Advice for dance teachers
I need some advice on an extremely sad, unfortunate situation. As a member of Dance Masters of America, I uphold a code of ethics. I respect my colleagues and do my best to maintain a professional working relationship with everyone. Recently, though, a full-time teacher of four years at a local dance studio got arrested for multiple instances of lewd and lascivious acts with minors. One incident occurred at a dance convention. The studio owner knew about it and still kept this teacher on staff for several months. When the owner finally let her go, she still planned to have the teacher choreograph privately for the school’s competition team. My problem is that this has lowered morale and trust in dance studios and teachers.
Do you have any suggestions for how to handle this professionally and ethically? My first instinct is to ignore the situation, but I cannot sit back when children have been affected and people are talking. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. —Valerie
As teachers and school owners it is our responsibility to protect the minors in our care. Once we are made aware of any potential danger it is our obligation to take appropriate action.
With that said, I did some investigation into this matter and it appears that the authorities are on top of this case. According to the reports, the director of the school was questioned prior to the arrest but was not made privy to the charges being investigated, and she was told not to inform parents. Since the investigation is ongoing, the school owner’s role in this situation has yet to be determined. If that report is false, I am sure that the investigation will reveal that fact and the authorities will take the appropriate action.
My concern is that the director of the school is considered guilty by her peers based on hearsay. Imagine how you would feel if one of your faculty members was accused of a similar crime, yet you knew nothing about it. I wouldn’t speculate on anyone’s involvement because I wouldn’t want them to speculate about me in a similar circumstance. I would hope that teachers would offer each other the benefit of the doubt out of respect for their profession and each other.
My advice for handling this situation professionally and ethically is to leave the investigation to the authorities and avoid speculation or gossip. I would remain focused on making my school the best it can be and creating the safest environment possible. All the best to you. —Rhee
I am currently in my 30th year as a studio owner, and I would love to see some dialogue in your magazine about the issue I’m raising. I think it’s time for a conversation about when a student should be considered a professional and should not be competing or eligible for scholarships at conventions. At a recent competition some competing dancers had won on Paula Abdul’s Live to Dance; they have also been on America’s Got Talent, where they made it very far in a group competition. Yes, these children are 11 or 12 years old, but I feel that they have crossed a line into another realm of the dance world.
Also at this competition were dancers who have been on Lifetime TV in a couple of dance-related shows. I only had one soloist compete, and she was that top score, so these dancers were not up against mine. I do plan on talking to the owner of this event since we have a great relationship, and he will understand that I’m looking for a dialogue, not really complaining.
I believe there should be guidelines in the competition world regarding professional status. Even with these televised dance competitions, it’s almost like the difference between a pro golf tour and an amateur tour. Once you turn pro, you can’t do some extra tournaments at the amateur level. Thank you for all you do for the dance world! —Cameron
I’m a little sensitive to this issue because when I was a young dancer participating in dance competitions, there were teachers who wanted my brother Rennie and me kicked out of events because we had been paid to perform in a Nutcracker with a well-known Boston dance company. Rennie’s eligibility to compete was also questioned when he was 10 because he had been paid for performing at a dinner theater. I remember being devastated at the thought that we would not be allowed to compete. I knew that our experiences could be interpreted as professional, but I also understood that we both had a lot to learn in becoming proficient dancers.
Other questions come to mind regarding this subject. Would a young dancer who had performed a tap piece on a professional stage be considered a professional if she performed a contemporary piece at a competition? What about a girl who lands a professional gig at 10 but never gets another job—is she still considered a pro at age 16? Would someone who dances on national TV but wasn’t paid be considered a professional? Would someone who sings or acts at a professional venue be considered a professional in a dance competition?
Through the years I have seen many dancers who have had a great deal of professional experience who are not as technically advanced as others at competitions. If the dancer who has no professional experience is better (from a judge’s viewpoint), then it becomes hard to draw the line between amateur and professional.
Certainly there should be dialogue about the subject, but what we all need to keep in mind is that we are dealing with children. Keeping kids out of a competition simply because they have had some professional experience could hurt those who need the competition experience in order to grow and learn as dancers. I hope this gives you some food for thought about the dancers’ perspective. —Rhee
I am a dance teacher/studio owner, and I have come across the most persistent parents I have ever met in all my years of teaching dance (20-plus)—or school, for that matter. (I taught kindergarten for 12 years.)
These parents have a daughter who turned 4 last spring. They are angry with me and some of my teachers because I will not allow them to enroll their daughter in the beginning ballet class for 6- to 8-year-olds. My teachers and I have tried to explain that although the child is coordinated for a 4-year-old, she is not ready for the rigors of a class with 6- to 8-year-olds. She is not developmentally ready, emotionally or physically, even though she follows directions and is a good listener. Not to mention that there are eight parents with kids in the beginning ballet class who would not be happy if a 4-year-old were in there.
I am a strong believer in developmentally appropriate teaching and training. I pride myself on my school’s strong reputation in the community for having a quality preschool dance program. The 3- to 6-year-old age range is definitely my specialty.
These parents are convinced that their child is leaps and bounds above the other 4-year-olds in the ballet/jazz combo class, both in maturity and ability. They have been clients since their daughter was a year old, in the Mommy and Me classes, but I’m at the point where I want to tell them that my philosophy doesn’t fit with their attitude and that maybe my school isn’t a good fit for them. However, I always try to make things right for my clients and I want to educate them on proper dance training. And I don’t want their daughter to get hurt or learn bad habits that are hard to break.
I have spoken with the parents several times, as have my teachers. Is there an article or anything you can recommend that I can share with them? I know these parents want what is best for their daughter, and so do I.
Thank you for all your inspirational dance sayings and for all the fantastic ideas and information in the magazine each month. —Barbara
Teachers often have to deal with parents who believe that their children should be moved to a higher-level class, but it isn’t often that the request comes from the parents of a 4-year-old. Exposure to movement that is physically inappropriate could damage her young body, not to mention how important it is to build a strong foundation if in fact dance turns out to be this child’s thing. You hit the nail on the head when you said you want what is developmentally appropriate for this child. Moving her up is out of the question.
It may be time to accept that your school can’t offer these parents what they are looking for, especially since you and your faculty have respectfully discussed their concerns without success. You point out that your school is well respected in your community for its successful preschool program. One student or her parents should not deter you from continuing to maintain your quality standards. Your integrity, ethics, and expertise have helped you gain the respect of your community, which is more valuable to your success than any single student. I know it is hard, but your instinct is speaking loud and clear. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
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Front-Page News Blues
I suppose we all knew it would come to this. The Mackay Daily Mercury in Queensland, Australia, ran a front-page story in October when a 10-year-old dancer was cut from a dance company performance due to missed rehearsals.
The story reported some discrepancy regarding exactly when the dancer was told she wouldn’t be participating in the Mackay Eisteddfod, a local talent showcase—the studio director said she contacted the mother more than a week before the show, while the mother claims she was clueless until the day before. But regardless of the dirty details, the little girl’s personal setback became the news of the day, with strangers, friends, and even Grandma name-calling and backbiting through a lengthy comment queue.
Part of me is chuckling, but in all seriousness, attendance has become a major thorn in the side for any studio director trying to field a decent team or company. Everyone has an excuse, a conflict, a “can’t miss” birthday or family member in from out of town. Teachers—and the kids who do show up—are left to finagle lines and patterns, then doomed to endless repeats and questions when the missing kids return.
Some of us know the “joy” of completely re-choreographing a number when a dancer just can’t make a competition, or of dealing with griping from slighted teammates when we’d really just like to join in. During the prep for last year’s middle-school musical, attendance at my dance rehearsals was so horrific that I enacted a new rule—if you show up, you’re in the number; if you don’t, you’re not. The kids wanted to be onstage, so things perked up, but I’m fairly certain that all of the parents hated me.
The Queensland mom said her little girl was practicing at home and trying her best, but although her effort was admirable and better than nothing, that’s never enough. You’ve got to show up and put in the work. The other kids did. The studio director did—and now has been publicly called out as a “bully.” Apparently, that’s what you get when you lay down the law on a slow news day in Australia. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Those Fine Performing Arts
It’s always great news when a fine-arts museum is doing a dance-related exhibit, but when San Francisco’s de Young Museum announced a long-running tribute to one of dance’s most beloved icons, “Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance,” the news just kept getting better.
The beautifully curated exhibit itself—produced with the assistance of Centre national du costume de scène in Moulins, France, and which runs through February 17—is enough to make dance-loving hearts beat a little faster. But the museum, perhaps inspired by Nureyev’s wild devotion to ballet, went a little crazy with related programming for this exhibit. At the members’ opening, museumgoers were treated to a performance by the San Francisco Ballet School Trainees and a screening of The Red Shoes. That morning a discussion titled “The Life and Work of Rudolf Nureyev” had offered fascinating personal remembrances of Nureyev by a panel of heavy-hitters in the ballet world. A week later, SF Ballet principal dancer Tiit Helimets presented a dance tribute to his native Estonia, which included a documentary of a tour, an art film in which dancers became painters, and a live performance.
Over the next few months the museum will host an evening of ballroom dancing; a multimedia presentation, From Tutu to Haute Couture: Costume and the Ballet, with an accompanying fashion show; five separate screenings of eight Nureyev-related films; a series of family dance workshops; and costume-making workshops.
Many of the events are being done in collaboration with SF Ballet, and it’s heartening to see this kind of crossover between the performing and fine arts. If this kind of shared approach to presenting art boosts ballet or museum attendance, I say, “Bravo!” In fact, I’ll jump to my feet and yell, “Encore!” —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Words from the publisher
In this month’s issue we focus on jazz and hip-hop. As we were brainstorming about the content for the jazz section, I found my mind wandering back to the mid-1970s, when as teenagers, my twin brother, Rennie, and I would go with our mom to New York City to take classes from the jazz masters of the time. Many of those classes were with Luigi, who is featured in this issue.
At that time there were no mega-schools like Broadway Dance Center or Steps on Broadway. Most teachers, especially those who taught jazz, had their own studios. I remember all those hot summer days and jam-packed studios with dancers from all over the world. We all wore those shiny Lycra jazz pants with legwarmers and sweat was flying all over the room. Sometimes we couldn’t even see because of the sweat pouring into our eyes. There was an almost indescribable energy in those classes—the closest I can come to expressing it is that we weren’t tired after those classes. We wanted more.
On a good day in the city we would pull off three or four classes. We’d take Luigi’s 1pm class, run to Phil Black’s class at 3 o’clock, and then grab a slice of pizza before heading to Betsy Haug’s 6pm class. Back in our hotel room, we’d go over everything we had learned that day. And then we’d wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
I remember being in a class with Lee Theodore of American Dance Machine, who was one tough teacher but knew so much about the history and legacy of jazz dance. Part of what made these crazy days in New York City so great was that we would take classes that encompassed different eras of jazz dance, immersing ourselves in the historical background of the movement we were learning. Lee taught one of the hardest classes in the city, but we sure felt good when we made it through. And we felt smarter each time.
There was a bohemian quality to those days, too. At Betsy Haug’s studio, the resident cats would run through our legs during class and Betsy was always eating potato chips. I remember being in JoJo Smith’s class and seeing babies in a playpen. Once, when Rennie and I were in Luigi’s class, he looked at us and said, “I have always seen double”—he has an eye that wanders—“and now I’m seeing fourple.”
After a few days, we’d pack up the car and head home to Boston feeling totally motivated and, without a doubt, like we were better dancers. Even more than the classes we took, the trips were reaffirmations of our passion for dance. The experiences would be fuel enough to keep us going until the next time.
All those moments are coming back to me with this issue of the magazine. So, Luigi and every other teacher from those steamy New York City days, thanks for the memories.
Do I hear a waltz? Professional ballroom dancers will lead a 45-minute instructional class in ballroom basics on November 9 during Friday Nights at the de Young, a special series held at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.
The 6:30pm class will be followed by a social hour of cocktails, conversation, and dancing. The program is hosted by the SF Ballet Center for Dance Education (CDE), and is free and open to the public.
SF Ballet’s CDE will also host Saturday morning family dance workshops at the de Young Museum over the next several months. Designed for children ages 5 to 14 and their parents or guardians, the workshops will explore the basics of ballet and creative movement. All workshops will take place in the Piazzoni Murals Room.
Pre-registration is required; cost is $3 for members and $5 for non-members. Workshops will take place from 10 to 11am on November 10, December 8, and January 12.
For more information on additional SF Ballet–related activities at the de Young, visit http://deyoung.famsf.org/san-francisco-ballet.
A former Franklin Street storage area in Norwich, Connecticut, is now home to 3D Dance Studio, which opened September 1 under the direction of Diane Elder, according to the Norwich Bulletin.
And for the next four years, Elder’s business will have a portion of its rent paid for through Norwich Community Development Corporation’s commercial lease rebate program, which approved a $7,000 package to help carry 3D Dance Studio through start-up expenses.
It’s the first time since November 2010—when voters approved a $3.38 million bond to create a trio of incentives aimed at downtown revitalization—that a business has qualified for rental assistance.
Elder said she approached NCDC in June to begin the process, unsure of how it would go. “I could tell they were willing to invest that time in me, because they believed in what I believed in,” she said. And though an average of $145 a month may not seem like a lot, Elder said it’s one less expense she needs to worry about while establishing a presence in the city.
Elder, who volunteers in the Norwich School District’s ASPIRE program, said bringing a dance studio to a historically troubled part of the city in which she grew up was a major priority for her.
“I thought it would bring a light to the area. It’s more so for the community, and kids that come in here all the time,” said Elder, who already has about 25 students enrolled in her classes.
To see the full story, visit http://www.norwichbulletin.com/news/x670728882/City-helping-dance-studio-pay-rent-to-tune-of-7-000#axzz27m2PJ1bJ.
Dance Studio Life, a magazine with a back-to-basics approach, is a division of the Rhee Gold Company, whose mission is to be at the forefront of dance and education by promoting the highest possible standards in teaching. Dance Studio Life understands the soul of the teaching field.
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Advice for Dance Teachers
2 Tips for Ballet Teachers by Mignon Furman
2Tips for Hip Hop Teachers by Geo Hubela
2Tips for Modern Teachers by Bill Evans
2 Tips for Tap Teachers by Stacy Eastman
A Better You | Fighting Fatigue by Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
How to cope when you’re toast
EditorSpeak by Cheryl Ossola and Karen White
On My Mind | Rhee Gold
Words from the publisher
Thinking Out Loud by April Spisak Nelson
The lost art of theater etiquette
Teacher in the Spotlight | Cosmin MarculetiuTeachers who make a difference
Schools With Staying Power | Alzine’s Vision by Roger Lee
Love, caring, and respect add up to 50 years at Cuppett Performing Arts Center
Bright Biz Idea
To Fee or Not to Fee
Mindful Marketing by Julia Holt Lucia
Create interest with Pinterest.
Classroom Connection by Jeanne Fornarola and Mary Beth Marino
Ideas to incorporate into your curriculum
Strength in Numbers
Dance teacher organizations
Ballet Scene | Classical in Connecticut by Karen White
Ballet competition puts classics, and classes, front and center
A Dancer’s Mind by James Careless
Using psychology to improve physical performance.
No-Touch Zone by Kay Waters
How to cope when using a guiding hand in the classroom.
Making Magic With Music By Brenda Bufalino
In Tap and beyond, variety, volume, and interpretation make music meaningful.
An Excellent Option by Gina McGalliard
For dance convention seekers, an international event in L.A. might be just the ticket
Fast-Track to the Past by Maureen Jenson
Dance “webinars” give online listeners a weekly dose of dance history.
Handle With Care by Karen White
Put props to work for fun and impact
SPECIAL COMPETITION AND CONVENTION EDITION FEATURES
Competition Directors Tell All
What they think about solos, video streaming, scoring, and more
Give It a Gold by Julia Holt Lucia
Parents talk about the realities and rewards of the competition experience
From Ho-Hum to Knock ’Em Dead by Diane Gudat
How to turn good-enough dancers into performers with power
From Studio to Shining Sea by Karen White
Onboard with Celebrity Dance Competitions
Playing by the Rules by Eliza Randolph
Conflicts, no-shows, and too-frequent illnesses? Make commitment a competition team mandate.
How to cope when using a guiding hand in the classroom can get you in trouble
By Kay Waters
For a certain generation of dance educators, feeling a teacher’s guiding hand on a leg, back, or even a rear end was often standard when they were students. That’s the way things used to be—a touch here, a tap there with a hand or stick were part of the usual learning experience for many dancers.
“My teacher not only manipulated us, but she’d whack us a little bit with her cane,” says Patricia Oplotnik, a teacher based in Oklahoma City. “We didn’t think anything of it. You just knew that if you did not stretch and lengthen the leg when she was walking by, she’d tap you with the cane to get you to stretch and lengthen.”
Oplotnik didn’t employ a cane in her classes when she started teaching dance 40 years ago and then, 10 years later, opened her own school, Applause Studios, in Oklahoma City. But she definitely used her hands to guide her students’ placement, positioning, and use of their bodies, just as her teacher had once done with her. That all changed when Oplotnik joined the faculty at Oklahoma City University’s Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Arts Management in 2000.
“We are not supposed to physically touch the students. That’s pretty much the standard in [higher] education now,” Oplotnik says. The veteran teacher admits that she still advises her college students that she was trained by a teacher who touches and that they should let her know if the issue is a problem for them. Occasionally, she tells them, she forgets and taps a knee if it’s not straight.
“The thought [behind teaching without touching] is that if you give the kids enough information to stimulate critical thinking, they will then have the ability to correct themselves,” she says. “You have to correct through symbolism, parables, show things on your own body. You have to get the point across the same way but without physically touching the kids.
“But it’s hard. Fortunately I’m an artist-in-residence for tap here, so it’s not as much of an issue for me,” Oplotnik says, alluding to the less hands-on nature of teaching tap dance. “But for a teacher ‘in the trenches,’ as I put it, who is teaching something like ballet technique, working on things like alignment and turnout, I think it’s a real challenge. And it’s a shame that this is even an issue.”
While the “no touching” rule has become standard in public education, more and more private studio teachers have also adopted the new mores over the years. Elizabeth M. McPherson, BA in dance education program coordinator at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, says that when she works with the students in the dance teacher-training programs, she warns them to be very careful.
“The thought is that if you give the kids enough information to stimulate critical thinking, they will then have the ability to correct themselves. You have to correct through symbolism, parables, show things on your own body. You have to get the point across the same way but without physically touching the kids.” —Patricia Oplotnik
“The first thing I say is to err on the side of caution. I tell them to remember that someone may interpret [a touch] differently from what you intend,” says McPherson. Montclair has a dance studio training program as well as one that offers certification to teach dance in public school systems.
McPherson points out that parents’ awareness of many dance-related issues—even topics like proper nutrition for dancers and the importance of stretching correctly, without being forced—has been heightened. But concerns about appropriate touching have been especially acute, she says. “There’s been a lot of media attention about sexual abuse cases. When there’s that much media attention, parents and students are on edge and high alert, which means you’ve got to be even more careful.”
The shift has even affected the big dance studios in major dance centers, where one might assume students are more aware of how teachers have traditionally used a more hands-on approach. This seems to especially be the case with male teachers.
Elizabeth Gibbons addresses the topic in her book Teaching Dance: The Spectrum of Styles. She says although everyone needs to be careful in this litigious age, it’s male teachers who have to employ extra caution.
“When I take class in New York City, I’ve noticed that a lot of the male teachers do not touch the students. Not at all,” says Gibbons, who teaches in the dance program at East Stroudsburg [Pennsylvania] University. “It’s kind of a shame, but I understand where they’re coming from. If you’ve ever heard of anyone who has been slapped with a lawsuit, then [you understand]; their feeling is ‘Hey, I’m not going to lose my ability to teach over this.’
“It’s a shame that men are somewhat stigmatized, but it’s a reality,” Gibbons continues. “If I go to a playground and watch children play, it’s not a problem. But if my boyfriend watches children at a playground, some people may think, ‘Oh, he’s a pedophile.’ That’s just the way the world is. All teachers, but especially the males, have to think ahead and protect themselves.”
Some of the ways teachers can protect themselves are installing cameras or viewing windows in studios, including written policies about the use of touch in studio policy manuals, and being careful to limit physical contact with their students outside of the classroom.
Ramon Moreno, a principal dancer with Ballet San Jose who teaches at Western Ballet school in Mountain View, California, says that when he started teaching in the United States 16 years ago, he knew that he would have to do things differently with his students from what he’d experienced as a student training in his native Cuba. “You cannot do the things here that they do in Cuba,” he says. “It’s just not allowed. I figured out that it was different here because [teachers] talk about it, how it’s different.”
Moreno says he doesn’t take the special precautions some male teachers employ, such as leaving his studio door open. But he does allow parents to observe if they ask to, and he’s careful about how he touches his students while he’s teaching. “If I want to correct the arm, I’ll show on myself. Sometimes I will take a foot in my hand if it’s sickled because I want to develop the right shape of the foot. But that’s about all I’ll touch. Otherwise I just tell them,” he says.
“In Cuba if they want the arm fixed, they touch it. If they want the popo under, they touch the popo and tuck it under. If they want you to stretch the leg, they touch the leg,” he continues. “I had teacher who had a stick. He would give you a little hit on your popo or your leg to fix it. You can’t do that in this country.”
Moreno says a no-touching approach sometimes means student don’t grasp a correction as quickly as he’d like. “Sometimes it takes me longer; sometimes it doesn’t. Some kids get it right away,” he says. “It depends on the kid. It’s just a different way here. But I’m OK with that.”
Not everyone has changed the way they do things. April Spisak Nelson, director of Spisak Dance Academy in Glendale, Arizona, says she’s still teaching the same way she’s always taught—and the way her mother taught before her. “We’re lucky. It’s never been an issue here. We’re still pretty much hands-on. It’s hard to describe [concepts to kids] without touching them, especially when you’re talking about alignment and placement,” she says. And, she adds, her studio also teaches acrobatics, in which spotting a student by hand is essential for safety.
Nelson says she does use other methods when teaching, such as description and demonstrating on her own body—methods employed by teachers who do not touch. She also advises teachers coming in, especially male instructors, to exercise caution and do things like leave the classroom door open when they’re teaching so that anyone can see what they’re doing.
“Sometimes you just need to take that foot and put it in the correct position or correct that sickled foot,” Nelson says. “With younger kids especially, you have to touch them to get them to understand what you want. You can’t just explain and expect them to get it. They don’t have that awareness yet. They don’t have that coordination, that brain connection to the body parts you’re trying to work on.
“Sometimes I’ll show something on myself first and then have them try it. Some kids will get something that way,” she says. “Some kids will get the correction just by you giving it to them verbally. But with some kids, you have to touch them so that they understand.”
Learning to teach effectively without touching students is not optional; it’s a necessity, according to Jane Bonbright, executive director of National Dance Education Organization (NDEO).
The key in a lot of cases is for teachers to use their own bodies to demonstrate the desired correction or effect, she says.
“You can use your own hands to press in on the abdomen, or you can stand against a wall and show how you can’t get your hand all the way through [between the wall and the body] and if you can, then you’re hyperextending the pelvis. Then they can line up against the wall and press on their own abdomens with their own hands or press with their own pelvis and measure for themselves,” Bonbright says. “They can feel the shoulder blades against the wall. They can feel the lengthening. The responsibility is on them to take ownership intellectually of what you are communicating, and then physically, they take ownership.”
Many teachers interviewed advise studio owners to distribute a written policy on using touch to parents and also post it on the school website. Most agree that light touches to the extremities (hands and feet) are acceptable for corrections, although demonstrating on one’s own body is always best. However, corrections dealing with alignment and turnout can be particularly challenging.
Of course some methods will work better than others, depending on the age and body awareness of the students involved.
Here are some suggestions for communicating with students without touching them.
- “When you’re talking about pointing your feet, you can talk about the imaginary line going down through the knee, through the shin, and into the third toe. They can experience it on their own by taking off their shoes. You articulate what they should be doing, and then you let them look at their own bodies and experience it through their own kinesthetic feedback.” —Jane Bonbright
- “For a sway back, you can show them [the posture] exaggerated one way and how to bring it to neutral without necessarily having to touch them. You can place your hands on your body to demonstrate how to correct the body.” —Elizabeth McPherson
- “There are teachers who, rather than grab or pull if they want the student to bring the arm higher, will put their hand above the student’s and tell the student to press into theirs. So the student is the one who is initiating the contact.” —Elizabeth Gibbons
Hula hoops make a comeback in dance classes and choreography
By Mary Grimes
For most of us, hula hooping is simply a fond memory from childhood. We certainly didn’t think those hours spent pushing ourselves to reach 100 consecutive swings around the waist would later become a part of our training as dancers. However, with hooping now a growing trend in dance studios throughout the country, it may be time to thank our younger selves for those hours spent practicing our hula hoop skills in the backyard.
Hooping has been spreading within the fitness world for several years. With its cardiovascular and strengthening benefits, classes have popped up in gyms and fitness studios. Hooping, which doesn’t require the prerequisite of dance training, draws from many genres, including rhythmic gymnastics, baton twirling, fire dance, and hip-hop. With so much to work with, teachers are recognizing the possibilities of incorporating hooping into other technique classes and using it as a style of artistic expression as well as understanding the potential it holds for new dancers.
Mary Ann Krupka-Hodnett, a dance instructor who has been teaching hooping in dance studios for almost five years, is in the process of introducing her second hooping program within a dance studio. Her initial program, founded at Pure Form Dance in Rapid City, South Dakota, grew slowly but steadily, doubling its numbers throughout the first year it was offered. After selling her studio and relocating to the East Coast last year, she started her second program at Progressive Dance Studio in Englewood, New Jersey. This new program has been showing strong growth in a short time, nearly doubling in size within the first month, with new students trying the class every week.
Krupka-Hodnett says her dance students are drawn to hooping because of both the physical challenge and the artistry. She loves it, she says, because “there is so much imagination and creativity to this ‘Zen’ dance style. The circular motion of the hoop is peaceful and beautiful. It is an amazing core builder, and arm strength is enhanced as well with tricks similar to baton twirling.”
Indeed, Vivian Spiral, owner of Spiral Hoop Dance, a hooping company and instructional site, echoes this sentiment, stating on her website that the physical benefits include improved hand–eye coordination, flexibility, and balance, and enhanced movement in the spine and hips.
Hooping can be done to a wide variety of music and in a range of settings, making it adaptable to various kinds of classes. “The hoop has a beautiful meditative quality that blends well with lots of different music styles,” says Krupka-Hodnett. Along with teaching classes in hooping technique, she has included hooping tricks in hip-hop, jazz, and modern classes.
The hoops used for classes are bigger and heavier than the hula hoops children use, which makes them more durable and allows them to rotate more slowly. Hoops can be made of wood, metal, or plastic. The larger the hoop, the more slowly it will rotate. As students advance, teachers can challenge them by shrinking the hoop size. Hoops can be purchased online, either through sites that specialize in hooping materials or all-inclusive sites like eBay. Many students enjoy purchasing and decorating their own hoops with ribbons or colored gaffer’s tape and decorating them for performances.
According to Krupka-Hodnett, a typical hooping class begins with a 10- to 15-minute hip-hop-style warm-up, incorporating cardiovascular movements and light stretching of the arms, wrists, legs, and spine. The warm-up lets the students get acquainted with the hoop before focusing on core circles and arm or hand tricks, by which they learn the proper technique to keep the hoop spinning. After they master this technique, more advanced tricks are introduced. Students will learn at various speeds, but hooping works well for mixed-level classes since a great deal of time is spent working individually.
A hooping class has less structure than a dance technique class and takes on more of an organic feel, with much of the time spent on developing tricks and skills. The repetition of spinning the hoop builds core strength and develops aerobic stamina. Students can work on their own or one-on-one with the instructor to perfect various skills. This allows students to take responsibility for their own growth and to challenge themselves in every class. The one-on-one time with the instructor gives them time to ask questions. Class time can also be spent focusing on group choreography and challenging students to coordinate their hooping with each other.
Typically, hooping classes will end with a jam session. Students make a circle and enter the middle one at a time, showcasing their skills or rehearing their newest trick. Compared to other styles of dance, choreography for hooping is often much more individualized, as it’s nearly impossible to get all the dancers to spin their hoops at the same speed, an important factor to consider when preparing for a performance. Students will find one direction of spinning to be much more comfortable than the other, so it may be important to divide your students by their hooping direction when building a dance.
Perhaps one of the most exciting perks of hooping is the creative possibilities for both choreographers and dancers that come with using a new prop. In addition to offering new movement options, hoops can add to a show’s visual effects. They can be decorated in a myriad of ways for performances, including with LED lights in a variety of sizes and colors or to match a dance’s costuming or illustrate a theme or holiday.
“The circular motion of the hoop is peaceful and beautiful. It is an amazing core builder, and arm strength is enhanced as well with tricks similar to baton twirling.” —Mary Ann Krupka-Hodnett
Like dance, hooping can lead to injuries. Bruises on the hands or arms are fairly common when students are learning new tricks. Some students may experience mild low back pain or bruising on their hipbones as they are introduced to the style. And it’s important to limit the number of students enrolled in the class according to the size of the studio; students need enough space to spin their hoops safely. Ceiling height becomes a factor if you plan to have students experiment with throwing their hoops in the air.
Adding a hooping program to a studio’s offerings holds the potential to attract a new clientele base. If prospective students and parents have questions, many resources on the Internet can provide them with answers. Sites such as hoopnotica.com and hooping.org provide explanations of what hooping is as well as links for teacher-training courses. Although being licensed to teach hoop dance isn’t necessary (except when teaching trademarked forms such as Hoopnotica), these websites can be good places to learn new tricks and teaching methods for the style. These websites can also connect studio owners with hooping teachers in their area.
Perhaps a better option, though, is to present small performances throughout the year to demonstrate what hooping is and build interest in it. Introducing simple hooping skills in beginner hip-hop or modern classes can also be a great way to draw students into other classes.
With the world of dance constantly shifting and growing, a one-of-a-kind class like hooping might help your studio stand out from the rest. You’ll be giving your students yet another option and perhaps give them an edge if they hope to pursue acrobatic and circus styles of performing. Hoop dance can also complement a student’s dance training by building stamina, core strength, and dexterity.
Hooping classes give your students yet another option—and perhaps an edge—if they hope to pursue acrobatic and circus styles of performing. And, with the world of dance constantly shifting and growing, a one-of-a-kind class like hooping might help your studio stand out from the rest.
Dances and non-dancers alike are invited to join members of the José Limón Dance Company on Saturdays for free classes in New York City’s Bryant Park.
Classes begin May 19 and run through September, every Saturday, from 10 to 11am. The lessons will include live musical accompaniment, and are for movers of all ages. Formal technique is not stressed; instead, the classes emphasize an exhilarating freeform style of movement that requires only comfortable clothes and a love of dance.
Bryant Park is located at 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas. Admission is free. For more information, call 212.777.3353.
Got news? Email Karen@rheegold.com and include your name, email and phone. We like accompanying photos too with photographer’s credit and photo description.
By Julie Holt Lucia
Tonie Lynne Bense is one of those studio owners who were simply born to dance. She and her two sisters, Robin and Ree, grew up in a bustling household that also served as their mother’s small business: The Alpha School of Dance in Meridian, Mississippi. And over the last few years she’s added a new purpose to her life: attempting to give new life to her mother’s teaching innovation, a child-friendly dance encyclopedia with a companion dance mat.
Bense grew up in the 1950s, and by then her mother, Mary Alpha Johnson (known as Mary Alpha), was taking the local dance community by storm. She had opened her school in 1944, at age 23, and quickly built a reputation as a local dance expert. The whole town of Meridian soon knew who she was.
Along with traditional dance classes, Johnson taught anyone who wanted to learn how to move with grace and agility. She offered modeling classes to beauty pageant girls and exercise classes to the football team; she even held classes at one of Meridian’s all-black schools in that era of segregation, teaching there until the principal asked her to leave. Racial tension was growing outside the school, and the principal decided to be cautious and ask Johnson to stop teaching to be safe. She also choreographed for the Meridian Little Theatre and the State Junior Miss Pageant of Mississippi.
During her early teaching career, Johnson worked as a faculty member for the National Association of Dance and Affiliated Artists, Dance Educators of America, and Dance Caravan, teaching in cities across the United States alongside the likes of Gus Giordano and Alexandra Danilova. In the summers she would travel with her daughters to teach at The Ted Mack Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Her daughters loved every minute of being a part of their mother’s fast-paced dance life.
“I always thought my mom was the greatest, and that it was really special to have a mom that was not the norm at that time,” says Bense, has two dance studios in Panama City and Parker, Florida, with 10 teachers and more than 600 students. Most of her friends’ mothers did not work outside of the home, and they probably weren’t as busy as Johnson, who, in addition to running her dance studio, teaching all over town, and working conventions, often traveled three hours from Meridian to the family’s second home in New Orleans, where her husband worked as a bar pilot on the Mississippi River. Bense even nicknamed her mom “Mary-Go-Alpha” because she was always going, going, going.
During those long drives, Johnson’s creativity peaked, and she began thinking of ways to improve her teaching. At conventions she had noticed that dancers needed help remembering proper dance terminology, especially the tricky French words. She decided there had to be a better way to help young dancers learn basic vocabulary, which she referred to as “the ABCs of dance.” With that in mind, she developed a concept that would transform the way she taught dance.
The ideas came flying fast. An encyclopedia, The Magical Kingdom of Dance, was born along with the Alphamat, a dance mat that showed many of the encyclopedia entries in pictorial form, which children could stand on. Johnson wrote all of the entries for the encyclopedia and included original poems about famous ballets (often thinking them up during her long car rides). She also illustrated most of the 200 pages, outsourcing some of the ideas to a local art student.
The most unique elements were the characters she created to help young dancers associate familiar animals with French terminology—like Plié the Cricket (who bends), Glissade the Caterpillar (who glides), and Sauté the Bunny (who hops). These characters from the encyclopedia were also illustrated on the Alphamat, so children could be reminded of the terms by looking at the pictures. Each dancer would stand in her own “house” (first position inside a square, on “righty red” and “lefty blue”) and follow the pictures on the mat for different positions, steps, and directions around her “yard.” Each dancer also knew to stay on her own mat and not to get into her neighbor’s yard.
Bense’s sister Robin Owen, a former studio owner in Nashville, remembers her mother’s passion for The Magical Kingdom of Dance and the Alphamat. “The development of the Alphamat and [encyclopedia] was a means to bring the joy of dance to many children,” Owen says. “My mother found that the younger students [on the convention circuit] were not very well versed in terminology. Teachers often waited until they were older. She thought it was important to teach them the correct terminology from the beginning.”
“I can remember my mother working on this mat every spare minute,” Bense says. “She believed in the saying that ‘one picture is worth a thousand words.’ She knew that if a student could see where to put her feet and see the term spelled out—along with the animal that is associated with each term—that learning to dance would be a whole new world.”
In 1961 Johnson decided to copyright her ideas and sell the products, with the goal of encouraging other dance teachers and parents to help their students and children learn proper dance terminology. She had small batches of the encyclopedia printed and outsourced the mats to be reproduced on 52-by-52-inch vinyl with a foam backing. (The original mat was a four-by-four-foot board that folded in half.)
“I don’t want this project to die. My mom spent so many years perfecting it, and it would be a shame not to share it, promote it, and market it.” —Tonie Lynne Bense
Johnson marketed the products for more than 30 years. Local newspapers and libraries helped spread the word—the papers acknowledged her awards and achievements and the libraries carried the book—and she brought order forms with her to conventions where she taught. She took orders from dance teachers across the country and at one point even ran out of Alphamats. And yet she wanted an even bigger future for her products—to see them as a tool in every dance classroom across the country. They hadn’t achieved the huge popular and financial success she had hoped for.
At one point Johnson pitched her concept to several dance supply manufacturers, hoping it might take off in the right hands and become the dance studio staple she imagined. But the offers she received weren’t quite right, and Mary Alpha Johnson wasn’t the type of woman to agree to something that wasn’t quite right. So she kept plugging away on her own, promoting The Magical Kingdom of Dance and the Alphamat everywhere she could at home and on the convention circuit.
By the early 2000s, Johnson’s age had forced her to slow down. Bense says her mom never planned to stop dancing, and she never gave up on The Magical Kingdom of Dance and the Alphamat. Johnson was actively involved in the studio and her products, teaching classes past her 87th birthday.
“I asked her a few years back how long she was going to keep her studio open,” Bense says. “ And she said, ‘I guess until I dance all the twinkle off my toes.’ Retirement never crossed her mind.”
Johnson, now 90, is bedridden with round-the-clock care, and Bense is more convinced than ever that it’s the right time to bring The Magical Kingdom of Dance and the Alphamat back to national attention. She has been researching printers for the encyclopedia and has found a new manufacturer to produce the mats. A website is in the works too, says Bense, so that more teachers can see the products and watch videos on how to use them as teaching tools. But with a family and two studios to run, it’s been tough for her to find the time and money to proceed.
“I don’t want this project to die,” says Bense, who has her mother’s passion and tenacity. “My mom spent so many years perfecting it, and it would be a shame not to share it, promote it, and market it. She is a unique, creative, talented, and gracious lady. She gave me the precious gift of being a dancer and all of the wonderful things that come along with that occupation.”
Bense is in the process of launching the website, magicalkingdomofdance.com, to promote and sell the products. “I think I could really help the dance educators around the nation have fun, enjoy the young ones, and teach them so much more,” she says. “I want to do this for [my mom] because it was such an important part of her life and her dream.”
“Assigning” is a key word. Letting the students choose their own partners can create problems since most of them will choose their friends and ignore the shy, less skilled, or new students. Make the match work for you and the dancers. Pair an outgoing, strong student with a quiet one and soon you will see smiles on both faces. It’s best to assign new pairs every time. If there’s an unpaired student, take that child for your partner and join in the fun.
Have young dancers stand shoulder to shoulder, holding one hand. In ballet they can do fairy skips, tightrope walks, or gallops; in tap, marches or heel-toe walks.
Next, have them face each other and hold both hands to travel sideways. Demi-pointe chassés that progress to a half-grapevine (step side, step cross back) work well.
For intermediate students, using partners can be helpful in choreography and for learning new techniques. It’s harder to dance in a group than solo, so choreograph with partners and the dancers will learn to work as one early on. Try challenging the students with “mirror imaging,” with the students facing each other. Then, to improve their concentration, have them start on the same foot (and wait for the giggles).
At the intermediate-advanced level (with previous instruction and constant guidance), students can work in duos for stretching, warm-up, and limbering exercises. With the students assisting each other, you can oversee what’s going on.
Try using partners when you have dancers (of any age) who need extra help in picking up steps. It makes both students feel good about themselves, and they’ll appreciate your trust in them. And you’ll find that the concentration and focus of the class improve immensely.
Dancer of the Day
Here’s an easy tool to help your young students (ages 3 to 7) look forward to coming to class: establish a “Dancer of the Day” program. This system of recognizing and giving special privileges to one dancer each day makes everyone eager to be in class because they never know when it will be their turn.
The Dancer of the Day is recognized at the beginning of class and leads all the activities. At my school, the first activity is leading the class around the room in ballet walks. Other privileges can include choosing which prop to use or which sauté, port de bras, or other movement everyone will do. The Dancer of the Day may distribute and gather props before and after an activity. If stickers or stamps are given to students at the end of class, the Dancer of the Day chooses which one is given.
Additional perks could include allowing the Dancer of the Day to wear a crown, tutu, or skirt, or taking a photo of the dancer with the teacher and emailing it to her or posting it on the bulletin board.
Keep track of the students’ days so that no one is left out. If a student is ill on the day she would be recognized, swap her day with the next dancer in line. The program can be adjusted for older students as well. Let them choose a particular exercise, bring in acceptable music for the warm-up, or have them present a short combination for the class.
In addition to looking forward to coming to class, students learn patience (taking turns) and are introduced to leadership skills.
Take a Moment
Teachers try to impress on students the importance of being on time for class. However, if students arrive early and simply text or chit-chat, we can redirect them in their use of time. I have recently inserted one minute of silence before class. The dancers claim their space at the barre, the pianist plays an adagio, and the students stretch or breathe in their own way. The only rule is that there is no talking. I tell them that this is an opportunity to have a “conversation’ with their own body.
The minutes leading up to the first plié speak to the maturity level of the dancer. Since many of us teach young students, this minute of quiet can be an opportunity for us to model the behavior we seek in a responsible and sensitive dancer. Very young or inexperienced students will not know what to do, and you may need to talk them through stretches and verbalize what they may be feeling. For intermediate students, create a repertoire of stretches and exercises that can help them begin to take more responsibility for their bodies.
I instruct students to visualize the plié combination at the beginning of class as a threshold—a point of entry or beginning. This silent minute of free time can provide that threshold, just as yoga practitioners take a few moments to breathe and chant, readying the mind before moving the body. I tell students that the first moments of class should be transitional and coach them into “entering into the body of the dancer you want to be by the end of class.” Moving the body through simple postures brings the mind and concentrated energy together. More advanced dance students may be able to recognize other ways to use a silent minute before class to their advantage.
A silent minute at the end of class can function as a cool-down and allow students to integrate the information they’ve learned. Repeating the opening free-minute stretch can bring a sense of completion to the class. —Kerry Ring
Dance improvisation encourages students to develop innovative movement patterns while experimenting with the concepts of shape, space, time, and energy. The following techniques are fun and inspiring for both students and teachers.
Props are great for improv exercises. Props I have used include a pair of white gloves, pink rose, scarf, red clown nose, derby hat, and book, but anything can be used for improv. Give students one minute to improvise using their prop however they see fit. Allow the more experienced dancers to go first and lead by example.
I always remind them to move without inhibition and try not to be too literal. That means that a dancer who gets the clown nose doesn’t have to wear it on her face and be silly like a clown. Get them thinking by asking, “Is your prop hard or soft? Is it heavy or light? What emotions might be attached to this item?” Don’t give them too long to think about it, but remind them to allow these kinds of thoughts to transfer into their movements.
Along with props, I keep envelopes on hand that are full of pieces of paper with various words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs) written on them, especially ones that relate to choreographic concepts (shape, space, time, and energy). I ask less experienced students to draw a word from one or two of the envelopes to use as a foundation when creating their improv motifs. More advanced students can draw a word from each envelope to develop more complex motifs.
Storytelling is a fun way to work with a partner while exploring improvisation. Ask one student to be the storyteller and the other to be the performer. As one is telling a story, the other is acting it out through dance. Trade places and repeat this process.
Adding music to these exercises can be an interesting component, but it’s not always necessary. The possibilities are endless. —Michele Monaghan
Make ’Em Laugh
During an across-the-floor exercise in a jazz class one day, I realized that all the students (7- to 9-year-olds) were leaping with their upper bodies slanting forward. One of the dancers was angling so far forward that her upper body was actually touching her front leg. I explained the correction, but the dancers repeated the combination with little improvement. Clearly, it was time to get creative.
I stopped the music and said, “Girls, the upper body is supposed to be straight during a leap, not leaning forward like this.” Attempting to look as ridiculous as possible, I hurtled myself through the air in an exaggerated leap, low to the ground, practically lying on my front leg. The girls started to giggle. I had their attention.
To drive my point home and keep them engaged in a fairly boring correction, I had them look in the mirror with their bodies facing the side. I instructed them to lean forward and say, “Wrong.” Then I asked them to stand up straight and say, “Right.” Then we did it again and again, each time increasing the speed. When we started moving as fast as we could, everyone looked so silly that the entire class burst into laughter.
Finally, with a completely serious expression, I said, “Sometimes if you yell loud enough, your body can hear you.” I told the dancers that when they were in the air, they should yell the word “Straight!” loud enough for their backs to hear. I also told them that while they were waiting for their turn they could help the people going across the floor by yelling, “Straight!”
Since I enforce a strict “no talking” policy, the dancers were delighted to be allowed to yell in the middle of class. Before we even started, one girl bent forward, shouted, “Straight!” and then stood up. “It works!” she exclaimed with delight.
I suppressed a smile and responded dramatically, “Oh, it works!” The dancers had a great time yelling “Straight!” as they soared across the floor. But the best part was that every dancer leaped with a perfectly straight back.
It is disheartening when dancers don’t show up for class or when you have to repeat the same corrections over and over again. Your enthusiasm wanes and you become frustrated, and the class morale decreases. Soon no one enjoys the class. But there’s a solution: empower the students.
A teacher friend of mine told me about using class cards to make students more responsible about their choreography and corrections. At the beginning of the month, each student (company kids ages 10 and up) gets a card. On the card is a list of classes and a spot for the teachers to sign off after every lesson.
It’s the dancers’ responsibility to keep track of their cards and get the signatures. At the end of the month they turn in their cards. Their attendance is tallied and the results are posted in the studio. Anyone with 100 percent attendance gets a reward (I give them an exemption from the dress code), which I specify ahead of time.
This won’t work if you don’t make rules and stick to them every time. Consistency is key.
- Don’t accept the cards late for any reason.
- If the dancers are late, they don’t get their card signed.
- If they lose the card they can get a new one, but they don’t get credit for what was on the lost card.
Since starting this at my studio, the kids’ attendance has been great, with many of them attending all of the classes each month. The kids are more accountable for their corrections because they have the mind-set that they are responsible for their own learning. They feel empowered, and that confidence spills into other areas of their dance education.
My teachers and I are less frustrated and feel like the kids are more invested in their dance education. The improved attendance has also helped with our choreography-cleaning process.
Because of the class cards, we are dance teachers again, not babysitters.
Do you have a great classroom tip to share with our readers? Send it to the editor at Cheryl@rheegold.com.
For these schools, the answer is an enthusiastic yes!
By Kay Waters
When Brenda Didier moved her studio, Lincolnshire Academy of Dance, to its new location in Vernon Hills, Illinois, she made sure the new setting could accommodate all the necessary elements: barres, mirrors, dance floors—and space for accompanists to play for the school’s classes.
“We have three studios and we have three pianos, plus drums and congas and a lot of percussion instruments,” Didier says about the scene at her 450-student school, located 29 miles north of Chicago. “I can’t imagine teaching without live music. It makes the class experience more special.”
The impact on students and their understanding of the relationship between dance and music is invaluable, says Nicholas Mishoe, co-director of Academy of Dance Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey, who uses accompanists for the studio’s ballet classes. He has considered having live music for other classes, but at the moment, he says, he can’t afford to do so.
Live music, Mishoe says, “trains the students to listen. The pianist might play a different piece of music for the same exercise, so it automatically trains the students to be attentive to the music and to be musical dancers. Sure, you can crank up the volume on a CD or your iPod. But when you actually have a musician in the room playing for the exercises, it creates this whole energy that isn’t just about volume. And that’s kind of awesome.”
Mishoe and Didier are an increasing rarity these days—private studio owners who have opted for live musical accompaniment despite the higher cost compared to using recorded music. While financial considerations often make live musical accompaniment at private studios prohibitive, accompanists are considered standard at most schools affiliated with professional dance companies and in most college dance programs.
Teachers who use live accompaniment at their studios say local connections and word of mouth are the best methods they’ve used for finding their accompanists.
Didier found the three musicians she uses through colleagues in Chicago’s theater community and at Columbia College in Chicago. Mishoe says that two of the three pianists who play for classes at the Academy were already at the school when he took over ownership; the third was found through a local music conservatory.
The cost, they agree, is a necessary expense. Didier pays her musicians $30 an hour; Mishoe says he spends about $30,000 a year between salaries and maintaining the pianos.
Wherever it is utilized, the embrace of live music reflects an age-old tradition that cuts across generations, dance styles, and educational settings.
“The live music in African dance is like breathing. The music is giving the dance its breath. The music is as important as someone dancing,” says Maguette Camara, who teaches West African dance for The Ailey School and companies in New York City. “You need the music to feel what you’re doing, and the music needs that dancer to give back whatever he is giving. It’s a giving back and forth between whoever is playing and whoever is dancing.”
In tap, the difference between using live and recorded music can mean crucial differences in the dancers’ ability to communicate nuances and varied interpretations, says Brenda Bufalino. “The difference between teaching to live music and teaching to a recording can be dramatic. If you’re working to recorded music you don’t have to listen to it; that’s what I see from students. To them, [the recorded music] just becomes background for the class.”
Bufalino, who teaches and performs around the world and founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra, adds, “I know instructors can’t afford live music all the time, but I always try. Students need to actually relate to how the artist is playing. If the music is live you’re relating through the person, through the playing, to the music. With live music, dancing becomes a much more intimate and detailed experience in terms of your relationship to the movement.”
“Sure, you can crank up the volume on a CD or your iPod. But when you actually have a musician in the room playing for the exercises, it creates this whole energy that isn’t just about volume.” —Nicholas Mishoe
And, adds teacher Gerri Houlihan, live music can elevate the class experience from mundane to something special. “A good accompanist can make class magical,” says Houlihan, who teaches contemporary classes at Florida State University in Tallahassee and also teaches during the summer at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. “I think there’s a kind of organic sensibility and a connection between the rhythmic phrasing and the kinetic sense of moving through space. When it really works, when you have a wonderful musician, it can make an ordinary class just fly.”
Houlihan doesn’t work with just any accompanist. She works on a daily basis with Douglas Corbin, one of the most acclaimed and recorded piano accompanists for dance, particularly ballet. Corbin, who teaches music at Florida State University along with his duties as an accompanist, says the experience of playing for dance classes can be as fulfilling for the musician as it is for the teacher and dancers. How the musicians view their role in the class plays a part in that perception, he says.
“I see my role as supporting the movement somehow or enabling the dancers to execute the movement,” says Corbin. “Sometimes, in the body, the impulse comes before the shape they’re going to make. So sometimes you want to cue them for that impulse so the dancers can get on top of the beat and be more successful in achieving the shape.”
That theme of helping dancers be successful was echoed by other accompanists like Daniel Berkman, a percussionist who plays for classes at ODC School in San Francisco. “My goal is to make class an extraordinary experience for them. I try to tailor what I play to what I feel the teacher wants to convey on the count and in their body language,” Berkman says. “I’m like an interpreter. I kind of interpret the teacher’s body and sensibility and personality and try to infuse [the class] with a musical experience that is uniquely mine.”
Suzanne Knosp, a seasoned accompanist and music professor who leads a graduate-level program for dance accompanists at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says accompanists are crucial: they help dancers develop an appreciation for and ability to dance to a variety of music. “If the dancers are having a hard day, I as the accompanist can make choices that make them fall in love with dance again. Or there are times when I can challenge them with a rhythm that might challenge how they’re perceiving the music in their own bodies,” says Knosp, who is president of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance.
“A good musician helps make the class. A tendu is a tendu is a tendu. But you can do it so many different ways and it’s important that a dancer knows that,” Knosp continues. “I feel like my job is to help a dancer discover not only the music and musicality, but the joy in the movement.”
Given the popularity of his CDs of dance class music, Corbin is well aware that many teachers have shifted to using recorded music for dance class, often out of economic necessity. But, he said, the CDs can’t begin to compare to the experience of having a live accompanist. Teachers at all levels of the spectrum agree.
“Relating to the music is a big part of dance. And if the music is live in the room, you’re relating through the person playing the music,” Bufalino says. “The music changes all the time; even if it’s the same song, it changes moods.
“Your relationship to the movement, whether it’s modern or classical or tap, is much more intimate and always collaborative,” Bufalino continues. “At its best, what happens in the studio is a collaboration between the dancers and the musician where you spur each other on. It can be absolutely magical.”
Tips for Working With an Accompanist
There’s more to finding success with an accompanist then just placing a musician in your studio. Here are some tips from accompanists about what works and what doesn’t.
Suzanne Knosp, University of Arizona, Tucson: “For me, the finest teachers are those who are able to demonstrate in tempo, who are very clear with their phrasing, who provide a rhythmic energy to their demonstrations, and who are very clear about the meter. Teachers who are able to demonstrate the exercise with those components are the ones I am most inspired by.”
Douglas Corbin, Florida State University, Tallahassee: “The freer and more open the communication between teacher and musician can be, the better. You start there and everything else will fall into place. Anything that might irritate the other ideally can be taken care of if you can talk about it. For the musician, I would say to listen closely to the teacher. Hopefully the musician will be sensitive to movement and movement possibilities because if not they’re not going anywhere.
“In ballet, the phrasing is a stumbler for everyone because no one writes music that is phrased totally in eight-bar phrases. That’s something you have to get used to.
“The other things are more subtle, like when and where to let the dancers do more and you do less. Of course this is with a more advanced dancer, but I did learn after many years that there are times when you can lay back and let the dancers take the impetus. Merce [Cunningham] taught me that.”
Daniel Berkman, ODC School, San Francisco: “The hardest thing for me is tempo. I admit I do have a tendency to rush. Musicians have to remember that the tempo you’re setting has to live in the dancers’ bodies comfortably. So if it’s the slightest too fast it could make whatever they’re trying to do that much more difficult. If it’s too slow that can make it difficult, too.
“I really appreciate it when I work with people who allow themselves to be moved by the music. There are certain teachers who are more prone to appreciating what’s happening with the music and letting it inform the class. It’s not just me putting down a tempo. I like it when there’s more of a symbiotic thing, an interplay happening.”
Alan Danielson will be teaching three classes in contemporary Limón technique at Broadway Dance Center on October 18 to 20.
Intermediate/advanced classes will run from 1:30 to 3pm and are based on the key elements of the Humphrey/Limón Tradition, combining a strong technical base with a focus on musicality and an efficient use of energy. The classes aim to give dancers a humanistic approach to movement that is rhythmically based and highly kinetic, encouraging freedom and individuality in movement.
Danielson is a contemporary dance artist in the Humphrey‐Limón tradition. An internationally known master teacher of dance and music, he is the school director of the Limón Institute in New York City, and also directs his own company, Dance by Alan Danielson.
Broadway Dance Center is located at 322 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th avenues, New York. Visit www.limon.org for more information on all Limón classes and workshops.
She’s disheveled, hides in the back of the classroom because she feels different from the other kids. Her leotard is always dirty, her bun is a mess, and she never smiles.
-As a teacher are you uncomfortable?
-Do you (deep down) wish that she would “drop” because of that uncomfortableness?
A little investigation: The child is raised by her elderly grandfather who is working full time as a grocery bagger to finance raising his granddaughter; including her dancing lessons. His job lets him leave for 15 min. to pick her up from school and get her to dance. And he’s not good at laundry, and making a bun is not his specialty either. But he’s trying really hard.
-Maybe next week you could make a bun for her and tell her how beautiful she looks?
-Maybe next week you could drop a leotard in her dance bag . . . she’ll never know who did that for her, but you will.
-Maybe next week you can grab her by the hand and smile at her?
-Maybe you are the person she needs in her life?
You are a dance teacher, you help change the world . . . Rhee
People with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers, partners, family, and friends are invited to attend a specialized Dance for PD class with teachers from the Mark Morris Dance Group on August 3 from 11am to 12:30pm at the Vail Mountain School, 3000 Booth Falls Road, Vail, Colorado. The class is offered free of charge.
John Heginbotham and David Leventhal, two of the program’s founders, will lead the 90-minute class, which will feature live musical accompaniment by Vail pianist Peter Vavra. Participants will explore elements of modern dance, ballet, tap, social dancing, and Mark Morris company repertory in an enjoyable, non-pressured environment. Classes are appropriate for anyone with PD, no matter how advanced. No prior dance experience is necessary.
Dance for PD is a unique collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group (BPG), a chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation (USA). MMDG/BPG started offering free dance classes for people with Parkinson’s in 2001, and since then, the Dance for PD program has expanded into more than 40 communities around the world (see “Pas de Deux With Parkinson’s” in the May 2011 Dance Studio Life).
The Vail International Dance Festival, in association with the Vail Valley Medical Center, is presenting the class in conjunction with the performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group the same day, August 3 at 7:30pm at the Gerald R. Ford amphitheater. For tickets, call 888.920.ARTS (2787) or visit www.vaildance.org.
To register for the Dance for PD workshop, call 646.450.3373 or register online at www.danceforpd.org, where more information about the program is available.
Peridance Capezio Center reaches out to novice dancers with its second summer session of adult beginner workshops, running from July 30 to August 28 at the New York City center.
Each session consists of five classes held on consecutive Saturdays or Sundays at Peridance, 126 East 13th Street. Students can choose from ballet, modern, hip-hop, salsa, tap, or Pilates classes. The fee is $110 for one workshop, $198 for two, $280 for three, and $352 for four.
To register or to learn more, visit www.peridance.com.
The Brooklyn Arts Exchange will present two classes through its Winter AccessBAX program geared to encourage movement creativity and exploration in adults.
(The Pleasure in) Dance Class with luciana achugar, a Brooklyn-based choreographer and winner of two Bessie Awards, will be held Tuesdays (March 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29) from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Students will connect to a sensual state as they moving through anatomical explorations, connecting the parts of the whole and using imagination and intention to move more fully and with lusciousness. Classes will include dance improvising and learning material from achugar’s work, old and new. Some dance training is required, and students should be 16 or older. Cost is $5 per class.
CircusYoga classes will be held Wednesdays (March 2, 9, 16, 23, 30, and April 6) from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Join dance/yoga teaching artist Helen Styring Tocci for an exploration of circus and yoga that blends the consciousness of yoga with the communal celebration of circus through group games and play, partner acrobatics, circus skills (such as juggling), yoga, and massage. Cost is $75 for the full workshop or $15 for drop-ins.
Register at www.bax.org./adult/schedule/. BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange is a professional community arts center located in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. For more information about BAX and its opportunities for performing artists, call 718.832.0018 or visit www.bax.org.
More than 2,500 dancers and performers from 15 countries are expected to attend the Vancouver International Salsafestival March 3 to 6 the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Building on last year’s inaugural festival, this year’s edition includes classes, performances, theme parties, and dance opportunities for dancers of all levels and experience. Along with cha cha, reggae, bachata, merengue, and salsa, the festival will showcase a wide variety of dance styles from burlesque to hip-hop, tap, contemporary, tango, and ballet.
Tickets for the Vancouver International Salsafestival range from $10 to $70 for single-night events. Multiple-event passes are also available. For ticket information and purchasing visit www.salsafestival.ca or call 604.771.4692. The website also includes a full schedule of events.
Dancers can discover the basic elements of the sultry tango at an Argentine Tango Party to be held December 4 from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York City. A class will be held at 8:00 p.m.
The first hour of each party is a group lesson, with cocktails, light refreshments, and tango dancing, milongas, valses and Latin musica tropica until 2:00 a.m. Couples are welcome, and singles are encouraged. The event is hosted by Karina Romero and Dardo Galletto, and will feature tango performances at 11:00 p.m.
Cost is $15, with college students paying $10 after 11:00 p.m. For more information, visit www.92Y.org.
Malaya will teach an intermediate/advanced lyrical master class at The Annex (Petaluma School of Ballet), 11 Howard Street, Petaluma, California, on November 3 from 7:15 to 8:45 p.m.
A faculty member with L.A. Dance Force and the Edge, Malaya teaches master classes nationally and internationally and has set choreography on companies in Switzerland, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. Her appearances include the movie Batman and Robin, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and a music video for “Betcha” with Prince. She has choreographed for the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, University of Oklahoma, Commonality Dance Company, Naway Dance Company, and the Instincts Dance Company.
The class costs $25, and advance registration is required. Contact email@example.com or call 707.762.3972 for more information.
The Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York, reminds prospective students that they have until September 13 to take advantage of current class card prices: $120 for a 10-class card and $62 for a five-class card.
The new rates as of September 13 will be: For single classes, $13 for 60-minute classes, $14 for 90-minute classes, and $15 for 120-minute classes. Multi-class rates will be $65 for a five-class card (good for two months), $78 for six-week workshops, $130 for a 10-class card (good for four months), and $195 for an unlimited-class card (good for 30 days from date of purchase).
Also beginning this fall, 10-class cards may be used for either single classes or as payment for any six-week workshop.
To buy cards, visit http://markmorrisdancegroup.org/store. For questions, call 718.624.8400.
Enhancing learning with technology
By Jennifer Kaplan
Walk into a dance studio and you’ll see that little about it, from the mirrors to the barres and the bare wood or linoleum floor, has changed in decades, even centuries—save, perhaps, for a CD or Mp3 player in the corner replacing or joining the piano. Walk into Kathleen Isaac’s dance studio in Queens, though, and it looks like she went on a shopping spree at Best Buy: cameras, laptops, cords, video monitors, tripods, iPhones, and sundry other “e-toys” abound. Isaac wants to re-envision the dance studio for the 21st century. That means introducing new technology into the standard dance curriculum, whether the genre is ballet or ballroom, hip-hop or hula.
“We’re trying to create a community of critical thinkers: children who are invested in the outcome of whatever their dance is, rather than kids who just follow directions,” Isaac says about a new initiative she created with web design consultant Doug Fox.
Isaac is an elementary school dance teacher at PS 165Q in Flushing, Queens, New York. She has been teaching for 25 years, both in public schools and as a teaching artist for private studios and New York’s City Center. But her epiphany came after a fifth-grader took charge. “I wanted to videotape a dance,” Isaac explains. Fumbling with the technology, she let her student take over. He shot the video, uploaded it to the computer, and added captions using iMovie. It took, she says, maybe three minutes.
“That was a big eye-opener,” Isaac says. “I am very committed to getting my students prepared for the future, not just as dancers, because most are not going to end up as dancers from classes in an elementary school program. I’m thinking of the larger picture: how do I prepare them to be more informed about the world in general?”
That’s where Fox came in. As a longtime Manhattan-based technology consultant with a special interest in dance, he has advised numerous dance companies and arts organizations on integrating technology and new media into their marketing, business, and production plans. The pair put their heads together and devised a summer pilot program they named “KidsMakeDance,” aimed at kids from the neighborhood where Isaac teaches.
Isaac was interested in developing a new educational approach for child-centered dancemaking that integrates proven dance pedagogy with technology, including the Internet, digital technologies, and social media. In a nutshell, Isaac, with Fox’s help, wanted to reach kids where they currently live: on the cusp of technology—networking with their friends on Facebook, posting their achievements on YouTube and Flickr, and texting and IMing to socialize and chat.
Although a weeklong workshop last summer focused on hip-hop, Isaac has been using the materials and tools she developed in the workshop throughout the school year in her classroom. She says her curriculum, which provides students with technology skills and analytical tools within a multidisciplinary dance class, is appropriate for any dance genre.
Isaac had three goals: to enhance creative expression in a multidisciplinary environment that included dance as its centerpiece; to reach beyond her dance classroom to show the larger community of teachers, parents, and the public that dance skills are as important for intellectual and social development as other learning skills; and to enhance formative assessment, a requirement for teaching in her public school. “Formative assessment got me to thinking about how there are many ways to assess students, but they’re all written, and that takes time,” she says. “Among dance educators these days, the big question is how to assess students and make visible what’s going on in the dance classroom.”
Particularly in public schools, she wants administrators, teaching colleagues, parents, even community members to be apprised of what it means to take a dance class and understand the skills—both intellectual and physical—that are involved. Are all teachers interested in the effort and uncertainty that cross-subject collaboration or even just sharing requires? Probably not. But some are, and that’s where Isaac’s vision comes in. Through assessment, outreach to her school community and beyond, and enhancing creativity by meeting kids where they live—in a digital world—she’s looking to expand the benefits of dance into other areas of learning. And she’s introducing under-served kids to the latest digital technology.
“I wanted to show and create a model where students are invested in the documentation of [their work],” Isaac says. And Fox explains that using videography and photography helps students learn to focus on what’s important, how to frame what they see, and how to edit material into a cohesive unit.
That’s where technology becomes the perfect companion tool. While one group is dancing, the rest of the class usually sits and watches. Using technology allows the students, some as young as 5 or 6, to become not only more informed and critical observers but also active participants, filming or documenting through photos what they see. After a group is done, the whole class gathers around to talk about the dancing and filming.
“We’re trying to create a community of critical thinkers: children who are invested in the outcome of whatever their dance is, rather than kids who just follow directions.” —Kathleen Isaac
Isaac and Fox teach the students to use the equipment and monitor them during classes. The students share the cameras, taking turns as videographers, Fox says. Isaac says the students loved being on camera and displaying their newfound dance skills. In the more self-conscious and self-critical atmosphere of a ballet studio, for example, more care might need to be taken to make students feel safe.
“One of the greatest things a teacher can do is be a good role model,” Isaac notes. “I do set up a protocol for feedback and I give examples: ‘I really like such and such, but would you consider this?’ or ‘I think you had a good beginning, but I thought the middle was weak.’ ” Isaac doesn’t mind if students are critical as long as they precede their criticism with something positive and the comments remain related to the dance goals at hand. She lets kids respond, ask questions, and decide whether or not to change something based on the feedback they receive.
Fox approached the technology skills in the same way, encouraging and directing the students. “I was very positive about how they were using the technology,” he says, “and would make it a point to notice how they held the camera, got audio recorded correctly, and tracked the dancers.”
Isaac hopes more dance teachers, both in public school classrooms and in studios, will begin to find ways to harness technology. “We started by asking the kids what they wanted to accomplish in dance and in technology, and we worked to get them to where they thought they should be.” Most, she noted, wanted to increase their dance skills. While Isaac observed that most dance educators focus on movement concepts, particularly in non-studio settings, these kids, ranging from age 6 to 16, really wanted to be better dancers, while also experimenting with technology.
Isaac and Fox believe technology can enhance learning in similar ways in private dance studio settings, although the pair have yet to present their methods outside of public schools. For example, some pre-professional and high-caliber dance curriculums require students to memorize their warm-up or barre work. If students are allowed to record these exercises and view them at home, they will take less time to learn the basic warm-ups, providing more time to work on center-floor combinations or choreography. Learning and reviewing choreography is another place where Isaac sees using video and allowing students to record one another as useful.
Certainly, copyright issues could come into play, and some studios may want to limit what appears on YouTube; however, Isaac says that her students, their parents, and the school where she did this were thrilled to be able to share their work. Schools concerned with privacy can opt for online video postings that are private or password protected, according to Fox. Teachers and rehearsal directors should ensure that any videos meant to be taken home for review and practice show the movement correctly so that students don’t reinforce mistakes.
With the cost of technology products at an all-time low, there’s no reason every dance classroom and studio can’t invest in a basic video camera and notebook computer to enhance teaching and learning, Isaac insists. Students in schools in low-income areas who might not have computer or Internet access at home gravitate to the public libraries and in-school computer labs. With such widespread access possible, Isaac and Fox are initiating ways to introduce technology into the dance classroom to see where it might take them and the students.
In a unit presented during the school year, Isaac introduced Limón-based concepts of suspension, release, fall and recovery. Students took turns videotaping each stage of the class as they practiced their falls. Later they evaluated their performance. “One student called out the phases [of the falls] they identified to help themselves,” Isaac explains. “Stretch, suspend, release, fall, recover.” In observing the video, the teacher says, “they noted that their falls were very smooth, quiet, with long, extended bodies on the floor and feet pointed,” as she had taught them. “One boy,” Isaac says, “noticed that his arm was not following through across his body before the fall, which prevented a smooth and anxiety-free fall.” He was able to correct himself in subsequent attempts.
She plans to develop her curriculum further, and with Fox she is offering a teacher-training workshop this summer while also moving forward with a second prototype workshop for students.
“It’s important to think about what makes kids want to learn,” says Isaac, and if using technology sparks or enhances their interest in dance, it’s time to plug in and log on.
“Over the past few years the cost of a huge range of consumer digital technology has gone way down,” says Doug Fox, web design consultant and co-teacher in KidsMakeDance. Fox recommends experimenting with some of the newest lightweight, portable video cameras. “They’re inexpensive and they’re easy to use, so kids of almost any age can use them. It completely transforms how kids can participate in a very active way in the educational process.”
Video cameras (iPhone, Flip, and MiniDV cameras)
Video- and picture-editing software
Video- and image-hosting sites/applications (YouTube, Flickr, etc.)
Social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, and others)
Dance Education Lab at 92nd Street YMHA, New York, July 19–23, 12:30–4:30 p.m. “Dancing with Technology: Integrating the Internet and New Media into the Dance Curriculum,” with Kathleen Isaac and Doug Fox. $375. For information, visit 92y.org and enter the class name in the search field.
DancePlug, an online site with instructional videos, packages for creating high-definition demo reels, posting of professional profiles, and other dancer services, has relaunched its website, www.danceplug.com.
The site is the creation of dancers and teachers Anh Dillon, Glyn Gray, and Adam Parson, who also are among the 21 instructors on its roster. The site offers novice-through-advanced online lessons in ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, jazz and jazz funk, lyrical, and tap, with rental prices starting at $1.85.
DancePlug, which says it already has 2,000 members, also posts notices of auditions and dance events and general dance news, updated weekly on its web TV show, The Dish.
See Rhee Gold share his passion for teaching dance in this special keynote address at the 2009 DanceLife Teacher Conference presented to more 600 dance teachers and school owners from across the world. His words are thought-provoking, humorous, and refreshing as he reinforces all the reasons we have chosen to become dance educators in the first place. Viewers will feel rejuvenated as they listen to Gold explain why we’ve chosen the “greatest profession in the world!”
Ballet Scene | Minding the Men by Theodore Bale
As the Dance Teacher Turns by Julie Holt Lucia
Schools With Staying Power – A Charleston Tradition by Jennifer Kaplan
Giving Back- Dancers for All by Steve Sucato
Why Modern Matters by Bonner Odell
Three Billys, One Master by Darrah Carr
Essential Evans by Bill Evans
The Voice of Experience
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.
By Rhee Gold
What seems like a bad attitude might just be low self-esteem.
“Susie, you eat too much!” exclaims a young dance student’s mom. “Susie, you’re a pain in the butt!” screeches her older brother. “Susie, can you just be quiet for one minute!” yells her dad.
This is the language and message Susie has heard, day in and day out, for her first 10 years of life. As a result she has a big problem with self-esteem. In school she’s quiet and doesn’t smile very much because she’s afraid she’s not good enough or that someone is going to yell at her. At dance school Susie is intimidated too, but there she seems to pout all the time. Her teacher has no idea what Susie’s home situation is like, so she reads the pouting as evidence of a bad attitude. In reality Susie loves to come to dance school and looks up to her teacher; she just doesn’t know how to express those feelings because she has no confidence—a direct result of her upbringing.
Susie’s dance teacher gets frustrated with her pouting and tells her that with that attitude she will never be a dancer. Susie used to get so excited to go to dance school to escape from the negativity at home, but now she has another adult in her life who is tearing her down. Each week her dance teacher makes a snide remark that duplicates the atmosphere she has at home. She becomes even more intimidated, thinking that her dance teacher doesn’t like her. Even worse, she tells herself, “I stink at dance, too!” Before long she drops out of dance. Why go to dancing school to be berated when you can get that at home?
Children like Susie can be frustrating, but as dance teachers we must accept the responsibility that we will have a major influence on each child in our classroom. Understanding that responsibility means that we have an obligation to help build self-esteem and to encourage all children to be the best they can be.
Maybe Susie’s dance teacher could look at her and say something like, “Susie, I know you have a beautiful smile—let me see that smile right now!” or “Come on up to the front of the class, Susie. I want you to help me today.” With that sort of interaction the teacher can change Susie’s behavior; she can create a safe haven for this child that will allow her to come out of her shell. Susie might become a confident adult because her dance teacher made the choice to encourage, rather than to discourage, her.
With more than 3 million children filling classrooms in dance schools each week, teachers should count building self-esteem as equal in priority to teaching the dance curriculum. The following are some suggestions to help all teachers create a caring dance experience for every child.
● Reward students. Offer praise or recognition when they accomplish a certain movement or when they seem to be giving their all in your classroom. Do all that you can to emphasize the positive things that they do, and don’t hound them with the negative.
● Take your students’ emotions and feelings seriously. Don’t belittle them with phrases like “We’ve been working on this so long; I don’t understand why you don’t have it yet” or “You’ll never be a good dancer because you don’t try hard enough.”
● Define policies clearly but allow breathing space for your students within those limits.
● Be a good role model. Let children know you feel good about yourself and that you have a passion for teaching them. Sometimes it is good to let them know you make mistakes and that you learn from them.
● Have reasonable expectations for your students. Realize that they need to learn the basics before they can accomplish the big stuff. Combining movement that they feel comfortable with and steps that are more challenging is a good way to balance your class. Always end the class with something that every student will feel good doing.
● Discuss issues or problems without putting blame on a student’s character. Those who feel like they’re being attacked will go deeper into their shells rather than trying to come up with a solution.
● Use positive comments like “Thank you, that was much better this time” or “You really impressed me this week.” Avoid criticisms like “Why can’t you keep up?” or “How many times have I told you?”
● If your students compete, do not put them under pressure to win. Encourage them to be the best they can be and be satisfied with that. Never confront them with demeaning language if they do not perform well or if they don’t win what you had hoped they would. Use encouraging language so that they don’t feel that they’ve let you down. There will be plenty of time to work on the flaws when you get back to the classroom.
The Susies of the world create an opportunity for dance teachers to learn how to deal with various kinds of personalities, because all of us will deal with children who seem withdrawn, belligerent, disinterested, or frightened during our teaching careers. Before you leap to passing judgment on them, remember that there is much that dance teachers don’t know about their students. By challenging yourself to come up with a friendly way to deal with these often misunderstood children, they can leave your classroom with their self-esteem intact or even boosted, even if they have to go home to a bad situation. By creating the right atmosphere and using a nurturing approach, you can make dance class a refuge for children who have little else that’s positive in their lives.
I’m a new school owner about to enter my second season. Last year we competed in three dance competitions and a national competition last summer. The problem is that most of my entries didn’t score very well because I have a slew of beginners.
Each time we went to a competition, I lost at least one student to various schools from my area that competed in the same competitions we did. Next year, I want to do more competitions, but I don’t want to lose students to the schools who have been competing for years. Should I hire outside choreographers or maybe bring in someone to coach my kids?
Don’t take this the wrong way, but honesty is my best policy . . . what the heck are you doing competing in the first place? It’s one thing to go to observe a competition to see what’s going on or taking your students to see a competition to inspire them, but there is no way your students are ready to actually compete with the schools who’ve been competing for years. In my opinion it takes 5-10 years before students are prepared for the rigors of competition.
You need to rethink your goal of opening a school for the purpose of competing and forget about winning. Your goal should be to teach beginner students how to dance. As I always say, competition is only a part of what we do, not all we do.
Slow down, forget about competition for now, and figure out how to build your business. Remember advanced dancers don’t just walk in the door. You build them slowly from basic movement to a more advanced level each year. This process takes time.
If you don’t change your goal to something like attracting preschool students or teaching simply the basics, I’m afraid you’re going to continue to lose students. Opening a new school should be motivated by your passion to offer every child the opportunity to experience the wonderful world of dance, and not to win trophies. —Rhee
This tells me something that I think is really important for dance educators to know. Most of the time, it is not our best students who move on to become the pro dancer or teacher. Often, the best take their natural talent for granted and never feel the passion that burns in every committed dancer.
Instead, it turns out to be the little dancer in the second row who struggles with her turnout and never hits a real passé who someday takes the Broadway stage by storm or becomes the awesome teacher whom you take pride in having trained.
Look for and appreciate the little dancer in the second row that may not be as strong as the others—but boy, does she have the passion. Grab her by the hand, bring her to the front of the classroom, and make her day. It could be the moment that gives her the confidence to become you!
Feel free to share this post with you dance teacher friends–Rhee
In Good Company
By Rhee Gold
Although I discourage using the word “lose,” it’s the best way to make my point. Some of the smartest and brightest people got that way from losing many of their battles. We learn from the losing process or by not getting what we want. It’s how we improve ourselves. When we don’t win or achieve the desired result, we go back to work, ultimately becoming better at what we do.
If you feel bad about losing, remember these events in the life of Abraham Lincoln:
- He failed in business in 1831.
- He was defeated for state legislator in 1832.
- He tried another business in ‘33. It failed.
- His fiancée died in ‘35.
- He had a nervous breakdown in ‘36.
- In 1843 he ran for Congress and was defeated.
- He ran again in ‘48 and was defeated again.
- He tried running for the Senate in ‘55. He lost.
- The next year he ran for vice president and lost.
- In ‘59 he ran for the Senate again and was defeated.
- In 1860, the man who signed his name Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States.
When we go to a dance competition without walking out as the big winner, do we try to come up with excuses? Maybe we tell ourselves and our students that the reason we didn’t do so well was because the “competition was fixed” or that the “judges didn’t know what they were doing?” Maybe we say, “That school knew the judges, that’s why they did so well and we didn’t.” Another one of those excuses, “That school spent so much money in entry fees, the director of the competition told the judges to score them high!” In reality, if a competition director told a panel of judges who had to win, they wouldn’t be in business too long. The dance community is small and people talk; most judges wouldn’t put up with being told who should win and who shouldn’t.
On the other hand, if we are always the big winner, how would we get better at what we do? Teachers and students who are exposed to stronger talent or choreography are really being given the opportunity to see how far they can go. Going home from the competition without the trophy, but excited to make yourself and your students better is really getting the most from the experience and your entry fees.
We can’t allow ourselves to cultivate a generation of young people who believe winning is everything. I’ve encountered parents who have completely lost their cool because of the results of a competition, and I’ve had teachers who were my lifelong friends refuse to speak to me or yell at me after a competition because their students didn’t score as well as they had hoped. They’re not thinking about the values we emphasize in educating dancers—courage, or perseverance, or passion. They’re thinking only about winning.
What do we do about it? Lighten up.
Dance is a performing art form, not a sport. It isn’t one team or the other scoring so many runs or goals; it’s far more subjective than that. Its artistic and technical qualities are subject to the interpretation of judges—who, remember, are using their own judgment—and who happen to be human beings with their own whims, preferences, and emotions.
Editor’s note: This is an old favorite of mine, by Diane Gudat. Dedicated to the teachers who are starting to stress out about the recital, enjoy–Rhee
And other reasons not to panic about your recital.
In my years as a teacher and studio owner, I have produced more than 27 year-end recitals and at least 16 full-length story ballets. If I have learned anything about the production part of the dance business, it is that it requires two important attributes: the ability to compromise and the ability to enjoy the humor in the things that can—and always will—go wrong.
My concept of a recital, I have found, differs from that of some of my peers. This is probably due to the limited resources and staff at my disposal. There is a lack of reasonably priced theaters in my area, minimal equipment in the high school theater I rent, and funds to rectify these situations are nonexistent. But I have learned to make the most out of what we do have. With dads operating the spotlights and a high school gym teacher commanding the light board, we have produced some amazing results.
Anyone who produces recitals must experience their share of mishaps, and I’ve got a few favorites. For our production of Cinderella, the curtain was a “riser” rather than a draw-type. At the top of the show, the curtain-puller yanked the wrong cord; instead of raising the curtain, he brought it down into a pile at the dancers’ feet, giving the audience a waist-up view of the dancers. Frantically, he pulled it back up, where it promptly caught on the front border, this time revealing the dancers from the knees down. After the curtain made several more trips up and down, displaying various portions of the dancers each time, I finally ran out and pulled it toward me to free it of obstacles. As the curtain finally rose, I was left standing center stage, whereupon I smiled, bowed, and ran offstage.
Less than 45 minutes later, disaster struck when a car hit a utility pole outside the theater, knocking out the power. Naturally, the emergency generator failed to come to the rescue, leaving my dancers in the pitch black. With the outdoor temperature close to 20 degrees below zero, I knew the theater would soon become uncomfortably cold. I could hear the muffled screams of the older dancers in dressing rooms two floors below and hundreds of small children in the dressing rooms across the hall. The sheriff’s department arrived to evacuate the theater, bringing the students out to the headlight illuminated lobby to join their relieved parents. A few weeks later, we tried again. This time, Cinderella’s tutu was missing. I found it outside, hanging in a tree, blown there by the winter wind.
I thought my jinxed Cinderella was a recital disaster award winner until another teacher told me that during her recital a tornado blew the top off the auditorium and, in a matter of seconds, dumped several feet of water on the audience and performers. Though stunned, no one was injured. She wins.
Another personal favorite of mine is the stalled sled in our Nutcracker. It was rigged to be pulled by a cord from the opposite side of the stage so that it would appear to float magically behind the Snow Queen. When it failed to roll on its own, I had to climb beneath it and drag it, like a Marine, across the stage.
Then there was the dress rehearsal when someone leaned up against a backstage light switch, flipping off the power to the control booth. All of the lights onstage, including the work lights, went out. It took three hours and two electricians to figure out what had happened and flip the switch back on.
Another year, when the recital costumes did not arrive as promised, I spent all night at Wal-Mart trying to outfit five classes of students. I showed up exhausted the next day, pseudo-costumes in hand, only to discover that the light crew for the performance was not the one that had come to the dress rehearsal, making the previous day’s setting of cues a total waste of time—not to mention the technical end of the show a bit shaky.
We’ve all had the student who becomes ill onstage or should have visited the bathroom; the preschool crier; the missed entrances; the bossy 3-year-old who tells the other kids onstage what to do; the costumes that stuck together; the wrong or worn-backwards costume; the evacuations due to a misled fire alarm. Then there are the broken straps, lost headpieces or props, the hat hanging from a single bobby pin, the falling hair, the shoe flying through the air, the frozen preschooler, and the one who won’t quit waving. I have also watched, with horror, as a little boy feasted on fallen sequins during his performance and a little girl removed the top of her costume because the straps were too tight.
What have I learned from these moments of panic and frustration? That the recital belongs to the children. They are the stars, and what’s important is how they will remember their experience. Will they remember how much their costume cost or if they did their dance perfectly? No—but they will remember that Mom took pictures, that Grandma came, and that they felt very special.
Producing a recital is like throwing a wedding with several hundred little brides (and their mothers!). You can’t please everyone. Something will always go wrong, and performances are never perfect. I know that presenting a professional, flawless recital would make me look good, but my clients are probably more impressed by the fact that I handle difficult situations with a smile and keep my cool. And their word of mouth is the best advertisement I could hope for.
So this year, when the auditorium director called me the morning of dress rehearsal to tell me that all the seats would be removed that day to begin renovations, I took a deep breath and kept both my cool and my sense of humor. It all turned out fine, and I believe it always will.
If you’re a dance teacher, this may sound familiar: You’ve spent weeks on rehearsals for a big recital number, but on the night of the show, you don’t see kids’ beaming faces—you see the tops of their heads as they peer at the stage floor, looking for their spots.
Hedy Perna is offering a remedy. She’s the owner of Perna Dance Center in Hazlet, New Jersey—if you’ve been to one of the dance teacher conferences run by Rhee Gold, publisher of Dance Studio Life, you’ve probably met her.
She’s now marketing Performance Spacing Blocks: portable 4-inch-by-4-inch wooden blocks with glow-in-the-dark numbers on a slanted surface that faces away from the audience. For $89.95 (plus shipping and handling), customers can order up to 16 blocks, custom-numbered for their own stage management preference, with a tote bag. To order online, go to www.DanceLadyCEO.com.
How to help students improve without leaving (or getting) scars
By Vanina and Dennis Wilson
“At least you didn’t find anything wrong with my ears!” If you hear a reaction like this to criticism, you may have just lost a customer. You want to bring out the best in your students by offering enough criticism so that they improve—but not criticize so much, or so harshly, that they lose self-confidence, withdraw, or defect to other schools. Striking that balance is one of the hardest tasks that you face as a dance school director or instructor.
The specific corrections that you give in class—the ones that are intrinsic to your role as a teacher—aren’t likely to be your biggest challenge. Serious students come to expect them, and they’re less apt to be taken as a personal affront. (On the other hand, a once-a-week student who’s there mostly for fun and socializing may resent even minor class corrections.)
Such criticism must be sufficiently explicit so that the students understand their weaknesses. General criticism (“You need to improve your pirouettes,” or “You should show more artistry in your dancing”) tells students little about the nature of their deficiencies. Specific corrections (“You
How much is too much?
Your school’s reputation regarding training quality can affect the amount and nature of the criticism that you offer students. The better the reputation, the more corrections you can offer without provoking resentment; after all, if the students didn’t want corrections, they wouldn’t be at your school. Teachers at a new school that wishes to acquire a reputation for high-quality instruction must anticipate that some students will withdraw because of what they perceive as overly rigorous classes. Consequently, schools that need a certain number of students to stay afloat financially may have to adjust the level of criticism to maintain enrollment. Also, many students have physical limitations that impede their progress in training. Asking them to do the impossible guarantees frustration in motivated students and resentment in unmotivated ones.
Risks of general evaluations
Your real test, however, comes when you’re offering a student a more general evaluation. Maybe the student or the parents asked for such an appraisal; maybe your school requires one; maybe you want to volunteer one to a promising recreational student—or, less pleasantly, to an uncommitted student who isn’t keeping up with her class.
In an era when some schools discourage criticism to avoid damaging students’ self-esteem, you may find students and parents shocked to hear something other than praise from a teacher. They may interpret criticism as an assertion of superiority by the teacher, which can trigger considerable resentment. To minimize this reaction, you should point out that most top athletes have coaches to tell them what they do wrong or what they could do better. No one thinks that the coaches are the better athletes (although some coaches may have been former champions). Your mission is like that of an athletic coach: observing, pointing out deficiencies, and suggesting corrections and improvements.
General criticism in dance contains a degree of subjectivity, and people legitimately differ over what they find aesthetically appealing. But the more specific you make your criticism, the less subjective it appears. If you record classes and performances, you may be able to use those recordings to illustrate the problems that you have identified. Students who see themselves on the screen are often genuinely surprised by their flaws and may be more responsive to criticism.
How to criticize
If possible, start the criticism with something positive (regular attendance or wearing the school uniform, if nothing else). This can help you avoid provoking resentment that will lead the student to tune out the rest of your comments. When you mix praise and criticism, however, students may hear what
One way to reduce selective retention is to hand out written “report cards,” with boxes checked ranging from “Highly Successful” through “Needs Improvement” or “Unsatisfactory.” If possible, give the student a plan that identifies the areas in which she needs to improve. Recommend that she take more classes each week, which will result in greater progress for all but the most untalented or unmotivated students. At some point, especially if you sense that the student isn’t hearing the criticism or won’t act on it, you may have to be more blunt (for example, “If you don’t start raising your supporting foot to the proper relevé, your balance will be so unsteady that you will probably never be able to perform even one clean pirouette”) and risk any resentment that follows.
Class corrections obviously must be delivered in the presence of other students. To minimize student resentment, limit corrections to technique and maintaining order, which is often a challenge in classes with youngsters. Avoid phrasing corrections in language that may be interpreted as humiliating (such as comparing a student who cannot hold even a single position to a sponge). More general criticism of a student’s conduct should be given outside the classroom.
Criticism other than class corrections should almost never be delivered in the presence of anyone other than the students’ parents or guardians and the pertinent school faculty. Nor should criticism of one student ever be shared with or disclosed to other students or their parents. The criticized dancer will likely be resentful enough without the extra embarrassment of other students knowing about it. By contrast, deserved praise should be delivered in public, since the student receives not only the approval of the instructor but also the admiration (and possibly, jealousy) of her classmates, who may aspire to win similar praise.
Reactions to criticism
Despite your best efforts to be specific and constructive, some students and their parents will resent any criticism. Prepare for reactions such as weeping or anger, even when you think that you have toned down your remarks. Expect parents to side with their children against you; the days in which parents could be counted on to reflexively reinforce authority are long gone. Expect also to be confronted with excuses that are irrelevant to dance (for example, the competing demands of homework, illnesses, family, school and church activities, and even pets).
By criticizing specifically, constructively, and honestly and showing understanding of students’ and parents’ feelings, you will be more likely to deliver criticism that will lead to student development. Still, you must be prepared to face an emotional reaction. Remain calm—often it is best to let the student and parents vent their frustration while you listen. If they become too emotional, suggest that you resume the meeting at a later time. For some students, unfortunately, there may never be a later time; they will give up dance entirely or go to another school that is more inclined to tell them what they want to hear. But you will have done what you can to make that student the best dancer that he or she could be.
How to cope with non-dance problems in the dance classroom
By Lisa Traiger
They come in with hopes and expectations. Enamored of the pink slippers and the possibility of someday wearing a tutu, these little girls glimmer with light in their eyes and dreams in their heads. Their parents, too, carry hopes and dreams. Maybe they secretly want them to curtsey at the Met or high kick on Broadway, or, more plainly, they just want their children to find a friend and fit in.
On the first day of dance class, teachers, too, hold high expectations. But then some worrisome facts emerge: Kayla seems more than just clingy, and in teen jazz Molly can’t seem to stay focused or look anyone in the eye. And then there’s Brandon, with two left feet and no sense of rhythm, muddling through a basic tap class. Are these kids simply clumsy and distracted, or is something else going on?
“In my 25 years of teaching I have encountered more problems than I can count: dyslexia, blindness in one eye, deafness, Asperger’s [syndrome]—all of which were either not disclosed by the parents or undiagnosed at the time,” says Lorri Goldman-Mendez, who directs Bodies in Motion Dance Centres in Sayreville and Middletown, NJ. “I find that parents are reluctant to disclose this type of information to us even though they do so with teachers in the child’s regular school.”
Many parents are reluctant to notify dance teachers and studio owners of potentially problematic conditions because they’re worried that their children will be discriminated against or singled out. Last summer a 13-year-old walked into the Sayreville studio on the first day of summer camp and Goldman-Mendez’s antennae shot up. “I realized right away that she had an obvious physical and learning disability,” she says, even though the child’s registration form said nothing. “She was toe-walking and would not look at me.”
After a phone call to the child’s mother, Goldman-Mendez learned that the child has Asperger’s, one of several autism spectrum disorders in which children have difficulty interacting socially and exhibit mild motor-skill challenges and obsessive routines and interests. As a dance teacher with experience teaching autistic and other special-needs populations, she phrased her question to the mother carefully: “Is there anything I need to know in order to help your child learn?” Why didn’t the mother disclose the information in the first place? Goldman-Mendez asked, and the mother replied that it was just a summer camp, so she figured it wasn’t necessary.
Helen Hayes, another 20-year veteran teacher at the Joy of Motion studios in Bethesda, MD, and Washington, DC, had a tough year with one of her Youth Ensemble dancers. Jennifer (not her real name) couldn’t stay focused, and despite her gorgeous dancing Hayes was constantly reprimanding the girl because she would wander off during class and rehearsals. Not until the season’s final performance did Jennifer’s mother let slip that her daughter has attention deficit disorder (ADD) and takes medication. “Finally, a light bulb went off,” says Hayes.
The following year she met with the student and together they laid out a plan, which involved adding more classes, checking with her physician about adjusting the time she took her medication, and laying on the discipline. “I said, ‘Your mother shared this, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s really important for me to know because now I can work with you with greater understanding and compassion. Talk to me about what your day is like, what your medication makes you feel like, and how you experience things. Let’s figure out how we can help you succeed.’ ”
It worked. Hayes recommended more classes in hip-hop (Jennifer’s strength) and adding more structure and discipline to the dance menu. “So she was in the studio dancing seven days a week with two student companies. She figured out how to push through and the focus and discipline each and every day made her excel. She just soared. You should see her dance.”
But clinical psychologist and former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, PhD, warns teachers and parents against looking too quickly for an ADD/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis every time a student’s attention wanders. “With young children you’ve got to expect that they’re going to be rambunctious. With ADD and ADHD there’s a difference between boys and girls: Usually the boys are more hyperactive and the girls tend to space out and become more dreamy, less focused.” Hamilton notes that it can take months of testing and evaluation to come to terms with a diagnosis. She advises teachers to develop strong relationships with their students’ parents in order to communicate both problems and successes in the studio. Without that bond, the children and the teachers could be lost.
And her advice for teaching students with attention disorders rings true for teaching all children: “You need to have a very interesting class, use lively music, bright colors. You have to be inventive.”
Many experienced teachers find that children with ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, and other problems function best at the front of the class, where their attention is less likely to stray. Wendy Rue of Centre Stage Studios in Mt. Vernon, IL, likes to use an assistant whenever possible with these students. “I found that as long as we maintain physical contact—hand holding, hands on shoulders—they could maintain themselves. It seemed we were their anchor or tether.”
Hayes has found some children with autism, though, who prefer no touching. “I did some reading on this, and it depends on the level of severity,” she says. “I’m a very hands-on teacher. I do manipulate bodies and put them into places, because kids don’t really feel where they’re supposed to be. I found that I could apply very gentle touch and engage with eye contact to get results.”
And as for how the rest of the dancers in class respond to children with learning disabilities and behavior problems, Goldman-Mendez notes that as long as she and her teachers set an example by treating all students equally and with respect, the children follow suit. Sometimes, too, she reports, kids even reach out and try to help a struggling student with a complicated step.
Other times children can lose their patience. Hayes had a 10-year-old boy diagnosed as high-functioning austistic in a class of high achievers. As a perfomance neared, Kyle (not his real name) seemed to sabotage the group, tripping other students and willfully acting out. A few dancers in the class approached their tgeacher and asked him to be removed from the dance. “I said to the group, ‘No, but let’s help him undertand why this is so important to us and hopfully help him see why we care.’ “ Ultimately, the pressure of performing was too much and Kyle sat out. “You become,” Hayes says, “sol much more than a dance teacher. You become a psychologist.”
Other issues that dance teachers face are even more complex: Eating disorders, psychological disorders, family and personal disasters, and even teen pregnancy have forced dance teachers to deal with troubled students and their families, typically with grace and compassion.
Mary Smith (her name has been changed to protect her student’s privacy), a former studio owner of nearly 20 years, noticed some physical changes in one of her teen students and her radar pulsed. She saw that the dancer’s back curvature had changed and she was having trouble finishing combinations. “I had her costume measurements for the upcoming performance, so I compared her waist and chest to last year’s. She was 17, so most of her growing was done—unless of course she was pregnant,” Smith says. She privately inquired about the changes in her body, and the student denied being pregnant.
‘It is incumbent for the educator not to make the diagnosis, but to offer observations, note the data, and offer support.’ —Karen Bradley
After winter break, the girl was bigger. Smith decided that she needed advice, so she consulted the guidance counselor at the high school, where her own children also attended school. “He told me I had a responsibility to the child and the parent,” Smith says. “What if she did something to harm herself or the baby?” She called the student’s mother and told her what she had observed. It took two days, but the mother called back and thanked Smith, noting that her teenage daughter was seven months pregnant.
“It was,” Smith emphasizes, “one of the hardest things I ever had to handle.” The student left the school during a mono outbreak and when she returned, no one knew she had delivered a baby. “To this day, I am still friends with the family even though they moved away. When this student comes to town, she always visits me. I am sure she will be grateful to me someday down the line for how I handled it.”
Amy Burns-Cuozzo has seen several students over the years who relieved stress by cutting themselves. “It was very alarming to me to find out how many kids are doing this and how easy it is to go unnoticed,” says Burns-Cuozzo, who teaches at ABC Center for Performing Arts in Sidney, NY. She, too, discussed her concerns with the school guidance counselor to learn more about dealing with the issue. “It is a very scary situation for these kids to be in, and it needs to be taken seriously. I found that my students didn’t really know where to go for help or whom to turn to. I have helped one of my students tell their parents so they could get help.”
Most of the time dance teachers can’t solve their students’ problems, but they can provide a willing ear and a mature perspective on why the students need to seek help from parents or professional counselors.
Nancy Whyte of Bellingham, WA, had one student with a severe eating disorder. “I kept her in class until she grew so weak that I felt she was too frail; she was losing all her muscle tone,” says the 44-year teaching veteran at the Nancy Whyte School of Ballet. The parents, she said, initially denied that their daughter had a problem, though in the long run they sought help and the girl recovered.
“There is a protocol with eating disorders,” notes Karen Bradley, a visiting associate professor of dance at University of Maryland in College Park. “I call the student into my office and calmly state what I have observed about her dancing. The key is to give a very dry, unemotional recitation of what her behavior has been.” The same holds true for suspected drug use and cutting. “I ask the student what she thinks is going on.” The most excruciating part, Bradley says, comes next: Remaining silent as the student processes the information. “You have to shut up and not try to fix it right away. If the student gets defensive, I ask, ‘What are you protecting?’ ”
Next—and this is key—Bradley hands the student the telephone and the number of a counseling center. Because she works primarily with college students, she doesn’t always call parents, but she will if the problem is grave enough.
Such interventions can trigger anger, silence, and other unexpected reactions. Therefore Bradley emphasizes the role of a teacher: “It is incumbent for the educator not to make the diagnosis, but to offer observations, note the data, and offer support.”
Hamilton, the psychologist, recommends that when a problem necessitates a parental meeting, teachers should “approach it in a very positive and hopeful way with the dancer and the parents. You say that you only have their child’s best interest at heart and you wouldn’t want her to get injured.” Especially with eating disorders, a team approach to treatment is necessary, involving a physician, a psychologist, a nutritionist, family counseling, and the teachers. Hamilton notes that often the best incentive is not allowing a child back into class until she is strong enough and has a doctor’s written permission.
As dance teachers and studio owners find more challenges in their classes, many also find more rewards as well. Whyte had a young lady who developed Tourette syndrome, causing the child to twitch and whoop unexpectedly. But this condition didn’t prevent her from performing in the studio’s annual Nutcracker. “I would never have considered not using her. If people [in the audience] have hearts that small, they don’t need to come. I teach everybody the same, regardless.”
And after 25 years of teaching, Goldman-Mendez says, “I have found that teaching the tough students can be very rewarding. I love the hard ones the most.”
How to Cope With Behavioral and Medical Problems
Get needed information. Many studios ask for basic medical information on their registration forms. Studio directors might want to rethink how the question is worded so that it’s clear that learning disabilities and other physical and emotional challenges should be included.
Maximize the child’s ability to learn. With learning and social issues like ADD/ADHD and Asperger’s, some teachers have found that using a teaching assistant to monitor and keep a challenging child on task is helpful. Others place those children at the front of the line in the classroom. But keep in mind that all children, and their needs, are different.
Keep lines of communication open. Good communication with parents and students—especially older teens—is a must in order to understand a child’s special needs. Although parents are often reluctant or think it unnecessary to share information with an extracurricular instructor, dance teachers and studio owners must make it clear that doing so is best for the child.
Be proactive. Psychologist Linda Hamilton suggests handing out a parent handbook that spells out various issues, including eating disorders, drug abuse and alcoholism, and pregnancy in order to protect the students, faculty, and parents when these problems arise. The key is stating that the child’s safety comes first and if a child can’t be allowed in class because of medical, emotional, or physical problems, so be it.
Do your homework on emotional and behavioral problems. Two books by Hamilton may be helpful: Advice for Dancers: Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies (Jossey-Bass, 1998) and the forthcoming (in 2009) The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind and Body. Hamilton also recommends browsing the website of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science at www.iadms.org. —LT
Standards and integrity minimize conflicts over class placement
By Debbie Werbrouck
As dance educators, our dream is to have classes of students who are all eager to learn, who have the same drive, desire, and willingness to work, and who are perfectly balanced in age and ability. Dream on!
For many reasons, dance classes often contain students of various levels or ages. The most important aspect of class placement is that students are put into the level that will provide the most benefit to them. The second most important concern is that parents and students trust you and your judgment regarding that placement.
Is there a dance educator who hasn’t heard a request like this from parents? “I know that my daughter just started taking classes, but she’s the same age and in the same grade as the girls in the intermediate class, so can’t she be with them?” Or how about this: “ I don’t want to make two trips to the studio, so just put my 5-year-old in the same class with my 10-year-old.”
And of course we have all had the phone calls inquiring about pointe work or hip-hop for 3- or 4-year-olds. Those kinds of questions are the first indication that the parents need some helpful guidance about dance classes. We can explain the process of dance education to parents; we can give them the information they need in order to understand the educational progression—but first we need to be clear about the requirements.
Your guidelines regarding class placement should be simple to understand and common knowledge among your staff. Everyone, whether office staff or faculty member, should understand the guidelines, agree with them, and be able to explain them to students and parents.
Outlining your curriculum and the requirements for each class and level will put things in perspective for parents as well as your staff. Of course there may be some exceptions, such as a young student whose talent and focus (as determined by you, not her mother) require that she be placed in a class above her age level. Or maybe you are approached by a teen who has just discovered the beauty of ballet, but the only beginning class you can offer her is with much younger students.
Or perhaps there are not enough students to form two levels of classes, so you need to combine them in a multilevel class in order to accommodate them. For example, if there are not enough students for two separate classes of students who are close in level (like Basic I and II), it would be appropriate to combine them into a Basic I/II class. (This assumes, of course, that the teacher understands the range and will be able to accommodate both levels’ needs.) All of these situations can be handled if you think ahead.
An exceptionally talented student can easily be placed in a class with older dancers if that is what is needed to challenge her. If she can hold her own technically and emotionally, and if your class placement is not strictly age based, there should be no problem. In this instance, the teacher should be aware that although a talented younger student may be able to do the work, she probably would not fit in socially with the other students. She might feel left out if her classmates do not include her in activities outside of dance. Because so many dancers become friends outside of class, I would speak to the parents to make them aware of the possible social side effects and also discuss the situation with the teacher to be sure that no problems arise in class. However, it would not prevent me from placing the student in the class.
Combining levels successfully so that all children are well served is a challenge that most educators experience, especially those who teach in small cities or towns. Good planning can turn the need for mixed-level classes into an asset. For example, younger students can be given a combination or exercise in a simple form while the older or more experienced students are asked to do a more challenging version. That way the more advanced students can serve as inspiration to the less experienced ones.
With older beginners, I usually explain that dance is both physical and mental and has a basic vocabulary that students must learn before they can move on. Mature students can understand, remember, and master the basics faster than those who are younger and less experienced. Consequently, they will progress to higher levels at a faster pace. Older beginners can usually understand that they cannot perform physically what they do not yet know and that going into a more advanced class would be like enrolling in an advanced Spanish class without knowing any vocabulary. I also offer the option of attending additional classes to help speed up the student’s rate of progress.
Combining levels successfully so that all children are well served is a challenge that most educators experience, especially those who teach in small cities or towns.
What will be your criteria for placement? Will you use age ranges as a guide rather than a strict age requirement? Following a published curriculum or syllabus will ensure that your entire faculty takes the same approach to issues concerning class placement (see “Higher-Ed Voice,” page 82). Plus, a curriculum serves as a measurement tool that is understandable to parents and students. If multiple pirouettes are required for a specific level and a student is able to execute only a single pirouette, it is clear to all concerned that he or she is not ready for that level.
Dancing on pointe is probably one of the most controversial areas of placement. Again, having a curriculum that clearly states the requirements for going on pointe is the most substantive resource. Educating parents (as well as students) at the beginning of their relationship with you and your school will make your placement of students a matter of course. In non-pointe ballet classes, teachers can explain how movements done à terre must be performed with control and while maintaining turnout, and how performing them on pointe adds to the challenge.
Some educators use curriculum guidelines as well as age requirements in determining class placement; some allow students to take pointe class on an invitation-only basis. Others use an evaluation form with a checklist of requirements. Bringing in a fellow dance educator from another school as a “placement adjudicator” can serve two purposes: It can raise the level of importance of the evaluation and take the pressure off the resident teacher.
Many educators know instinctively when a student is not ready for pointe work; however, doing a concrete evaluation, consisting of simple exercises and movements that can be understood by parents without ballet training, will help to convince hopeful students and parents of that fact. For example, have the student stand in the center on a flat foot with the other leg lifted in passé, and then ask her to relevé to demi-pointe. If she cannot maintain her balance, the student’s lack of readiness will be apparent to her and her parents, and they may be more accepting when the educator explains the rationale for postponing classes on pointe.
Stating that you feel that participating in pointe work would not be in a student’s best interest can still bring questions from parents. In these instances, I explain that it would be to my financial advantage to allow the student to take this additional class. Given that fact, I ask them, what other reason would I have to deny a student the chance to participate?
When a parent does question a decision you make about class placement, it is best to explain your reasoning. You are in effect asking the parent and student to trust your judgment, and having an established, positive relationship makes the task easier. The best way to minimize placement issues is to make it clear to students and their parents that you have the children’s best interests at heart.
This rapport and trust, if established at enrollment, will increase with each encounter that demonstrates your integrity. If a student is struggling in a class or has frequent absences, calling a parent to express concern and to suggest ways to help the student succeed will go far in nurturing the relationship. Knowing that teachers care about their students gives parents and their children confidence in those teachers, as well as in the school.
Teacher–parent relationships can come in many forms. To make yours positive ones, good communication skills and a demonstrated understanding of your clients’ concerns go a long way. Using phrases like “As a parent, I imagine that you would be pleased that I am placing your child in a class that best suits her needs and where she can excel,” can help parents move away from a confrontational mind-set and help them identify what they want and what is best for the child.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, parents persist in requesting that their children be placed in inappropriate classes; they might even insinuate that they will go to another studio if you don’t do as they ask. That’s when you have to be true to yourself and your ethics. If you have an established curriculum and place all students fairly according to the requirements of that curriculum, your customers will feel confident in that placement and in their potential to develop as dancers in your classes.
Why you need a syllabus and how to make one
By Jeanne Fornarola
Colleges across the country have distributed course syllabuses to their students at the beginning of each semester probably since Harvard opened its doors in 1636. A syllabus, whether on paper or online, serves as a road map for students, a blueprint for faculty members, and a guide for individual teachers to achieve the common goal of understanding and learning.
With the aid of a course syllabus, students will clearly understand the goals, expectations of the teacher, and most important, how both parties will achieve the desired outcome. A syllabus enables all members of the faculty team to understand the curriculum design of each class and define what needs to be taught at each level of learning in order to maintain a cohesive program. Finally, as a guide for the individual teacher, it serves several functions: It promotes pre-planning and the identification of benchmarks in a logical order that produce results.
Though commonplace in colleges and universities, a syllabus is used less frequently in the private dance studio setting. But an argument can be made that the reasons for using one are equally valid in a community school as on a college campus. Here’s why.
By definition a syllabus is simply an outline of a course of study. That means that the distribution of a course outline can establish the first connecting point between parents and the dance classroom. In addition, it provides another learning tool for older students. Just as a newsletter communicates important times, dates, and studio information, a syllabus can inform students and parents of your goals, expectations, and procedures inside the dance studio.
By defining a few key words of “syllabus jargon,” we can begin to develop a suitable document for use in the dance studio.
Learning outcomes or achievement targets describe what you want the students to be able to know and do after the instruction that they couldn’t do before. Learning outcomes define content, procedure, and evaluation. They target exactly what is to be accomplished. They are the broadest goals.
Objectives are smaller in scale and focus on a particular skill. There might be more than one objective, but all of them must relate to the learning outcomes, which are the long-term goals. These objectives help guide the development of the content materials and the teaching methods used. You can use objectives to make sure you reach your goals and insure that students understand what is expected of them in the studio classroom.
Assessment is the process of documenting progress, knowledge, and skills, often in measurable terms. In designing methods of assessment the teacher should keep in mind the desired learning outcomes of the individual and the student group.
Course information can include the days and times of classes and any specific directions such as sign-in or warm-up information. It should include any specific procedures that the students should be aware of.
The course description summarizes the content that will be taught at this level.
Instructor information gives details on how to get in touch with you. This can include instructions to call the studio and leave a message, how to contact you via email, or your available office times.
Requirements may include attendance policies and should be in conjunction with studio policy. Your dress code should be included, listing any specific requirements such as the types of tap or pointe shoes you want students at various levels to wear, as well as guidelines for which dancewear, jewelry, and hairstyles the studio permits.
The course calendar outlines the planned content. If you are ambitious, you can outline the general course flow week by week, including pertinent information such as music used or class time focus, to prepare both students and parents for a successful learning experience in your class.
The following is a sample studio syllabus for an intermediate ballet class.
Course title: Intermediate Ballet
Course description: A continuation of ballet technique and theory as taught in the Vaganova system. Class time focus is on the barre and center floor.
Instructor: Jeanne Fornarola
Day: M/W: 6–7:30 p.m.
Through the course of the year, students will gain knowledge in ballet technique as performed at the intermediate student level. Students should be able to correctly execute exercises at the barre and center floor and be able to know and perform the eight body positions as taught in the Vaganova system of ballet. Additional class time emphasis will promote an awareness of ballet history, musicality, and artistry.
Class time emphasis will focus on the concepts of adagio and petit allegro. In adagio the concepts of line, core strength, and port de bras will be addressed in each class. Petit allegro will introduce beats focusing on height, stretched feet in the air, and articulate footwork.
A ballet dance will be choreographed utilizing all of the concepts identified above. This dance will be performed in the annual spring recital. Preparation and choreography will begin after the winter break.
Attendance policy: Students are expected to attend all classes. In the event that you are unable to attend a class, please call the studio office. The dress code for Intermediate Ballet for girls is pink tights, a black leotard, pink ballet slippers, and hair worn securely away from the face in a bun. Demi skirts may be worn. Boys must wear black tights, a white T-shirt, black ballet shoes, and a dance belt.
A written evaluation of student progress will be distributed in December.
Parents may view class during observation week [give dates].
The final performance will assess the progress of both the class and the individual.
September–December 2008 (subject to change at the discretion of the instructor)
|9/7, 9||Review course syllabus; discuss goals for the year. Introduction of gentle stretching, barre and center exercise to ease the class back into technique.||Stretch gently at home.|
|9/14, 16||Full barre: focus on fondu and développé. Introduce Pilates hundreds after barre to build core strength. Center adagio includes développé and fondu.||Practice doing Pilates hundreds each day.|
|9/21, 23||Full barre: focus on changement & royale facing the barre. Continue hundreds after the barre in each class. Center: introduce the 8 body positions with tendu; use changement and royale in petit allegro.||Go over body positions.Written quiz: 10/5Practical test: 10/7|
|9/28, 30||Full barre. Introduce entrechat quatre facing the barre. Center: go over spelling of body positions on dry-erase board; drill body positions; use entrechat quatre in petit allegro. Handout on Vaganova.||Read handout on Vaganova.Practice spelling body positions.Practice beating thighs in entrechat quatre.|
|10/5, 7||Written quiz on Mon.Practical on Wed.Shorter barre and center.||Stretch!|
|10/12, 14||Full barre: focus on line; work on penché. Center: incorporate body positions into adagio, include penché. Practice for lecture-demonstration/parents week.||Practice saying and demonstrating your part for Parents Week.Remind your parents about Parents Week.|
|10/19, 21||Parents WeekLecture-demonstration with full barre and center. Each student will introduce an exercise and explain its purpose.||Discuss the class with those who came to see you. What improvements did they notice?|
|10/28, 30||Focus: “scary” Halloween music for class. Discussion about composers (Bach, Brahms, and Mozart to start). Center: let students improvise and choreograph to Carmina Burana. Use pairs or trios if that suits the class. Present on Wed. after the barre.Recommended music:Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain King Brahms: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 25Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (movement 3, adagio)Mozart: Requiem, “Dies Irae”Orff: Carmina Burana, “O Fortuna”
Ives: Robert Browning overture
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor
Webern: Variations Op. 27, “Ruhig fliessend”
Mussorgsky: A Night on Bald Mountain
|Work on your improvised dance so that you don’t forget it for Wed.|
|11/2, 4||Introduction of the arabesque positions.Full barre: combine royale, entrechat quatre, and changement facing the barre. Center: allegro includes barre work. Drill arabesque positions.||Read and study handout on arabesque positions.Practice arabesque positions.|
|11/9, 11||Full barre: introduction of assemblé battu. Center: arabesque practical in groups facing away from the mirror.||Practice the arabesque positions for practical exam.Practice assemblé battu.|
|11/16, 18||Full barre and center: review all material as incorporated into barre and center combinations. Glissade assemblé battu down the room. Wed.: practical exam in groups facing away from the mirror.||Stretch.|
|11/23 off for Thanks-giving on 11/25||Dance Dice! (www.dancedice.com/index.html)Roll the dice (each die has a ballet term), then put them together in the order they fall and see what happens!Discuss: Chance Dance and Merce Cunningham.||Happy Thanksgiving!|
|11/30, 12/3||Full barre: introduce entrechat trois facing the barre. Center: adagio—focus on port de bras; allegro—combining beats.Begin to learn Sugar Plum variation. Discuss the history of The Nutcracker.||Find the story of The Nutcracker online or in a book. Read it and try to remember details.|
|12/7, 9||Short barre using holiday music , e.g., Christmas Music for Ballet Class (Vol. 2) by Lynn Stanford.Center: “add on the story.” Instructor starts the story of The Nutcracker and each subsequent student adds the next part. (Did they read?)Watch selected variations, including Sugar Plum.Work on Sugar Plum variation.Wed. full barre; perform variation in the center. Parents invited to the end of class.||Listen to the entire score of The Nutcracker. Note your favorite musical moments.|
|12/21||Stretch class. Teach various stretch exercises that students can do over winter break to stay in shape. Work in partners; explain uses of various muscles and why certain exercises are important and helpful.Use relaxing holiday music.||Go to a production of The Nutcracker if possible. Or rent the video and watch the story come to life.Keep stretching! Happy holidays!|
A note about quizzes and practical exams: Formal grading for the written quiz is not necessary. Corrections and words of encouragement work better in this situation. Re-test the students later.
For the practical, allow the students to perform in groups of three facing away from the mirror. There is safety in numbers! Written comments are always helpful.
By Jeanne Fornarola
Each fall they enter the dance studio, faces full of fake confidence or sheer panic. Some arrive for class 30 minutes early; some run in late, in breakdown mode because of morning alarm malfunctions. New leotards, pink tights, some sparkles somewhere, intact ballet shoes, some still sporting a color other than pink (probably leftover from a matched recital costume). They have arrived. The new recruits. The freshmen class of ’0?
“My name is Jeanne and I’ll be your instructor for freshman ballet. This is our accompanist, Kevin. Left hand on the barre, please. Two demis, one grand port de bras forward . . .”
With my words, so the journey begins. For these students the next step toward a professional career in dance begins in a college dance program. All college freshmen go through a transitional period as they adjust to feelings of homesickness, new freedoms, and academic and social pressures. Dance majors are no exception, but added to the traditional list are a few discipline-specific adjustments.
Most students who have been accepted into a university dance program were at the top of their game in their hometown studio. In some cases they are shocked that others can turn and jump as proficiently as they can. However, most of these students have ventured outside of their dance environments by participating in competitions or summer programs, and they are prepared to work hard to measure up.
Dance in academia has its own culture and subculture, and incoming students should be aware of that. They should throw away any dance attire that matches and don purple argyle knee socks with rolled-up sweats—dance majors are hipsters. Fashion statements are fun and easy; other questions require more thought. Life as a dance major is a new experience. Some questions worth considering include:
- What’s a typical day like? How much time is spent in rehearsal; how much in lectures? Will I get enough hours of dance in a day?
- What performance possibilities will I have? Will I be in performances as a freshman?
- If I have a dance injury, will there be health care that’s attuned to the specific needs of dancers?
- Are yoga, Pilates, and other related disciplines available?
- Will I have the option of rooming with other dance majors?
- If I spend my days in classes with mostly women, will I ever get a date?
- How isolated (if at all) are dance students—physically, culturally, or because of the time demands of their specialty—from other students?
The first surprise comes when students realize that they need to go to the bookstore and spend time in the library as well as the studio. Common to most university dance programs is a dance curriculum, accompanied by textbooks and supported by written as well as practical exams. Students quickly learn to embrace the academic side of dance, realizing that an understanding of history informs their artistic quality as they perform studies in Fosse or Luigi, Balanchine or Graham. (And yes, spelling counts. Points off for the misspelling of paradiddle or temps de cuisse.) Lectures and recitations in dance analysis and criticism, along with increased exposure to professional performances, allow the students to formally study the elements of choreography, dance history, and dance pedagogy. Soon they begin to emerge as creators and contributors to the artistic process.
Through required classes in anatomy and kinesiology, students soon begin to make significant improvements in technique. Daily classes emphasize the importance of executing movement safely and properly so as to achieve continued growth and development injury free. Their iliopsoas? They may not be sure where it is or what it does, but they are pretty sure it is sore. They adjust well to adjunct subject matter that defines and augments dance, but new forms of insecurity pop up in strange places. What seem unachievable are the finesse and the artistry of the upperclassmen. Dance-major rookies worry that they won’t achieve the level of sophistication they see in the seniors, and it seems to threaten and motivate them at the same time.
But enough of a teacher’s perspective. After all, I still insist on hair being in a neat bun, and I would never end class without a proper reverence. I posed the question to my freshman class at University of Buffalo: “What advice would you give a first-semester dance major?” Four second-semester “veterans” offer sage advice.
Laura Crowe of Chicago, IL, on self-motivation:
One thing that students need to get a grip on is that improvement and success are based almost completely on their own self-motivation. For example, there is no one telling me I have to go to class. If I don’t feel like going, my mom isn’t there to force me.
Amanda Rossitz of Rochester, NY, on overcoming public opinion:
One of the things that surprised me when I came to UB was the treatment I received from other students as well as adults because I am a dance major. I had a suitemate who actually believed I wouldn’t make it anywhere in life because I chose dance as a major. I decided not to listen to a lot of the students’ remarks; it’s not their life, it’s mine. My advice for incoming freshmen is to follow their hearts. I know it’s hard not to care what others think, but if it’s what you love, then it’s worth it.
Krista Scimeca of Albany, NY, on finding new confidence:
The most overwhelming obstacle I had to overcome as a first-semester freshman was having [enough] confidence in myself. In my high school studios I worked my way up through the ranks quite quickly, and I was comfortable with my fellow dancers and instructors. Even though the confidence wasn’t always there, the comfort level was, so I never thought about it. It took me the full first semester to realize that I needed to be more confident in myself to succeed here. Since I have made that realization, I feel as if I’ve given myself more room to improve, and I am enjoying myself much more as well.
Carrie Jurcak, Plymouth, MI, on being open-minded:
The biggest shocker for me on entering the dance program was how accepting and willing to help everyone is. The instructors don’t treat freshmen like babies; they provide guidance and always lend their support. I expected that the upperclassmen would be mean or completely ignore the freshmen, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! They are always there to answer any questions, lend a helping hand, or just have a good laugh.
Their iliopsoas? They may not be sure where it is or what it does, but they are pretty sure it is sore.
I also had no idea that dance majors would have to take written tests based on dance history, dance terminology, etc. If I could give one piece of advice to freshmen dance majors, it would be to go in with an open mind—no matter how much you know there is always more to learn. I now realize that it doesn’t matter where you dance, what you dance to, or who you dance with; once you find the artist within you, anything is possible. I never expected to learn and improve so much in just one semester!
Easing the transition
If university professors keep in mind the dancers’ transition from studio to college, and studio teachers incorporate college preparation for the potential dance major, everybody wins. Here are some tips for helping your students “take the next step.”
- Build students’ vocabulary
Incorporate the use and spelling of all dance vocabulary into your classes. Hand out terminology sheets, give quizzes, and use a classroom blackboard or dry erase board as a teaching aid
- Teach history
Expose your students to basic innovators in the field. When teaching contractions, talk about Graham; when teaching Luigi arm patterns, talk about the dancer himself. Make sure that the students are familiar with the history of the ballet technique they are studying. You don’t have to offer separate dance history classes; as you teach the technique, supplement the physical instruction with information about the movement’s origins. That way your students will have context that will enrich their dancing.
- Emphasize alignment
One of the most important aspects of technique is alignment. Understanding body placement and use of the center, or core, is essential.
- Modern dance
Students who have had consistent classes in modern techniques have an immediate advantage. Most students have limited experience in the form and it is core curriculum in many college programs.
- Include improvisation
Being comfortable with improvisation eases feelings of intimidation and self-consciousness. Start teaching creative problem-solving skills while the students are young.
- Broaden their horizons
Encourage students to attend a variety of performances and master classes and to read dance reviews, biographies, and trade magazines.
The home teacher’s role
You may be surprised at how much your students miss you when they go off to college. So often they begin their sentences with, “My teacher back home . . .” When they contact you, whether by phone, instant messaging, text messaging, or email, be sure to respond with words of encouragement. You are as much a part of their support system as their parents. If at all possible, visit! You are always welcome in the studios and at performances. I always appreciate meeting that “teacher from home,” because I like to say thank you for your great preparation—and for trusting us with the rest.
Keep students focused with bite-size sayings
By Diane Gudat
Over the years I have become attached to a handful of inspirational sayings that I like to share with my students. I have posted a few of them on my studio walls, where they have remained for years; I write others on the classroom mirrors and rotate them as needed. Since I have been repeating most of them for so long that I can no longer remember their sources, I send a sincere thank-you to their originators.
Make excellence your habit.
This advice holds a permanent place on my studio wall. If I could live by only one saying, this would be it.
An irritated parent once said to me, “You expect these kids to be perfect!” I replied, “Yes, and if I don’t, they will get nowhere close to that!” It is a rare thing for young people to work toward personal excellence. Sometimes their time is spread so thin that they become mediocre at several activities and fail to feel the satisfaction of doing their best at anything. The unique setting of the dance classroom calls for discipline and personal growth, which can inspire young people to show their best.
Everyone brings a different natural ability and aptitude to the dance classroom. Those who work to their maximum potential are demonstrating their own excellence. This thought brings me to my next favorite saying.
Let no one outwork you today.
If dancers work as hard as possible in every class, they will become the best dancers they can personally be. Although teachers should never compare one student’s physical aptitudes to another’s, holding each to a personal level of excellence promotes a good work ethic. The desire to work hard is a gift they give to their dance friends. When teachers and students put out their maximum effort, they become the strongest of dance families and achieve their goals together.
I try to give students realistic goals that will help them develop their work ethic, since some feel overwhelmed with certain tasks. For example, with dancers who are working to improve the height of their extensions, I tell them that if every day I placed one square of bathroom tissue onto a pile, it would take quite a while for anyone to notice a change in the pile’s height. But eventually the stack would become a tower, at which point it would be difficult not to notice it and ask its purpose. It would become quite impressive, just like the result achieved by a dancer who lifts her leg higher in each class, even if the difference is as incremental as the thickness of one slice of bathroom tissue. Eventually that tiny change will add up to an amazing accomplishment that might take years for others to notice but will be sure to impress eventually.
The fable of the tortoise and the hare also illustrates this concept wonderfully. I have had many hares in my classes, but it is the tortoises that have changed the quality of the studio.
You are the boss of you.
Most people, especially teenagers, prefer to listen to no one but themselves. Teachers offer suggestions, but their words merely fly around the room unless the students pull the information inside their heads and decide to effect a change. An advanced student’s best teacher is often the one inside his head. No dancer becomes outstanding until he accepts responsibility for his own training. Students must move their own bones and muscles, hear and feel the music their own way, and store what they think is important until the next class. They must recognize that the image in the mirror is of their own making. Once they feel that they are in charge, amazing things can happen.
At the beginning of class, I ask my students to take a moment to consider why they came and what they hope to accomplish, and to set a personal goal for that class.
Lead by example.
This goes back to my dear mother, who often said, “Do not tell people what to do; show them.” If you want your students to be on time for class, do not start class late. If you want your students to be focused in class, stay on track yourself. If you want students to show progress from class to class, make sure the class is structured in a way that allows them to feel the connection. If you want them to be nice to each other, be kind to them.
This slogan should also apply to your students. Every year at recital time, as students are learning their entrances and exits, there are always one or two students who cannot resist the urge to shout, “Go!” or push the student in front of them to get them started. I remind them that the polite thing is to lead by example. For example, if they begin to run in place at the right time, their dance friends will notice the reminder that it is time to get started.
Encourage your students to dance full-out at all times. It may not always be pretty, but dance is physical, and unless dancers push the boundaries they will have no concept of how far they can go. Watching a dancer take risks and stretch each movement to its fullest is an exciting experience for the audience. This bravery extends to the direct emotional contact a dancer must establish with the audience.
Watching a safe dancer can be like watching a beautiful figurine inside a snow globe: It is lovely but completely untouchable. A dancer’s job is to affect the audience in some way. Whether it is to make them smile, laugh, think, or cry, dancers must learn to connect with audiences and let them feel as if they too are dancing.
In the same vein, I also use the phrase “Surprise yourself!” Do what you think you cannot. Do not question or correct yourself. Go for it!
Some people may argue this point, but if students are to excel, they must be as flexible as possible. We rarely have time in class to develop maximum flexibility in our students, so we must find ways to encourage them to work on their own. I give the analogy that my daughter would never go to softball practice without her mitt and helmet. These things are necessary equipment for her activity; without them she would probably get hurt. Flexibility is necessary equipment for dancers; they must bring it to every class.
My school offers incentives for improvements in flexibility, including the “Split Club” for dancers who can do all three splits.
Find your passion and attack it.
When people find what they love, they should move heaven and Earth to make it happen. Teachers can help students identify their passions and direct their studies in ways that will satisfy their interests. If dance is their passion, there are countless ways to develop that interest into a career. A student who loves dance and photography could combine those interests and specialize in dance photography. A math whiz with good organizational skills could manage a dance company. Painters could consider getting into set design. Those who love to sew can investigate costume design and construction. In this day of immediate Web access, teachers have the resources at their fingertips to guide students in researching all kinds of careers.
All people should be inspired to do what they love and love what they do, and teachers can play a part in helping their students make that discovery.
One-on-one instruction boosts students’ prowess and studios’ profits
By Jennifer Rienert
“Do you give private lessons?” That’s a question that prospective clients often ask—are you prepared to answer it? Most studio owners have no trouble setting schedules, pricing, and dress codes for their schools, and they routinely hand out that information when new students walk in the door. But they may be much less clear in their thinking about private lessons. Setting up a policy about private lessons, and then publicizing it to your clientele, can boost your school’s income and provide students with an added incentive to work their hardest.
Finding the time
All school owners have different philosophies and rules for permitting students more personal or one-on-one instruction. Many studios do not have sufficient classroom space or staff to give precious time to only one student. Trying to fit in all the disciplines, and at convenient times, can be very tricky. Studios with multiple rooms must try to coordinate classes of students and move from one to another effectively while using every minute available after school lets out until as late as they dare stay open on a school night. But my school, New Hampshire School of Ballet, has a long tradition of giving weekly 30-minute private ballet lessons to deserving students. So where in our crazy schedule do we find the room, and why would we give precious time to private lessons when it would be more profitable to fill a class instead?
For newer studios that are still building a clientele, private lessons can help fill gaps in the schedule and bring in extra income. That’s what my aunt did when she opened the studio I now own in 1964. She offered the first lesson right after school, at 3 p.m., a time that is too early to expect everyone to be able to arrive for a group class. There were also free times here and there throughout the day and on Saturdays after the little ones went home. As her studio grew and available times became fewer (she had only one dance room), she limited the private lessons to the early slots and later at night, after classes were over.
If you have never implemented any form of private-lesson program on a regular basis, a good time to try it is during the summer, which typically has lower enrollment. My school offers semiprivate lessons to about half of the students during those months, and because most teachers are looking for extra hours during this slower time, this system gives everyone a little boost.
I have continued my aunt’s tradition of emphasizing private lessons, and receiving one has become a special, earned privilege for my students. Obviously, not all schools have the capacity or staff to give everyone extra personal time, so how do you determine who should receive one? We have built our program around rewarding those students who are serious about their studies; when they reach the advanced level in ballet, they receive a weekly 30-minute private lesson for the season. Because these students already take numerous classes, I offer them a discounted rate of $17. (The normal charge is $45 per hour.) Of course these lessons are optional, but no one has refused the offer yet.
Since only the advanced dancers have private lessons, they are the only ones who are eligible for solos and leads in our end-of-year performance or Nutcracker. This gives all the students something to strive for; it is exciting for them to know that the chance to dance a lead role is out there. The incentive to work hard is there for those who want it. I believe so strongly in this program that we also allot 30-minute duo or trio lessons to the class below the advanced-level students. The dancers know they can work their way up and receive weekly semiprivate lessons to work on their technique or show choreography and then, in a year or two, when they progress to the advanced class, receive their private lesson. This also allows the students to gain experience in a trio situation that will enable them to handle a 3-minute solo someday.
Although 30 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, you would be amazed at how much you can get done when working with a single student.
Our policy is that students who take privates must be fully registered in the entire ballet program, and those who want to continue with private lessons in the following year must take class at the school for a required number of weeks during the summer. This ensures that students keep up their skills enough to remain in the advanced class (and it helps to keep our enrollment up in the summer). Since the lead roles in Nutcracker are given only to gifted students who take private lessons, they are motivated to hold onto their time slots.
Content for private lessons
In these short lessons we generally work on technique, gearing the content around the students’ needs. I start with a 10-minute barre, correcting and analyzing as we go, and then proceed to combinations that I feel would benefit each student. Sometimes we work on problem areas like pirouettes or petit allegro. If a performance or competition is coming up, this lesson can be used for choreography. This personal time, given from September to June, makes the dancers stronger because we are able to correct problems they might not be able to fix in a class situation. Although 30 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, you would be amazed at how much you can get done when working with a single student. The one-on-one attention allows the students to progress much more quickly.
How many to offer
The decision about how many private lessons to offer each week is based on how many students are in the advanced class, how soon they can get to the studio after school, and how many teachers and studios are available. My school schedules 13 to 15 private lessons and about 5 trios per week. If a school has two or three rooms, it is easy to fit private lessons around the regular classes. Motivated students find a way to get to the studio quickly after school, especially if they have a car, and some start as early as 2:30 p.m. Students who are home schooled can easily fill a 2:00 or 2:30 p.m. time slot. Staying after class in the evenings is also an option. I schedule three private openings at primetime (about 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., right before the advanced ballet class) for those hard-working and deserving students who live more than 30 minutes away and can’t get to the studio by 3:00 p.m. I try to be fair in giving all students a chance to obtain one of these valued times.
Studio owners who trained at my aunt’s school many years ago are following her example. Heidi Sullivan, owner of Dance Vision Network in Goffstown, NH, offers private lessons to her advanced students, who are then eligible to dance leads in the school’s shows. Sullivan says the system motivates them to work harder. Kristen Sampson, owner of Portsmouth School of Ballet in Portsmouth, NH, offers private lessons, but usually only on a short-term basis. “When someone requests a private lesson, we try to refer to them to a classroom situation. However, if a student is lacking in some area or would like to accelerate their personal growth, we agree to a six-week private-lesson series,” Sampson says. “Regardless of age, this student can progress faster in any discipline and catch up to the rest of their class if they wish. Since private lessons can be costly ($50 to $60 per hour), not everyone requests these times. It is also a chance for all my teachers to pick up extra hours if they wish. We schedule many private lessons with any of our teachers when they are available, and it benefits everyone.”
A former skeptic, Melissa Hoffman of Melissa Hoffman Dance Center in Hudson, NH, gave private lessons a try last summer. “The teachers convinced me to allow them to do privates for the summer months [in which] they would work on specific skills—turns, jumps, stretching, tumbling, ballet, or whatever the teacher and student felt needed to be looked at—no choreography,” says Hoffman. “One also did conditioning. The results were great for most of the dancers. The program was offered to our competitive and more serious dancers and was first-come, first-served. About 30 dancers took advantage of it. The option to continue throughout the season is not there, as studio space is an issue, but we will do this each summer.”
If you decide to take advantage of the benefits that private or semiprivate lessons offer, first consider whether you will allow anyone who is interested to participate or if you prefer to reserve the time for a certain level of dancers. Either way, offering private lessons will benefit your students by helping them progress more quickly. And by maximizing your use of studio space and bringing in extra income, the practice is good for business too.
Improve your choreography by learning basic music theory
By Diane Gudat
Music is vital equipment for dance teachers and choreographers, both in the classroom and onstage. A basic understanding of music theory is a powerful tool that allows us to get the most out of the music we use. Over the years I have gathered some “fun facts” about understanding and using music. Here are my favorites.
1. The introduction section of most ballet barre music is usually four measures long. Count the beats of the introduction, divide the number of counts by 4, and you have the top number of the time signature. For example, let’s say the introduction is 16 beats long. Divide 16 by 4 and the result is 4. This is the top number (numerator) of the time signature; therefore, the music is most probably 4/4.
Have your students count the introduction and try to figure out the time signature. Of course, ballet class CDs include the time signature for each band, so you can check their answer and make yourself look smart!
2. How can you tell the difference between a 3/4 and a 6/8 time signature? When listening to music with a 3/4 time signature, you can say the three-syllable word “pineapple” along with the beat. When listening to music with a 6/8 time signature, you can comfortably say both “pineapple” and the two-syllable word “apple.” The downbeats in 6/8 and 3/4 time produce different feelings and physical responses in dancers. Teachers must know the difference in order to select appropriate music for the desired movement. A piece written in 6/8, with its eighth notes, feels much sharper and a bit quicker than one in 3/4 time, with its quarter notes.
3. Most of the music commonly used by dance teachers for jazz and tap routines is written in a formula called a standard chorus. The first verse (A) is followed by the second verse (also A), whose melody matches that of the first. Then there is a break or a new melody (B), and then the song goes back to the original melody (A). Thus, the formula for the music becomes AABA. If you want a more complex base for your dance, look beyond the standard chorus; there are many other structures, such as AAA, ABAC, AAB, ABA, and ABAB.
Most music in our culture is still written in this formula, or at the very least in groupings of 32 counts (8 measures of 4/4 music) which is referred to as a “standard step.”
4. The music you choose for an exercise will affect the shape and quality of the movement, so make sure to use a ballet barre CD with a variety of time signatures. Music with a time signature of 3/4 actually sounds “round,” and music in 2/4 or 4/4 time sounds “square.”
Try this exercise: Put on a piece of music that is in 3/4 time, and draw a huge circle with your arm for each measure. Then try to draw a square for each measure. You will probably find it uncomfortable. Do the opposite experiment with music that has a 2/4 or 4/4 time signature. The square will now feel more comfortable than the circle. Young students can do this exercise with crayons and paper or with dry-erase markers on the mirror.
Good choreography is like Swiss cheese—fat in places, skinny in others, with uneven edges and lots of different-sized holes!
Teach your advanced dancers a combination with a 4/4 time signature and then have them dance it to a piece of 3/4 music. This can be done with any combination of time signatures and can prove to be quite a challenge for the dancers.
5. When clapping to music, most people automatically clap together. But when they clap depends on the flavor of the music. For example, with a polka, almost everyone will clap on the odd beats, beginning with the downbeat of 1. With jazz music, most people will clap on even counts, starting with 2.
6. The spirit or flavor of the music inspires and emotionally affects the listeners. For many dance teachers, music inspires us to move and get others to do so. I once did an experiment at a teenager’s birthday party. I played several slow songs and then a crazy up-tempo song. The kids reacted immediately to the change. I did this off and on—first slow music, then a fast song, for almost an hour, and every time the mood of the partygoers changed. Audiences, too, are affected by your musical selections. Think about the order of the music for your recital. Will it be emotionally pleasing to your audiences?
7. Many people hear or feel the space between rhythmic phrases much more strongly than they do clusters of sound. Setting a step to every beat of music sometimes bores audiences. Avoid such a literal interpretation. For example, have the dancers come to a complete stop after an aggressive piece of movement or leave a period of silence for a few counts of a tap piece. Experiment with musical and choreographic tempos. Try mixing them up: Choreograph a fast section of movement to music with a slow tempo, or slow down the steps for an up-tempo song. This kind of variety can result in an interesting contrast for the dancers and audience.
Changes in rhythm and tempo will cleanse the audience’s palate and prepare them to begin watching or listening in a fresh new way. Good choreography is like Swiss cheese—fat in places, skinny in others, with uneven edges and lots of different-sized holes!
Most dance teachers are destined to a lifetime of choreographing to prerecorded music. But a bit of knowledge helps us manipulate this music to complement movement and the dancers. It is a gift that we can pass along to our students to help them excel in a field that is becoming ever more competitive.
Strategies for accommodating late starters
By Anne L. Silveri
It’s the rare 14-year-old who decides to quit studying the violin and start taking ballet classes. It wouldn’t be too uncommon for that teenager to decide to study watercolor painting, but dance is usually started at a young age. Then there are the empty-nesters who finally have time to take that tap class they’ve dreamed of for years. These late starters may not be large in number, but studio owners do need to be able to accommodate them. How can they put first-timers at ease and still fit them into the dynamic of the school’s existing students?
There’s much to consider in keeping a school’s doors open to all levels of learners. Everything from the look of the lobby to the times of beginner-level classes can help put both adult and child novices at ease. The message a school sends to these possibly timid newcomers is critical. Ads and websites need to make it clear that beginners are welcome, and a lobby filled with homegrown photos of students of all ages (instead of intimidating photos of ballet stars) welcomes every kind of student. Certainly an environment that puts newbies at ease is desirable, but going too far with that idea could turn away serious students. Is it possible to run a studio that opens its arms to both kinds of students? For three school owners on the central East Coast, the answer is yes.
Joy of Motion® Dance Center (JOM) in Washington, DC, appears to take its name seriously. Founder Michelle Ava wrote the book on recreational dance when the school opened its doors in 1976 as a studio primarily aimed at adult students. She started with the notion that dance is for everyone, and that inclusive atmosphere persists nearly 30 years later. The school has grown to four locations and offers full programs for youth and adults. But, says executive director Doug Yeuell, who didn’t start dancing himself until age 22, “adults are still our core following.” JOM has weathered several trends, from aerobics classes to Pilates and yoga. “Right now belly dance classes are huge for adults and teens,” he says.
With 350 classes per week and a faculty of approximately 100, JOM is big enough to keep these populations apart. “Our adults like to be by themselves,” says Yeuell, who sets the age cutoff at 18. “Adults learn differently, have different needs, and can be intimated by younger dancers in class. It just works for us to keep this population separate. Adults want theory and concepts; the way you [explain] dance to an adult is a different experience.” With teens, he says, rules, regulations, and discipline are more of an issue and need to be clearly spelled out.
Once-a-weekers flock to the studio, which is known in the community as a cool place to hang out. Because JOM is not a competition school, there’s no stigma in keeping dance as only one of many things a child does as extracurricular activities. JOM also offers outreach classes in the local school system. And with seven resident youth companies, plenty of serious dance is going on, too. Several professional companies are also housed under the JOM roof, including CrossCurrents Dance Company, Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, and Edgeworks Dance Company.
Hip-hop is a popular entry class for late starters. Yeuell says that dance dabblers are more likely than not to slowly start taking more classes. “It’s exhilarating,” he says. “And once you get hooked, it’s hard to take class just once a week.” He’s amazed at how fast teens catch up. They learn more quickly and understand the concepts at a higher level than do 5-year-olds.
Although he says that teaching beginners takes more than a little patience, Yeuell enjoys it. Not every teacher belongs with beginners, though, and he handpicks the faculty for these classes. He also makes sure that entry-level classes are scheduled during after-school slots rather than relegated to the dreaded 8:30 hour. “We try to create a warm and welcoming environment,” he says. “Dance can enhance your life at any age and at any intensity. That’s our motto and we stick to it.”
‘Late starters bring a certain energy into the studio. They really want to be there. It’s their idea to try dancing, not their parents’.’ —Constance Walsh, Dance Harrison Street
Not too far from Joy of Motion is Dance Harrison Street in Easton, MD, owned by Constance Walsh, who opened her first school in 1991. Walsh discovered dance as a junior in high school at the New Jersey School of the Performing Arts, then went on to major in dance at the University of Maryland and study under scholarship at the Martha Graham School. As a dance studio owner, she finds that certain challenges come when a 12- to 15-year-old suddenly decides to dance. Those are the years when children are the most self-conscious and generally do not want to be with younger students. “I want to give every child that opportunity to dance,” says Walsh, who is committed to providing quality dance education for anyone, regardless of age or ability. “I want to offer serious training without it being intimidating.” She mandates the same dress code for all students and finds that it helps promote a feeling of inclusion within the school community.
Adult beginners have needs as well, and keeping everyone happy can be a challenge in a small studio with an enrollment of 140. Walsh agrees with Yeuell that adults don’t do well with teens, at least not in the beginning. “Adults start with huge T-shirts,” she says. “Gradually those layers start coming off, but at the start they want a place of their own.”
Walsh has discovered that a musical theater class serves as a great gateway for new dancers. Open to all levels, it serves recreational students well. Because it involves acting and singing, some beginning dancers can gain confidence by using already developed talents. Tap also makes a great first class. “We try to put beginning tap in a primetime slot,” Walsh says. She places late-starting children in classes with children who are a year or two younger; any younger than that spells trouble. Gradually they transition to taking class with the younger group a few days a week and with their age group one day per week. Most kids understand that they are in catch-up mode.
Walsh notices several traits common to late starters. Often they are mature enough to understand why they need to be placed in classes with younger children. Also they are not burned out, which can happen when children have been taking class several days a week, year after year. “Late starters bring a certain energy into the studio,” she says. “They really want to be there. It’s their idea to try dancing, not their parents’.”
At Dance Harrison Street, everyone dances in the recital. Recital time can be particularly exciting for beginners. “Their enthusiasm is contagious,” Walsh says, and she works hard to make it a positive experience for all. She also notes that recital time can be a turning point for some. “They see the advanced students and want to be like them,” she says. “Next thing I know they’re taking ballet three times a week.”
According to Walsh, with enough persistence, late starters can catch up. It takes determination, but she has seen it happen over and over with the right combination of talent and will. “It’s a determination thing,” she says. Late starters are often highly motivated, and they go full force into what they love regardless of the situation. To optimize these students’ chances of success, she says she tries to “make sure they are in a class that is comfortable for them both in terms of difficulty and age level.”
For Amy Grant Wolfe at Manassas School of Dance, creating a welcoming experience for beginners is a calling. “I love dance,” says Wolfe. “And I want anyone, at any stage of their life, to feel that dance classes are available to them.” Nestled in the small but artsy town of Manassas, VA, Wolfe’s studio primarily offers ballet classes, along with jazz and tap. The best entry points into her studio are through yoga and stretch classes, notes the school owner. Once students get their feet wet in a yoga class, a dance class doesn’t seem like such a big step. Wolfe places yoga and beginning ballet classes back-to-back to encourage newbies to take the leap.
Manassas is not a huge city, but it boasts an orchestra and a ballet company—Wolfe’s. She started dancing at age 5 and still performs in the studio company at age 49. Dance is a lifelong activity and she sees no reason to quit. She even encourages some of her adult students to go on pointe. “Once they get strong enough, we start pointe,” says Wolfe. “Why not? It’s wonderful for their strength.”
Wolfe characterizes late starters as take-charge individuals who realize that the cost of starting late means sharing a class with people who are perhaps not their age. In placing her beginners, she puts the teens with adults—a much better choice than putting older children with little ones, she thinks. “My students know that I do the best to accommodate them, and I don’t have enough of each group to warrant separate classes,” she says. “And they are usually willing to do what it takes to study dance.” She notices that having teens and adults in the same class spurs the adults to try new things. “They enjoy dancing together,” says Wolfe. “[The adults] get motivated by the teens’ gusto.”
There’s no prescription for the best way to bring late starters into a studio, but for Wolfe, Yeuell, and Walsh, success seems to ride on a love for dance that is inclusive and contagious. Each has stories of late starters who went on to dance careers. It’s possible. Many will not, and that’s good too. What is most important is that teachers keep the door open for all who are willing to give dance a try.