This article is written with vocational (pre-professional) students in mind.
What is a challenge? Ballet students and their teachers often answer this question differently. Students typically define a challenge as:
Learning a new step, or a more complicated version of a step they already know
Learning a complex exercise, or one performed at a fast tempo
Performing a difficult step in a superficial way, even if they do not yet possess a deep understanding of it (for example, revolving three or more times during a pirouette even if their supporting leg is turned in or they are standing on a low demi-pointe)
Attending a class at what they perceive to be a high level, even if they are unable to keep up in a meaningful way
A competent teacher might define a challenge as:
Deepening one’s understanding of a step or concept
Performing a step, however simple, with a high degree of technical proficiency and artistic refinement
Increasing the difficulty of a step in small, logical increments
I hope you are not surprised to learn that it is the teacher’s definition that yields consistent, meaningful improvements in dancers’ ballet technique. This has been proven repeatedly over the course of the past 200 or so years that modern ballet technique has existed, and it is the set of principles followed in the daily lessons here at Ballet Conservatoire XIV, just as it is at the best schools around the world. Yet despite the steady and obvious increase in the abilities of the dancers here, I am occasionally told by (usually new) students and their parents that they think their class is not challenging enough. Often, this is accompanied by a request to be placed in a higher level.
However, I have yet to hear this concern from a student who is working to their full potential. So far, it has always been a student who applies corrections inconsistently, who changes their level of effort depending on how interesting they think the exercise is, and who is satisfied with the outward appearance of achievement despite having little understanding of proper technique (for example, twisting the feet outward to achieve what appears to be perfect turnout without engaging the rotator muscles at the top of the hips). Such students think that working to perfect simple exercises is beneath them, and they are always wrong.
Provided that the teacher is a competent professional, the real question is not whether students are being challenged, but rather, how they can challenge themselves to make meaningful improvements to their dancing. The answer is to be self-disciplined. Self-discipline in ballet requires being honest with yourself about your true abilities, as well as adhering to the following principles:
Apply corrections consistently long-term. If a teacher tells you to keep your hips still when you close 5th or to follow your hand with your eyes and head during a port de bras, DO IT. Even (or especially) if it is uncomfortable or difficult. Do it properly every time, every class, every day, until you find yourself applying the correction automatically. This is how you build a good habit or break a bad one.
Be pro-active. Challenge yourself to achieve greater refinement, particularly in basic steps. If you know how demi-plié is supposed to be done, and what it is meant to develop, then work to develop those qualities without being told. Put effort into increasing the strength and turnout of your hips (not the angle of your feet on the floor). Use greater elasticity and resistance in the movement. Make your port de bras smoother, clearer, more elegant, more coordinated with the legs. Basic steps are the building blocks of technique, and when performed with appropriate energy and attention to detail, they strengthen you and allow you to perform difficult steps with seeming effortlessness.
Attend all classes assigned to your level. Don’t skip lessons because it is inconvenient to attend class four, five, or six days a week. Advancement in ballet depends on maintaining the habits you build, which is impossible with too many days off. Classes in other styles, such as modern and jazz, are also beneficial as they improve coordination, body awareness, and spatial awareness.
Arrive early to class to perform conditioning exercises. If your teacher has taught you exercises to strengthen your feet, turnout, abdominals, back, etc., take at least 15 minutes before every class to do them carefully and mindfully. Then, carry the habits you have just worked on into your class work by remaining aware of them.
Take extra classes at a level BELOW your own. This is not always possible, and even if it is, you should only do so on your teacher’s advice. But contrary to the usual student mentality of attempting to take a higher level class to improve, taking a class at a lower level allows you to free your mind from remembering a complex exercise so that you can focus solely on purifying your technique. This frequently helps to eliminate bad habits and superfluous affectations while simultaneously improving coordination and strength. Often, improved coordination in a simple step facilitates ease in performing a more complex one.
Rigorously following these principles requires significant physical and mental effort, and the effects are not always noticeable overnight, but over the long term, they are not only noticeable but consistent. You will leave class more sweaty and tired, but you will build strong technique that doesn’t disappear when you have to focus on a new concept or exercise. You will enjoy lessons more as you gradually stop struggling with weaknesses that have plagued you and find that you master new steps more easily. Looking back at the end of the school year, you will likely be surprised at how quickly you have progressed compared to previous years. You did not need to be placed in a higher level in September, although you probably will be in June. You just needed to learn how to challenge yourself in ballet.