Private Coaching: Do or Don't?

October 11, 2010

If you’re on the road to becoming a pro, taking private lessons can move you forward faster. But does one-on-one attention really make a difference? There’s always the danger of burnout, and schools often frown on outside training. However, if you want to take control of your own development, hiring a coach may be the way to do it.


In a private, you get the personal attention you need to meet and exceed technical goals. This is especially useful if you’re behind your peers, maybe because you’re recovering from an injury or because your studio doesn’t offer enough ballet classes. When studying one-on-one, you can home in on specifics: “When you have a personal coach, every detail is something you pay attention to—everything from your fingers to your eyelashes to your facial expressions,” says The Washington Ballet’s Morgann Rose, who studied privately under the late Rebecca Wright and now coaches dancers herself.


But not everyone is convinced. Damara Bennett, director of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre, says that taking private lessons can actually impair development. Why? A student won’t learn how to self-correct—an important skill in companies where time is a commodity and there’s very little one-on-one attention. “It gives a false idea of what it’s like in the real world,” says Bennett. Instead, students should learn to consider every correction a teacher gives in class, regardless of whether it’s directed at them personally.


Bennett also points out that there may be larger issues at play for students who require oodles of extra attention. “If somebody is taking class all the time and on top of it needs private lessons, either the child is not talented or is not in a very good school,” she says.


Nonetheless, many teachers say private lessons are a great way to build stamina, mental discipline and strength, because you don’t have the luxury of doing combinations in groups. Renowned NYC teacher Fabrice Herrault says that every instructor has something to offer, so why not take advantage and learn as much as you can in a one-on-one scenario from teachers you admire? “For some students, it is difficult to progress in a large classroom situation,” says Herrault, who is a veteran of such companies as the Hamburg Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He currently teaches at Steps on Broadway and works privately with a number of professionally bound dancers.


Many schools discourage (or outright ban) students from going elsewhere for private lessons because it can be confusing to study with teachers who have different approaches, and it becomes difficult for the school to control the quality of training. “Students need consistency while they develop their technique,” explains Bennett. In selecting a teacher for private lessons, Rose says, “have him or her communicate with your other teachers to make sure everyone is going in the same direction. Otherwise it can be very stressful for the dancer.”


There are occasions, however, when expanding your technique palette can be helpful—especially for older dancers on the cusp of going pro who want to be prepared for a more diverse roster of companies. This was the case for Joffrey Ballet’s Abigail Simon, who worked with Edward Ellison during her last two years at The School of American Ballet. “I believe dancers today need to be eclectic, and I felt I needed to be prepared to go into a non-Balanchine company as well,” says Simon. “SAB taught Balanchine’s style and Edward taught me the classical style. After he retired as a soloist at San Francisco Ballet, he went to Russia to study Vaganova. A dancer develops strength doing classical variations, and I am a much stronger dancer as a result of my work with Edward.”


Even if you plan to go pro, remember that private lessons aren’t right for everyone. Unlike a regular ballet class, where the teacher’s attention is divided among all the dancers in the room, it’s all you in a private lesson, which can be overwhelming.


It can also be overkill. For example, students at California Academy of Performing Arts often work privately with teachers prior to Nutcracker auditions, in hopes of getting better roles. While director Joan Robinson Borchers doesn’t discourage it, she isn’t convinced that it’s always the best course, either—especially if the lessons focus on acting rather than technique. “Dancers work to perfect a role they want, so when auditions come they’re better prepared,” says Robinson Borchers. “But I’ve seen girls who are over-prepared. They’re totally unnatural because they have practiced so long at a particular emotion that they are like little automatons.”


Burnout is another risk for dancers who must balance homework, performances, rehearsals, auditions, technique classes and extracurricular activities. Adding private classes might put you over the edge, so be smart about gauging your stress load. If you’re just starting with a coach, don’t overdo it. Begin with just one or two privates a week, and commit for a fixed and manageable amount of time (like one month), after which you’ll be free to take a break or continue, depending on how you feel.


Many school directors argue that a good curriculum should be sufficient preparation for professional life. “It’s already hard enough to go from being the star of your school to being one of 40 other people as good or better than you in the corps,” says Bennett. “So to give a student the sense of ‘oh-you’re-so-special’ with all this extra attention, I don’t think is healthy.”


Ultimately, the decision to start private lessons is a very personal one. But in an artform where it can be difficult to exert control over your own career prospects, making the choice to invest in privates can be a way for you to take a measure of control over your own future. And even if you don’t choose to start working with a coach, “it’s important to at least pick a professional dancer or a teacher you can have as a mentor,” says Rose. “Having someone to look up to is so important.”