The Ballet Goes to P.S. 175

CBC Outreach Director, Brianna Hill, BC ’14 (right),  checks her pupils’ arm positions, which should be low and round in fifth “en bas.”

While the undergraduate community at Columbia may be familiar with the polished performances of the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, the group also contributes to the surrounding community in less visible ways to students.

Two autumns ago, the dancers piloted an outreach program to bring ballet classes to local elementary school P.S. 175 Henry Garnet. On Friday mornings, several of the CBC’s members meet with groups of second-graders at Henry Garnet for lessons in the basics of ballet, from the fundamental foot positions to movements such as demi-plié and relevé. The classes also aim to offer an introduction to the musical elements of ballet, such as tempo, and how a dancer interacts with these aspects of the art form.

This year’s classes began in early October and represented a shift from last year’s lecture-based model to a more interactive template. Unlike a ballet class for older pupils, these lessons must incorporate the rigor of ballet into a more palatable, 8-year-old-friendly package.

In recognition of this need, the CBC’s leadership has looked to games and the competitive spirit of the kids to make their time productive. For example, to teach the importance of keeping the toes pointed, the CBC dancers direct the children to lie down in a circle. The instructor proceeds to count as she pretends to reel in the students’ toes, pushing them to point their toes ever more. Another exercise, undertaken to the tune of “Up on the Housetop,” is designed to help students feel the muscles required to switch between positions. Check out video of the students practicing this exercise here:

CBC Volunteer Audrey Crabtree, CC ’15, helps students at P.S. 175 practice their retirés

Creative credit in this area is due to Brianna Hill, BC ’14, the Outreach Director for the CBC and the primary instructor at P.S. 175. During the lesson, the other CBC dancers help to correct the children by acting as examples – they will stand in the circle along with the students and demonstrate the positions as Hill directs, as well as participating in the games the dancers have devised. Meanwhile, Hill acts as patient overseer from the center of the circle.

As director of the lessons, one of Hill’s oft-repeated reminders is “Where are my dancers?”—a call for her students to remember the quiet grace that marks a ballet dancer. As one might imagine, the stateliness of ballet is not always enough to hold the second-graders’ attention—watching Hill grapple with their wandering minds is enough to generate a feeling of appreciation for her consistency and ability to shift their focus back to dance.

Although Hill admitted she had hoped the children would remember more from their classes last year, she has re-tooled her lessons to suit the level of the students now. And the looks of concentration and determination on their faces as they rose, one by one, into relevé, was enough to convince this writer of the enduring worth of this outreach program.

Stay tuned for part two of this series on student groups in the community: The next piece will focus on the Musical Mentors Collaborative, a non-profit on campus that brings music lessons to children at P.S. 145.

— Laura Booth, CC ’15

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