. This removes a lot of the subjectivity that can appear in other dance events such as recital or competition. Goal Orientated. Does your child work better with a set deadline? Dance exams allow dancers to set clearly defined goals for themselves within their training. The use of a set syllabus outlines the primary foundations of technique to guide the dancer into their goal without injury or delay. An exam is a clear “finish line” for learning, perfecting and executing what you have learned within the year. Personal best. Admittedly I did not come very competitive dance background. I often struggle to justify competition to my students because a student may walk off stage feeling amazing only to be let down because they didn’t get a medal like their peers did, regardless of if it was the best they’ve ever performed. While this is still a valuable learning experience it can often be a difficult one to grasp. Competitions are also extremely subjective (see point 1). A ballet exam mark is private. It is there for you to reflect on and improve upon the following year. It has nothing to do with the person dancing beside you. The skills you are expected to achieve are set at an international level and your progress can be tracked from year to year. You can even re-take an exam if you would like to hone particular skills. Syllabus & Detail. This is another personal one for me. I struggle in an open class environment (a class where an instructor gives you new exercises on the spot and you are expected to retain and execute what you hear instantaneously). I do not process visual and auditory information as quickly as some of my peers and so open class and audition settings have always been a personal struggle. This can be incredibly frustrating for students and many quit because they feel like they are behind and can’t keep up. Examination Syllabus work gives dancers a chance to focus on building the skills and techniques within the exercise over a year or sometimes more until they are confident and successful in every detail. If you have a dancer who prefers extra time to perfect a step or movement an exam might be a great way for them to display their skills. It is also why some dancers find ballet “boring” (until they are mature enough to appreciate it). There is a great deal of detail and intricacy involved. Syllabus work allows students find every detail of the music, space and technique. Confidence, Preparation, Professionalism. There is no hiding in the back row during a dance exam. There is no opportunity to copy the person in front of you, at least not successfully. Students are graded on both technique and musicality and performance equally. The skills tested in an exam break down into: Posture and weight placement, co-ordination, control, line, spatial awareness, dynamic value, timing, responsiveness to music, expression & communication. Is your child expressive, musical and free? or technical, precise and polished? Both will have success in an exam and both will have areas to improve, it is not a one size fits all model despite the specificity of the exercises. If you would like more information on how ballet exams can benefit your child’s dance education I would encourage you to review the Royal Academy of Dance or CDTA (Canadian Dance Teacher’s Association) websites or contact your home studio for more information. Similar syllabi practiced in Canada are Cecchetti, ADAPT & Acrobatic Arts.

Why Dance? – By Kristen Helfrich

“Before a child talks, they sing. Before they write they draw. As soon as they stand they dance. Art is fundamental to human expression.” ~Phylicia Rashad

As parents and caregivers, we are always trying to find ways to encourage and support the developmental growth of our children, especially in the early-childhood years. There is the constant struggle of finding balance between social experiences, activities, and screen time. Dance is a wonderful performing art that compliments the ongoing development of a child. Dance is a natural method of learning as preschool and kindergarten aged children consistently learn during sensory and physical experience and movement. Through kinesthetic learning, the motion of ‘doing’ is for children to gain the knowledge and skills to help understand the world around them. Dance cultivates this kinetic style of learning as dance is an excellent way for a child to not only learn about themselves, but to give a child the ability to express and communicate through movement. The benefits of enrolling your child in a dance class will offer more than just physical development (flexibility, coordination, strength, and endurance). Through the use of body movements and imagery, children will learn social and emotional skills and how to cooperatively interact in a dynamic social setting. Children are given the opportunity to identify their emotions, the emotions of others, and express themselves through creative movement. Children love to express themselves, but children hold stress and energy differently than adults. Dance allows children to release built up tension or energy in a safe and structured space. This will help a child find inner physical and mental balance and learn to control stress in a healthy outlet. For children who are shy or reserved, dance can offer a sense of accomplishment and achievement while building confidence. Know that when you drop your loved one off at the dance studio, your child is learning more than dance technique. They are gaining a dance education. Your child is developing the foundational skills necessary for dance, but dance also offers the developmental tools for future success. Allowing children to explore their creativity, how to express themselves through movement, and to learn about themselves can build discipline, self-esteem and confidence. Most importantly, the best part about dance is your child can let loose, be themselves, and have fun….this is truly a reward within itself.

The Potential of Online Learning – By Kate McGowan – ARAD, Associate CDTA (Tap), B.Ed. Elementary Student – University of Victoria, Teacher – Judy Russell’s Enchainement Dance Centre

Is anyone else starting to feel restless? Because I sure am. As an aspiring educator in both elementary and dance education, I am feeling frustrated with the facts that I am unable to practice what I love and witness the growth of my students face to face. However, I am learning, as most of us are, the power and potential of virtual online learning.

As we are encouraged to keep our distance from others, we are constantly looking for ways to support the social and mental health of ourselves and our children. Luckily, we have the opportunity to communicate with others and achieve our goals using a virtual setting such as a video application, emails, social media, etc.

During these times, I believe that it is important to develop a sense of normalcy, especially for children. Just as we are finding it difficult to go about our day with a lack of work, without seeing our friends, and participating in our extracurricular activities, children are having just as difficult a time. They are unable to go to school and engage with their friends, they cannot participate in their regular daily activities which can be hard on their personal growth and mental health.

With this in mind, the studio that I have grown up with, Judy Russell’s Enchainement Dance Centre, has decided to do as much as they can to provide students, adults, and children alike, with the opportunity to gain back some normalcy. Classes of varying genres are being offered online through an application called zoom to promote healthy activity, social engagement from home and a sense of regular routine. Currently, I am teaching classes for pre-school and elementary aged students that run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as well as classes that run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Within these classes I have been able to see my students’ eyes light up as they see a familiar face or hear the voice of a missed peer or teacher. The students are constantly engaged with what is happening as they recognize that some things are similar to their previous face to face classes. They and their parents are always excited to have the opportunity to move about their space and participate in an enjoyed activity.

Through online learning, students also have the opportunity to learn new skills in communication and technology as they learn how to navigate new applications and tools. During one of my classes this week, one of the students was quite eager to share her knowledge of tricks and tools on the zoom program and was more than willing to share her new-found knowledge with her peers within the class. We then took the time for everyone to explore and practice engaging in these new tools together. Since then our classes have been able to run more smoothly as they continue to develop new technological skills. Further, we have been working on developing new means of communication within the classes in case of technical difficulties. Currently, my students and I have been working on using basic American Sign language signs within our classes to communicate. Through this, the kids are learning new language skills and this will help our face to face classes be more accessible in the future as these signs become more recognized.

Overall, opportunities for online learning have shown great potential in allowing children the opportunity for continued normalcy, social development, and personal growth. If you too would like the opportunity to experience the power of online learning and engage in a fun activity, come and join us for a dance class where all are welcome and there is something for everyone to enjoy.