By Rachel Straus
"Good morning knees!" sings out Beverly F. Spell as she and her students bend over to make verbal and facial contact with their kneecaps. The four-year-olds don't realize that, through this exercise of straightening their legs in time with the music, they are learning anatomy and developing their hamstrings in preparation for the day that they can developpe to the sun. The hair-in-a-bun girls gladly participate in this warm-up ritual taking place at The Ballet Studio, Spell's dance establishment in Milton, Louisiana.
On one Thursday in February Spell, 48, gently and decisively guided her students through a class outlined in her LEAP 'N LEARN, the early childhood dance syllabus. Composed of seven sections, it gives each child a chance to talk at the beginning of class, before becoming dancers--whose speech isn't in their tongues but in their arms and legs. It teaches them to move in pairs, encourages them to watch others, and it fosters their creativity through improvisational dance. During the harmoniously run 50-minute class with assistant teacher Janey Roan, not one tear fell, a miraculous event for this age group.
Spell's LEAP 'N LEARN program derives from fellow teacher Lisa Michaels' syllabus of the same name. When Spell bought the trademarked title and Michaels' workbook in 2003, she poured into it her 20-plus years of teaching children's dance, adding discipline and classroom management guidelines, exercises to foster improvisational movement, and Finis Jhung's CD called "Kids!", based on the LEAP 'N LEARN syllabus, and made in collaboration with New York composer Scott Killian. Spell doubled the size of the original syllabus. Most importantly she added information about the emotional and cognitive development of 3 to 6 year olds after consulting with child clinical psychologist Annie Wingate (now also Spell's daughter in law). Spell's experience that children learn best by absorbing material sequentially through simple exercises that are taught orally, visually, and viscerally, says Wingate-Spell, was consistent with developmental learning theory.
But there is more to LEAP 'N LEARN than good pedagogy. There is Spell. When she was 12 and studying with Gwynne Ashton (the former Royal Winnipeg Ballet associate director who arrived in Louisiana in 1971), she received a Ford Foundation scholarship to the School of American Ballet. Ashton believed Spell had what it took to dance professionally. Instead, she quit at 18 and returned home. The competition to be the thinnest, fastest, and most limber, she says, was destroying her love for dance. Fortunately, in college the dancer-turned-business major started dating her future husband Carrol L. Spell, Jr. and he encouraged her to teach.
Spell's wide-open blue eyes inspire a feeling of warmth and comfort. But she isn't a softy. "Her students wouldn't dream of acting up in her class," says Jasmine Bertrand-Vale, who teaches at Spell's studio. One reason the students are "reverent," says Bertrand-Vale, is that Spell gives them clear expectations. Before students take their first class and before their parents go to the ballet shop and get wowed by sequined leotards, Spell gives the novices a copy of Dancers Manners, which has 19 points. Manners number one and two are "be prompt for class" and "dress appropriately for class." (This means no sequins.) During the first month of every session, Spell, her teachers, and numerous assistants emphasize The Manners, which hang in a gilt frame fronting the ballet studio doors. Psychologist Wingate-Spell says that Dancers Manners "isn't dictatorial," but rather good child psychology. "A lot of time we reprimand children for breaking the rules," she says. "But often we neglect to let them know what the rules are."
Though Spell isn't affiliated with The National Dance Education Organization, which published the first national "Standards for Dance in Early Childhood" in October 2005, her LEAP 'N LEARN (published two years earlier) includes nearly identical information: the need to teach children sequentially--stepping, then walking, then skipping--at ages appropriate to their mental and physical development. NDEO executive director Jane Bonbright explains that teaching lessons that are not age-appropriate can leave children feeling overwhelmed. This seems obvious, but for teachers with extensive dance training and minimal early childhood experience, it often comes as a surprise. Janey Roan, who studied ballet at Texas Tech University, says, "It wasn't until I met Beverly that I realized that little kids couldn't do grand plie in fifth position."
Every summer Spell offers LEAP 'N LEARN teacher workshops at her rural studio. Anne Ledbetter, age 25, attended in 2006. "Part of me went into teaching," says Ledbetter, "assuming that these children will know how to act. This is ballet class!" She soon realized that her dance BFA gave her little preparation for dealing with children. "At the workshop, Ms. Beverly told us not to worry about the tendus and the frappes. First get them involved in rhythms and the imagery. They have to want ballet."
Spell's ballet teaching is inspired by Finis Jhung's method. Since 2004 Jhung has included Spell's LEAP 'N LEARN products in Ballet Dynamics, his online catalogue. He also has invited her to teach a mini course at his New York workshop. This August will be Spell's third year says Jhung, who adds, "I trust her judgment."
As much as Spell's wisdom derives from her devotion to her craft, it also comes from personal hardship. Seventeen years ago Spell was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy. "My first seizure came at 31," she says. "The last occurred in 2002." Spell's ballet students know about her disease and say that her fearlessness gives them strength. At the completion of her 16th class of the week, Spell talked about her ultimate goal for her students. "I want," she says, "to teach them perseverance and to do what's right." Clearly these are traits that Spell has mastered.
LEAP 'N LEARN Teacher Workshop, July 20-22, Lafayette, Louisiana. For more information, call 888.211.5180.
Rachel Straus is New York correspondent for Ballet.co.
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