In this installment of “Get to Know Your DLTC Faculty,” we learn more about Diane Gudat.
What person/event was the biggest inspiration in your life?
Diane: The birth of my children probably tops it all. When you realize that you have the ability to create such beauty, and then have the responsibility to protect and nurture it, it’s pretty life changing.
What do you do for fun (other than dance)?
Diane: I enjoy drawing and studying French. I’m mediocre at both!
What is your favorite movie/book/TV show?
Diane: One of my all-time favorite movies to quote is Drop Dead Gorgeous. I also enjoy the series of [Christopher Guest] movies that includes Best in Show. When I watch a movie I want to relax and laugh! I enjoy a good sitcom and would love to be a comedy writer on a show like Modern Family or The Middle. I am sad to say that I am addicted to several reality shows, my favorites being The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and The Biggest Loser!
To learn more about the DanceLife Teacher Conference scheduled for August 1 to 4 in Scottsdale, Arizona, visit www.dancelifeteacherconference.com.
In this installment of “Get to Know Your DLTC Faculty,” we continue our conversation with Diane Gudat.
When did you first start dancing and why?
Diane: My dad’s mother was a dance teacher in Danville, Illinois. All five of his brothers and sisters performed throughout the Midwest during the late ’30s and ’40s as the O’Riley Tapticians. My uncle continued to dance as part of the USO in World War II and later in New York and Chicago. It was a family legacy that I felt I was missing out on. Money was tight, but I finally received my once-a-week ballet class as my Christmas present when I was in 6th grade.
Although my grandmother passed away while my father was still in high school, I also felt the pull to teach. I started assisting with preschool classes when I was 13 and never stopped. I am proud that my teaching paid for my daughter’s degree in dance, and now she is a dance teacher, too!
Did you ever seriously consider a career in another field? What was it?
Diane: My father was a funeral director. He spent most of his life building his business. When I began college there was a law that a funeral home had to be in the name of the owner. Neither of my brothers was interested in taking on the business, and although it wasn’t my cup of tea, when I started college I had plans to fulfill the undergrad requirements to attend mortuary college. I soon realized that it was not my calling.
Luckily, the laws changed and my husband decided to go to school and take over the business, which he owns and runs today! My interests quickly shifted to graphic art, and although I never completed a degree, I still enjoy sketching.
To learn more about the DanceLife Teacher Conference scheduled for August 1 to 4 in Scottsdale, Arizona, visit www.dancelifeteacherconference.com.
In this installment of “Get to Know Your DLTC Faculty,” we continue our conversation with Diane Gudat, guest artist, choreographer, master teacher, and author.
If you were a superhero, what special skill would you like to have?
Diane: I would like to be able to fly so that I could get from place to place more quickly.
A genie in a bottle is granting you three wishes: what are they?
Diane: Happiness for my children and my grandchild; a long, healthy life; a television pilot.
What has dance meant to you in your life?
Diane: That’s very hard to say. It is my life, so it’s hard to be objective and say exactly what it truly means. I never did anything else!
I know dance allowed me to be home with my children as they were growing up. It allowed me to travel the world, and has challenged me to constantly learn and study. It has given me life-long friends. It has filled my life with emotional highs and lows. I am proud of who I am and what I have accomplished through dance, and when all is said and done, I hope that people will remember me as someone who might have inspired them and helped make their job easier.
To learn more about the DanceLife Teacher Conference scheduled for August 1 to 4 in Scottsdale, Arizona, visit www.dancelifeteacherconference.com.
For each DanceLife Teacher Conference, Rhee Gold assembles a faculty of some of the most creative and enthusiastic leaders in the entire dance studio industry. Their resumes are impressive, for sure, but what really makes them tick? What brought them to dance, and what keeps them there? What do they love about teaching, and makes them keep moving?In this installment of “Get to Know Your DLTC Faculty,” we learn more about Diane Gudat. Diane, artistic director of the Indianapolis Children’s Dance League, began The Dance Company in 1979 and originally produced/directed the Indiana State Dance Championships. She has served as a guest artist and choreographer to numerous private studios, high schools, and companies; served as a master teacher for many dance teachers’ organizations; and is the author of three books.
Her humor and energy have made her a popular judge and faculty member for numerous conventions and competitions across the U.S. and Canada.
What do you like best about teaching at the DLTC?
Diane: Working with teachers in the classroom is my absolute favorite teaching experience. The DLTC is the perfect venue for me to share what I know and to learn what works in the classroom for others. I personally gained so much from all the workshops I attended as a teacher. I love that I get to pay some of that back, and honor all the wonderful teachers that inspired me over the years.
If Rhee could hold his DLTC anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
Diane: On a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea … in Paris … on a Caribbean island.
If the DLTC attendees could only take home one lesson/message from your classes, what would it be?
Diane: That we are all in the same boat and need each other to excel in this field.
How to turn good-enough dancers into performers with power
By Diane Gudat
At the end of a four-day competition, my fellow teachers and I were frustrated with our students’ performances and the competition results. These kids were the nicest in town, but quite honestly, they were rather boring onstage. They were beautiful dancers but not strong performers.
You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever said or thought this: “Competition judges always emphasize that they do not favor performances that include flashy turns and tricks, revealing costumes, or suggestive music. I use appropriate music, tasteful costumes, and age-appropriate choreography, yet when we go to competition, my students never win the high awards.”
Or maybe this: “My dancers look great at the studio, but when they perform, they don’t stand out. They work so hard, and I’m disappointed that they are not enjoying more success.”
I’ve come to the realization that it is not the turns and leaps or costumes and music that lead to these students’ success in competition. No, it’s how the dancers perform. Remember the old song “’Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”? The lyrics say, “That’s what gets results!” And you know what? They’re right!
To ensure our dancers’ success, not just at competitions but in all their performances, three elements must come together: amplitude, dynamics, and physicality.
Amplitude can be defined as a performer’s quality of dignity, excellence, or splendor, as well as connection to the audience and charisma—in other words, showmanship. It is what makes a dancer get noticed above others and be remembered long after a performance.
Are your students memorable? At the end of the competition, do they stand out from the crowd? Showmanship must be developed consistently at the studio even during class. Do not ignore facial expressions. Insist that students make complete use of all their facial muscles. Using the eyebrows opens the upper half of the face and eliminates the “frozen” smile. Demand performance quality during all combinations.
Teach your students how to maximize body lines. Challenge them to take movements to their absolute limits. Encourage strong postures that exude confidence.
Leave space in choreography that allows the dancers to establish eye contact with their fellow dancers and the audience. Choreographers often put too much movement into too little music, leaving no “space” for the dancers to elongate the movement and connect with their audiences.
Define the emotional aspects of your choreography and make them as important as the steps. What is the story of the dance? Tell the dancers why they are moving from one place to the other. Ask them how they feel when they’re dancing. (The shyer kids might be hesitant, but I consider coming out of their shell and discussing their emotions part of their training.)
Look at how the dancers are transitioning from one movement to the other. Are they dropping the story line as they prepare for or recover from a difficult section? Do they take emotional breaks? Dancers who have similar dance skills can win or lose competitions based on the strength of their transitions.
Prepare combinations that challenge your students but are not consistently too difficult. Material that’s at an appropriate level allows students to exude confidence and be relaxed enough to develop stage presence. Compliment the students who are catching your attention. Offer positive reinforcement about the emotional moments that stood out during class.
Include improvisational situations to help your dancers develop their theatrical presence. Begin with the younger students, to help them chase off self-consciousness early on. Use exercises that help them learn to express contrasting emotions such as happy and sad or frightened and excited. Ask them how something makes them feel and how they would dance about it. Expect them to use their imagination and create their own stories within their performances.
Dynamics are variations and contrasts in force or intensity, which define the clarity or strength of a movement. They bring definition and texture to movement.
Dynamic variations might include such things as moments of tenderness in an otherwise aggressive piece of choreography. Try adding percussive accents to offset fluidity. Use different dynamic qualities to show both vulnerability and strength in your dancers. Ask the students to describe how the movement feels to them.
When choreographing group pieces, use varying tempos. Groups working in half time or slow motion provide an interesting contrast to those moving on tempo. Layer movements of opposing time signatures to create unexpected textures. For example, use movement that displays the rounder feeling naturally evoked by 3/4 movement to music with a sharper 4/4 feeling.
Take a piece of choreography that your students know and set it to music that has a completely different feeling from the original. This will inspire the dancers to pinpoint new accents and phrasing. Also use variety in the music you choose for class.
Define the accents of the movement. An arm thrust outward has a different dynamic than one whose accents come when it is pulled in. When designing barre sequences or warm-ups, specify the accent you’re looking for.
Developing core strength in your dancers allows for control in the torso while freeing them to be more expressive in the head, arms, and legs. Teach students to push down and use gravity to their advantage, anchoring themselves as they extend away or pull into their bodies.
Use dynamics in your voice during explanations. Just as music can inspire movement from your dancers, the tone of your voice can help them understand the accents and qualities that are important to you.
Allow students to improvise qualities of motion such as percussion, suspension, and swing and release. Design a simple piece of choreography and ask them to dance it in several different ways; for example, first as if they were filled with helium and then as if they were made of cement. Other ideas could include dancing underwater as opposed to outer space, on ice or fire, uphill or downhill. Ask them to dance as if the stage were bathed in blue light and then show you how they think yellow lights would affect the movement.
Examine your choreography for use of layers and levels. Stage your work to highlight the dynamic sections you particularly want to be noticed.
Physicality refers to a dancer’s commitment to the movement and the amount of energy used to make movement happen. Dancers need enough strength, flexibility, and stamina to be able to give the movement everything they’ve got every time.
If your dancers physically back off when they become tired or winded, help them develop core strength and stamina. Making general fitness a part of class will help your dancers push through when they’re tired and finish with newfound strength. Make some combinations aggressive, with more repetitions and little or no recovery time in between. Instead of allowing the dancers to wait in line, tell them to run in place or do sautés or battements. If they aren’t perspiring during part of class, they haven’t come close to their physical peak. Help them find their athleticism.
Instruct the dancers about where to breathe within the choreography. Encourage them to exhale. Tell them to breathe audibly enough that you can hear the air moving through them.
Design combinations that require dancers to make movement happen. Introduce fast, aggressive movements that will, for example, force them to consciously utilize the biceps and triceps muscles to move the arm rather than just flinging it. Tell the dancers exactly where an arm’s movement begins and ends, the path it must take, and what shape the hand maintains throughout. Insist on clarity and control.
Dancers will mirror the amount of energy that a teacher displays in the classroom, so beware of teaching on “automatic pilot.” Changing the energy in the room can make an enormous difference. If you are not physically able to inspire a new level of strength, you must do so with the enthusiasm in your voice and your praise for dancers who are achieving new levels of accomplishment.
Finally, invite a nutritionist to your studio to help students and their parents understand which foods and snacks can best fuel young bodies for dance.
It is true that some dancers are born to wow audiences while others don’t shine quite so brightly. Both types of dancer can get the most from their love of dance if we help them develop all the ingredients that will allow them to perform from the heart.
Feeling stressed? Tune in to the child within you.
By Diane Gudat
I work with young children almost every day and if you ask me, they’ve got it made. Sure, I might be a bit bitter with the passing of yet another birthday, but as I look into their little stress-free faces I cannot help but feel a pang of envy.
Granted, young children are prey to anxieties in dance class that adults have mercifully outgrown. Who will give them a snack if they’re hungry, or take them to the bathroom if they need to go? If their hair clip starts to slip, will their teacher know how to fix it the way Mom does? But even then, the sight of a favorite doll or the gift of a colorful sticker can make everything better.
Then come the adults with their ever-growing list of don’ts: don’t hang from the top of the swing set, don’t spin around until you fall over, don’t yell when it’s time to use your “inside voice,” don’t pound your silverware on the restaurant table. The result (if you’re lucky) is a kid who won’t make you cringe with shame at family reunions. But there’s a price paid in lost spontaneity, less freedom, less willingness to try something new or just be silly.
If you have ever taught adults who have never danced or have stopped dancing for a number of years, you might have noticed their general fear of movement. Consider the fact that in order for us to walk upright we must actually fall and catch ourselves with each step. The fear of falling creeps back into the psyche of many adults as the years go by. They prefer to start class holding a barre. They need a complete explanation and demonstration of each move and an extra amount of encouragement before they feel confident enough to try. Their fear is obvious, and every now and then that fear even sneaks into a dance teacher’s brain. This is especially true when she’s had an injury, illness, or extended vacation.
I suggest doing at least one “childish” activity a day to bring back some of the simple joys we may have forgotten even existed.
We need to reclaim and respect some of those childish privileges. We deserve the ability to easily distract ourselves. We need to learn to ignore the social directives that keep us pent up and fighting the simple urges that can make our lives fun.
How do we accomplish this? I suggest doing at least one “childish” activity a day to bring back some of the simple joys we may have forgotten even existed. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Wear a colorful Band-Aid just for fun.
- Knock a spoon on the floor just to hear what it sounds like. Pick it up and do it again.
- Wear a plastic barrette or a superhero cape.
- Repeat everything someone else says until she tells you to stop.
- Take a bubble bath with a toy.
- Watch a cartoon or an animated movie.
- Wear a candy necklace or a Ring Pop.
- Stick out your tongue when no one’s looking.
- Color a picture and put it on the refrigerator.
- The next time you get really tired, stand there and cry or, at the very least, stamp your feet.
- Close your eyes and eat an M&M. Guess what color it is.
- Drink chocolate milk and give yourself a milk mustache.
- Put a crayon in the sun and wait to see what happens.
- Take a nap.
- Blow bubbles.
- Use sidewalk chalk.
- Sit backward on a chair or rock it onto the back two legs.
- Wear your underwear inside out or backwards.
- Take your blanket with you somewhere.
- Buy a Happy Meal just for the toy.
- Go to bed at 8:30pm.
- Eat a Popsicle and then look at your tongue.
- Write with a crayon or a big fat pencil all day long.
- Call an imaginary friend and have a full conversation.
- Talk with your mouth full.
- Build a fort or play hide and seek.
- Wear your socks outside without shoes.
- Change your name for the day.
- Run away from home (just for a while).
There’s one childish thing I have practiced since I was in my late 20s. While children never resist the urge to play “balance beam” on curbs, ledges, or concrete parking lot car stops, I have never seen an “old” person give in to this urge. Therefore, every time I encounter “balance beam” material I jump onto it, stick my arms out, and do my best impression of a smiling Mary Lou Retton. I am sure people give me funny looks or wonder what is wrong with me, but my inner child is giggling. And at least for the moment, I forget about being an adult.
By Diane Gudat
Apparently film studios don’t cater to the interests of dance teachers. The few exceptions stick in our memories—Black Swan held my attention not only because it featured the world of classical ballet but also because it showed how it can completely freak out some of us. And remember Dirty Dancing? I could certainly relate to leaping into Patrick Swayze’s arms, in a lake or from any stage. Many dance teachers raced to see the new Footloose. How could anyone ban dancing? That could put us all out of business.
While watching the awards shows this year, I decided that a bit of tweaking would make many movies more interesting to dance teachers. You’d go see these movies, wouldn’t you?
Four Weddings and a Recital follows a dance teacher through the months of May and June, during which three studio alumni and one staff member decide to have their weddings.
The Recital Planner tells the sad tale of a lonely dance teacher named Jennifer who, in a quest to increase her income, begins planning other studio’s recitals. Coming up with themes and music, scheduling picture day, and running dress rehearsal take a huge mental and physical toll. When Jennifer meets a wonderful doctor—the man of her dreams—after she falls off a stage and injures her knee, she is too exhausted to pursue the relationship.
Juno follows the life of a dance teacher’s daughter, tragically born during the month of June. She suffers a lifetime of rejection due to her mother’s lack of attention and inability to celebrate her birthday during recital month. Scarred by her mother’s neglect, she runs for Congress and cuts the federal arts subsidy to $4.17.
Sleepless in September is a horror story about a dance teacher who is unable to sleep for an entire month due to worries about low fall enrollment. Sleep-deprived, the woman schedules two classes at the same time on the same day in the same studio space. The graphic scenes of opening day at the studio have earned this film an R rating for violence.
Sister Act follows the antics of two sisters registered for the same class for the sake of convenience. This tragicomic film includes realistic footage of the school owner breaking down during a ballet class when the 5-year-old rips off her shoes and hangs upside down on the barre and the 8-year-old starts screaming, “I’m gonna tell Mom!”
How to Lose a Student in 5 Days is a story about the mayhem that breaks out in a dance studio when a new teacher calls in sick for her classes two days in a row, arrives 15 minutes late on day three, lets the kids leave class early on day four, and shows up in jeans and a see-through top on day five.
Working Girl is a poignant documentary about the day-to-day trials of a studio owner. She freaks out when yet another parent asks, “So what’s your real job?” The three-hankie ending fades out with the owner giving everyone a paycheck except herself.
There’s Something About Miss Mary depicts a newly hired dance teacher named Mary who just is not working out. Before she can be fired, Mary falls in love with the studio owner’s only son and marries him. They have five sweet but very uncoordinated children.
Horrible Bosses is the tale of two studio owners who have never danced, yet insist on setting the curriculum for all the classes and endlessly critique the staff’s choreography. Comedy turns to horror when all are required to attend weekly staff meetings that begin with a weigh-in.
The Hangover is the crazy story of a dance studio staff and their annual after-recital parties. In a drunken stupor they attend a rival studio’s recital, which inspired a sequel, Recital Crashers.
Chocolat follows a group of dance teachers to a summer convention. Exhausted and with no desire to attend dance class, the women go to the mall and spend the next five days at the Godiva store.
There’s a remake of Nine in the works, more appropriately titled 5,6,7,8. Everyone knows that dance teachers can only count to eight.
Tap Dog Millionaire is a coming-of-age movie about an Australian orphan who takes up tap dancing. Inspired by the talents of a group of Appalachian yodelers and sponsored by an octogenarian, he wins the $1 million prize on Australia’s Got Talent.
Tulle Magnolias is the story of the colorful owner of a Louisiana beauty salon who enrolls her sickly daughter, Shelby, in ballet class. Unable to pay for the classes, she becomes the studio seamstress and soon finds her salon, her home, and her life taken over by pink tulle.
Turns of Endearment covers three decades of a mother and daughter who co-own a studio. Though the studio is suffering from rat infestation as they mount their annual Nutcracker, a weird uncle appears from nowhere and buys the studio, freeing the two women to finally enjoy the holiday season.
Never Been Lifted is the story of an unusually tall ballerina named Drew who could never find a partner tall enough to lift her. The ballet mistress recruits the star center from the ballerina’s favorite basketball team and trains him to fulfill Drew’s dreams.
Clueless, Dumb and Dumber, Dazed and Confused, It’s Complicated, and Ruthless People inspired a new film, Despicable Parents. It follows a group of parents who scheme, gossip, and bully their way through their children’s first season of dance competitions and their first trip to Nationals.
The Girl With the Black Swan Tattoo tells of an obsessive mother who hires a mysteriously inked ballerina named Lisbeth to find out what caused her deeply troubled daughter, Nina, to descend into darkness, stab herself, and fall off a set to her death during her debut as the Black Swan.
I Don’t Know How She Does It sounded so great. Stoked to see what I thought would be a heartwarming documentary about a dance studio owner, I was disappointed to learn that Sarah Jessica Parker’s character was merely juggling motherhood and the business world. Yawn.
When an older student mentors a younger one, both can blossom
By Diane Gudat
I was 12 years old and standing backstage at my first recital. My knees were knocking and the feathers on my white Swan Lake costume were giving me hives. And then I saw them—the high school advanced jazz class. I had never seen anything so spectacular!
They floated past me in a sort of unearthly glow, whispering and giggling, with perfectly coiffed hair, fabulous sequin leotards, jazz skirts, and makeup. Their confident smiles, adorned with glistening braces, were as white as their Oxford jazz shoes. As I watched them stretch effortlessly in the wings, I dared to wonder if someday I might be as groovy (it was, after all, the early ’70s) as they were. And their routine! It was brilliant! I had never seen pas de bourrée done at such breakneck speed. I was breathless.
Then the unthinkable happened. As they exited the stage, one particularly dazzling girl stopped, straightened my feather head wrap, and said, “Good luck! Don’t forget to smile!” My knees went weak. Unable to respond, I just grinned and shook my head. She was gone in a flash.
Advanced students possess an undeniable power over younger students, and even over the atmosphere of our studios. I watch as little ones stop and stare up at the older dancers moving confidently on their way to class. We need to harness this power for the good of our studio and capitalize on it whenever we can.
That’s why I have chosen to hold my older dancers responsible for their position. I make them aware that they have the “it” factor and a unique, subliminal influence on the studio. I remind them that what they wear, how they communicate with each other, their work ethic, and their respect for the studio are all monitored closely and emulated by the dozens of children who watch them each week.
Every so often I test this theory (and prove it to the advanced dancers) by having them wear a specific color or style of headband to class every day. Within about two weeks the trend will trickle down to the intermediate students. The results are even faster if you use the older students as demonstrators or teacher’s assistants for younger classes.
I encourage this social status and purposely create opportunities for older students to use it to mentor the younger ones. Here are a few ideas to get that trend started.
1. Assign “big sisters” or “big brothers” to younger students who will be doing solos. It’s the older students’ responsibility to remind the younger ones to practice, encourage their efforts, and assist with rehearsals from time to time. Suggest that they make a good-luck card or poster for the performance; the younger students treasure them.
2. Enter only your younger students in a competition. Require your older dancers to be there not just to applaud but to be in charge of caring for the younger participants. Make each one responsible for helping one dancer check in and for offering advice and encouragement backstage. Allow these mentors to cheer for their charges from the wings and be there to compliment their performances. Parents are particularly impressed with this change of focus toward their younger children. We get a lot of compliments about the mentoring students after these events.
3. Have older students visit younger classes and show what they are learning. The demonstration can be as simple as a “perfect” plié or shuffle. This can also be an excellent, convenient venue for checking on older students’ progress with their solos. Or try the reverse: take a younger class on a “field trip” to a more advanced class. It need not be the same genre of dance the younger children are studying. Just witnessing an older dancer moving to the music can inspire younger dancers and give them heroes to emulate.
4. Remind the older students to notice the younger ones. Give older students trinkets like stickers, coloring sheets, CDs with ballet music, and pictures from a dance-related magazine to hand out to younger students they see in the studio.
5. Encourage older students to keep the dressing room clean by helping the younger ones find a place for their belongings, picking up items from the floor, and gently reminding the little ones to respect the furniture and walls.
6. Ask them to compliment students who are following rules and are dressed nicely for class.
7. Ask them to befriend a child who seems less popular than others. Having an older “cool” student as a friend will instantly raise that child’s confidence level and might help her fit in.
Giving older teens an opportunity to inspire and mentor younger students can help them look outward and teach them important lessons about giving back and being grateful for what they have.
Without this kind of guidance, some older teens can become self-absorbed and socially demanding. Most of their world revolves around their schedules, their needs, and their social status. Giving them an opportunity to inspire and mentor younger students can help them look outward and teach them important lessons about giving back and being grateful for what they have.
I don’t know what became of my long-ago recital friend, and I’m sure she has no idea how she changed my life with a kind gesture that day. I do know, however, that I have helped to form many new mentors over the years and intend to “pay it forward” for many years to come.
Recently I sat down to watch the new season of The Biggest Loser. I love the first week of shows like this, when the contestants are like blank canvases. They are such a mess, yet so full of hope—not unlike many of the dancers who come to our studios.
You meet the contestants for the first time through their home videos. You get a glimpse of how they let themselves get so out of control. You meet their families. You see their past and begin to care about their future. And then the miracle begins!
You see them enter the gym. You feel their fear, and then they are introduced to the treadmills. Their lack of knowledge about physicality is obvious, yet they mount the treadmills and obediently begin to walk.
As the trainers scream and morph into maniacs, the contestants begin to show their level of commitment. And almost every season it happens—someone falls off the treadmill. Backward.
Imagine what it must feel like to weigh 350 pounds or more and fall backward off a moving treadmill. What amount of courage does it take to keep going until you are propelled onto the floor simply because you know it’s the only way to succeed and move forward?
I am inspired to the core by the trust these people place in their trainers. Watching them, I am forced to examine my own commitment to my goals and inspired to expect more of the dancers placed in my charge. The show is painfully hokey, but I envy the blind trust it shows and wonder if I am evoking that level of commitment from my dancers. That questioning forced me to examine what I was doing in the classroom. Was my level of physicality equal to what I expected of my dancers? Could I expect more of them without expecting more of myself? The answer, of course, was no.
With an aging body and a bum knee, how could I change things? How could I keep up with my students physically and inspire them emotionally? I actually began to question if it might be time to step aside and let a younger, more fit teacher work with the dancers.
My ability to explain what I’m teaching in great detail and to inspire my students is more valuable than any amount of turns or high kicks I could possibly display. If I bring my best self to the classroom, that’s more than good enough.
Then it occurred to me that viewers never see the trainers on those shows working out alongside the contestants. The contestants, much like our students, are led to assume that the trainers are completely capable of accomplishing everything they are asking the contestants to do. The trainers’ attitude does not allow the contestants to question their capabilities. It is clearly not their job to perform the exercises for either the contestants or the camera.
I now realize that the combination of the excitement my dancers hear in my voice, my many years of experience, and the fact that I care about each and every one of them is an invaluable gift to those who enter my classroom. My ability to explain what I’m teaching in great detail and to inspire my students is more valuable than any amount of turns or high kicks I could possibly display. If I bring my best self to the classroom, that’s more than good enough. My students will always sense when I am doing less than that and will respond accordingly.
So now we have a new saying at the studio. When I want the best from my students, I yell, “Fall off your treadmill!” And they give me just a little more than they were willing to give me before.
What a dance teacher dreams of finding under the tree
By Diane Gudat
Dear Santa (or, just to cover my bases, Père Noël, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kwanzaa Spirit, Walmart Layaway, or whoever or whatever delivers gifts to my house around December 25),
I have been an extremely good dance teacher all year. I have been polite when possible to the parents, excused hundreds of absences, have already picked out a recital theme and even a few songs, got my staff lovely gifts, and planned the studio holiday party. I have assembled the following list to help you determine which gifts might be best to reward my obvious accomplishments.
1. An air freshener that would dispense a mild sedative into the waiting room, thus calming chatty parents and out-of-control siblings.
2. A lifetime subscription to my new dream satellite radio station, Dance Teacher Music Unlimited. Designed specifically for dance teachers, this amazing station would feature pre-cut music for recitals and solos. It would come with the capability to replay any song as many times as requested and would allow downloads directly to any iPod, free of charge.
3. A one-year pass to my favorite coffee shop, with an option for free delivery to the studio.
4. A hip-hop teacher who comes every week and arrives on time. I know these teachers exist; I just have not been able to find one yet.
5. A magic wand that collects crushed Cheerios and Goldfish crackers, sparing me from bending over or moving the lobby furniture.
6. New ballet barres that disperse disinfectant to kill the germs that dancers carry into the classroom. Hopefully this will put an end to my yearly bouts with colds and the flu. While you’re at it, could you have the elves design a line of dancewear for teachers that also repels germs? You might as well throw in control-top panels and something that gives the illusion of removing 10 pounds.
7. A ban on all props and sets for one full year, in effect on every competition circuit in the United States and Canada. As a teacher, I would love a year without worrying how to make, transport, and (worst of all) store them. As a competition judge, I would love a year of not having to wait for them to be set up and torn down.
8. A variable-speed MP3 player. Not an app—the real thing!
9. One class each week that begins on time, full of students who dress correctly, follow every rule, do exactly what they are told, have cooperative parents, and are thankful for the opportunity to study with me.
10. At least one male student for every class.
I promise to continue to be the best dance teacher I can be and plan on leaving you a nice box of wine and Godiva chocolates in case you are actually a woman.
P.S. I also considered asking for a hidden lobby camera to catch the parents’ conversations about the studio, but I think that might be a case of “Be careful what you ask for!”
Want to turn a problem student around? Try saying something nice.
By Diane Gudat
Every class has one—the child who requires more attention than all the other students combined. You know the type—a young dancer who must continually be reminded of the rules and never seems to comply with them. Many of these children misbehave to gain attention, even if it is in a negative way. So how do we, as teachers, keep from tearing out our hair?
First, do a quick self-examination. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you provide a structured, disciplined environment in which the rules are clearly understood?
- Do you have a structured way to begin and end your classes so that students know when it is time to comply with classroom etiquette? For example, do you allow a few minutes at the beginning of each class to connect with the students, allowing them to speak or share something about themselves? Try such prompts as “Let’s take a few minutes to talk before we begin class” and “Now ‘talk time’ is over.”
- Are you consistent with the students, without seesawing from playing with them to becoming a disciplinarian a moment later? Does your classroom assistant follow your lead?
- Do you avoid favoring one child, thus causing jealousy?
- Are your classes interesting, challenging, and worthy of your students’ undivided attention? Do you avoid lulls that allow for idle time and free thinking?
- Are you prepared to teach? Do you have a lesson plan?
- Do you and your assistants follow the rules? For example, do you begin and end on time? Are you dressed appropriately?
- Do you stay focused on your students?
- Do you insist that the dance environment be respected by parents and waiting students?
- Have you removed as many of the outside distractions as possible?
If you can honestly answer yes to most of these questions, then we can turn our attention to the behavior of the child.
The easiest and most common way teachers handle a problem is to quickly address it in a negative way. Typically we offer warnings for bad behavior and sometimes remove the student from the classroom. But there’s a better way. The next time you find yourself consistently giving negative attention to that one child, try this: catch the student doing something good.
This is easier than it sounds. If a student is constantly fidgeting, wait until you see her standing still (even if it’s for only a few seconds) and “catch” her at it. Say, “Suzi, thank you for standing so still! I really like that.” Do your best to catch it again and reinforce your earlier compliment by saying something like, “There you go again! You are doing a wonderful job!” After class, accompany her to the lobby and tell her waiting parent (so that everyone can hear), “Suzi stood still in class today and I was very proud of her.”
It’s important to follow up this positive reinforcement at the beginning of the next class. Greet Suzi at the door by saying, “Remember how well you stood still last week? I was very proud of you. Can you be the ‘stand still’ leader this week and help me teach the other dancers to stand still too?” Then announce to the class that Suzi will be the “stand still” leader that day.
You have now accomplished several very important things:
- Positive reinforcement of good behavior
- Positive attention before bad behavior can occur, which helps break the cycle of needing negative attention
- Giving the child a sense of importance, responsibility, and pride
- Helping the child gain new respect from her peers (which might be lacking due to previous bad behavior)
Here’s another example. Let’s say Noel likes to hop continually. Instead of asking Noel to stop for the hundredth time, I compliment him on his jumps and tell him that jumping is a skill all male dancers need. I then tell him the technical term for what he is doing and ask him to repeat it.
Next, I ask him how many jumps he wants to do before he’ll feel like standing still. I then allow him to do that many jumps.
What does all this accomplish? At first you might think this is a waste of valuable class time, but when you consider how his behavior was negatively taking away from class time in tiny increments every week, offering a few minutes of focused positive attention seems worthwhile. After all, it might alter the behavior for good. At the very least it will tire Noel out a bit and help him refocus on class.
Jenny likes to spin around in circles at inappropriate times, so I allow her to stay after class and spin around the empty room. I stay for a moment and watch, and those special moments have made a huge difference in her behavior.
Now for the follow-up. Later, in the appropriate section of class, create an opportunity to do the jump that Noel likes so much. Have Noel demonstrate what he has learned and repeat the name of the step. Then suggest that Noel come early the next week and get in all his jumping before class starts. For one solid minute, take a seat and let Noel have your undivided, positive attention. After all, eventually you will want Noel to jump like that. How wonderful would it be if his pride in the jumps spills over into his other work?
Here are a few other scenarios.
Jenny likes to spin around in circles at inappropriate times, so I allow her to stay after class and spin around the empty room. It makes her feel like a dancer. I stay for a moment and watch, and those special moments have made a huge difference in her behavior.
Catch students not talking by saying, “Listen to how quiet this room is right now! If you are not talking, please raise your hand. Jennifer, I think you were the quietest of all! Thank you so much!”
When children repeatedly don’t comply with the dress code, try this: “I have a special hair tie for you, Annie. I had one just like it that my dance teacher gave to me when I forgot to put my hair up one day. I want to give it to you so you won’t forget either. Will you take care of it and wear it to class for me? I also have these bobby pins that came from a very special store. I only have a few, but every time I see them I think of you. Would you like them?” Children like to know that grownups make mistakes sometimes too. And now Annie knows I think she is special, and she will try harder to please me by following the dress code.
When a child speaks out in class repeatedly or comments on everything you say, try this: “I know you are a very smart little girl. You must get very good grades at school. Will you please remember this French word for our class next week? I will remember to ask you first next week.” This will give her an approved-of way to speak out in class.
If you cannot find anything else to compliment, look for something positive that has nothing to do with dance. For example, tell Lizzie that you love her red leotard and she looks beautiful. The next week, try to wear something red. Make sure that Lizzie knows you chose it because of her.
“Taylor, you have beautiful long legs. You are very lucky! Can you show the class how well they kick?” The next week, bring in a picture of a beautiful, long-legged dancer who looks “just like her.” Developing a positive sense of herself will help Taylor learn to respect you.
When you need to follow up with positive reinforcement the next week or on an ongoing basis, leave Post-it notes on the attendance book as reminders.
We can’t allow these “problem” children to manipulate a class or dominate our time at the expense of the other children. Reverse favoritism is just as bad as the undesirable behavior. But a few stolen moments of positive attention can help turn a problem child into a model student.
Miss New York’s dance roots
By Diane Gudat
When Claire Buffie was crowned Miss New York 2010 by the Miss America Organization, I was more than excited and proud. After all, I had been her dance teacher since she was a young child.
I’ve seen many students leave for college with no interest in pursuing a dance major yet sad to leave their talent and love for dance behind. Claire was one of them, yet she found a unique outlet for her talents. Her experience led me to wonder how much of a role all those years at the dance studio and on the competition stage played in her being chosen as Miss New York. So I asked her.
What led you to begin competing in the local pageants?
Dance! I had danced for 15 years and after high school graduation I thought I was finished. But at a university where all of my friends were performers, being around their artistry and energy motivated me to dance again. Miss Ball State University, an Indiana preliminary, gave me the opportunity to perform immediately. I took it. After winning my title, Miss Duneland, in another local preliminary, and competing for the first time in the Miss Indiana pageant, I learned what the Miss America Organization was really about. It gave me the opportunity to have a voice about my passion for equality while being surrounded and challenged by intelligent, service-minded women. It was then that my goal of becoming Miss America developed.
What about your dance training has assisted you in your goals?
So much of what I learned growing up in a studio has translated to my Miss America preparation and success thus far. I have a leg up in the competition, literally, because of great legs from years of dance, back muscles that a normal female may not have, and the walk that some just can’t acquire. And I have a comfort level onstage that allows me to really shine.
I was so busy in high school, jumping from school to student council, to dance and of course, homework. I needed to maintain balance and major organization in my life. That need is more important now than ever.
Was participating in dance competitions valuable in your pursuit of the Miss America title? Were the losses as valuable as the wins?
My dance training influenced me mentally more than anything. I learned two very valuable lessons: the idea that you’re never competing against someone else—you’re competing against yourself, doing your personal best—and that excellence is a habit. Anything judged rather than timed or measured is subjective, but pageantry is a whole new level of subjectivity. So, you must bring your best you to the table, prepared with no stone unturned and confident in your presentation, regardless of the opinion of the seven judges.
How did you prepare for your dance entry in the talent portion of the competition?
I am lucky to be in New York City and to have Laurie Kanyok from [the Broadway shows] Movin’ Out and Come Fly Away as my choreographer, sponsored by JUMP Dance Convention. Phil LaDuca donated my LaDuca heels and my costume was custom made by [fashion designer] Jody Pelletier from Atlanta, Georgia.
Jeremy Roberts [an orchestrator with Broadway credits] made a completely new arrangement of my competition song, “Bye Bye Blackbird.” In addition to rehearsing at the gym or in the studio, I took dance classes at Broadway Dance Center. I needed to break in those heels, but we all know that ballet is the foundation. My second runner-up at Miss NY 2010 and preliminary talent winner was a third-year student at The Juilliard School, and she invited me to rehearse alongside Kandice Pelletier, a former Radio City Rockette and Miss NY 2005. I had an incredible team behind me!
So much of what I learned growing up in a studio has translated to my Miss America preparation and success thus far. I have a leg up in the competition, literally, because of great legs from years of dance.
What did you take from your experiences?
I have experienced tremendous growth in the past few years. In order to succeed in an interview with five to seven judges, you have to know what you believe and why you believe it. That interview preparation makes you aware of yourself and the world around you. I have had opportunities beyond what I even imagined and have been able to have an impact beyond what I would have been able to do [otherwise].
Will you continue your dance training?
For a while, with a bit of extra scholarship money left at Broadway Dance Center. I will always be involved with the performing arts. I am a photographer and graphic designer and will always work to promote the performing arts because that is where my heart is. At five-foot-nine and all legs, I’ve been recommended to audition for the Rockettes—we’ll see!
Postscript: Claire did wonderfully as one of the Top 12 at the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas in January. As I watched her on TV, I was so impressed with the maturity and charm of this once skinny little tomboy who had graced my studio. It makes me wonder if a future Miss America might have a hand on my barre right now.
Blame evolution for her flat feet, huge knees, and receding hairline
By Diane Gudat
I heard something the other day that scared me to death: a group of scientists studying human evolution said that due to the constant overuse of the thumb for tasks such as texting and gaming, they expect thumbs to become longer and more agile. The actual physical structure of the thumb will change!
Why does that frighten me?
Think about it: if physical features can change to better serve our future needs, what might the future dance teacher look like? Have we already begun to evolve? I am a third-generation dance teacher and my daughter is the fourth. Is my poor, unsuspecting daughter exhibiting the first signs of this inevitable evolution? And if not, will her future children suffer from the consequences of years of overuse of body parts specific to our profession?
I think it’s time to explore the dangers. What might dance teachers look like by the end of the century?
There is no question that they will have larger feet, which will be forced to expand due to the countless hours spent standing, jumping, and stamping around in tap shoes. (My daughter’s feet are already a half size larger than mine.) We have beaten our feet flat like a cheap tenderloin and sooner or later they will be as wide as they are long. We might very well be born with calluses and bunions already in place.
Our craniums will enlarge to allow for the extra brain power we require for multitasking. A new lobe will form to allow processing of to-do lists and to help with the intricacies of scheduling, fee collection, costume ordering, and music selection. Mental music recording and cutting may one day become a reality.
A new mouth will grow over our existing one. While our original mouth will continue to express our true emotions, the new mouth will always sport a warm, welcoming smile.
As an adverse reaction to years of body-squeezing Lycra and Spandex attire, the dance teacher of the future might very well develop patterned, almost snakelike skin that sheds and replaces itself in the event of weight gain.
Our pituitary glands will learn to produce and excrete high-octane caffeine at eight-hour intervals, along with Sominex if the body is not at full rest by midnight.
The knees will become larger to support excessive amounts of stress and strain. They will develop a second set of tendons and cartilage much like a second set of teeth, ready to take over when the first set begins to disintegrate.
All nerves surrounding the hip socket will become numb. This will allow many teachers to postpone mandatory hip replacements until well into their 60s. With any luck, the human body will learn to spontaneously produce titanium to replace its own joints.
The ears will grow larger as our hearing worsens. Meanwhile, the ear canal will develop a flap that will close (in the ear closest to the stereo speakers) to help block out damaging noise.
Hairlines will inch farther and farther back due to the constant wearing of ponytails and tight headbands. We might eventually be born completely bald.
Our index fingers will grow longer from years of pressing the “play” button on stereos and mp3 players. I would like to see one thumbnail evolve into a box cutter (for easy opening of pesky costume boxes) and one index finger become a felt-tipped marker. I can never find one when I want it.
I had an illustrator sketch my concept of what my future dance teacher grandchildren or great-grandchildren might look like. It was horrifying!
I’m not sure what we can do to change the course of evolution, but I will keep a sharp eye on my dance teacher daughter. In the name of science, I encourage all the generations of dance teachers out there to do the same and report back.
Last night in jazz class a male student—let’s call him Jim—got in trouble for being right.
This happens a lot to students at my studio. Let me explain.
Fourteen-year-old Jim did a beautiful battement to the side. His arms were well placed, his torso was strong, and he was standing well on his base leg. We had been doing the combination that included the battement for four consecutive weeks, building toward a recital performance. Jim had never shown that he was capable of that level of technique before. He had been holding back!
When I saw this fabulous battement I stopped the class and exclaimed, “That was absolutely beautiful!” I asked him to do it again and told the other students to watch. He repeated it, with the same wonderful technique and a huge smile.
To make sure it wasn’t a fluke and that he was aware of what he was doing, I instructed him to do it three more times. He did.
I asked the other students if they thought his battement was as nice as I did, and of course they agreed and applauded. I then turned to Jim and said, “You are in big trouble!” and asked if he knew why.
He nodded and replied with his head slightly lowered, repeating what I often say in the classroom: “If I can do it that well, then it is my responsibility to do it that way every time so that other dancers can see what it should look like and be inspired to do it too.”
In learning to accept responsibility for their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and in sharing their gifts with their classmates, students gain a sense of importance and purpose.
I said, “So you are ‘in trouble’ for being right,” and asked if he could recall ever getting in trouble for that outside of the dance studio.
He said, “No, but it happens to me a lot here and that’s what makes this place special.”
I smiled, patted him on the back, and said, “So then we, as your dance family, can count on you for that battement every single time?”
He assured me we could.
Peer mentoring comes in many forms, but it always enhances the studio experience and builds strength in teamwork. Older students will readily tell you what they don’t do well, but they must also develop the ability to identify and take pride in what they do well. In learning to accept responsibility for their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and in sharing their gifts with their classmates, students gain a sense of importance and purpose. This attitude can help them be less impressed with their own successes and turn their focus outward, toward their ability to influence the success of others.
Teachers must be careful that the ratio of corrections to compliments they give to students is as even as possible. It is vital that we find and publicly recognize our students’ individual talents and then hold them responsible for their gifts. Those gifts might take the form of a physical talent like Jim’s battement, a mental strength like my student Anna’s innate sense of organization, or an emotional strength like my student Loren’s constant good humor and unwavering kindness. But regardless of their gifts, all students must feel valued and maybe even irreplaceable.
When that happens, they’ll take being right as a responsibility and carry that concept with them everywhere they go.
A dance teacher’s “do before I die” dreams
By Diane Gudat
Not too long ago, I finally got around to watching the movie The Bucket List. Watching those two grumpy, confused old men decide what they had left to do before their days ended got me thinking about what I’d put on my own list. Here goes.
1. I was never a naturally limber dancer. As a kid, in ballet class I’d watch the girl next to me slide her slender leg down the barre to suspend herself in the perfect split while I struggled to get my chubby leg on the bottom barre. Once, just once, before I die I would love to do a full straddle split. If I were to have any sort of enhancement surgery in my life, it would be to retool my body to allow me to attain this level of stretch.
I even considered getting myself placed permanently in this position, but then I realized that I would eventually need a special wheelchair at the nursing home, which would require the attendants to push me sideways down the hallways like a sand crab. In the end, it would also require a custom T-shaped casket. Maybe just a good right- and left-leg split would be enough to satisfy this wish.
2. A back handspring is also something that I would love to experience. I know everything about them and have taught hundreds of people to do them, but I have never done one myself. I think this stems from a fear of landing on my head and losing the small amount of brains I was given at birth. Now that fear has been coupled with a terror of breaking every bone in my aging body. At one point in my life I was lucky enough to experience a full back flip in a harness on a trampoline. The exhilaration was amazing. I am still envious every time my students run full force down the acrobatics mat and flip themselves through the air. I have informed my family that if I am ever diagnosed with something terminal and have nothing left to lose, I will let them know by doing a standing back handspring in the middle of the living room.
3. Every summer my family and friends attend the Demolition Derby at the Indiana State Fair to witness my dance teacher friend Deb Collier’s only son drive a car to its absolute death. The noise, the crowd, the crunching all take me back to my youth when my father (also the town’s funeral director) ran the ambulance service at a small racetrack that featured figure-eight races and demolition derbies. Those summer nights were filled with snow cones and fun. I remember sitting in the stands with the dust and the noise and thinking how brave and crazy those drivers were.
I know as a dance teacher I should be more interested in the type of derby that fits on my head, but I can’t help myself. I imagine myself in a sleek, pink leather jumpsuit, rhinestone helmet, and great boots sitting in my red Ford Windstar (which has been spray-painted pink) and beating it to a bloody pulp. It seems like such a good outlet for frustrations, and with the same roar of the crowd I imagine one would receive when performing at Radio City Music Hall, it would be such an ego booster.
Besides, the event is always followed by amazing fireworks choreographed to music, and who doesn’t love that? And if things didn’t go my way, I’m pretty sure I could still see the fireworks from the back of the ambulance.
4. I once entertained the idea of attending Clown College. I remember visiting the Circus Museum (part of the Ringling Museum of Art) in Sarasota, Florida, as a child. I was impressed by photos of the Bearded Lady, the Elastic Man, and Tom Thumb. Since I’m basically normal in appearance and stature, the next best thing I could aspire to be as part of the circus was a clown. I imagined running away to join the circus, living in a train car, and popping out of a tiny car with 10 or 20 of my clown friends. Since then I have scaled back my dream to doing balloon art, attending some improvisational comedy workshops, and doing standup comedy at open mic nights. And why join the circus when my life feels like a circus most days anyway?
I imagine myself in a sleek, pink leather jumpsuit, rhinestone helmet, and great boots sitting in my red Ford Windstar (which has been spray-painted pink) and beating it to a bloody pulp in a demolition derby.
5. A few years ago on New Year’s Day my neighbor fulfilled one of the things on her bucket list by taking a “polar bear dip” in the local reservoir. She managed to convince the other three members of my family to join her. I stayed home. They literally had to break through the ice to get the job done. I admired their bravery but have no desire to jump in icy cold water. Ever.
Instead, I would love to go to a resort where you run to a hot tub through a fresh blanket of clean, white snow. Then, while sitting in absolute warmth and comfort, you can see your breath. I picture a beautiful spa attendant waiting with a pre-warmed robe at the edge of the hot tub when I’m finished. I keep waiting for a dance convention or teacher’s workshop to offer this as an optional class so that I could attend without guilt and claim it as a tax deduction.
6. Earlier in my life I thought I would love to be famous. I think most dancers do.
Never having had a big performing career, I often wonder what it would have been like to star in a production, appear in a TV series, or be recognized walking down the street. Although I would love it if someone called me tomorrow with that big break, reality has forced me to shift my original concept about this item on my list. Now I think it would be really great to dance on The Ellen Degeneres Show during the warm-up and have Ellen see me and invite me back to dance for her during the real show. I bear a slight resemblance to Ellen and I think that if she ever throws her back out again, with smart camera angles and the appropriate wardrobe, I could be her “dance double.”
7. For a large part of my life, I’ve harbored a desire to be a writer. At my high school I took a class called “English Humor,” which was paired with a second-semester creative writing class. Aside from drama and technical theater arts, these two classes were the most enjoyable and memorable of my high school years. (I tried out for cheerleading and dance team, unsuccessfully. Ironically, that very same dance team came to our studio for choreography right after I didn’t make the cut, and I was the one who worked with them.)
It was in writing class that I discovered a safe outlet for my frustrations and a budding sense of humor. I did not, however, enjoy the grammatical aspects of the work. I would constantly receive an A for content combined with a D for grammar. At the end of the year my teacher was perplexed about what grade to give me for the course. I gave her an arrogant teenager smile and said, “If I were a professional writer, I would have an editor.” She agreed and gave me the A.
Now I do have an editor and you are reading one of my dreams. Check this one off my bucket list!
The Dance Teachers Club of Boston is still accepting registrations for its August 1 to 8 Dance Education Training Course for students.
Course highlights include Tom Ralabate leading lessons in improvisation, Diane Gudat’s “Teaching Principals” classes for Level I and II, as well as classes in contemporary partnering and music theory. Friday’s session includes a special lunch with DETC faculty where college representatives will offer information about area college dance programs.
Club member teachers can observe the training school as a refresher course. The cost is $200 for the full week, including a full binder of notes and pictures from Levels I, II, and III, or $40 a day.
Visit www.danceteachersclubofboston.com to download the DETC brochure, including faculty bios, course information, and registration forms.
Words from our readers
I read the magazine from cover to cover; it keeps me in touch with the dancing school world. I especially enjoyed the article on my good friend Jeanne Meixell [“Schools With Staying Power: Doing It Mom’s Way,” November 2010], and Diane [Gudat] continues to write wonderful articles with a great flair for comedy.
I read “The World Awaits You” by Debra Danese [“Thinking Out Loud,” January 2011] and wanted to know how she got it out there that she was willing to teach abroad. I teach dance but am also a contortion trainer, somewhat of a rare specialty. The art of contortion is safe if taught properly, and I would love to expose the control and safety of it. If there is a desire to go professional, I have ties to Ska von Schöning and even Cirque du Soleil.
Dance Extensions Performing Arts Center
“High Drama in Black Swan” by Karen White was interesting about a young choreographer learning about movies. Some people thought [the film] portrayed the real life of a working dancer. I had inquiries about whether to take 13-year-olds to see it.
In real life, a good teacher or director should have recognized the girl was unbalanced and anorexic. Unstable, antisocial behavior and an inability to work with other dancers do “not a company make,” nor does a career survive on a single performance, except in the movies.
Anyone who took a young dancer was really turned off about paying for ballet training. As directors, choreographers, and teachers who deal with aspiring young dancers, we have a responsibility to present a more positive, healthy picture of the profession. Dance Studio Life has always reinforced the positive aspects. Please keep doing it.
Barbara W. Thuesen, RDE
Music in Motion®
Ithaca, New York
Editor’s note: You make an important distinction when you say this film (rated R, by the way—this is emphatically not a movie for youngsters) doesn’t represent real life, since nowhere did it claim to be a documentary. We chose to present to our readers something we do see as quite positive: how a young choreographer had the chance to gain new experience in the medium of film
Registrations are still being accepted for the Dance Teachers’ Club of Boston summer student Dance Education Training Course, scheduled to run August 1 to 5 at the Lantana in Randolph, Massachusetts.
The course is divided into three levels presented over three summers, and incorporates training and study skills for teaching beginner, intermediate, and advanced dance students. DETC is open to serious, dedicated dance students who study with member teachers, to member teachers, and non-member dancers.
The course features instruction in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern, with special classes in children’s, ballroom, musical theater, improv, music, contemporary, injury prevention, and teaching principals. The faculty for 2011 includes Tom Ralabate, Diane Gudat, E. Laura Hausmann, Heather Southwick, and Ginny Durow. The highlight of the last day of classes is a panel discussion with faculty with information about preparation for college. Family and friends are welcome to attend the Awards Ceremony and dinner on August 7.
DTCB member teachers can observe DETC classes as a refresher course. Cost is $200 and includes a binder with a complete set of notes from Levels I, II, and III. Members have the option of attending single days at the cost of $40 per day, with notes for an additional $50.
Registration deadline is June 1. Visit www.danceteachersclubofboston.com to download the DETC brochure, which includes faculty bios, information regarding the course, and registration forms.
What TV dance is doing to classroom practices
By Diane Gudat
So You Think You Can Dance, along with other dance-related reality TV shows, has escorted a new excitement for dance into the American living room. We love to see dance in prime time, with male dancers accepted by a public that’s also getting an education on different styles of dance. Our young dancers have new heroes. Teachers are exposed to exciting new choreography. But still, the dance educator in me sees a problem.
These shows crown the “favorite” dancer—instead of the one with the best technique—as the winner. Then how do we, as teachers, inspire our students to work hard when popularity seems to trump technique?
Certainly, most of the winners are by no means substandard or lacking in talent. But some judges’ critiques hint that if a dancer doesn’t improve his overall crowd appeal, he will likely go home.
Understandably, the two work hand-in-hand in producing a well-rounded professional dancer. No audience member wants to watch a technician suffer through an uninspired performance. But if some reality-show “dancers” gain fame by being pretty and popular and not for mastering their craft, where is the balance? How do we explain what’s important to our students?
Over the past two decades, studios have been greatly influenced by the growth in competitive dancing. Phenomenal dancing can be seen in theaters across the country on any given weekend. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to keep up. Judges are bombarded with elaborate costuming and routine after routine filled with nearly impossible turns and leaps. But what happens to the young student who quietly struggles to develop technique? What if she lacks pizzazz onstage and gets lost in the competition shuffle? Is there a way to keep the still-growing, still-learning students from becoming discouraged? How do we reward them for their diligence and keep them in our studios until they mature into true artists?
Let’s take an honest look at how we relate to our students and teach them on a daily basis—as well as how we handle competition and its pervasive influence:
- Do we consistently favor one child?
- Are outgoing children allowed to control the classroom’s social structure?
- Are the cute or pretty children always in the front line?
- Do the loudest parents (or the ones who spend the most money) have more of a say than the parents of devoted children who attend class only once a week?
- Does the same child always lead the class across the floor?
- Do boys follow the same rules as girls?
- Are small accomplishments in technique noticed and rewarded?
- Are routines choreographed so that students progress in their training or to win or score higher than last year?
- Are all students being used to their maximum capacity, or are select students featured in flashy steps while others do lesser or background choreography?
- Does a student’s love of dance receive as much attention and praise as the ability to correctly perform a skill?
- Do costumes reflect the age and maturity of students or are they chosen for the “wow” factor?
- Is development of good technique taking a backseat to choreographing or rehearsing competition routines?
- Do we talk about winning or show disappointment when we do not come out on top?
- Do we question the judges’ opinions in front of students, or bend rules?
- Are students allowed to compete against each other, or are they taught to compete as a “family” unit that celebrates the accomplishments of all its members?
- Are winners put on a pedestal?
The true beauty of dance is found in quiet moments of classroom study, watching as a child learns a disciplined art form and finds the artist hidden inside. The sacred trust and special bond between student and teacher should be extended to every child placed in our care. Our utmost goal is to help all children achieve their dance potential.
Some students will naturally excel. Others, like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, will find the way slowly but surely. Are we offering enough encouragement to keep those “tortoises” trudging down the path? Shows like SYTYCD will continue to crown the hero of the day, but true inspiration comes from a less likely hero—the supportive dance teacher.
Traditional steps are a guide, not a gospel, in the classroom
By Diane Gudat
Tap dance is an infant in the scope of dance history. Unlike ballet, which has traveled to us through at least 200 generations of teachers, tap can claim only four or five generations of structured teachers in its history. It’s humbling to think of how much influence we have as teachers of this genre, and what we might do to advance the art form. I am lucky enough to have made a teaching discovery that altered the path of my career and, I hope, chipped away at some of the rigid ideas about teaching tap.
Many years ago, in a master class taught by Bo Wagner at a teacher training school in Florida, I realized that our job as today’s tap teachers and choreographers is to take the traditional “named” steps—which I now like to refer to as “stencils”—and embellish them with as much color and texture as possible. The tried-and-true framework of steps such as buffalos, cramp rolls, time steps, drawbacks, and waltz clogs is only a guide for us to use in building thousands of new and challenging steps.
This was a revelation to me. As a young tap teacher, I was obsessed with trying to find enough steps to fill my studio syllabus and make myself feel competent to teach class on all levels. I attended countless classes, workshops, conventions, and training schools. I memorized and imitated other teachers’ combinations, bought dance videos, and read every book I could find on the subject. Still, as a dancer who didn’t begin putting “metal to wood” until age 15, I felt that my tap vocabulary was sorely lacking.
That one class with Wagner changed the path of my teaching career. I learned that I was not just allowed but expected to alter the traditional steps. There was no secret source for collecting all the “good” tap steps; instead, as a teacher, I could make the most of what I already knew. That day I received permission to be creative.
A simple concept
Wagner’s approach involves a unique way to apply the concept of single, double, and triple to the standard structure of the time step. Not only can the sounds following the hop sound in the traditional time step be changed from single to double and double to triple, but the next sound (traditionally the flap) can be a single or triple sound as well.
Consider what happens when this concept is applied to other tap steps. Within any tap combination containing the word “step,” the traditionally recognized single sound, the step can be transformed to a double or triple version of itself by removing and replacing that sound. (For example, a buck time step: stomp, spank, hop, step, flap, step.)
If that’s true, any tap combination that contains the word “flap” (the traditionally recognized double sound), can be done as a single or triple.
Singles can be doubles. Doubles can be triples. Triples (traditionally the “shuffle step”) can be singles, and on and on. Moreover, not only does this concept apply to time steps, but it also applies to virtually every tap step that exists. The only real rule is that the replacement sound must fit into the original space without affecting the overlying rhythm of the step in its original form.
Now I refer to myself as a “variables” teacher. I use more than 13 different methods for manipulating “stencil” steps, including shuffle replacements, hop replacements, shifting techniques, prefixing, suffixing, sandwiching, and adding extra sounds such as heel and toe drops. For example, consider ways to replace the hop in a basic traditional Irish (shuffle hop step). Have students try a heel or ball drop (shuffle drop step); or, for more advanced tappers, a single wing or single toe stand (shuffle wing step).
Or you can apply what I call my “shifting technique” to that same Irish. Number each of the individual components (shuffle is 1, hop is 2, step is 3) and then rearrange them (for example, 2-1-3, or, hop shuffle step).
Remember, there is no “tap police.” As long as we work within healthy guidelines for the physical structure of the foot and leg, all things are legal with rhythm and tap.
Beyond the familiar basics of single, double, and triple, there are also quadruple sounds (shuffle R, step R, heel drop R), quintuplet sounds (double shuffle R, step R, heel drop R), sextuplet sounds (double shuffle R, step R, heel drop L, heel drop R), and many more.
Offering variables without changing rhythm patterns can either simplify or complicate the steps. This allows students of different levels and talents to work side by side in the same class. My advanced students more easily assimilate new material from unfamiliar teachers because they recognize almost any step as a variable form of a stencil step they have already learned. I can also call out a step, instruct them to double it, and they can figure out variations on their own.
Rhythm and history
Another dance educator, Beverly Fletcher, also inspired me to think differently about the musicality and history of tap. By taking class with Fletcher and studying her book Tapworks: A Tap Dictionary and Reference Manual, I filled in the gaps in my knowledge and application of music theory and tap history. I learned that changing the accent or shading of a step allows it to speak in a different voice or to say something completely different. I now manipulate the rhythm of steps with confidence. Knowing who created these tap steps and how they evolved, and conveying that to my students, allows my teaching to grow in depth and flavor.
I take great pleasure in finding new ways to alter classic steps while still paying homage to them and their creators, and helping others to make their own discoveries. Remember, there is no “tap police.” As long as we work within healthy guidelines for the physical structure of the foot and leg, all things are legal with rhythm and tap. The creativity that we inspire in the next generation will help to mold what tap dancing will become as a dance form.
Buck time step with variables
Give it a try. Remember, a single sound is a step. To double that, use a flap. For a triple, use a shuffle step. You can pick any of these three variables in any combination.
Stomp R, spank R (8&)
Hop L (1)
First variable (choose one of the following):
Step R (2)
Flap R (a2)
Shuffle step R (&a2)
Second variable (choose one):
Step L (3)
Flap L (a3)
Shuffle step (&a3)
Step R (&)
More information on this tap method can be found in Variable Techniques for Teaching Tap by Diane Gudat (available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org) .
Paris and Other Brave New Worlds
By Diane Gudat
One day, after 30 years in the classroom, I realized I was burned out. It was increasingly difficult to relate to anything outside the dance world. It was time, I thought, to expand my horizons and relight my fire.
I had always harbored a deep desire to visit Paris. I pictured myself exiting an airplane on the tarmac staircase (not unlike scenes of The Beatles’ arrival in the United States). I’d wear a smart dress and perfect flats. Waving at the crowd in my wrist-length white gloves, I’d exclaim in my best Julia Child accent, “Petit battement sur le cou-de-pied!” (This was the longest French phrase I knew at the time.) So, as my New Year’s resolution for 2009, I launched a plan to shame my husband into taking me to France.
I should explain that I am ever-so-slightly obsessive. When I learned to crochet I quickly made a 20-pound blanket that would cover two king-size beds. The next year I switched to knitting and made legwarmers and scarves for everyone I knew. I never saw them—the legwarmers and scarves, I mean—again.
With my French adventure in mind, I downloaded a French language course and bought workbooks, flash cards, and dictionaries. I figured I already had a good grasp on several French verbs. Yet the more I studied, the more confused I became. (Turns out that “ballet French” is not necessarily conversational.) I did not give up but kept the language lessons playing in my car and on my iPod. At the gym I would select a treadmill between two people wearing headphones so they wouldn’t hear me repeating the lessons aloud. (I hope they thought I was singing, but they probably thought I was just odd.) I even tried to translate The Little Prince, thinking it would be fun to translate a simple children’s story. Simple children’s story? Ha! I never even managed to read it in English.
After a year and a half, I now can introduce myself, order wine, and book a hotel room. It may sound stupid, but I feel a little smarter and a bit more in control, and I definitely find myself more interesting. And my ploy worked—my husband and I went to Paris for two weeks in September.
Letting go has helped me in so many ways. It has given me a fresh and important perspective on how my students feel in the classroom. As I strengthened my body, I recaptured a little of the physical confidence I had lost as an aging dancer.
Inspired by that small step into the unknown—and frustrated by a shoulder injury—I decided to try something new in the physical realm. I enrolled in Pilates, certain that my extensive knowledge of the dance arts meant I would excel and even teach this instructor a thing or two. Two moves into session number one, I realized my experience was practically irrelevant. If I wanted to learn this new method of movement, I had to first learn to let go of what I knew.
Letting go has helped me in so many ways. It has given me a fresh and important perspective on how my students feel in the classroom. As I strengthened my body, I recaptured a little of the physical confidence I had lost as an aging dancer. I felt better and there was new pep in my step. I’ve since added a mat class to my weekly Pilates schedule and continue to be inspired to look at my old world in a new way. Dance friends have told me they have experienced similar rejuvenation in yoga, Zumba, or Gyrokinesis classes. What’s more, I even have a few new friends.
With a recuperated shoulder and a very strong knee brace, I decided to attempt a step aerobics class. That first hour felt like five. The 20-something instructor barked out rapid-fire patterns that had my head spinning. And no one explained that the benches were adjustable. There I was on the highest setting, facing the wrong direction and panting like a Saint Bernard while the stereo pounded and the Black Eyed Peas told me that “tonight’s gonna be a good, good night!” After it was over, a woman from two benches down approached. “Weren’t you Miss Diane, my old dance teacher?”
Well, I am still Miss Diane, but new and improved! One of these days I’ll figure out what that baby-faced instructor means when she screams “Shuffle!” or “Around the world!” In the meantime, I’m going to keep laughing and I’m not giving up.
Lately, I have an urge to get one of those dressmaker forms like on Project Runway and make myself a gown. Who knows? I could end up wearing it in Paris. Ooh la la!
A studio owner’s non-dancing daughter tells all
By Diane and Siobhan Gudat
I have read wonderfully insightful articles about the struggles of children whose dance teacher is their parent, such as “My Life as a Studio Owner’s Daughter,” in the January 2009 issue of this magazine. All children who live in the shadow of a parent with a dance studio experience both struggles and advantages. But what of their non-dancing siblings? What kind of pressures and problems do they face when they don’t share that world?
I have a dancing daughter, Caitlin, who was constantly by my side at the studio. She received her BFA and now teaches dance and performs in Chicago. When she was a student, we traveled the world together, with Caitlin competing and serving as my demonstrator at conventions and workshops.
My other child, Siobhan, does not dance at all. As a young child she took class and performed; she was possibly more talented than her older sister. But when we began to clash in the classroom, I realized that although she loved being at the studio with her friends, she did not love dance. During a year off she tried school sports—basketball, kickball, volleyball—along with piano and gymnastics (not at my studio), before finding her passion on the field in a summer softball league.
My husband was thrilled. While he supported our dancing daughter, to him softball was a real live sport, something he could understand. After causing Siobhan much embarrassment, her sister and I eventually learned the rules of the game and what to yell from the sidelines. We ate “walking tacos” and cheese dogs and did our best to embrace her world.
With this change in our lives, I saw Siobhan only in the mornings before school and briefly in the afternoons before I left for the studio, and perhaps at the end of my day if she was still up doing homework. I missed some weekend games and tournaments because of rehearsals or competitions. Attempts to get the family together at summertime national conventions sometimes clashed with events at home that were more important to Siobhan.
Luckily, my husband—a wonderful, nurturing parent—has a flexible job, allowing him to manage Siobhan’s life and social activities. With personalities that complement each other, they have a comfortable, loving relationship. Siobhan, who plays softball year round and trains younger players, has the best bat, cleats, and gloves we can afford and a top-rate batting coach.
My sporadic attempts to coax Siobhan back to dance class were not successful. Like most working mothers, I have bouts of guilt about the limited amount of time we shared while she was growing up. But Siobhan brought a quality to my time that dance could not. Having such a strong-willed, focused daughter flips my world upside down. She has taught me that there is infinite value to a day spent in a lawn chair and that thousands of people live happy, healthy, and interesting lives that contain no dance at all. I am grateful to have seen so much of the world outside the dance studio through her eyes.
Still, I often wondered what she thought about it all. So I sent her a questionnaire, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know her answers. As it happens, I had nothing to worry about. And one thing is clear: I made the right decision in not forcing her down a path she wasn’t inclined to take.
What is the hardest thing about being the non-dancing daughter of a dance teacher?
My mother tends to apply dance terminology to my sports life. She always tells me to work hard in “class” (ball practice), do my best at “auditions” (tryouts) and wishes me good luck at my “competitions” (tournaments). She asks me to make sure I have my “costume” ready when she knows it is my uniform!
What’s good about it?
By playing sports, I bring something new to the family. And my dad can feel like a “normal” father. At a softball tournament, he helps drag my equipment bag and cooler full of Gatorade instead of hairspray, costume bags, and Caboodles.
What are your memories of being a young dancer?
I remember an awesome trip when I performed at Disney World; a regional dance competition where I stayed with friends at a hotel; interview practice for a title competition; and many, many, many car rides. I also remember all the fun with friends in class, dancing to songs like “Disco Inferno” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
What does recital and competition season mean to you?
Recital season means total chaos at home. Costumes and boxes everywhere, papers stacked on papers, music and dancing in the living room, and constant projects to complete. Competition season means chaotic weeks but calmer weekends when Mom goes out of town to judge, and maybe some extra spending money. (So it’s not all bad.)
Are people surprised that you don’t dance? What are your reasons?
Yes! Dance world people who know me as Diane Gudat’s daughter consider it a sin that I do not dance. As for my personal reason, I am not the dancer type. People I know now find it very funny that I used to dance.
Do you have any “outsider” impressions of the dance world?
Sports people are always competitive, yet dance people often work for their own satisfaction. They are artists first, competitors second.
How is your house different from your friends’ houses?
My friends come over when they need glitter, fabric, a mom who can sew, French braids, fake eyelashes, a costume for Halloween or spirit week, puffy paint, Sharpies, or stickers. They never understand why all of this stuff sits permanently on our kitchen table, along with thousands of papers and costume catalogs.
Do you think your life is better or worse for having a dance-teacher mom?
It’s better, more interesting. I may not be able to ask for help on my chemistry homework like kids whose parents are chemists, and my mom and sister may not really understand sports, but life is sure out of the ordinary.
When you were dancing, did you ever feel different?
Yes, I remember being yelled at in dance class or on the car ride home because I was talking. But if I wanted to work on something in the studio in our garage, Mom would help me. That’s how I received some of my favorite solos.
Do you sometimes wish your mom and sister were in another line of work?
No, it’s what they love, so why change it if they’re happy? Sure, they may have some personality quirks no one but a dancer can understand, but that’s half the fun.
Are your mom’s and sister’s friends different?
My mom’s dance friends are the strangest yet funniest people I have ever met. The dance world is something you are drawn to—like a person who spends his entire life in a laboratory. That person would use weird scientific terms, make dorky jokes about the Greek alphabet, and solve ridiculous math problems in his head. Dance people are the same, except they use French terms, make jokes about dancers and songs, and can figure out 32 counts of ridiculous tap choreography in 10 seconds.
How did growing up with dance shape your future?
When I was 3, I saw myself becoming a dance teacher. That’s changed, but I still love children and want to work as a physical trainer for kids—which is like being a dance teacher, but with less glitter.
How kids mangle ballet terminology
By Diane Gudat
I started dancing at age 11—a late start by most standards. But as eager as I was to start class, I was so terrified that I broke out in hives when the petite-yet-powerful dance teacher emphasized her commands by pounding the floor with her cane. When she asked my mother if I was contagious, rather than saving me, my mother said, “She’s fine. That’s just what she does,” and left me there to die.
As scared as I was, I was even more petrified for the girl who stood in front of me at the barre. I assumed her name was Debbie because no matter how hard the poor girl tried, this pit bull of a teacher would pound her cane and scream in her French Canadian accent, “Debbie Plié, Debbie Plié!” On the first day I tried to make her feel better after class by saying, “Debbie, I think you are a really good dancer.” She tipped her head like a confused beagle and moved quickly past the splotchy new kid and out the door. A few weeks later I realized that the teacher was saying “demi-plié,” and I began calling the girl by her real name, Margo.
It took me more than 30 years to find closure with that embarrassing moment. One day when I was teaching a beginners class, a little ballerina looked at me indignantly and demanded to know why it was only Patty who got to bourrée. The innocent confusion of this small mind finally allowed me to revisit and repair the ego of my own linguistically challenged inner child.
Since kids don’t always hear confusing French terms quite the way they’re pronounced, I always write them on the mirror. I quickly discovered that I should have included my own name on that list.
Early in my teaching career I was overly proud of the fact that I was a “Mrs.”; I didn’t want to be called “Miss Diane.” I requested that my students call me by my formal title, Mrs. Gudat (pronounced “goo-dot”). When one small child persisted in calling me “Mrs. Dot,” I asked her what my first name was. When she replied, “Goo,” I immediately went back to being Miss Diane.
I give my students a written quiz on French ballet terms, with a small prize for the top scores, at the end of the first semester. I continually find out that what I say and what my students think I say are completely different things (despite my scrawling on the mirror), and sometimes their answers are very funny. These are some of the better quiz answers I have enjoyed over the years.
What is the term given to fully extending the leg from passé to the front, back, or side?
“Devil-will-pay” (I have received this answer more than once.)
What is the term for beating the foot of the working leg against the base leg?
“Balloo” (So named after the bear in The Jungle Book, I guess.)
This means “to melt”: a demi-plié on one leg.
“Thaw-lé” (Yes, she used an accent mark.)
What term means to circle the leg on the floor?
“Round pajamas that tear” (In this child’s defense, she did write “sounds like” at the beginning of her answer. She must excel at Charades.)
What term means “in the air”?
“A liar” (So close!)
What is the French word for the number five?
“Sanka” (Obviously her parents drink instant coffee.)
What is the term for the step where we step on the right leg to second, then move the left leg through first position forward to fourth and finish by closing the right leg behind in fifth position?
“Potty box” (This child obviously owns a cat.)
What is the term for a dance for two?
“Passie de duce” (Perhaps her parents are in a card club.)
What term means “to disengage”?
“To get engaged” (She was looking forward to being the flower girl when her mother got remarried that summer.)
What is the French word for “outside”?
“En de whores” (Oops.)
’Tis the season when jollies turn to follies
By Diane Gudat
A few months ago a dance teacher sent me a survey asking how our studio produces its Christmastime show. She was considering adding a holiday show to her studio calendar and was looking for veterans’ advice. I should have said, “Don’t do it!” It is crazy enough trying to produce one major show a year—add that December show and all sanity goes out the window. Unfortunately, the pageantry and heartwarming music of the season usually lure us in, and before we know it we are up to our stocking caps in nutcrackers and elves.
Even if all went without a hitch, a holiday show is one too many cookies on Santa’s plate. When problems arise, you’d better hang on to your Christmas spirit and have some eggnog handy. Here are some of the challenges I have faced as the director of a December show.
As stressed as dance teachers are at this time of the year, the studio parents are even more so. This is especially true of those with young children—they have visions of their own perfect little sugarplums dancing in their heads.
I’ll be the last one to “parent bash,” but here’s how predictable these poor parents can be. In an effort to cut costs for our holiday showcase, we ordered solid-color satin bodices with matching tutu bands for our preschool classes. Each class had its own color, trimmed in sequins. As luck would have it, there was one more preschool class than colors available through our favorite costume catalog, so I was forced to order the green costume from a different company. Although the green tutus were fuller than the others, they did not have sequins.
Dress rehearsal for the showcase seemed like smooth sailing until one young teacher, clearly shaken, collared me backstage. One of the “green” parents was furious that her daughter’s class was not on the “sequin sled.” She was causing a major scene in the dressing room. I took a deep breath and told the teacher to follow me—but not too closely, so the parent wouldn’t know she had spoken to me.
I floated into the dressing room as if I had come to welcome the young dancers and wish them good luck. The disgruntled “green” moms and their princesses huddled at one end of the room. I stopped, looked at the little darlings, put my hands to my chest, gasped, and exclaimed, “Oh, I knew I would love these green costumes!” Moving closer to the ringleader, I whispered—not too much under my breath—that although the green costumes were more expensive (they did require separate postage) and had been much more trouble than the others (they did require a different order form), I knew her red-headed child would look terrific in that color. I gathered the kids together for a class picture and then tactfully asked the moms not to make the other classes feel bad.
The teacher who had summoned me was stifling a laugh. As I hurried out of the room, I winked and whispered in her ear, “That is what time will teach you!”
The next year the studio was due for its biannual production of The Nutcracker. I decided to stir up the figgy pudding and stage a children’s Cinderella instead. My decision to switch was influenced by what we now call “the curse of the Claras.” Every young girl we had chosen to play the role of Clara for the past four Nutcrackers had quit taking dance within a year. Unwilling to lose another talented young dancer, I cast an older girl as Cinderella.
As the curtain rose on the opening scene, Cinderella and her stepfamily were seated in the living room. All seemed fine until the musical cue for Cinderella’s solo came and went with little or no movement from the dancer. Then she rose slowly and began dancing strangely, with her hands glued to her sides. Her frozen smile and sideways glances let me know there was something horribly wrong—and there was: she could not find the trunks that went under her dress and was wearing only a pair of pink tights. Whatever possessed her to go onstage without trunks is still one of the great mysteries of Christmas Past. We borrowed a pair for act two.
As I left the theater that night, I found her trunks hanging from a small fir tree close to where she had parked her car. I left them there as the only decoration on that fledgling Christmas tree.
We returned to The Nutcracker the following season, casting a girl named Clair for the role of Clara, which finally broke the curse. The father of the boy cast as the Nutcracker wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of his son wearing tights onstage, so I had the boy wear black dress pants. Without consulting me, and because he didn’t want to get his good pants dirty, he wore a different pair to dress rehearsal.
Things went well the night of the performance until the Nutcracker solo, which included several successive straddle leaps. The seams of the dancer’s pants were not as flexible as his legs. They gave way under the stress, revealing his tan dance belt a little more with each jump. Since he still had the rest of the first act to go, including a pas de deux with Clara, I grabbed a pair of dirty black jazz pants and coaxed him behind the Christmas tree (which luckily had grown by that time) to change. Meanwhile, more than one Sugarplum watched in horror from backstage.
After the show the boy’s father handed me a blank check. With a sheepish grin he said, “Please buy my son some tights!”
A sentimental (and horrifying) look at the dance styles of my life
By Diane Gudat
I no longer wear what most people would label as dancewear. These days, if my T-shirt in any way matches the stripes on my workout pants, I consider it a Rachel Zoe kind of day. The only possible way I would wear tights would be with a skirt of the same color and knee-high boots. As for a leotard, it would be cruel to subject not just my students but also Lycra itself to my over-30-something (ahem) body. So, frightened by an Oprah episode focusing on the dangers of hoarding, I decided to clear out the storage boxes labeled “Diane’s Dancewear.”
With trepidation, I lifted the top of box number one. It was stuffed with tights of every color, including one pair in a bright shimmery yellow. I remember wearing them with a long-sleeved black leotard, hand-painted yellow ballet slippers, and a black skinny belt that ran under my leotard in the back, came out the leg holes, and fastened in the front to make a faux “French cut” look. Another pair of tights, in ballet pink, had the feet and crotch cut off so I could wear them as a top, layered under my black camisole leotard. Digging deeper, I found multiple camisole shelf-bra tops, remembrances from my “one more layer of clothing might disguise my extra weight” period of style.
Then I saw it! At the bottom of the tub was one fabulous hot-pink, braided terry-cloth headband. The matching zipper jumpsuit was nowhere to be found, but I could picture myself in it perfectly. I slipped the headband on—straight across my forehead, of course—and my foot immediately popped to a perfect parallel passé.
I remember feeling so cool in this amazing ensemble. I was obviously the envy of all in my aerobic dance class as we danced to Jody Watley’s “Looking for a New Love.” I liked the look so much that I costumed an entire jazz class in oversized jersey zipper jumpsuits with contrasting slouchy ankle socks and headbands. Each dancer wore a combination of primary colors, including the laces of their white oxford jazz shoes. I proudly took this group to perform at the mall, where they performed two successive pieces by stacking their shiny purple-and-hot-pink striped leotards under their jumpsuits.
Eagerly I popped the top off the second box and there were my ripstop pants—maroon and navy, black and pink. Oh, how I loved them! They were not cool, of course, unless you rolled the top over a half-inch elastic belt. The perfect ripstop look also included slouchy leg warmers pushed down around the ankles. I remember topping off the look with a zipper-front leotard and a curly perm.
Sharing this box was my next phase of layering, the knitted full-body warm-up. This one was black, and it never fit the way it did on the girl in the catalog; it stretched where it should have bloused and never achieved that perfect saggy look. I am sure the problem was a flaw in the knitting pattern and not my dance physique.
Also there were the only pants I have ever purchased with writing across the rear end. Made of thick, black, glossy Lycra, they said “5678,” which might very well have been my measurements at the time. It could be my own insecurities, but I have never felt that the derriere is an appropriate billboard. Around that time I also purchased a pair of underwear that had a dance motif on the rear. Growing up in Indiana, I usually went a little over the top when faced with dance-related retail that was not available at the dancewear stores at home.
At the bottom of the tub was one fabulous hot-pink, braided terry-cloth headband. The matching zipper jumpsuit was nowhere to be found, but I could picture myself in it perfectly.
The third box was full of old recital T-shirts. I immediately conjured up the pride of designing the logos on the kitchen table and thinking how beautiful they looked when I picked them up at the printer. Of course, this was always a few sleep-deprived days before the recital, when I thought anything that was finished on schedule was beautiful. There were purple, yellow, lime green, and black versions, tie-dyed, splattered, three-quarter-sleeved works of art. There were even some that, in an early attempt to save money, I had silkscreened myself. I have always intended to frame the shirtfronts or have them sewn into a keepsake quilt by that place that advertises in the Sky Mall catalog. I wonder, though, if I would be able to relax under the pressure of a constant reminder of so many recitals gone by.
Next, I found all my old studio sweatshirts. A few had the neck holes cut larger, one had the sleeves cut to make fringe, and one still had a plastic circle at the bottom to pull the fabric through and knot at the side. One sweatshirt had been cut up the front to make it into a jacket of sorts. Some were embellished with puffy paint and rhinestones, while others were autographed by students or teachers from conventions.
These sweatshirts also reflected a wide range of sizes that had felt comfortable at various times—pre-pregnancy smalls, extra larges for the “baby” years, and mediums after that. I remembered the first time I bought a shirt for my daughter that matched mine. I laugh when I remember how all those designs and alterations were so important to making me fit in and feel good about myself.
The last box contained shirts and memorabilia from performances, events, and Broadway shows I have attended. I remember needing the shirts to make the event last in my mind and to let people know that I was more special for the experience. There were coffee cups with every dance quote imaginable (gifts from students over the years), a road sign that said “Broadway” that I picked up on my first trip to New York, and endless Playbills and ticket stubs, a few with stage-door autographs. I found my daughter’s first Playbill and ticket for Beauty and the Beast and grinned at the “huge” $45 price.
I dug out a light-blue satin studio jacket and a jean jacket, covered with rhinestones and airbrushed with my company’s first logo. A large envelope held pictures of my smiling dancers in their required leotards, with bangs sticking straight up, along with promotional photos of my first performance company. Some of these dancers are now among the proud parents whose children are in my classes. I found a pin commemorating my students’ performance at Disney World and a book of notes from my first national convention.
All of this made me laugh about dance fashion over the years. I thought about how annoyed I’d be when my daughter would come home from a convention with one pant leg rolled up or her sock halfway off her foot. There was a time when a two-inch part on the left or a French braid down the back completed her world.
With a secret smile, I am thrilled to see that leg warmers have made a fashion comeback. Headbands made of plastic or pre-wrap adorn my dancers’ heads, and they hearken back to the day of the matching scrunchie. Train cases gave way to Caboodles of every color, shape, and size, which have now been replaced by rolling Stanley toolboxes and portable dressing rooms. We have seen rhinestones mounted on spiral hair picks or glued to the part in the hair, the corners of the eyes, and fingernails. Spray glitter, hair Bumpits, and colored hairpins are standard equipment.
In the end, I condensed my stash, but only a bit. Just in case, I kept one of every style. Who knows when the Smithsonian might call? I threw very little away, but how could I? The ’80s are back, and I just might be cool again soon.
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.
DLTV News, featuring Diane Gudat, is a humorous look at the dance teacher’s life, presented in a
news-broadcast format. In this episode all Nutcracker performances are
canceled; a dance teacher in Pittsburgh is in big trouble after she rhinestones
her cats; a panel of disorientated competition judges are found roaming the
streets after witnessing a solo lyric division with no fouetté turns; and a lot
DLTV News, featuring Diane Gudat, is a humorous look at the dance teacher’s life, presented in a news-broadcast format. In this episode you’ll learn the current state of modern dance; a Massachusetts dance teacher is treated for shock; a Florida dance teacher takes a day off; and a lot more.
DLTV News, featuring Diane Gudat, is a humorous look at the dance teacher’s life, presented in a news-broadcast format. In this episode a new dance teacher, Barbie, is introduced; an exciting new seminar for dance teachers is unveiled; a process for melting down trophies to make replacement body parts for dance teachers has been discovered; and a lot more.
By Diane Gudat
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was trying to muster enough strength to teach another full night at the studio. I had already put in almost three hours of dance-related work at home and was wondering, “Why do I continue to do this job?”
Then, through the studio door bounded 9-year-old Jenn (not her real name). Jenn is short for her age and has a sweet, round face. She is not a talented dancer, but she always remembers her French terms and is the first to throw her hand up when I ask her class a question. Jenn fidgets, wiggles, and loves to talk in line, jump across a pretend river, or walk an imaginary tightrope. And she responds much better to compliments than to corrections.
During the summer, Jenn’s mother sent an email to the studio, stating that Jenn’s 22-year-old brother had been in a catastrophic accident and that her daughter might not be able to return to class in the fall. The email, like most of the correspondence from this family, did not elaborate about the situation and was not written in a tone that invited questions. During the four years that I have been Jenn’s teacher I have never seen her brother; I do not remember ever seeing her mother, either. But I do remember how proud and excited Jenn was that her brother would be in the audience at recital last year. She is a “drop-and-run” child, and we are never sure who brings her. Her tuition comes in the mail.
During the first week of fall classes we were very happy to see Jenn return. While the girls in her ballet class were catching up in the lobby, one little girl bravely explained that her mother was not there that week because her grandmother was having health problems. Jenn piped in to say that her brother was sick, too—he had lost his legs and was on life support again. Strangely, she didn’t seem sad—it was like she was just naturally adding to the conversation. Obviously the abnormal has become commonplace in her young world.
In an attempt to do damage control, I quickly whisked the little ballerinas into their classroom and said, “Yes, Jenn, you certainly have had a rough summer. But let’s get class started and have some fun!” Jenn skipped past me to the barre. Her hair stuck out, her underwear peeked from beneath her pink tights, and she wasn’t wearing any shoes. I tried to compliment her more than usual.
A few weeks went by, and somehow Jenn was at every class. Another Tuesday rolled around, and as usual I greeted the dancers at the studio door. I smiled when I saw Jenn and said, “Miss Jenn, I’m glad you are here, but where are your ballet slippers?” As she skipped by me in her socks she said, “I know where they are. They are new! My dad couldn’t sew the strap things because he was in jail this weekend.”
I looked quickly at the parent who was sitting by the door to see if I had heard her correctly and the look on the woman’s face confirmed that I had. I went into the studio, took off my shoes so that I would match Jenn, and tried to teach the most entertaining ballet class I possibly could.
After class, as I returned to the lobby to greet the next group of students, Jenn flew by me on the way out the door, yelling over her shoulder, “Goodbye, Miss Diane!” Then she stopped, came back inside, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Thank you for class! It was really good! I love it here!” and bounced back out the door.
My experiences with Jenn have left me wondering how many other students at my studio might have similar hardships in their non-dance lives but cannot verbalize their struggles with her ease and innocence. Jenn makes me feel important and necessary—in fact, vital!
I hope that Jenn can remain at the studio. I hope that I can help her grow up happy and make her feel important. I will work hard for her compliments and try to remember that I teach so much more than dance steps.
Why do we do what we do? It’s obvious, isn’t it?
They’re not real dance terms—but they should be
By Diane Gudat
I often rely on dictionaries to assist me with definitions and spellings of dance terminology. However, my school’s staff uses some terms that do not appear in any dictionary. These words have been borrowed from our peers or have evolved through need or frustration. Although we don’t use most of them openly in the classroom or lobby, many are used frequently in the office and at staff meetings. I’ve listed them here in alphabetical order—get ready to add color to your vocabulary!
Alumnut: A studio graduate who has not been missed very much and who consistently stops by at awkward times. She threatens to start taking class again, but thankfully, never does.
Ara-seconde: An arabesque in which the torso twists in the direction of the working leg, making an extension to the side rather than behind.
Auto-notes: Notes written while driving a car (see “car-eography”), which could include actual dance steps or the name of a good song that came on the radio. They usually appear on the margins of church bulletins, fast-food receipts, and bank envelopes.
Baby-whisperer: A preschool teacher who can get tiny dancers to do anything, including leaving their mothers’ arms and remembering a routine. These people are extremely rare and should be paid any amount they demand for their miraculous gifts.
Ball blah: A ball change with no clean sounds.
Bourrevé: A compound ballet term (bourrée and relevé) referring to a relevé sous-sus in which the dancer cannot stay still and instead takes millions of tiny steps.
Call-aholic: A parent who calls the studio incessantly. These delusional people also expect their calls to be returned in a timely fashion.
Car-eography: Choreography done while driving, often on the way to the studio, and usually triggered by a good song on the radio. Although dangerous, it is a common practice among dance teachers. A common injury caused by this practice is jammed fingers (from slamming them into the dashboard or windshield).
Chore-eography: A piece of choreography that you really do not want to do.
Choreoholics: Teachers who find that whether they want to or not, they simply cannot stop doing choreography.
Cinq-almost: Failure to completely close fifth position.
Daddy-doo: Hair that has been styled by a child’s father rather than the mother.
Dan-senior: Dancers who never show up for rehearsals during their senior year of high school but are in the front of every number. They are experiencing their “last” of everything and are often accompanied by emoti-moms (see definition below) who defend their behavior.
Danzheimers: Loss of memory attributed to lack of space left in the brain due to an overabundance of stupid dance stuff (see SDS).
Day off: A fanciful term for a nonexistent thing.
Demi-dad: A father who has the kids every other Saturday and has no idea what is going on at the studio. He receives no flyers and does not know how long class is or where his child’s shoes are.
Dévelopoo: A développé that gets nowhere.
Econo-mom: A mother who constantly questions how much everything will cost.
Elephant legs: Tights that are so big that they bag at the ankles.
E-maniacs: Parents who send emails constantly. They put you on their chain letter, YouTube, and inspirational phrase lists. They expect a response or an e-hug back. These parents ignore all newsletters and papers sent home from the studio.
Emoti-moms: Overly emotional mothers. Whether it is their child’s first recital or their last, every moment evokes tears, hugs, and meaningful conversations. They purchase videos, photos, and buttons depicting their child at competitions.
Fire hydrant: An attitude in which the leg is too far to the side (like a dog lifting its leg).
Flat tire: A ballet slipper with holes.
Fluffle: A shuffle that is missing a sound.
Ghost dancer: A dancer you cannot picture or remember when you look at the class roster to order costumes from home.
Grand promenade à la toilette: The bathroom parade that happens during a preschool class. First one young dancer decides to use the restroom, and before long just the mention of the word “potty” causes the entire class to make the trip one at a time. Experienced teachers know that once the promenade begins, to stop it means you had better have a mop handy!
Grouch-a-rina: A grouchy ballet student who has just awakened from her car nap or never wanted to go to dance to begin with.
Invert-a-tard: A leotard that has been put on backwards, causing a skimpy rear and saggy front (often a result of the grand promenade à la toilette).
Leosnacker: A child who chews on the front of her leotard. The front of the leotard is always wet and the child’s lips are generally chapped.
Lob-ster: A mom who waits in the lobby during every class and talks everyone’s ears off. She knows everything and everybody and hands out misinformation like it is going out of style.
Momzilla: This strain of mother is named after the giant fire-breathing lizard, Godzilla, that wreaked havoc everywhere it went. The momzilla must be kept at a safe distance. She could explode into fits of rage at any time over any subject. Her unpredictable mood swings can be dangerous.
Para-didn’t: A paradiddle that is missing a sound.
Peek-a-pants: Underwear that sticks out the leg hole of a leotard.
Piggybank: Jazz pants, a skirt, or booty shorts that have headed too far south, refrigerator-repairman style.
Port de whatever: A ballet term for bad use of the arms. (“Grand port de whatever” means really bad arms.)
Quest-aholic: A parent or student who cannot stop asking questions. Often their questions are a ploy to let others know how much the asker really knows.
Queue-d’excuse: The line that students form after class to explain to the teacher why they will not be at the upcoming rehearsal.
Reverse-a-tard: A leotard accidentally worn inside out. Like the invert-a-tard, this can be the result of the grand promenade à la toilette or help from a demi-dad.
SDS: An acronym for “stupid dance stuff” (or a similar phrase).
Shutter-mom: A camera-crazy mother who snaps photos of you and the kids at the most annoying times.
Side moon: The crescent-shaped expanse of skin that becomes visible when the tights slide down past a leotard’s leg opening. The child with a side moon is never aware of it and there is no delicate way to correct it.
Sprinkler: A preschooler who consistently wets the floor.
Swiss tights: Tights with holes.
Tapperina: A tap dancer who inadvertently turns out the legs and feet.
Teapot: A parent or teacher who gets excited at a competition or performance and lets out a loud “Whoooooo!” sounding much like the whistle of a teapot.
Ten-don’t: A tendu in which the legs are not stretched completely.
Tweener: A dancer who takes class between other activities such as Brownies and basketball. She is usually late for class or leaves early, has fast food on her face, and left her shoes in her other bag.
Worms: Ballet shoe elastics that are untied or untucked.
Yee-haw: A tombé that is done rolling through the heel and then onto the ball of the foot instead of in the correct order of toe, ball, and then heel.
Do you have a fun dance term that should be added to our lingo list? If so, send it to Arisa@rheegold.com.
Forgo those fouettés and focus on artistry for competition choreography that sizzles
By Diane Gudat
As a judge, I have witnessed thousands of competition performances. Many have stood out as examples of how the right song, the perfect costume, a great story, and intelligent choreography can come together to enhance young dancers’ technical performance. Unfortunately, the pressure placed on teachers to excel and to produce impossibly huge amounts of choreography has undercut the quality of what we see weekend after weekend on the competition trail.
Many judges also are teachers, and they understand the struggle to please students, pacify parents, and meet unrelenting deadlines. More and more students want solos. As studios grow, more dancers want to be involved in performance opportunities. Although every dance might not be a competition winner, it’s important not to give up on the goal that each should become a piece of living art.
As we prepare for another season, allow me to offer some insight into what judges hope for and how you might better prepare for the experience.
Artistry trumps tricks
Judges have seen millions of fouetté turns, billions of pirouettes, and every jump in the book (and then some). Although these skills can lend athleticism and excitement to the choreography, they rarely impress the judges. And more often than not, they interrupt the artistic flow.
These steps put undue pressure on the dancers to flawlessly execute advanced technique, often at the expense of emotional interpretation. I have heard many judges express disappointment in what would have been a moving performance had it not been interrupted by a combination of unnecessarily difficult turns.
Instead, judges prefer an honest attempt at artistry and the development of a story line. They would like to be affected in some way by the performance or learn something about the dancers and their story.
Intent and nuance
Dancers should show the intent behind the movement. The audience should discover shapes and patterns, see the use of weight, and notice involvement of the entire body. Regardless of the type of dance, it should have breath and phrasing and allow audiences a glimpse into the dancer’s personality and soul.
Begin by making intelligent musical choices. Try forming a union with other dance teachers to share good music. The perfect opportunity for this type of alliance comes from networking at teacher-training schools, workshops, and conventions. Come to these events armed with several copies of your recital music or programs and offer them in trade for someone else’s. You will be surprised at the response and the wide variety of pre-tested music you will inherit.
Other ways to find music include emailing your peers with your recital theme or ideas and asking them for suggestions, and making a note of songs you thought worked well for others while attending competitions.
You must strive to make the lyrics and messages of the songs you choose appropriate for children to listen to repeatedly. The argument that children are used to hearing questionable lyrics on the radio (and have become desensitized to them) does not dismiss our responsibility to take a higher moral ground. Are the lyrics something they would feel comfortable singing to their grandmothers? Does the subject matter fit with the life experiences of the child?
Sometimes you might want to make a social comment with your work; if so, is it age appropriate for all of the students participating? Will it be family entertainment and acceptable to all who will attend your performances? Inappropriate lyrics and themes can make the judges uncomfortable and detract from the performance.
Pay attention to the musical nuances, the high and low points of the music’s structure. Map the structure on paper, finding the accent points, where the music builds and where it softens.
Check each competition’s guidelines for song length and decide how to best cut the music to the appropriate length. Make sure edits are smooth and as unnoticeable as possible. Volume levels should be consistent from one section to another.
Fitting the piece to the music
Are your pieces too long? Try to narrow the topic and eliminate repetition. The choreography should build in the same places as the music; when it does not, it should be an intentional attempt to go against the natural flow. If the music represents a certain era, do research to decide what kind of steps and costuming might be appropriate for that period.
There is no list of skills that impress a judge or win a dancer “points.” In each performance, the dancers have an opportunity to present their own personal excellence. A compassionate judge allows each dancer to begin with a perfect score.
Although every dance might not be a competition winner, it’s important not to give up on the goal that each should become a piece of living art.
First impressions count. How your dancers take the stage and their early commitment to the piece give the judges important clues about what they might expect from the rest of the performance. In the same way, the ending pose or exit is the punctuation at the end of the dance sentence. Did they leave us wanting to see more? Does the story continue? Was the dancers’ last impression a shaky one?
Although each competition has its own methods of scoring, most judges appreciate being able to separate the dancers’ technical and artistic performance from the choreographic and costuming choices. Check the costuming and choreography scores from last season; those numbers might cause you to rethink your process or give you confidence for the upcoming season. Because judges are aware that most students never see those scores, they are more apt to give their honest opinions in those categories.
Before presenting the choreography onstage, check for the human elements that draw the eye and keep the audience interested. Do the dancers appear to make eye contact with their audience? Have they invited them to invest emotionally in the piece, or do they allow audiences to sit passively and watch the movement? Do the dancers appear to be running toward or away from something, or are they simply changing position onstage?
Dancers who are interacting with each other should exchange honest expressions, develop eye contact, and work well within their traffic patterns. Facial expressions should be varied and appear honest and sincere.
Encourage your dancers to use full energy, dance “dangerously,” and learn more about themselves as artists every time they take the stage.
In a group piece, all dancers should share the workload. Does the group consistently drop to the floor to feature one strong dancer or a lone male? Is the same dancer always in the front? Have the dancers taken personal responsibility for remembering the steps, or do they consistently watch those around them? The choreography should reflect and complement the talents of the entire group rather than hide weak dancers.
The choreography should be a positive step for your dancers on their long path to technical excellence. It should reflect their strengths without being overly difficult or so easy that they don’t have to invest physically to accomplish it. It should build on their technical foundation so that they get stronger by learning, rehearsing, and performing the piece.
Costuming is one of the biggest topics of conversation among judges in their down time.
Does the costume you have chosen help to develop the theme or story line of the dance? Will it make the dancers feel proud and teach them to respect and protect their bodies? Are the male judges and fathers in the audience going to be comfortable with your choices?
The current trend toward extremely low-cut pants and skirts, bootie shorts without tights, and dangerously small tops causes judges a lot of stress. Clothing, or lack of it, can divert attention from the dancer and choreography. Whether the judges can find a delicate way to comment on this problem or decide not to mention it (on behalf of the children who might listen to the critiques), they are distracted and often more than uncomfortable. Err on the side of caution and choose costumes that will look good on the dancer with the fullest figure in your group.
Another prominent problem is performance overexposure—overuse of similar steps, shapes, and patterns. Before you enter all the dances you have choreographed for the year into the same weekend of competition, examine them carefully. Is there enough variety? Did you overuse a combination or a particular leap or turn? Did you overexpose one dancer or group of dancers?
In competition, rarely can you decide the order of appearance for your entries without manipulating the rules. The order of performances is often decided by a set schedule along with computer placement that allows for costume changes. Numerous small dances of the same flavor can greatly diminish the impact of your larger pieces.
Your major concern as a teacher, choreographer, or studio owner might well be the judges. Try to choose competitions that seat judges who have a wide variety of dance education, represent a wide age range, and most important, have had classroom experience working with children of all levels and talents.
Look for competition directors and staff who seem to reflect your morals and values as they relate to your students and their families. Visit a few competitions before attending with your students, or use your teacher network to find out how people with similar interest in their students felt about a particular competition experience.
Ask questions, make your feelings known, and communicate after the event if it did not meet your quality standards.
Should you compete?
Participation in the competition circuit is not a good choice for every studio. Not every student has the talent or personality to support solo work. Done well, competition can enhance your program and inspire your dancers to reach their potential. It can expose them to a wider dance community and allow them to find their place within that structure. Done poorly, it can serve as a cancer within your studio, causing division, jealousy, and disappointment.
Reevaluate why you are choosing to compete and which competitions will best serve your needs. Perhaps some of the money expended for competition fees can be filtered back into your studio through additional learning experiences such as master classes and in-house workshops. Perhaps a guest artist could assist with some of your competition choreography load.
Art, not sport
Remember that a teacher’s first job is to educate children, and with that comes the responsibility of teaching students that dance is an art form, not a sport to win or lose. Learning to perform from the heart, regardless of the outcome, is one of the most important lessons you can give to your students.
Judges want you and your students to succeed. They learn from what you present and are more than willing to reward honest effort and performances. They sit for many long hours and do their best to stay upbeat and offer positive critiques. Most respect you as a choreographer and look forward to the opportunity to see your work.
Judges expect diversity on the competition stage and love to see the courage of new dancers as well as the strength of seasoned competitors. Although fouettés are fabulous and layouts can be lovely, stay true to the artist within and your competition scores will reflect the effort.
Self-esteem shot? Creativity kaput? Here’s how to learn to love what you do—again.
By Diane Gudat
I looked in the mirror the other day. I looked tired. I felt tired. I was never one to count wrinkles, but things just looked saggier than usual. It’s a feeling I seem to have often these days.
Wondering if it was just me, I went to a dance event and looked around at my dance peers. They looked tired too. They sounded worn out and their conversations were filled with frustration.
Later that week I got a phone call from a dance teacher friend who confided that she was scared that she was not “with it” anymore. She felt like she wasn’t “cool” like the younger teachers at a convention she had recently attended, and she worried about losing her choreographic edge. She felt like dance was moving forward without her.
I know how she feels. It seems that the more experience you gather and the larger your body of work is, the less confidence you have that the work is appreciated.
Recently I turned down a job that I knew I would not have the tolerance for or the energy level to do well, and then I was not hired for a job I thought I had in the bag. It seems I had trained my dancers to develop a thick skin, but I had forgotten to teach myself the same thing.
Have you watched your choreography on video and doubted your creative choices (or lack of them)? At studio gatherings, do you listen to your graduates discuss the “good old days” and wonder where they went? Where is that energy and zest for the job that seemed never-ending in those early days? Does your pile of work feel insurmountable? Are you so overwhelmed that you don’t even know where to start?
The good news is that you are not alone. A career in the dance arts is a choice to do what you cannot live without in the hope that it will supply a decent living. Few of us are savvy businesspeople. Most of us have chosen our line of work because we are emotionally motivated creatures. We act under the premise that if we love our art enough, it will love us back.
Dance can’t return our love, yet we must find new ways to love it every day. Our relationship with dance is personal and intense but intangible. We can see only traces of our love for dance, translated by the mirror or interpreted by others’ limited physical abilities. It is an art of compromise. To live it, we must share it. Most of us share it with children who come attached to parents from every walk of life, whose expectations for their children are often quite different from ours. We strive to create little artists; they need to see a score or a class upgrade every semester.
So what do we do? How do we face another recital season, picture day, or competition weekend? How do we find a new, more lasting sense of joy and confidence in our work?
The answer could be as simple as telling yourself to be a happier person. The voice inside your head is what drives you. You can be your own best fan or worst enemy.
Start by making sure that the children entrusted to you are enjoying their experience. My studio has a sign out front that says, “Fun Inside!” It is my job to make that happen. I am the product. Not dance, not the combinations, not the training methods—me. My personality, my love of children, my use of the time I share with them. Are they better people for having spent time with me? This is what the call to be an educator is truly about. It has little or nothing to do with the subject matter taught.
Believe it or not, those children think you are cool—infinitely cooler than their parents. They are amazed that you know the words to a popular song, that you can almost do the splits on one side, and that you can still do a chaîné. Most of them love the studio and look forward to their classes and to seeing you each week. Ask for a hug; you will never go without one. Remind them to smile—it is contagious. Look at their faces and see your efforts reflected.
Learn to thank people on a daily basis. When people feel appreciated, it makes them happy. It will also teach them to appreciate you. When was the last time you stepped into your lobby and thanked the parents for sharing their children? We usually thank parents in our recital programs, but have you ever said it directly to them? Have you told them how glad you are that they chose to come to your studio? A thank-you to those who volunteer often motivates them to help out again.
Happy parents make for a happy lobby. That feeling radiates into the classroom and before long, you start to feel as though you would be missed if you weren’t there.
Let go of that one complaint you heard at the end of a long day and think about a compliment you received instead.
Compliment people, and be specific so they know you are sincere. Do not simply tell students they did well; instead, tell them exactly what was good. Saying, “You are wonderful!” is less meaningful than telling them you noticed that they tried to keep their base leg straight in class. They will know you care and their smile will be evidence of their pride.
Nothing is fun when you hurt or are low on energy. See a doctor if your body is betraying you. As our bodies age they require more maintenance. The wear and tear can be frustrating and sometimes depressing. Remember that the ability to explain a movement, combined with a positive attitude in the classroom, is more important than the ability to demonstrate. Get assistants to help with the physical aspects of class and do what you do best: Take over!
Try to remove toxic people from your life. You know who they are. They are the people who always complain, who never have a good day, whom you can never please, and who blame you for their problems. Your job is not to fix other people but to be a positive influence on those who are open to your input. These might be people you have known your entire lifetime. (They might even be your relatives.) Make a short but sincere announcement that from now on you plan to live your life in a positive way and hope that they will get on the boat or get out of the way. This could mean releasing a staff member from her position or asking a student or parent to leave the studio. The stress of replacing staff or students or rechoreographing numbers will be overshadowed by the joy of being back in control.
Let your emotions show from time to time. Give yourself permission to be human. Everyone gets disappointed. Everyone gets tired and needs help. The people around you need to see your human side and will appreciate it if you let them in from time to time.
You might need to be selective about when to let your guard down, but being an artist means you have a sensitive soul. It is important to remember that to receive compassion you must show it. Be sensitive to your staff and your students. Try to recognize burnout or frustration in them and be ready to support them in tough times.
Control your anger. Try to think about a problem for a few days before reacting, so you don’t explode. Overreacting when tired or frustrated can escalate a problem that is not really catastrophic. Ask the advice of a member of your staff or a dance friend. Make your move when you are calm and in control of your emotions.
Do something new or reinvestigate something you used to enjoy doing but never find the time for anymore. Try guitar, art, languages, shopping, travel, sewing, baking, or reading. Sneak out of the studio and have dinner with your family.
Share your dance victories and problems with a friend who understands. Spouses often want to be supportive, but unless they are dance professionals, they cannot grasp the entire picture. Find a dance support group (if not in your community, then online) and share your frustrations. Sometimes just knowing you are not alone can get you through. Have you ever reached out to the teacher down the street?
Enjoy your successes. Jump off the merry-go-round. Celebrate a great recital. Take a day off after a long dance weekend. Buy yourself a small treat when you have reached a goal or have done a good job. Learn to appreciate yourself.
Keep a file of the positive letters you have received from parents or the pictures colored for you by young students and look at them from time to time. Let go of that one complaint you heard at the end of a long day and think about a compliment you received instead.
Learn to set healthy limits for yourself. Set a “no dance” hour every single day and make sure that everyone knows you are never available during that time. It is good for people around you to know that you have personal limits. Try to honor yourself by not using that time for dance-related activities.
Create a “no dance” zone in your home, where you can go to get a fresh perspective. It could be a chair, a corner, or, if you are lucky, an entire room. Surround it with things you love that have nothing to do with dance.
Mark your calendar with a “dance day off” every month. Choose carefully and then let nothing interfere with your day. You might not be able to take a weeklong vacation, but giving yourself a 24-hour break works wonders toward feeling in control.
Encourage your business partner, if you have one, to set up the same luxury. Set an example by caring for yourself.
We all lack confidence from time to time. Remember that it is usually brought about by stress and compounded by how we let other people’s attitudes affect our daily living. Plan to be happy. Beating the blues could be as simple as that.
Editor’s note: Repeated bouts of self-doubt, discouragement, and depression could be signs that professional help is needed. We encourage anyone who suffers from chronic depression to see a doctor.
Words from our readers
I just had to say thank you, thank you, thank you for including “Fantasy Comebacks” in your September issue. It put a big smile on my face at the end of a long week during an even longer registration season! It’s good to know I’m not the only one with less than perfect patience for my studio parents.
Dance Steps Studio, Inc.
Please tell Diane [Gudat] that I was laughing until I cried reading her “Fantasy Comebacks” article. Every teacher should include a copy of this article in their newsletters or at least hand them out to the president of the Parent Association.
Christopher F. Davis
Dancers Responding to AIDS
New York, NY
I just wanted to say thank you for putting in that “Fantasy Comebacks” article in your magazine. It was hilarious. How true all of those questions that parents ask are. I wish your magazine would put “Fantasy Comebacks” in more often. It just made my day!
Dancin’ for Fun
Gulf Breeze, FL
I want to thank you for your work on Dance Studio Life, as it provides motivation, insight, and education for me and thousands of dance educators and managers each month.
Assistant Professor of Dance
Ann Lacy School of American Dance & Arts Management
Oklahoma City University
Oklahoma City, OK
I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for including me in the September  issue of Dance Studio Life. I was honored to be mentioned in the “FYI: What’s up in the dance community” segment. It is publications like Dance Studio Life that allow educators like myself the opportunity to share our work with others in the field.
Director, Kdance Productions
West Chester, PA
A note of apology and thanks to my cabana boy at the DanceLife Teacher Conference
By Diane Gudat
Last August I attended the DanceLife Teacher Conference at the five-star Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, AZ. For myself, and I am guessing for most of the hundreds of dance teachers there, this was my first experience with a life of complete luxury and bliss.
The culture shock began immediately. As I opened the door to my fabulous room, I broke into uncontrollable laughter. I have friends who live in apartments that are smaller than my enormous marble and glass powder room. I was at a total loss at how to behave and so I probably owe most of the staff, and especially my cabana boy, a few explanations.
First, I would like to sincerely thank you for selecting my deluxe, padded lounge chair, complete with umbrella, and for placing an oversized striped towel atop it to make the perfect private island on which I could perch and relax. The fresh pitcher of ice water was also very sweet. I saw you repeat this ritual over and over as dance teacher after dance teacher arrived at poolside.
I am saddened to admit that dance teachers really do not know how to relax; we have completely lost the ability. I noticed that the non-dance partners in attendance seemed to take to it like ducks to water, but we teachers simply gathered in small groups in the pool, bobbed up and down, and discussed our fall schedules. As our congregations grew in number and the late afternoon sun caused us to squint, you moved the umbrellas closer to the pool edge to shade our floating workshops. Thanks to your gentle encouragement, our attitudes did improve and we started to ease up as the weekend progressed.
By the way, I must apologize for the number of times you had to relate where you purchased your “darling” tropical shirt. You see, some of us are planning a “Trip to the Tropics” recital and need to get a jump on costuming.
Also, if we seemed a little desperate for cocktails, it’s because we do have a flair for drama. You did your level best to keep up and we are forever grateful. Your complete willingness to set my lunch next to my cocktail on the edge of the pool really touched me—I have many times dreamed of such a luxury, but it completely surpassed my imagination. I am now trying to train my husband to bring my bagel to the bathtub.
You must also realize that most of us have body-image problems. Eating french fries in our swimsuits with our torsos safely hidden below four feet of water was a dream come true.
Thank you for your kind and constant warnings about dancing on the wet pool deck. You see, for four full days we had to choose between three simultaneous classes, and most of us wanted to share what had gone on in the classes we had not been able to attend.
Please do me the favor of extending our apologies to the rest of the hotel staff.
The bell captains politely tried to assist with our luggage, but we are so used to hitting the door with our fannies to walk right through while carrying dance bags, purses, and oversized costumes boxes that we did not flinch at pulling our own rolling suitcases.
However, we were painfully aware that our luggage was infinitely heavier on departure than at arrival due to the enormous book of conference notes and the free catalogs and giveaways from the dozens of vendors.
If we looked confused or it took us too long to get off the elevators, it is simply because we are not used to arriving so quickly at our selected destination. You see, we usually have to ride elevators packed with young dancers who think it is hilarious to hit every button on the panel. Our stop is rarely the first!
Please explain to the wait staff that when we signed our bills to our room, we probably all wrote 5-6-7-8. We are hoping that the family staying in room 5678 found the humor in this situation. We have a really hard time stringing any other four numbers together. In addition, when someone suggested we tip the staff, we grabbed them at the waist and pitched them sideways. Blame it on the ballroom class!
I know only 8 or 10 of us were supposed to be seated at each table at the complimentary buffet breakfast, but as the week went on we needed to include our new friends. So we appreciate your staff’s help with moving the extra chairs. Plus, they never questioned my fifth cup of coffee or my extra yogurt parfait! They even looked the other way at the extra butter I used on my freshly toasted bagel. The lovely man who played the chimes to remind us to move along to class was probably shocked by the interpretive dance his tones inspired.
The room service staff was no doubt confused by the large amount of ice we required. Most of us had not danced since recital time, and our minds imagined that we were capable of more than our bodies were able to do. Hopefully your spa staff has recovered from the number of emergency massages booked that weekend. By the way, our insatiable need for chocolate as both energy source and comfort food explains the constant need to restock the $8.95 Snickers bars in the mini-bars.
I am sure that housekeeping needed to restock tissues quite often due to some of our more soul-searching seminars and the touching story of our honoree, Carol Crawford Smith, at the gala luncheon. There was not a dry eye in the ballroom for at least 20 minutes.
I should also explain that although we really did not need to wear either of the robes hanging in our rooms, as dance teachers we cannot resist a good costume. And yes, I did take my full-size shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion home. I am hoping that the eucalyptus fragrance will bring my soul back to that amazing room after a long, trying day at the studio.
We also greatly appreciated the quiet way your staff went about their duties on Sunday morning. You see, we had a huge cocktail party on Saturday night and a few of us had not been out in quite a while. Picture 600 dance teachers and guests all in one room with a live band—really, The Phoenician is lucky to still have a ballroom at all. Have you ever seen a documentary on the feeding habits of piranhas? Ask your unfortunate friends who had to restock the hors d’ouevres at that event. I am sure your pool staff fished a few of us out of the hot tub that evening too!
I noticed the number of times you politely took our cameras from our hands to allow all of us to be in a picture. At the beginning of the conference, there were groupings of old friends and at the end groups of brand-new ones. Lending us paper and pen to write down email addresses and phone numbers was a nice touch.
Memories of what I learned about dance and myself at the conference will stay with me forever, and your smile was the icing on the cake. I know we were not your only conference this summer, but I am hoping that we have a special place in your heart as the best. On the wall next to my stereo I have placed a picture of you, my dear cabana boy, standing by your lovely yellow poolside haven, and I will remember you fondly as I begin my new dance season. Thanks again—and please warn your friends at next year’s resort!
Honest answers to parents’ questions
By Diane Gudat
When we are faced with those inane questions from our students’ parents, what we actually say and what we want to say are often as different as Kool-Aid and tequila. Though the dance business requires us to take a deep breath, smile, and babble something diplomatic, a more scathing answer is taking shape in our guts—something snippy but immensely soul-satisfying. Just for fun, let’s imagine that we’ve taken the filter off and can say exactly what’s on our minds.
What follows are actual parents’ questions that I have fielded over the years and the responses I wish I could have given. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Is it OK if Suzie misses her rehearsal on Saturday? I know they have a performance next weekend, but her school classmate is having a birthday party and she really needs to be there. We do not want to let her school friend down.
What are her dance classmates—chopped liver? They are counting on her too! If everyone went to every birthday party, we would never be able to rehearse. But then again, birthday parties are fun and rehearsal usually isn’t. When I asked her to commit to the performance group I could never have imagined that she would have a huge conflict like this. Obviously, you must do what is best for her. Her friend will probably have only 70 or 80 more birthdays.
Would you please move Sallie to the advanced class on Wednesday with her older sister? It would be much more convenient.
First, Sallie is two years younger than her infinitely more talented sister, and second, the rest of the appropriately aged students in the classroom will probably not care if it is more convenient for you. I have a great idea! Let’s leave Sallie where she is and move her older sister back. And I am sure you will not mind if I move 4-year-olds into that class to better work around their nap times.
Betsy just hates to wear her hair in a bun for ballet class, so I am going to let her wear it down today, OK?
Does Betsy get to do everything she wants? As my dear, unbelievably frank mother would say, “People in hell want ice water, but they are not getting it either.” There is a reason that dancers wear their hair up, not the least of which is that sweeping hair off the floor is my absolute pet peeve. Do you let her wear her swimming suit to school?
Why does the other class get that pretty purple costume? Purple is Jane’s favorite color and she is very disappointed.
Well, Jane is in jazz class and that pretty purple costume is a ballet tutu. Besides, Jane’s class is dancing to “I’m Blue.” Also, were you not the parent who called last week to complain about how much her (less expensive, by the way) costume cost? Get her a purple Popsicle and tell her to keep her hopes up for next year.
Jessica’s Girl Scout meeting has been moved to 4:00. Could you please move her class to 5:00 so she can stay in Scouts?
Sure, no problem! The other 12 children in her class will not mind that a bit and I will call the other 60 dancers whose classes are after hers to move them back an hour. The high school kids will not mind finishing at 10:30 p.m. Girl Scouts are great! Let me know when she is selling cookies.
I know Kate’s class wears black tap shoes, but she fell in love with these black-and-white ones at the dance store and I got them for her. I was sure you would not mind.
Well, our dress code was distributed in August with the idea that all of our dancers would have matching shoes for our recital at the end of the year, but I am sure the other dancers will not mind the fact that Kate’s shoes stand out in the line. I will put her right in the center and plan the choreography around her. Perhaps she would also enjoy having a costume that’s a different color than the others. Just let me know.
I noticed that the girl who beat Sophie at the last competition did those turns where she stuck her leg out. Would you put some of those in her solo for next weekend so she has a better chance of winning?
Let’s break this one down. No one beats anyone else at a competition! Dance is an art, not a sport. There can be no losers other than parents who put the emphasis on what size or color award their dancer brings home.
If you do not know what a dance move is called, it is a big clue that you do not know what you are talking about. I gave your dancer what she does well and hoped to build her confidence with solid performances you could both be proud of. No big trick will change the results of a competition, but if it makes you happy I will put several “stick your leg outs” in her routine in my spare time for free.
If you do not know what a dance move is called, it is a big clue that you do not know what you are talking about. But if it makes you happy I will put several ‘stick your leg outs’ in her routine in my spare time for free.
Joanie’s cousin from Arizona will be here next week and I told her it would be OK if she takes dance class with Joanie. She does not dance but always wanted to. I thought it might be fun.
Sure! I will make a welcome banner, bake cookies, and plan some dance games. Bring your video camera! Never mind that I have had students fighting to get into that class for the last three months and have turned them down due to lack of space and talent. We are two weeks from a performance, but we can stop to entertain guests. Let me know when you schedule the family reunion and we will plan the week around it. It will be fun!
Paula is going to have to drop class for January and February so that she can be in the junior high musical. Please order all of her recital costumes because she will be back after a short rest in mid-March. Could you mail me the newsletters?
Sure, we will put everything on hold until she gets back; you take your time. A class without Paula is like a day without sunshine! We will let her get back to class and get comfortable, and then we will start working on routines when she feels ready in April. I am sure that four weeks is enough time for her classes to prepare for recital. Let me know when the musical is and we will close the studio so everyone can go.
Why did you correct Julie during class last night? She came home very upset. We want her to take class just for fun.
I am a teacher. I correct students. The art of dance requires a certain amount of personal discipline. I was asking her to do her best. She has taken class for four years and I thought she might want some input. I must have lost my mind.
Josh does not feel well. He was up sick all night and stayed home from school, but he was driving us nuts so I brought him in and he is going to try to take class.
Great! You take a break! I hope we will all catch what he has and get to stay home tomorrow.
My daughter wants to try out for her high school dance team but has never had time to take dance class. Could you give her a solo lesson so she can learn one of those double pirouettes and a back handspring for tryouts next Tuesday?
No problem! Double pirouettes and back handsprings are about as easy as it gets. It will probably only take about 10 or 15 minutes to show her. Those silly kids who come several times a week for five to six years make it all seem so complicated!
Can I postdate this check?
Can I kick you in the shin and steal your wallet?
I know Katie is supposed to be at her solo rehearsal in 15 minutes, but she has a chess club meeting after school. Can we reschedule?
That’s great! I will just sit here for that hour and think about what my family or another dancer might have done with an hour of my time. I have unlimited time in my schedule and Katie should learn that my time will never be more important than a chess club meeting. Please let me know when she has a free moment; maybe I can come to the house.
Alicia is in a wedding the day of dress rehearsal. If you could move that event to the morning, it would fit into our schedule much better.
An intermediate ballet student’s personal schedule certainly outweighs the cost of the facility rental fee and the plans of all the other dancers. I will check with you next year before booking. Please bring me some mints and a piece of cake.
When you hand out newsletters, could you please make sure that Ashlee gets three of them so that she can give one to her father, because we do not get along, and another one to her grandmother, who might bring her from time to time?
Of course! I will color code them and ask your 5-year-old to make sure that Mommy does not touch Daddy’s because Mommy and Daddy are counting on her to eliminate the tension in their relationship. Obviously, Mommy does not communicate well with Grandma either, so I’ll also tell her to keep one until she sees Grandma. While I’m at it, I’ll ask her to tell Daddy and Grandma that Mommy does not pay for her classes. That way, maybe I will get three checks!
Emma cannot attend class next week. I am hoping that you have a video of her routine so she can work on it before next week. Just let me know and I will pick it up. If not, maybe you could videotape the class she missed.
Finally! I have a full library of all my completed recital dances by November of every year. I also have every class professionally videotaped just in case a student cannot attend—perhaps you have seen the crew in the back corner of the room each week. I have been doing this for 25 years and you are the first parent who has asked me for a copy. I knew if I hung in there the expense would be worth it. You have got to be kidding me!
I know you teach dance, but what is your real job?
Well, when not answering endless emails, returning redundant phone calls, preparing for 16 classes each week, selecting and ordering hundreds of costumes, renting theaters, writing the newsletters that you ignore, choreographing 126 pieces (and that’s a slow year), cleaning the daily mess at the studio, figuring out how to pay the studio bills on the tuition you constantly complain about, preparing music that won’t offend you or your child, and evading you at the mall to avoid yet another conversation about Jenny’s progress while trying to buy pants for my daughter that she has needed for six weeks (plus a very belated birthday present for my husband), I am on the neurosurgical team at the research hospital and enjoy playing cello for the symphony orchestra.
Forget the Gregorian calendar—here’s one for dance teachers!
By Diane Gudat
For dance teachers, enduring a year feels like being stuck on a warped carousel. Through the ups and downs, there is no way to keep it from spinning or to slow it down. For the most part, the ride is fun and exciting—you never know what is around the next turn. But since dance teachers do not live the same kind of life as people in other professions, why should we adhere to the same calendar? I’ve devised one with a more realistic view of our year, plus some suggestions to make it more suited for our nontraditional needs.
We will begin our calendar in September, when the dance year begins both fiscally and emotionally. However, we will call it “Acceptember” because during this month parents must accept our decisions about their children’s class placement.
This would be a great time to purchase frames for your teaching certificates and resume so that you can create a display that proves you are an educated professional. Consider placing a lovely photo album in the lobby that shows you hugging the hundreds of happy children who have attended classes at your studio for years. You might also display some of the thank-you letters you’ve received from appreciative parents who think you are the “best dance teacher ever!”
October begins with the root “Oct,” which means “eight.” I am not sure why it is traditionally the 10th month of the year, but since most dance teachers have lost the ability to count past the number eight, it is not a problem. The name of the month ends with the last four letters of the word “sober.” This is the month by which we have finally recovered from summer trips or must consider going into rehab. If the month must be renamed, it should probably be called “Deca-recovery.”
At this point in the year, we feel that there is no way we will ever successfully complete the holiday show. One of the biggest problems is getting students to attend class regularly.
Notice that the word “dance” appears in “attendance.” This word was created by a dance master in ancient Rome who was responsible for the Winter Solstice Festival and would find his head on a stick if it was not spectacular.
The root words of “December” are “deception” and “remember.”
Most people can fool themselves into thinking that the holiday season is easy. But dance teachers know better than to practice the art of self-deception at this time of year; we juggle so many more details that the entire month is a blur. While others are leisurely trimming trees, we are dragging students to the mall and local nursing homes. While they are contemplating the perfect gifts for everyone, we are contemplating what we are going to do for recital and what everyone will wear. Instead of “gift of the month” catalogs, we are studying costume catalogs. Instead of reserving a hotel room for the winter break, we are trying to get someone from our performance venue to return a call. Lists of competitions and unfinished solos replace gift lists.
I know the Gregorian calendar was set up for only 12 months, but was this Greg a dance teacher? I think not!
Most of us cannot imagine this month going by without attending at least one Nutcracker performance. Whether Clara falls asleep on the couch, floor, or overstuffed chair, I envy her the rest. During the second act, which she spends sitting on a throne, I wonder when was the last time I sat still for one full hour without a headset on.
I am sure that my December is very different from the one experienced by the relatives I sit next to at Christmas dinner. Heaven help me if they try to discuss current events—mine are confined to the four walls of the dance studio and its inhabitants.
The dance teacher’s calendar adds an extra month here called “Breathurary.” This would be a dream come true! Those of us with Christmas trees still up at the end of January, holiday costumes in our cars, and teachers who cannot or should not return this semester need an extra month right now. Having more time to send in costume orders (and for the companies to make them) would change our lives. We have so much music to prepare, and our performance groups are nowhere near ready for competition. Thirty days here would change our lives. Let’s face it—even 10 extra minutes would make a difference.
If the dance studio were a paper shredder, by the end of this month we would feel like we had been sliced into a thousand tiny pieces. Costume company discounts usually expire on the 15th of this month; so, like during tax season for the average person, most of us file a late return on costume orders. We wonder what happened to the holiday vacation and how long the neighbors will tolerate seeing Christmas lights on our house.
Let us dedicate this month to having parents and students remember to bring forms—whether for costumes, competitions, or anything else—back on time. Most of us have perfected the arts of tackling parents in the lobby and chasing down cars in the parking lot. As I often point out, “deadline” has the word “dead” in it. We have all cheated death more than once while flagging down parents in the parking lot to get their signatures.
March is the perfect name for this month. We are marching toward recital and we need parents to march their children into class every week so we can teach them their recital dances. It is maddening to try to choreograph with at least one child missing from every class every week. This is the month when dancers need to recommit to class—and it is also the time of year when spring sports begin, school musicals are presented, and dance class seems to take a back seat to other activities. We dance teachers need to march to the mall and buy ourselves a little “you can do it” present to get us through.
This is the month when high-school seniors become maniacs (if they aren’t already). In order to leave the nest for college (the dance studio is often more of a nest than the home), these children work under the misconception that if they behave like apes and make everyone dislike them, they will be able to leave for college comfortably. They also believe that every move they make will be the last of its kind, so they suddenly care deeply about every high-school function. That means they are never at rehearsal, even though they are featured in every dance routine. As for their parents, they begin crying at the drop of a hat and taking pictures of their children as if they were newborns.
All this will pass, and by Thanksgiving break those students will be back for a visit and you will see that they are the same lovely humans you remember helping to raise.
Most of us love what we do and cannot imagine doing anything else, but during this month we have had it! Some of us are able to hold recitals during this month, while the rest of us are in full panic mode. As we drive to the studio, we pass people coming home from work and try to imagine dinner at home and a non-TiVo television show. On Saturdays we gaze enviously at people in their yards as we head for a full day of rehearsals. This is a year-round problem that becomes more pointed when the weather starts to change. Schedule lunch with another dance teacher and tell each other how valuable you are.
The word “jungle” contains all the letters you need to spell June—this is no coincidence. The best we can hope for is that we survive and get a few good recital gifts. And on that note, we need to get parents to understand that gift cards to music stores are never what we need; we use our business accounts to buy music for class and choreography. And we do not listen to music for enjoyment; what we want is quiet—peace and blessed quiet! We need a good meal and some liquid comfort, so we suggest gift cards for restaurants. Or for department stores—if June is not our recital month, then it is wedding/graduation month and we can use the cards to buy presents for these never-ending events.
No cards! No phone calls! If we are traveling with you, stay out of our room! Do not be surprised or hurt if when traveling we choose to have dinner or an evening out with a fellow dance teacher. In fact, students, do your research and send your teacher a gift card for a five-star restaurant close to the competition hotel. Or, better yet, one to the hotel spa!
August/I-guessed (my charge card would max out)
What we need at this time of year is for parents to pay that first-semester bill in full—with cash. Most of us do not get paid during July and August, yet those are the months when we tend to spend the most money. The bills from the convention hotel, meals, show tickets, formals, shoes, and souvenirs begin to arrive and we do our best to pay the minimum balance on the cards. Our line of credit is sweating bullets and our significant other has given us yet another lecture on responsible spending.
Let’s add another new month here. I know the Gregorian calendar was set up for only 12 months, but was this Greg a dance teacher? I think not! We need at least 30 days to make heads and tails of the schedule, figure out who is teaching what, and get the studio in shape to handle the new dance year.
A new calendar might not solve any problems, but it would certainly shed light on how different a dance teacher’s life can sometimes feel from a “normal” person’s. Adding two extra months should help—but as long as we are wishing, let’s add an extra day between Saturday and Sunday plus a 25th hour in each day. That ought to do it!
Forget kindergarten—the dance studio is the classroom of life
By Diane Gudat
There is a famous book that claims that everything we need to know in life can be learned in kindergarten. I might be slightly biased, but I think there is no better format for presenting life’s lessons than the dance classroom. Dance training and exposure to a good dance teacher can enhance a child’s life in immeasurable ways. We build confident minds, open hearts, and sensitive artists (who occasionally learn to move well!). Here are the lessons learned in every dance class, along with a few old sayings that help to make my point.
Stop, look, and listen before you cross the street—and before you move your feet! Dancers learn early on that they must listen carefully and watch attentively to get all the information they need to move well. The ears and eyes become as important as the feet. Trial-and-error learners (better known as showoffs) learn that moving without having all the vital information does not always work. Learning to be a patient listener is a huge part of the dance process.
You are in charge of your destiny. No one can make someone do anything. All parents recognize the struggle of getting their children to clean their rooms. The job is never done well until someone they wish to impress is due to visit. Unless they decide on their own to do something well, it simply will not happen.
Motivation is an important factor in dance training, and less talented dancers often surpass those with more natural ability because of their personal desire to excel. Teachers learn to never give up on a student who loves to dance. That love is more powerful than any other attribute a dancer can bring to the classroom.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! With dance, you get out of it exactly what you put in, and hard work really does pay off. A strong work ethic tends to carry over into students’ lives outside the studio and is reflected in their approach to schoolwork and other challenges. Dancers learn not to give up when they are not immediately successful. They learn to ask questions of their teachers and themselves and stick with a project to its best conclusion. They discover the strength of discipline and the joy of personal accomplishment.
Teachers who find that the first attempt at teaching a skill does not work according to plan must look for another way. Success with students is sometimes a sweet surprise that occurs after a seemingly never-ending series of failed attempts. Patience and creativity are essential attributes of a successful educator.
It’s not always about you. Teamwork is a big part of the picture in dance training. In preschool classes, the first lessons the little ones learn are how to cooperate, sit in a circle, stand in a line, and wait their turn. They find out that classrooms have rules and that rules in life ensure that everyone is comfortable and has a good experience.
For many children, life revolves around their own desires and immediate comfort. The dance classroom might be the first and only time in their lives that they must consider the comfort of others. As dancers mature and gain experience by performing with a group, they learn to share their talents and the spotlight with others. They become part of a larger family, sharing their lives and accomplishments.
Teachers learn to treat all students equally and expect all of their students to adhere to the same rules. Students love to emulate the personalities of their teachers, which makes kindness and fairness important qualities for the entire staff to embody. Clear rules with consistent consequences allow children to feel they are safe and part of a larger picture.
There are no do-overs. Dancers cannot hit the rewind button. I tell my students, “The bigger the mistake, the bigger the smile.” They learn quickly that frustration and tension only make things harder and that they have to leave their mistakes behind and forge ahead. I have never met a dancer who has had a perfect performance, but the show must go on and an audience can smell fear. Even the most prepared and talented performers will encounter technical difficulties that are beyond their control. Years of stage experience teach dancers to dismiss the problems and stay focused on the end goal. They learn to problem solve in the blink of an eye and come to the aid of their fellow dancers instinctively. What better life skills can you hope for?
The grass is always greener on the other side of the body. My right side always wanted the same amount of coordination that my left side had! In dance, it’s often true that one foot, side of the body, or direction really is stronger or more coordinated than the other. Because of that, dancers are more comfortable turning in one direction, tapping on one foot, or tumbling to one side. They have to learn to accept many things about themselves that they cannot change and find those things that they can improve on, which leads us to our next lesson . . .
Be yourself. Every body is built in its own unique and perfect way, which makes each dancer deliciously special. Dancers learn to find their own excellence and to admire and emulate the talents of others without making negative comparisons.
A teacher who helps students identify and develop what makes them special is giving them a true gift. Students cannot be allowed to take over a class or, worse, become invisible. All students deserve at least one correction as well as one compliment in each class they take.
It’s all in the details. In dance, basics are all-important and details make the difference. This explains the need for the constant repetition found in a dance classroom. Training is about developing good habits that stack together to form the technique that dancers can rely on.
Teachers can become bored with material they teach repeatedly over the years. Looking for fun and interesting ways to present that necessary repetition is the key to a happy classroom. It is the teacher’s responsibility to disguise the work and applaud the smallest accomplishments. Using props, costumes, and interesting music, blended with obvious enthusiasm for the subject, can decrease boredom for everyone and allow for the repetition needed to learn and enjoy the details.
Fast is not always best. Whether it is the tap dancer who forsakes rhythmic phrasing for breakneck speed, the acrobatic dancer who attempts trick after difficult trick, the lyrical dancer who never stops spinning, or the jazz dancer who never draws a movement out to its complete end, dancers eventually learn that audiences love changes in pace and the occasional quiet moment.
This rule also applies to the learning process. Getting a dancer from point A to point B requires slow, tedious work and a great deal of patience from everyone. Putting dancers on a fast track toward learning a skill or trick can lead to injury and frustration. Winning an award or satisfying a pushy parent is never worth the tradeoff.
Remember to develop the artist in your students, leaving time and space in the choreography for the audience to appreciate them as creative and artistic beings.
You get what you pay for. Quality education is essential for both the student and the teacher. Teachers must never apologize for charging an appropriate price that will compensate them for the education they must constantly acquire to teach this ever-changing, living art form. Studio owners should always encourage and facilitate continuing education for their staff. The teachers’ knowledge and personalities are the products the studio is selling. Education ensures the quality of that product. Teachers must stay motivated and excited about what they do.
Few other professions require people to excel in as many areas as teaching dance does. Spending time in a classroom or on the dance floor with others who share your daily problems and experiences can boost your energy and preserve your sanity. Taking time to recharge the batteries and laugh about common problems is an absolute must. This includes taking personal time to share with your family or simply pampering yourself.
Variety is the spice of life. The great thing about dance is that there are so many avenues for expression. The dance world is like a huge ice cream store with millions of flavors. Whether this week you love ballet and next week you prefer tap, there is always the opportunity for change.
Do not be afraid to switch things up. Try a new style of music, take a class in a discipline you have never tried, or expose yourself to ethnic dance of all flavors. Blending styles helps your students find their own dance voice and lends a new feel to a familiar class.
Dancers should be encouraged to take more than one dance discipline to develop all facets of their training. Try to arrange the school’s schedule to allow them to take one class conveniently after another. Encourage them to make up missed classes in a dance style they do not normally take. Let younger dancers visit the classes of older students who are studying a different genre, or have a tap soloist or group visit a ballet class. Everyone benefits from respecting diversity.
The future belongs to us. Dancers are taught to respect the past but not to be afraid to create the future. We understand that the masters laid the groundwork for what we now know, and we accept our responsibility to develop this information for future generations. Advancements in the study of kinesiology and exercise science have taught us how to use the body efficiently. Universities now provide advanced degrees in pedagogy, dance psychology, and teaching techniques. There is a newfound respect for the somatic arts, which have taught us to respect and protect our bodies and integrate that practice with healthy minds.
Technology makes it easier than ever to find new information and learning resources. We can now teach students more efficiently, which allows for new levels of accomplishment from our dancers. Teachers must arm themselves with information and set no boundaries for artistic innovation. Developing students’ awareness of how their bodies work will lead the way to years of healthy learning and performance and lay the groundwork for the artists of the future.
Words from our readers
While reading Diane [Gudat]’s article [“What Are Parents Thinking?!” Dance Studio Life, December 2007], I was either crying from laughing so hard or cheering! Thanks for the chuckles, and yes, it does make me feel better to know that others are suffering from being subjected to the same parental madness! My office staff wants to change the schedule to read: “Advanced Ballet 1, Advanced Ballet 2, Advanced Ballet 3,” etc. That way [the students] can all be advanced!
Also, thanks so much for the article on Tap the Map [FYI, November 2007]. Anthony Russo is my son. My dad saw the Tap the Map logo and immediately thought that someone had stolen Anthony’s idea. So he started reading the article and of course found Anthony’s name. It was a proud moment for grandpa!
Performing Arts Centre, Inc., St. Charles, MO
I have loved your magazine since its inception. I really enjoy your variety of articles, especially those regarding studio management and the problems that studio owners come upon. I want to thank you for dedicating your December  issue to tap dance. Dianne Walker’s [interview] was wonderful.
I’m writing to note some errors. Mike Wittmers’ article, “Rhythm Boot Camp” was very good, but there is a step that cannot be done. You cannot “shuffle (l) hop (r) toe (r) hop (r).”
“Tapping Into Your Potential” has a statement made by Joseph Fritz, the deputy dance director at New York’s Metropolitan Opera: “All tapping is done on the ball of the foot. You never have your heel down except when you stomp.” This is wrong, and when I read this to my students, they laughed!
Thank you for allowing me to clear up these statements.
Dance With Sherry, San Rafael, CA
Joshua Bartlett, who wrote “Tapping Into Your Potential,” responds: I was trained by Bob Audy, a highly regarded tap teacher in New York. He always stressed keeping the weight on the balls of the feet (unlike in ballet, where the weight is distributed evenly over the feet to enable proper turnout from the hips). Tapping on the balls of the feet allows for greater freedom of movement when turnout is not required.Editor’s note: In “Rhythm Boot Camp,” page 50, the correct sequence is:
R R L R L R L R L
Heel-push step step shuffle hop toe hop step.
I’m writing to thank you for your comment to “Nancy” [in “Ask Rhee Gold”] in the January/February 2008 issue. When Nancy said we all complain about the recreational dancers because they will never be as good as the competition dancers, I thought, “How does she know? Does she have a crystal ball?”
I opened my studio 15 years ago. I have had girls start at age 12 and turn into wonderful ballerinas; I’ve had adults continue tapping into their 70s and thoroughly impress me. When I took evening ballet in New York City with “recreational adults,” they would say that they looked forward to coming to ballet and being transported away from their worries. The teachers in Manhattan never treated them any differently than the professional dancers alongside them. I believe it is important to train all children equally.
I enjoy reading the magazine. It is well balanced, and it’s also nice to feel it is run by someone with a heart, a business head, and an appreciation for all the different teachers, studios, and companies who train the young and old alike.
Pointe Chautauqua Dance!, Mayville, NY
I have been the artistic director of [my school] for 27 years. I look forward to your magazine, and it would be like not having Nutcracker in December if I did not get it. Keep up the good work and continue pouring all that knowledge into all of us.
Elizabeth Parsons School of Dance, Orlando, FL
When I was in Indianapolis for Dance Revolution, two ladies approached me saying they wanted to pick my brain about our program. They said, “We read your article ‘For the Greater Good’ [Goldrush, December 2006], and we said, ‘Here’s someone who gets what we are trying to do!’ ” We shared a nice time of mutual encouragement, and that wouldn’t have happened without you. So thank you for providing a platform for teachers and studio owners to build relationships to encourage and inspire!
Misty’s Dance Unlimited, Onalaska, WI
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.
My fantasy for life after teaching
By Diane Gudat
The life of the dance teacher is much like a never-ending rollercoaster ride. We struggle to climb phenomenal hills only to drop back into the unknown. We travel through countless spirals and loops only to fall through dark tunnels, which then hurl us into blinding sunlight. We navigate twists and turns our entire lives, sometimes hanging on with white knuckles and other times throwing our arms over our heads with reckless abandon. We scream, we laugh, we cry, and at the height of it all, someone takes our picture to capture the moment. But what happens when the ride is over?
The current press on floundering starlets and rock stars who go into plush rehab resorts has left me wondering why there are no fabulous rehab programs or retirement homes designed for aging dance teachers. After all, we have an addictive gene that deserves equal attention and pampering. I have a few suggestions that might work for just such a facility.
First, it must have moving sidewalks or, at the very least, ramps. With knees like ours, stairs are out of the question. Elevators will play only upbeat show tunes, karaoke style, so that residents can freely assert their expertise with lyrics. The PA system must be extra-loud; dance teachers are in various stages of deafness due to the occupational hazard of standing in front of stereos their entire lives.
There will be no exercise programs of any kind. We have waited our entire lives to be fat and lazy. The last thing we want to see is an overly enthusiastic 20-something with a perfect body in yoga pants with an inspirational saying across the seat.
All rooms will be private, but residents will be issued life-sized stuffed children to scatter over the floor to simulate the hotel rooms they have shared with countless students over the years. Each fake child will come complete with a large dance bag that spills on its own, as well as an oversized garment bag to overcrowd the closet. A limit of no more than seven cats and/or one dog per room will be strictly enforced.
Each room will be equipped with a small stage, complete with a remote-control spotlight for those times when the bug to perform cannot be fully medicated away. Phones can be set to silent or, if preferred, placed in a constant ringing mode that never has to be answered. No newsletters or bulletin boards will be permitted.
The bars (there must be several, and the word must not end with the letters “re”) must remain open 24 hours a day and serve specialty concoctions such as the Shuffle Off to La-La Land, Rond de Jamaica Rum Tum Tugger, Put Me à Terre, and of course, a wide assortment of Manhattans. Bar stools will hydraulically rise after patrons have been placed on them at ground level and will include harnesses to protect those who have uncontrolled movement flourishes.
Only high-quality entertainment with impeccable costuming and perfectly edited music will be scheduled in the elaborate resort theater. All residents will be issued microphones to allow them to critique the show directly from their seats. Seating will be available backstage for those who cannot imagine watching a show from the front. All seats will be equipped with heat and massage options.
There will be a costume library with a full array of boas, canes, derbies, tutu bands, and, of course, tiaras of all description. Powder-blue tuxedos and maribou-accented gowns should be readily available in all sizes.
Theme days are a must! Consider “Modern Mondays,” during which all residents wear flowing gauze gowns à la Isadora Duncan, while the staff works from inside Lycra stretch bags. “Frappé Fridays” would feature layered whipped-cream desserts on the daily chocolate buffet. “Tiara Tuesdays” need no elaboration.
Speaking of buffets, all meals will be served in all-you-can-eat style, with desserts served first. Salads must be requested and will not be placed in clear view of the normal population.
Arts and crafts classes where residents can embellish their entire wardrobes with rhinestones and feathers will be available. Special workshops such as “Design Your Own Title Banner” will be offered. This area will also feature a full-service Sequin Bar to facilitate the creation of sparkling headbands, belts, and legwarmers for those whose fashion sense is stuck in the ’70s.
Residents will not be allowed to posses Lycra garments of any kind, especially lime green or leopard print. (There are just some things that Lycra should not be asked to do.) Some residents will require Depends undergarments, and the unsightly lines they create may be objectionable to other residents. Also, no stretch pants, wrap sweaters, hand-knit leg warmers, or thongs of any description will be permitted on the premises.
This no-Lycra policy will also extend to the area in and around the elaborate pool and health spa. Only oversized, full-coverage T-shirts and knee-length shorts will be allowed. All varicosities and surgical scars must be covered, and no dance studio logos may be displayed on clothing on any part of the property.
Free full-body massages with emphasis on the legs and feet will be available daily, no scheduling needed. In fact, using the words “schedule” or “scheduling” is strictly forbidden by anyone at any time, for fear of throwing old studio owners into a regressive panic mode.
There must be a full-service beauty salon with a wide array of wigs, hairpieces, and toupees, plus an army of hair-color specialists. No tipping will be accepted in consideration of the fact that the residents are broke.
To assist with a smooth withdrawal for those who were heavily involved with dance teacher organizations, residents may opt to participate in fake board meetings, conference calls, and grand body meetings, held daily. Membership cards to clubs whose names consist of abbreviations will be issued and members can vote every day or run for imaginary offices whenever they wish. Needy residents can create and implement rules that will affect no one.
As a public service, residents will be allowed to work in the Trophy Recycling Center, where thousands of trophies and medals from overloaded studio windows all over the country can be melted down to make tiaras for deserving students who will never win one on their own.
A special wing of the facility will address the short-term needs of teachers recovering from summer competitions, conventions, and workshops. This area, open only from early August to mid-September, will place teachers in a weeklong coma to allow for full recovery from sleep deprivation. If necessary, teachers will then be weaned off all stimulants, antidepressants, and sleep-aid medications. Liposuction will be included in the package to remove the new unwanted pounds, as well as hypnosis to remove all memory of whining students, pushy parents, and any desire to repeat the process next summer. Financial consultants will then assist in consolidating credit card debt.
During the remainder of the year, this wing will serve as a retreat for the life partners of dance teachers who need a catalog- and sequin-free environment.
Seminars at the retreat will feature topics such as:
- “How to get hot glue off the kitchen table without ruining the finish”
- “Why do they call it a recital when no one actually speaks?”
- “How much music can my computer hold?”
- “What happened to the numbers 9 and 10? My wife can only count to 8!”
If there are any financial backers out there, feel free to contact my people; however, be forewarned that there will be no monetary return on your investment. Dance teachers are inherently broke, especially in July and August, so we will not be able to pay you at all. In fact, we will all need to be placed on full-talent scholarships for the entire length of our stay. After all, we have handed out innumerable scholarships our entire lives. What goes around comes around, right?
Most of us have worked for ourselves our entire lives, so we have no retirement funds and only the most basic of healthcare provisions. And do not even consider trying to get compensation from our children. Some of them have been turned into dance teachers themselves!
Anyone who owns property with an ocean view and possesses a desire to reward the most deserving professionals on the planet should step up and make this paradise a reality. Leave a message on my machine—I’ll get back to you after recital!
Getting the most from your performance group means expecting the best from yourself
By Diane Gudat
All dance teachers want to bring out the best in their performing groups. Although many factors are involved, the most important one is to create a nurturing, stimulating working environment. Ideally, you want to establish a family feeling that encourages the dancers to work together toward a common goal. To ensure that, no dancer should be made to feel more important than another. Performance groups that consistently feature one or two dancers or showcase male dancers excessively run the risk of making the others feel less important.
As the artistic director, you determine the flavor of the group. In order for the dancers to work toward your goals and expectations, you must decide what you want the group to achieve. Before you hold your first audition, develop a mission statement that defines the group’s purpose, focus, and goals. Give it to your staff and, later, to the dancers and their parents. Make sure that everyone who works with the dancers understands your goals and priorities.
With mission statement in hand, you’re ready for the next step: choosing the dancers.
Schedule auditions at the same time every year, and announce the dates and expectations early. Choose an audition panel of judges composed of friends or colleagues who do not work with the dancers on a regular basis. Make the requirements for membership in a performance group clear. Will the dancers need to demonstrate a certain level of flexibility or be able to do a double pirouette or strong grand jeté?
Provide the dancers with a critique of their audition. Point out strengths and weaknesses and offer suggestions to improve their performance. Ask them to write a short letter in response to the critique that states what they believe they can and should work on. Ask those who are selected to describe the personal strengths (like leadership, spirit, organizational qualities, promptness, friendliness, or a good memory) they will bring to the performance “family.” In strong families, each member feels needed and understands their role and what they contribute to the group.
Provide those who audition with participation guidelines, including required dance classes; rules about attendance; when, where, and how often rehearsals will be held; and fund-raising responsibilities. Require that the students who are selected for the group (and their parents) read and sign the guidelines; keep copies of the signed documents on file. Make it clear that all members must adhere to the guidelines and will face consequences if they do not. Special treatment can cause a breakdown in the group’s structure.
Many performance companies have a parent booster club that supports the group through fund-raising. Make sure that the parents understand that they have no say in decisions about activities or artistic elements; their purpose is simply to support the director’s goals for the benefit of the group. Have the parents form committees that utilize their personal talents or interests, such as making travel arrangements, raising funds, maintaining costumes, organizing transportation, and providing snacks.
Good communication with the dancers and their parents is all-important. Decide well in advance when and where rehearsals, workshops, competitions, and performances will be held. Parent meetings should be regularly scheduled events and attendance should be required. Send out newsletters frequently and post information at the studio on a designated performance company bulletin board.
Keep a professional distance from the dancers and their parents. Familiarity makes it difficult for you to be objective and consistent when problems arise, and when you do enforce rules, students and parents may feel that their friendship has been betrayed. Those who are not in the circle of friends might feel slighted and accuse you of favoritism.
Tell your students to leave the drama at the door. Do not allow them to discuss personal problems, boyfriends or girlfriends, or bodily functions during class or rehearsals unless they relate to the work at hand. Students must understand the effect their mind-sets and attitudes have on the group. Attitude is extremely contagious, whether it is positive or negative.
Nip problems in the bud when necessary, but do not resolve conflicts between students unless they are major or affect performances. Teach students to mediate and be responsible for their interpersonal relationships. Older students can show leadership and guidance in mediating problems.
Make sure that the teaching staff, demonstrators, and older dancers set good examples in terms of energy, enthusiasm, expectations, and professionalism. If you see apathy, rude or abusive behavior, or lateness among the role models, you can expect to see it in the dancers. The same is true for positive or inspirational attitudes and behaviors.
Identify leaders for each part of the routine (the dancer in the center front or someone who cannot see anyone else in the choreography) and make them feel important and responsible. Learning to work as a team is an important life lesson, and it will make the group look polished. Even though there is a leader, all dancers must accept personal responsibility for learning steps and staying in formation. We use the mantra “You are the boss of you.”
Reward leadership and other positive behaviors with praise. Catch your dancers doing something right instead of looking for what is wrong. Give small awards to those who display the most energy, best memory, best turn, or most improvement during the rehearsal. Award the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award after a competition or convention to one dancer from each group who showed the most improvement, leadership, kindness, or spirit.
Classes and rehearsals
Decide what to focus on in each class or rehearsal, and highlight any skills that need improvement. Create incentives for success, such as charts and small rewards for goal achievement.
Teach the dancers to rehearse with the energy and expressiveness they will use onstage. Encourage natural smiles and caution them not to exaggerate their facial expressions. As an exercise, have the dancers face the mirror and listen to the music without moving, responding only with facial expressions. Give them key words to describe what you want them to show: “happy,” “surprised,” “angry,” “confused,” “frightened,” and so on. Start these exercises with young students to allow them to gain confidence as they grow. Older students might be self-conscious and need time to become comfortable with the exercises.
Set realistic goals for the group and reevaluate them each season. Expect personal excellence from each dancer. We use the phrase (borrowed from Oprah!) “Let no one outwork you today.” Their work ethics are their personal investment toward excellence. If everyone works as hard as they can, the entire company will move forward.
Hold company class before rehearsals to work on some of the challenges in the choreography and strengthen the group. All levels should take this class together to reinforce the group’s family feeling.
Choreograph at the dancers’ level with a few small challenges for growth, and don’t hesitate to make changes when necessary. Stay positive! The process of learning must be made to appear more important than the end product. The success is in the lessons learned and the positive experiences in the studio along the way.
Emphasize the dancers’ need to keep their eyes forward and be aware of those around them. Periodically rehearse while facing away from the mirror to limit dependency on visual cues for correctness.
Invite other dance professionals to critique your work, and listen to their comments. Allow others to teach or choreograph so that you can objectively observe the dancers in class or rehearsal. (Insist that they comply with your standards for music and movement.)
Choose competitions, performances, and workshops carefully. Do your research (including asking other teachers for their opinions about various events) and consider the following questions.
- What will it cost and how will it be paid for? Constant bills or fund-raising can exhaust a parent’s initial enthusiasm for your goals.
- How will it enhance your dancers’ education and help them improve?
- What are the qualifications of the faculty? Will they be a positive influence on your dancers?
- Is it a win–win or win–lose situation? Are the dancers mature enough to accept a judge’s decision? Are the parents prepared to handle the situation?
Listen to the judges’ comment tapes and watch videos of rehearsals and performances. It is never easy to receive criticism or relive an imperfect performance, but doing so will help target strengths and identify flaws. Be willing to grow with each experience and keep your sense of humor. Getting more from our students often means expecting and getting more from ourselves.
Choose music and choreography that will best display each group. Remove all questionable lyrics and keep the music short. Short routines allow the students to work on clarity and performance quality rather than memorization and stamina. Keep unison dancing to a minimum, particularly in complicated turn sections. The following choreographic elements will enhance your work.
- Utilize a variety of floor patterns.
Keep groups moving through each other.
Use formations such as circles, lines, triangles, and columns.
Choreograph entrances and exits during the piece.
- Include interaction between the dancers.
Teach the students to establish eye contact with and react to each other onstage.
Use partnering and weight sharing.
- Create layers of choreography.
Use canons or have dancers do different steps to the same portion of music.
Use a variety of tempos.
- Create levels within the choreography.
Utilize different planes with floor work, leaps, and centered movement.
Add variety with benches, stairs, and chairs.
Include simple lifts and body stacking.
Rosters full of Alexas and Allisons, prodigy 2-year-olds, sleep-deprived zombies— c’mon, parents, give us a break!
By Diane Gudat
Sometimes I sit in the studio at the end of a particularly long day and think, “Are there other dance teachers out there with the same problems I have with parents?” At workshops and conventions, groups of teachers gather in corners to discuss these nagging struggles. For those of you who feel like you are suffering alone, let me recap a few of my own parental pet peeves. I’ll bet they will ring a bell with a lot of you!
1. Why is everyone named Alexandra?
Last season I had a class in which nearly every girl had a name that was a derivative of Alexandra—like Lexie, Allie, Alexa, or Alexis—or was named Allison. (There were three.) The only one with a different name was Victoria, and she asked me to call her Susan. Her progressive parents felt it was her choice. From that day forward, I called her Tori. Yet another class contained two Lindseys (one with an “a” and one with an “e”).
There were also two Kaylas, a Kiley, a Kaley, a Cori, and one very precocious curly-haired Tallulah. Come on, parents, there are lots of names out there! Give us a break!
2. I have spent countless hours on the phone with parents who want to register their 2- and 3-year-olds for a dance class worthy of their advanced talents. My favorite parental registration quotes include “My daughter loves to dance with Ellen,” “My daughter just cannot sit still when there is music playing; she entertains us by the hour!” and “Her gymnastics teacher and swimming coach moved her into the advanced classes.” But my all-time favorite comment has to be this: “She has already had two years of experience in tap, ballet, and jazz and now we are looking for something more serious.” (Remember, these children are 2!)
It is not that I have anything personal against 2- and 3-year-olds in dance class, but let’s get realistic. Everybody dances with Ellen and no healthy 2-year-old sits still when music plays. No 2-year-old has experience with anything that lasts more than 15 minutes. Dance for little ones should be fun, organized playgroups that introduce them to the wonderful world of dance and new dance friends. There is a throne in heaven for every preschool dance teacher and a rhinestone pair of wings for those who return these phone calls and schedule preschoolers into class.
3. While we are on the subject of small children, I have a few more requests. One, please quit waking them up from their nap in the car right before dance class. It is hard to start class on a happy note with two or three grouchy, sleepwalking zombies in the circle.
Two, we are not kidding about taking them to the bathroom before class. Mopping the floor takes a huge chunk of time out of class and can really embarrass the child. And three, if you drop a Cheerio on my lobby carpet, please pick it up before it is ground into dust and sticks to the empty juice box you left under the benches last week.
4. Here is a touchy subject—costumes! Parents moan that they never fit. Unless they are custom made (and the parents’ wallets would surely know the difference), costumes will either be too small or, if you are lucky, too big. Jazz pants and unitards will always be long enough to fit a baby giraffe. And yes, they actually do cost that much. If parents could see my living room during the months of March, April, and May, they would know that I am doing my best to get the costumes out of my house. After recital this year I am planning a therapeutic burning of the more than 60 catalogs that are stacked on the floor next to my sofa. Maybe we could make this a national event for teachers around the country.
By the way, you teachers who actually sew your own costumes—stop it! You are making the rest of us look bad and torturing yourself. Get with the catalogs! I will send you my duplicates.
5. Next on the list are the parents who want their children moved up to a higher-level class. No class seems advanced enough for them. Some of the most common remarks from parents are: “I don’t know if I can get her to come back to that class level again. She has already learned that stuff!” and “She was the best one in the recital dance! That other girl messed up and she got moved up to the next level.” And don’t forget these great reasons: “She has piano on Tuesdays and gymnastics on Thursdays, so she needs that Wednesday advanced class,” and “Her next-door neighbor is in that class and she wants to be with her.” I ask these parents if, when their pediatrician prescribes one medicine, they insist that the pharmacist give them something better. We are not pulling names out of a hat here! We are trained professionals!
6. This brings me to my next pet peeve, which I like to call “sandwich classes.” These children are leaving soccer early to get to dance class “just a little bit” late. They then want to leave dance class “a few minutes” early to make it to art class. The parent’s excuse is usually something like this: “She just can’t decide what she wants to do, and this will only happen for the next three months.” These same little dancers usually have ketchup on their faces from finishing their Happy Meal as they walk into class, and their leotards are on backward because they changed their clothes in the car. They are often barefoot—their dance shoes are in their father’s car because he picked them up from art class last week.
Parents, you are not building superkids. You are not going to miss some amazing talent and neglect the hidden gold medalist in your child. Your children are confused and exhausted. You are frazzled and ready to attack the first dance teacher you see. So here is an idea—leave the kids at home and come take the dance class yourself. You will have a great time! You know you have always wanted to or are wishing you had never quit—that’s why most of you bring us your children anyway.
7. Parents, if we send home a flyer with a misspelling, please do not tell us! Getting those newsletters together on time is one of the toughest things we do. And do not call the studio to see if the information in the flyer is true. For example: “Sallie just brought home a flyer that says her group has a rehearsal on Saturday at 10:00. Is that true? Could you please call me back before 5:00 to confirm? I checked the website and it also says Saturday at 10:00 but we’ve been out of town and missed last week’s rehearsal and our computer has been acting up so, I just wanted to check. Her dad will need to bring her, so she will probably be late. I will wait for your call if you really need her there.”
8. And finally, deadlines are deadlines. That is why the word “dead” is in the expression—if you miss it, you are dead! If we ask for something on Wednesday, we actually needed it on Monday. If you bring it in on Friday we are both in trouble! For some reason, there is always one person in each class who cannot seem to return anything on time. I end up chasing them into the parking lot and leaving untold messages on the family phone to get what we need anywhere near on time. And please, do not postdate checks. We are just not that organized. We will cash them early and they will bounce, and you will be upset. Is there anyone else in the world who will accept a postdated check? Most of us are now changing to automatic withdrawal systems, and can you blame us?
If these complaints sound familiar, maybe you could strategically place this issue of Dance Studio Life in your studio lobby, open to this article. Not that it will help, but it might make you feel better. Just know that you are not alone!
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.
8 ways to find inspiration for making dances
By Diane Gudat
Whenever I see professional dance performances, I wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of 10 or more hand-selected, well-trained dancers for 8 hours a day, 5 days each week, as well as a professional lighting designer and costumer. Most of us dance teachers have to work with young dancers—enthusiastic, yes, but limited in talent. We have a stack of costume books and a rigid budget. We use whatever theater we can manage to rent, sometimes with high school students or volunteers as crew. We often design and build our own sets. We have a 2- to 3-minute time limit per dance, and the music must be age appropriate. We pump out choreography day after day, and compromise becomes our middle name.
The amount of choreography most dance teachers face is a huge challenge. I counted the number of dances I made last year: 85, which is low compared to many of my peers. So to get you ready to create your next dozen or so dances, here are my favorite ways to get and stay inspired when creating choreography for your students.
Use a theme
A theme helps you focus your creative spirit. Many studio owners select a recital theme and base all of their choreography on that idea. This also helps with music and costume selections. Of course, with a little creativity you can make any dance match any theme. Some people select one theme for their ballet classes and a slightly looser one for the other disciplines; others choose a different theme for each section of the show. Keeping concepts simple allows you to remain flexible.
Two of my favorite themes are “Food Fabulous Food,” in which all of the dances have to do with food and the program is a full menu, and “Don’t Bug Me, I’m Dancing,” with dances that center on the world of insects and bugs. Audience favorites I know of include circus, colors, hats, and travel themes.
Go to the theater
See professional companies and performances of all kinds. Go to Broadway shows, plays, the symphony, and even operas. The talent and artistic flair of others is extremely inspiring. Being in a live audience, with its sounds, colors, and electricity, will recharge your own artistic batteries. I once acquired two great pieces of music and many good partnering ideas from an ice skating show. What a great reason to take a night off from the studio and spend time with my family! I also found unlimited inspiration in the dancers aboard a cruise ship. I highly recommend that one and plan to research that source again very soon!
Go to recitals
See what other people do at their recitals. Do not compare or judge; simply enjoy. One way to open the door to others’ recitals is to send a personal invitation and a few free tickets to your show to dance teachers in your area. Let them know they are welcome and respected. I often tell my students that dancers at other studios are like cousins in our larger dance family. Attending others’ recitals or performances, congratulating them on their accomplishments, and speaking kindly of them inside your own studio builds bridges that benefit everyone.
Surround yourself with art and color
I like to visit art museums, art shows, and fairs. I make notes about colors and shapes and let these things inspire my choreography. Allow the colors to flow over into the costuming. A favorite painting or sculpture can be a jumping-off point for an entire piece. This year I selected a painting from the Museum of Modern Art that featured bright colors and geometric shapes on a round canvas. It led me to create circular movement that I had not previously used, and its color patterns influenced the dance’s costuming. As I choreographed, I pictured the painting on the floor. I assigned each student a color, then had them move in ways that described their color’s patterns on the floor. The angles in the painting gave me new ideas for arm shapes and isolation patterns. The blending of colors led to ideas for partnering and the shading helped me include a variety of levels in my work.
Being in a live audience, with its sounds, colors, and electricity, will recharge your own artistic batteries.
Tell a story
It does not matter whether the dancers or audiences ever know what the story is; you simply draw on the characters and events in the story to generate ideas for movement. I once told the story of purchasing my Yorkshire terrier—my dancers never knew they were tracing the head, legs, and tail of my dog when they ran intricate floor patterns. Swinging arms, floor rolls, and spirited jumps all described my pet and made the process of choreographing—and the secret story behind it—fun for me. In another recent piece of mine, the dancers represented people in my life, which created an interesting motivation for dancer interaction and helped me feel closer to people I had been missing.
Read a good book! I have drawn and developed many story lines from works I’ve read, both fact and fiction, but there are also many wonderful books that can offer you guidance on choreography. Sample some that describe the lives, ideas, and works of different choreographers and the art of effectively designing movement.
Tap into your students
Draw inspiration from your students and their creative spirit by allowing them to experiment with improvisation and watching what they create. Students love to feel involved and are proud of their input.
During a choreographic workshop with my modern students, I watched a beautiful 1-minute story performed by an 8-year-old. She told about planting a seed in the fall, her disappointment when it did not grow right away, and her surprise when it sprouted in the spring. An older student imitated her Etch A Sketch, while another surprised us with a wonderful creation based on losing the electronic game Simon. Many others created captivating pieces that told complete stories they were unwilling to explain but that inspired new, heartfelt movement. Try layering their pieces together and watching the students interact. And always give appropriate credit when listing choreographers.
Select music you enjoy
Working with music you do not like can be a real chore. Go to a large music store, grab an expensive cup of coffee, and visit the listening stations to sample new music or artists. Online music stores like iTunes, Amazon, and Wal-Mart Music allow you to sample large collections of music in the comfort of your pajamas before purchasing.
Don’t forget networking—over the years I have established a circle of dance-teacher friends who regularly trade music and recital soundtracks. When we find music that “sounds like a friend,” we send it along. Never underestimate the resources found in other dance teachers.
Being able to cut, layer, and enhance music can make it more desirable to work with. Learn to use a music-editing program or find someone to do it for you.
Use guest choreographers
Sometimes guest artists who create dances for your school unearth talents or weaknesses in your students that you had overlooked. Observe their choreographic process and ask questions if possible. This will allow you to take a much-deserved break and learn something at the same time.
Also, do not forget to incorporate small sections of choreography you acquire at conventions or workshops into your dances. I do not recommend using an entire routine, but a drop of flavor from another choreographer might inspire something new in you.
Sometimes we ask too much of ourselves. We feel like we are doing “chore-eography” instead of choreography! It is very hard to feel creative and overwhelmed at the same time. Not every dance we choreograph will be a work of art, and that’s OK.
Some choreographers start by selecting music; some begin with movement; others rely on improvisation or simply connect their favorite combinations from class. Regardless of your method, know that creative blocks come and go for all artists. But a sincere love of teaching and your students will see you through dance after dance.
Dance is full of sweet traditions that shape our classes and bring us comfort.
By Diane Gudat
Being a dance teacher is not the easiest or the most glamorous job in the world. It is also not the one with the highest pay or the most consistent rewards. But there are many reasons to rejoice that I chose this field so many years ago.
1. I loved being able to stay at home with my children during the day. The afternoon schedule of dance classes allowed me to be at home most days with my girls as they grew up. Granted, my husband and I had to play tag team as parents, but we were spared having to put our children in daycare. Normally I limited the amount of time they spent at the studio when they were not in their own dance classes, but when I had to bring them to work with me—something that would not have been possible with an office or another kind of job—I was relieved that they were safe and happy. Now that my children are practically grown, I value those days at home and the memories they generated.
2. I love the artistic expression and creativity my job demands. I know of no other job that would require me to be creative every moment of every single day, even when I do not want to be! I design every class, create choreography, choose costumes and props, cut music, write newsletters, and manage parents—it is all up to me! Every child in my class is a “work of art in progress,” and each class gives me the opportunity to mold them into something new and better.
3. Being a dance teacher helps to keep my mind sharp and my body fit. I am not as supple or strong as I once was, but in comparison to other people my age I feel I have a definite advantage. Spending time with young people every day gives me a different view of the world and brings challenges and laughter that make my life more interesting. Exposure to their energy and enthusiasm makes me look forward to work even when the job itself seems daunting. Working with adults has its benefits, too—I appreciate that I have something special to share with my peers, something that brings new friends and acquaintances to my doorstep. True, I have bad knees and my hearing is not so good; and yes, I get sore much more easily than I used to. But my job allows me to stay physical, and that is a perk that I can get only by teaching dance.
4. Have you ever looked at a class of beginning students right before their first performance and realized what they have accomplished in their first year of dance? Have you noticed the technical improvement in an upper-level class over the course of an academic year? Your students are visual proof of your accomplishments in the last nine months. Even those who began with nothing are now able to step onstage in front of their parents and friends to display a talent they might not have discovered or developed without your knowledge and encouragement. That sense of confidence or aura of maturity you see in your students is directly traceable to your daily care in the classroom. Although I appreciate the thank-you cards and gifts that my students give me at the end of the year, my greatest gift is watching a child who cried or was painfully shy in September take a bow after her first performance.
5. The world is a very different place than when I was young. The pressures our teenagers face every day make it much more difficult to stay focused and on the right path. I value the opportunity to be an important adult in the lives of my students. I know that many of them spend more time with me at the studio than they do with their parents at home.
When I am around my students, I make it a point to be on my best behavior. I am careful about my conversations, the music I select, the movements I use in my choreography, and the clothing I wear while in their presence. My students’ parents trust me to represent wholesome values—the same ones they live by—when their children are in my care.
All of my high school students carry my business card, and I encourage them to call me if they are ever in a situation in which they might be afraid to involve their parents or which they cannot comfortably deal with alone. I am proud of the role I play in their lives. I enjoy having them come home from college and tell me what a difference I made in their lives and their personal decisions.
6. As members of the arts community, dance teachers can play an important role in promoting and supporting the arts. We are training young people who will have respect for those who dedicate their lives to the arts. We are developing the next generation of enthusiastic theatergoers and supporters of the arts. We enhance community events by offering entertainment or contributing to fund-raising activities using the talents of our dancers. Some of us volunteer our time by choreographing or teaching for neighborhood schools, Girl Scouts, church functions, and festivals. I enjoy being recognized at the grocery store as the “lady who did that dance thing” for the church festival. I take pride in watching the high school dance team I coached do their thing on the basketball floor.
7. Dance is full of sweet traditions that shape our classes and bring us comfort. I love passing them along: the bow or reverence at the end of class, the French terminology, the etiquette of the ballet barre, the handing down of a tap legend’s step or a jazz master’s technique. All of these traditions allow me to pass on the essence of dance to a new generation.
From time to time I wonder how I learned what I teach, and I realize that my dance knowledge is the result of multiple gifts from the teachers I have met throughout my life. I picture their faces as I teach a small part of their class or a combination that reflects their particular style. I love knowing that some of my students will become dance educators and remember me in the form of a comment, correction, or combination, and I have been blessed to see this happen when my alumni return to teach at our studio. I know that wherever my students go they will hear my voice as a positive influence inside their heads, and not only in the dance classroom. The studio is their second home, and they take comfort in knowing there is a place that has a specific order, that helps to explain who they are and why they do what they do.
8. As a business owner for many years, and now as an independent contractor, I enjoy being in charge of my own schedule and deciding what I will do in the classroom. I remember the days when I would work my day job, and then rush to the studio to teach all evening. Now, although dance totally consumes each day, I feel that I am working for myself. I am directly responsible for my own success or failure.
Of course, despite all these reasons to feel good about what I have chosen to do every day for nearly 30 years, sometimes I feel exhausted. Sometimes I become discouraged by an unkind remark or overwhelmed by the endless work. Sometimes I wish I were home in the evening with my family like a “normal” person, or that sequins were not stuck to the bottoms of my shoes. But I would not trade teaching dance for any other job in the world.