Did you know that there are MULTIPLE syllabi in the ballet world for students to learn? Some popular ones in Australia include; Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), Ceccheti Australia (CA), Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (CSTD) and Australian Teachers of Dance (ATOD) – just to name a few.

Personally, I train my students with the Ballet Conservatoire (BC) syllabi because I find many others over-choreographed and too complex for students to really grasp the classical technique and line. Another relatively new syllabus that appears similar to Christine Walsh’s ‘Ballet Conservatoire’ is John Byrne’s ‘Classical Dance Australia’. John uses French and English methods of teaching whilst paying homage to the Vaganova (Russian) style. The Vaganova (Russian) style is my favourite to teach because I believe it gives students the tools to develop beautiful classical lines most effectively.

So does it matter what syllabus a student learns? Not really. In my opinion, it all comes down to the teacher. There are some amazing ballet teachers producing beautiful students with a particular syllabus whilst another teacher using the exact same syllabus is producing rather average technique within her students. So like I said, it really comes down to the teacher and their passion for the style they’ve chosen and their attention to detail.

So why do my students sit a ballet exam every second year? 

Well technically they sit an ‘exam’ every year. However they sit their formal Ballet Conservatoire exam every second year. I treat the unofficial ballet exam exactly the same as the official Ballet Conservatoire exam. The room is set up the same, the students grooming and preparation is the same and we even get an outside set of eyes (someone that doesn’t know the students but is expertly trained in Classical Ballet) to critique and provide feedback to the students.

The only difference with our official and unofficial (also known as ‘mock’) exams is that the students who sit their official exam receive a mark and report card from a representative of Ballet Conservatoire who travels up from Melbourne to examine the students. Students who sit a mock exam still receive a report card, however it has no mark and obviously no official stamp from Ballet Conservatoire.

The reason I have my students sit an examination every second year is purely for confidence and strength. Simple as that.

I first started making students sit an exam every second year after I had a small group of two students who were beautiful ballerinas, but they weren’t ready for their exam. They were a little on the young side and struggling to develop the strength for the demanding allegro (aka. jumping) exercises of that particular level. So I told their parents I’d prefer they wait for the following year to sit their Ballet Conservatoire exam.

Now this was back when my studio was relatively new and as a young woman in business, I was trying to please everyone. So when the parents ignored my suggestion and told me that their daughters would be sitting the exam, I obliged. When the girls finished their exam, the examiner ushered me in to discuss their results. The examiner told me that she could see the potential of the girls, however they lacked the strength required for the level and if they had of waited just one more year they would definitely be Distinction students. Instead the girls were awarded a Commended.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a Commended. Commended is a fantastic mark if you went into the exam confident, strong and gave it your best effort. However these particular girls deserved a Distinction and with a little bit of patience, they would have received one. My professional opinion was ignored and whilst the parents were happy that their girls were moving to the next level, the girls were sad because they felt they deserved better.

The following year I introduced ‘mock exams’ with great success and the year after that not only did my students official exam results improve out of sight but the students were more confident, happier and stronger than ever!

Now, my personal way of doing things doesn’t mean that teachers who have their students sit an exam every year are doing it wrong – not at all! It all depends on the syllabus and the studio environment. At my studio, families have busy lives full of many activities and as a result students only attend two ballet classes per week. If the studio has a culture of four to five ballet classes a week as the norm, then it’s definitely a great idea to sit ballet exams every single year.

Another reason I make my students sit the official exam every second year is so that I don’t have to hold students back. A ballet class cohort is a delicate environment and I like the whole class moving up to the next level together. This avoids unnecessary drama or students feeling isolated from their peers. If the whole group is participating in their mock exam and then their official exam together, the whole group can work hard and celebrate together!

From a technical perspective, this method also allows me to give more ‘open classes’  where the students learn steps outside their levels vocabulary. This is really useful as I have the time to give them a taste of more challenging steps that may pop up in a workshop or guest class. The students also find this lots of fun and gives them something to look forward to in the higher levels!

This might not work for studios that are very focussed on developing ballet dancers for professional companies, but in my studio (where a more holistic approach to ballet is developed) this method works really well and students confidence grows.

At the end of the day, there’s no rush and I’d prefer to foster and protect the self-esteem of my little ballerinas!