Many adult beginners are keen to study graded work (typically RAD’s Graded Syllabus, up to grade 8), or vocational exams (from InterFoundation through to Advanced 2). Having completed grades as an adult and vocational work too (currently studying for Advanced 1), I can understand the desire to adopt an exam-based approach to your study of ballet. Having taken so many exams and having been asked about this particular topic so many times, I have reflected a great deal on what I think I gained from the experience and also what I believe some of the drawbacks were.
If you are still making up your mind on whether to pursue exams or not, this concise list of pros and cons may help you:
Graded work provides an opportunity to learn ballet from the basics up. The syllabus will teach you steps in a structured order, providing a solid understanding of different moves and how to execute them. This foundation helps to better prepare you for harder moves and sequences down the line
Focusing on the same routines each week gives you a chance to improve technique. This is because once you have remembered the steps, you have more capacity to focus on how you execute them. Repetition also provides an opportunity to improve your understanding of terminology (which will help you to pick up faster in open classes down the line)
Because graded classes are working towards exams, the lesson is structured quite differently to drop-in or open classes. There is more opportunity to ask questions and refine technique, the teacher is likely to spend longer explaining things as the key focus is learning
Graded classes contain dances and variations, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn a complete dance, helping you to develop your own individual style, the majority of open classes focus more on a series of short exercises
Certain grades require students to dance with a live pianist. This is an excellent challenge which develops musicality. Each pianist plays the music differently, you will therefore learn to listen to the music and adjust to tempo, making you a more versatile dancer
If you are starting on grades and you are an adult beginner, a teacher will likely start you somewhere between Grade 4 and 6. You may end up taking these classes with children/ people a lot younger than you, which can feel uncomfortable. There may possibly be graded classes out there for adults only – but I haven’t come across any myself thus far
The actual content of RAD graded work is somewhat limited (though Grades 1 to 5 recently changed and incorporate a much wider variety of steps). This means that graded work does not necessarily prepare you well for open classes or drop-in classes, which may still include many steps you haven’t been exposed to
Graded work is repetitive and therefore helps you to memorise routines but does not necessarily develop the skills required for picking up new work quickly, and that is what is needed in open classes and in Intermediate and advanced level classes
With graded work, there is an emphasis in executing work in the right way, the syllabus is for the most part technique focused, and this can therefore develop your knowledge of ballet terminology but neglect the importance of dance quality (this is less true for the new graded syllabus and for vocational work)
It can be hard to stay motivated if you are doing the same routines over and over, you may lose interest and inspiration
I personally advocate for a combined approach in the early stages of your dance journey, taking graded or structured classes and supplementing these with a drop-in class. You therefore benefit from a dedicated learning environment, repetition and a key focus on ballet fundamentals and simultaneously have the opportunity to learn new steps and push yourself in open classes.
Where can I take grade lessons?
Ask at a local studio which offers RAD exams – they may have classes for adults or be willing to enter you independently for grades.
Where can I study Vocational work:
RAD Headquarters in South Kensington offer Vocational Classes for Adult Beginners (InterFoundation and Intermediate) – link here
Central School of Ballet offers Intermediate, Advanced Foundation, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2 drop in classes every Sunday – link