When I raised the question “What is a ‘Dolly Dinkle’ dance teacher?” on our website several months ago, little did I know what a response I would get. Apparently the term means different things to different people, and readers spoke their minds emphatically. In its more generic use, it refers to the owner of a small, neighborhood school, often one with primitive facilities (low ceilings and tile or concrete floors, perhaps). But for some people the term has a negative connotation, signifying a poorly trained teacher who has no qualifications to teach others; for others who perceive it more positively, a Dolly Dinkle school has humble origins but is often run by a teacher with high standards and great drive and passion. Emotions run high in this debate, and it affords us an interesting look at personal biases in the context of the labels we use for others.
It all began with a conversation I had with a teacher friend of mine, who had trained with me at my mother’s school in Randolph, MA, some 40-odd years ago. She referred to another teacher in her town as a “Dolly Dinkle” teacher. All my life I’ve heard the term but I had never asked anyone what they meant by it—but this time I did. My friend replied, “It’s someone who hangs out a shingle and opens a school in her basement.” That didn’t sound too terrible to me. Then she added, “Who doesn’t have a degree in dance.” In a condescending tone of voice she finished her description with “Do you know that this teacher has no secretary? She actually collects the tuition and teaches her classes!”
Instantly I shot back with “Don’t you realize that you and I are the products of a Dolly Dinkle teacher?” I explained that she had just described my mother, our first teacher. When my mother began teaching, she hung up a shingle, taught in her basement, and had no degree in dance. She was the secretary and the janitor; she cleaned the mirrors, bathrooms, and floors and did all the other jobs that come with owning a school. My friend seemed very surprised at first, as if she thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, but she then realized that she had made a negative judgment about a teacher who was just like her own teacher. I think it made her do a bit of soul-searching.
My friend and I (and my brother) became dance teachers because my mother decided to pass on her passion for the art of dance in the only way she could afford to—with a shingle, a basement, and no support staff. More than 40 years later, my mother’s school is housed in a huge building, has a flourishing enrollment, a national reputation for producing professional dancers, and a successful recreational program, all under the direction of my brother Rennie. If my mother was a Dolly Dinkle dance teacher, I’m thinking we need more of them!
In response to my website posting, quite a few readers wrote in. Tracy Davenport of Performing Arts Centre, Inc., in St. Charles, MO, writes, “I had no idea ‘Dolly Dinkle’ was a universal term. This gal gets around! I have heard the term in reference to a stereotype of teachers who have had only a few years of training as a child or adult and then open a studio. They are not dedicated to the art form; teaching is just a business to them. These teachers are not continuing their own education, thereby passing on an education that leaves a lot to be desired.”
Several teachers say that based on my friend’s description they would qualify as Dolly Dinkles themselves. “Your description of Dolly Dinkle puts me right there,” writes Terrie Legein of Legein Dance Academy of Performing Arts in Coventry, RI. “I did the exact same thing 29 years ago. I think the only thing that sets us former ‘Dinkle girls’ apart from the rest is that we join an organization that can help us become better dance educators and work toward becoming the best we can in our field. I wouldn’t change a thing from my studio past—I think it’s what makes us better administrators and business owners.”
“I am a ‘Dolly Dinkle’ teacher and have been for 31 years,” writes Kathie Jamison Cote of Northern Lights Dance Arts in Maine. “I helped support our family of seven with studios in Florida for 16 years, and now that shingle hangs in three towns in Maine, where I continue to do my life’s work. [My parents] provided every opportunity for me to expand my knowledge as I was growing up in the remote state of Maine. Fortunately my teacher, Jheri McQuillan, recognized my passion for dance and mentored me with annual classes in New York City with some of the finest master teachers: Luigi, Gus Giordano, Danny Hoctor and the Caravan folks, Kit André, Melita Brock- Warner, Joey Puglisi, Frank Hatchett . . .” Commenting on the unfair judgment that is sometimes levied on teachers who do not have a degree in dance, Cote adds, “I share my passion, love, and knowledge lovingly with my dancers. They know their technique and terminology, and we are constantly questing to learn from those dancers and teachers, classes, videos, and books that set the high standards that the dance world enjoys.”
“I am one of those teachers as well,” writes Debbie Donaldson, artistic director of Dreams in Motion Performing and Fine Arts School in Gananoque, Ontario, Canada. “I had taken dance all my life; then when I had my three girls I started taking them to dance classes in the nearest city. I drove 45 minutes each way to watch them take a class for 45 minutes. At the end-of-the-year show, I sat there thinking, ‘I can do better than this,’ and my mother, who was sitting next to me, said, ‘You can do better than this.’ So the next year, with 17 students, I started a dance school in the basement of our house. Now, 22 years later, there are times when I feel I am not good enough, especially when I go into the [public] school system and [the teachers there] turn their heads the other way because I do not have a teaching degree. But my school has become a performing and fine arts school and a charitable organization. I love teaching dance and bringing the joy of the arts to this area. I belong to a dance teachers’ organization, and I do what I feel is right for my students. ‘Dolly Dinkle’ or ‘Debbie Dance’—that’s me and I am proud of it!”
Melanie Kirk-Stauffer, artistic director of Dance Theatre Northwest in University Place, WA, had never heard the name “Dolly Dinkle” before, but she can identify. “I started my school years ago in the basement of a nursing/retirement home in a donated space and in gratitude did numerous performances there. We still do several performances each year in senior-care facilities; it is a win–win for all. My school grew from nothing, and I guess I didn’t notice that much because I am so passionate about both dance and teaching.”
Suzanne Perdue of Dancers Edge in Marlborough, MA, writes to defend the argument that a “Dolly Dinkle” teacher is someone who should not be teaching dance. “They have had poor or no training, education, or performing experience when they start teaching, much like someone who decides to practice law without the necessary training. It doesn’t have to do with opening a studio in a basement or not having a secretary. Often it’s a student who says, ‘Hey, I can dance; I can do what a teacher does.’ Sometimes they have had no dance education beyond their own teachers (who also might have had no education beyond their own teachers); they don’t take classes or workshops to improve themselves or their studio; they put kids on pointe at age 8 or demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what is developmentally appropriate for kids.”
She goes on to cite the example of a teacher with more than 20 years of experience who told a student preparing to take her first pointe class to “buy any pointe shoes and walk around in them during the summer. When the girl started classes in the fall, this teacher told her, she’d be on pointe. The girl was 10. She had had one year of ballet, one class per week. In her first class wearing the pointe shoes (after not dancing for three months), she dislocated her knee. I learned about this when she became my student the following year.” She mentions another teacher she knows who “studied with only one teacher and claimed she had no desire to do anything further in dance, including teacher workshops, but wanted to be a dance teacher. Never more than a beginning-level student, she became a dance teacher at age 14.”
So let’s make a proclamation that not all Dolly Dinkles are created equal. Excellent, dedicated teachers who enrich their students’ lives through dance and challenge themselves to learn and grow throughout their careers may start out in humble surroundings, but their “shingles” represent good training, passion for dance and children, and the desire to contribute to an art form. That’s a far cry from someone with the same roots who opens a school but lacks what it takes to shape a dancer—and a life. The next time you hear the term, or are tempted to call someone by it, consider what it might mean to them. Depending on the context, it could be an insult—or a compliment.