How do we talk about space in a dance class?
Usually, we discuss personal space: the area immediately around us at the barre or in the center, when traveling across the floor or simply stretching. Certain studios allow for less personal space than others because of the culture (whether people know each other well and don't mind standing close to them) or the environment (small studios or very crowded ones simply don't allow dancers to be precious or protective about their spots at the barre). In classes that cater to beginners, students tend to want to be close to each other, the "safety in numbers" sort of thing, while in more advanced classes, dancers spread out.
But the space I want to talk about is the space on our bodies: between our limbs, under our arms, behind our backs, under our chins and derrieres, and so on. We make a very important distinction between the "public" space on our bodies, like a forearm or calf, and "private," such as between the legs or at the top of the chest.
As a teacher, I consider all bodies to be both public and private. Naturally, this is your body to do with as you wish. You are the one to decide who touches what, how much of it to expose in front of others. I try to be as respectful as possible with every single person who enters my class. If I need to make a correction, I still start first by showing it to you on my body. If it helps to use another student, I will choose one whom I know will not mind me touching them. And if I simply have to correct you by actually moving your body, then I will first tell you I'm going to do that and then tell you where and why. (I'm speaking primarily about beginner students who have never been in a class before, but even with my advanced dancers, I will often start with corrections on my body first.)
I came of age as a teacher in the early 90s when everyone knew someone who had been called on the carpet - or worse - by a parent who was worried about inappropriate touching. That's when teachers began prefacing new classes with a version of what I just described above. Gone were the days of teachers physically moving a student's arm or leg or shoulder or head. You couldn't simply push or prod a dancer into place or say, "Do it like this."
This was, in the end, a great thing for all teachers. We had to learn to use our words, to use kinetic language or metaphors, to describe an action in terms of bones and muscles and tendons. Where was the impetus for a turn? How do you developpe a leg through attitude? What will make allegro faster?
Using language rather than physical movement can have a lasting impression on students who have cognitive skills (i.e. more mature teens and adults, rather than little kids). When people ask why I don't teach the teeny tinies, I usually tell them that I need to be able to have a conversation with a student. I need to be able to describe a part of their body so they know how to move it.
Which brings me to the public part of our bodies and why I believe - in a dance class, not anywhere else - our bodies must be public. I'm going to be frank: I need to talk to you about the space between your legs. This is where our turnout is. This is where we stabilize our pelvises. And I need to use the word "pelvis" with you. I need you to know it can't tilt when you plie or jump.
I need you to think about things like the space between your legs when you're doing a turn or a promenade in attitude. When I want you to move faster during allegro, I'm going to need to talk about the muscles in the inner thighs.
When you need to be higher in releve, I'm going to talk about your butts - I'll say "derriere" but you know what I mean. And when I think you're collapsing in on yourself, I'll refer to your chest. I'll probably also ask you to connect your ribs to your hip bones when I think your spine is hyperextended and I'll want you to drop your tailbone too.
I won't be crass or vulgar about your body but I want you to know it. I want you to be able to use every single part of it. I know adults have body issues (heck, I have a ton of them too) but in a dance class, your body is your tool. Every part of it is going to help - or hurt - your technique. I don't want an arm in the wrong place or a hip lifted to the side to affect how you turn or jump.
I want you to be comfortable in class. I want you to be confident. I want you to not be afraid of your body, of thinking of it or using it in ways you never have before. Ballet has an awful reputation for being hard on your body and soul. I'm not going to lie: like any other physical activity, it can be painful. But it should not hurt your mental health. Treating your body like it's a tool will help you take in corrections and apply them and not feel like you're failing. If something's wrong, you can tackle it with the resources you're learning.