Tiny Dancer, Big Lesson

By: Professor Abigail Perdue

I’m a dancer . . . or at least I was. From the age of five until I entered college, I took one or more dance lessons per week, performing in recitals, talent shows, and later, competitions.

Dance taught me many lessons that have proven critical to my professional and personal success. My first major recital was particularly formative. I danced for the most prominent studio in our very small town. The studio owner required every group to rehearse its number in full costume the day before the big event.

My ballet class of tiny dancers aged four, five, and six was no exception. Our teacher had choreographed a lovely routine set to “Pop Goes the Weasel “ and had painstakingly watched us perform it over and over, gently offering helpful corrections along the way. She had done everything possible to prepare us.

On the night of our dress rehearsal, I donned my creamy white tights and bubblegum pink tutu. Then I pulled on my well worn ballet slippers. To the outward observer, I probably looked more like a cupcake than a little girl, but I felt as regal and elegant as the ballerina twirling in the music box on my nightstand. A swell of confidence pulsed through me.

As we waited anxiously to enter the stage, I couldn’t help peering around the velvety red curtain that was supposed to cloak us from the audience. Then suddenly it happened. The music started. That was my cue. I felt my hands and feet move through the movements unthoughtedly. Despite the blindingly bright stage lights and deafening music, I didn’t miss a beat. Our song’s two minutes passed more quickly than I ever could have imagined, and we pas de bourree’d off the stage.

Breathing hard and overcome with a potent mix of relief and exhilaration, I heard someone calling us back onto the stage. The voice didn’t sound pleased. I dragged my feet weighed down by dread and trepidation.

And then came the moment I’ll never forget. Our teacher explained, as gently as possible, that the stage was configured opposite to our dance studio. So even though I hadn’t missed a step, I had performed the entire routine with my back to the audience!

Decades later, I still see the tremendous value of dress rehearsals. That’s why I require all my Legal Writing and Appellate Advocacy students to conduct mock five-minute oral arguments in class and then a full twenty-minute “dress rehearsal” with their teaching assistants (TAs) the week before their final graded oral arguments. The TAs provide constructive feedback after the rehearsal and answer any questions the students may have. I even encourage students to conduct the rehearsal in the same room where the actual oral argument will be held and to wear the same clothes and accessories they plan to wear on the big day.

These dress rehearsals provide a safe space where students can fail with minimal or no consequences. While the dress rehearsals are not graded, not taking them seriously does adversely impact the student’s Attendance, Participation, and Professionalism grade. On the whole, students have found these rehearsals incredibly valuable, and more often than not, I hear the TAs comment during the graded arguments on the marked improvements they observe because students successfully applied the TAs’ helpful corrections. I even advise students to record and review their rehearsals just as my dance coaches had us review recordings of our performances at competitions to determine how we could improve. My “tiny dancer teaching moment” taught me that oral advocacy is just another dance that must be rehearsed.

How do you help your students prepare for oral arguments? Share your creative ideas at [email protected]

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