How to avoid the pitfalls of teaching your own kids
By Jennifer Kaplan
Each morning when Kehree Lacasse unlocks her North Vancouver studio, she transforms from a mother of two to a “mother” of 450. But because one student is her own daughter, she also wrestles with the perceptions that arise among her clients.
Lacasse grew up in Vanleena Dance Academy, the studio in British Columbia she now directs with her mother, Eileena Vanneck. She faces the same day-to-day challenges other working parents struggle with: time management, work-family balance, and—often the key to a conflict-free evening at home—the answer to “What’s for dinner?”
But there’s a twist. Like any other studio owner who trains her own child, in trying to attend to her daughter’s well-being and training needs, Lacasse risks judgment and false perceptions from her clients. And for some school owners, being their children’s teacher creates an additional source of parent/child conflict beyond that of the average family. Lacasse and three other dance school owners spoke openly about the unique challenges their families face.
Kehree and Chanel Lacasse
“My passion was always teaching,” Lacasse says. “My daughter, though, is talented enough—I think she has a real gift to perform. I don’t want her to be a [dance] teacher unless she chooses that for herself.”
When Lacasse was growing up in her mother’s studio, she remembers being told to be an example for the other students. By the time she was 13, her mother had enrolled her in another studio for training. “I always have the pull of whether I should send [Chanel] somewhere else or teach her myself,” says Lacasse.
The 15-year-old has already spent four summers away at major ballet programs and was invited to stay on as a resident student at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, an offer both mother and daughter declined. “I’ve asked her sometimes if she’d like to go somewhere else,” says Lacasse. “I said it might be easier if she was a student in a different class—she could be herself in a different way, with a higher-level mentor. She says, ‘But I have that opportunity in the summer.’ ”
At work Lacasse must maintain an attitude of professionalism, treating all her students equally. She also performs a balancing act, juggling her son’s hockey games—and telling him no sticks allowed in the studio—while teaching her daughter and 23 other girls in the advanced class, without showing favoritism or criticism that might single out Chanel.
“When my daughter is at the studio, she’s a student,” Lacasse says. “She doesn’t call me ‘Mum’ at the studio. While she feels very comfortable there, I don’t think she takes advantage of things because she’s my daughter.”
Lacasse is fortunate that through an emphasis on teaching fundamentals, she and her mother, using the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus, have nurtured a cohort of strong teen dancers. Like Chanel, they dance 20 to 24 hours a week, leaving public school after lunch to take a full curriculum of ballet, modern, jazz, lyrical, and ballroom classes.
While Chanel is among Vanleena’s strongest dancers, Lacasse remains cautious about spotlighting her daughter too much. Each year, she and her 20 teachers select the one or two hardest workers from each class to showcase in solos during the final performance. The selected children range from seventh-graders to graduating seniors, and they’re not always the best dancers in the class. One year, Lacasse says, the other teachers wanted to cast her daughter as the lead in Snow White. “Being studio director, I said, ‘No. Chanel has done a lot this year; I feel that someone else should share the spotlight.’ ”
Lacasse realizes that tension and gossip about the owner’s kid can lie just beneath the surface. But she hasn’t encountered anything that concerns her. “Chanel is a little bit in the spotlight, but even if she wasn’t my child I think she would still be there. She’s a nice kid with talent who works really hard at what she does.”
When Chanel was younger, Lacasse admits, she questioned whether she could be impartial in measuring her own child’s talent against others’. So she signed her daughter up for soccer and gymnastics—anything but dance. But when the gymnastics teacher told Lacasse that her daughter should be dancing, it was clear that others knew what Chanel’s talents were. Chanel thrived in dance classes taught by her grandmother, mother, and other teachers. Today, Lacasse relies on her teachers and the summer programs to verify that, indeed, Chanel has both talent and drive.
For now Lacasse continues to train her daughter (who is in her class four days a week) the same way she trains the rest of her students. At this point, sending her away to a residency program isn’t an option. “You only have one chance with your kid. I want the chance to raise my daughter,” Lacasse says. “If I sent her somewhere else, I know exactly where I would send her, but she wants to stay here also, so I won’t push her. I know she loves and respects so many of the teachers in the school.”
Heidi Halt, Sergio Neglia, and Nico Neglia
For Heidi Halt, co-owner of Neglia Conservatory of Ballet in Buffalo, New York, teaching her son Nico, 14, can be a challenge at times. “I don’t expect him to be the best one in class, but I want him to behave really well. I noticed that he doesn’t always work the hardest in class, especially for me.”
That lead to a recent family conference, for Halt’s husband, Sergio Neglia, is her business partner and also a ballet teacher at the studio. “I noticed that in his dad’s class [Nico is] a totally different dancer,” says Halt. “I’ll watch and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he could do that.’ ”
Neither Halt nor Neglia want to push their children to dance if they don’t want to. In fact, they stopped their 5-year-old daughter, Elisabeta, in midyear because she didn’t seem ready. Neglia told Nico, “ ‘If you don’t want to dance, if you only are working in my class because you are afraid of me, then that is wrong.’ I said, ‘Don’t fool around in Mommy’s class.’ ”
Neglia knows the burden of being a dancer’s son [see “Ballet Scene: Argentine Tradition,” DSL, October 2008]. His father, José Neglia, was Argentina’s best-known and beloved dancer. When he died in a plane crash, Sergio, then 8, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He did, dancing with major ballet companies in Chile, Japan, Miami, and Cincinnati before settling in Buffalo.
“My passion was always teaching. My daughter, though, is talented enough—I think she has a real gift to perform. I don’t want her to be a [dance] teacher unless she chooses that for herself.” —Kehree Lacasse
“It’s not my dream that my son wants to dance,” says Neglia. “He’s very artistic and he can do anything he wants. I don’t want him to do it just because it’s a family matter. I think it is so wrong to push anything on a child; it’s like a murder in a way, a murder of your child’s dreams, and that’s horrible.” But in teaching his son, Neglia finds he imagines what studying with his father might have been like.
For now, a détente has been reached. Nico has told his parents he loves to dance and recommitted himself to work as hard in Mom’s class as in Dad’s. As for perceptions of favoritism among the 100-student clientele, Halt says that hasn’t been a problem. The year they wanted to cast Nico as Fritz in The Nutcracker, he turned them down, saying he didn’t want to be the obnoxious kid onstage.
“I don’t expect him to be a dancer,” says Halt, “but if he is at the studio, I expect him to be as well behaved and hardworking as the rest of the students. We expect that of all our kids. As a parent, though, we expect more because he is our son. I think we go out of our way to be tougher on him, so it isn’t like we’re favoring him at all.”
Melissa, Jaclyn, and Jillian Hoffman
Melissa Hoffman, a mother of four (including two non-dancing sons) in Hudson, New Hampshire, watches 600 kids come and go each week in her school, Melissa Hoffman Dance Center. She says that with all that activity, visitors would be hard-pressed to know which two girls are her daughters unless they’re personal friends of her family.
“That said,” Hoffman adds, “there are those that say, ‘Oh, she got to do this because she’s your daughter.’ In fact, it wasn’t until my eldest was 16 that people recognized [that she received notice] not because she was my daughter, but because she’s a strong dancer.”
After teaching and directing for so many years, Hoffman realizes that this is a battle she’ll probably never win. So while she hasn’t made too many concessions, she is careful about making casting decisions that ensure that her two girls aren’t always center stage, even if they are the strongest dancers.
Can a studio owner and teacher ever be truly impartial when it comes to teaching her own children? “This is a question that I’ve asked myself for a long time. I’ve done some soul searching and spoken to other teachers,” Hoffman says. “In the end, it’s my job as a mother to direct my children in the right way—in a manner that doesn’t hurt business.” She turns the tables, saying that if she had been a surgeon and her daughter aspired to become a doctor, surely she would use her medical connections to open doors for her child. “That’s true as a studio owner, too. I can make things happen for my own children and not harm my business.”
That means that her older daughter, Jaclyn, 18, joined her at a Dance Masters of America convention this year. Jaclyn, who has been teaching and choreographing at her mother’s studio for a few years, terms growing up as the studio owner’s daughter an “interesting experience.” A hardworking perfectionist, the Columbia University freshman says, “A lot of what I am today is because I grew up in the studio. From a really young age I felt like I had to prove myself, because even if people weren’t talking about me, I thought they were.” [See “My Life as a Studio Owner’s Daughter,” DSL, January 2009.]
Jaclyn says this made her a hyper-dedicated dance student who worked twice as hard—in dance class, in school, and in all her endeavors—to prove that she didn’t get special attention just because of who her mom is. “It was hard when I was younger because I was dancing with kids who were a lot older than me,” Jaclyn says. “It was good for my dancing, but the older kids especially were resentful of me because I was younger. Their mothers would talk about me behind my back.”
Hoffman says that she has relied on her staff of 10 teachers to make casting decisions, particularly when her dancing daughters were younger. (Her other daughter, Jillian, is 12.) And usually, especially with Jaclyn, she did not teach her own children. “In all honesty, when my eldest was little, I realized that I couldn’t be her teacher,” Hoffman says, because there was just too much conflict. She said her daughter wanted her to simply be her mom, not her teacher. Hoffman complied.
Jillian has taken a serious interest in ballet, but Hoffman’s studio doesn’t offer daily ballet technique. If that interest continues, in another year or two Hoffman will need to find a studio where her daughter can take ballet class five days a week. “It opens up a whole new situation,” she says. “We have another ballet student who wants more ballet. I’m going to have to work with her and her mom to find it, either in an additional school or a residency program.”
In the meantime, Hoffman sometimes takes her daughter to a special class or audition without opening the experience up to the entire school. “I post the notices and others can go, but sometimes I just have to be a mom and take care of my own kid.” She adds that she used her two girls as guinea pigs in trying out new programs, competitions, or master classes before committing the resources of her entire studio. “So it hasn’t all been glory for them,” she says with a laugh.
Kellie Payne and Leah Powell|
Kellie Payne of Silver Spring, Maryland, realized relatively early that she could no longer teach her own daughter, 8-year-old Leah Powell. The one-time studio owner now teaches pre-professional teens for Dream in Color Foundation & Studios in Annandale, Virginia, but she owned Studio One School of Performing Arts in Springfield from 1997 until 2004.
Payne grew up dancing in her grandmother’s school, Cuppett Performing Arts Center in Vienna, Virginia. “When my daughter was younger I made sure I was her teacher because I’m particular about ensuring that she gets the right training from the beginning. I wanted to train her in her beginning years, age 4, 5, and 6.”
Over the past year it became clear that neither Payne nor her husband, Tony Powell (a dancer, choreographer, and photographer), would be the best choice to provide their daughter’s dance education. Payne no longer teaches elementary school children, and Powell is busy with his choreography and photography career.
“She needs to be in a classroom setting with children her own age, not teens,” Payne says, “but we wanted to make sure that where we sent her was of quality.” They selected Maryland Youth Ballet, a local longtime ballet academy near their home that has produced numerous professional ballet dancers, among them American Ballet Theatre’s Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent, New York City Ballet’s Daniel Appelbaum, and Joffrey Ballet’s Allison Walsh.
“At first it felt weird paying someone else to teach my daughter to dance when I do it for a living,” Payne says, “but it was the best thing for my child. She’s not saying, ‘Mommy this, Mommy that,’ when I’m in class.” As the granddaughter of a studio owner, Payne remembered that as a child she felt she could get away with anything and that she should be the top dancer. “I really didn’t want that with Leah. I want her to feel like everyone else.”
Studios as second homes
While teaching their own children provides challenges for school owners, one big positive for the kids, at least in some cases, is the feeling of being in an extended family. Halt describes Neglia Conservatory as “a nice atmosphere to grow up in. When they’re grown up, I think they’re going to be happy about their childhood. We have a lot of great kids here. We’ve had older students who watched Nico grow up over the past 10 years and now they’re watching Elisabeta grow up. They love that, and my kids love it.”
The Neglia family’s three generations of dancers
By Nancy Wozny
Dancing families are common; dance legacies, less so. When Nicolas (Nico) Neglia, 11, heads off to his father’s class, he doesn’t think about being part of a chain of famous male Argentine dancers. Gracing the lobby at Neglia Conservatory of Ballet, his parents’ Buffalo-based studio, are photos of his grandfather, José Neglia, and his father, Sergio Neglia, soaring through the air. Also on the wall are the Neglia women. Nico’s grandmother, Maria Del Carmen Perez (José’s wife), enjoyed an outstanding career with the Colón Theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Nico’s mother and sometimes teacher, Heidi Halt, danced with Oakland Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, and Scapino Ballet of Rotterdam.
Nothing in Nico’s brimming smile or the studio’s sunny atmosphere hints at the tragedy in his family’s history. His grandfather, José, rose to fame at the ballet company of the Colón Theater during the 1960s. But his career—and his life—ended suddenly, when he was 42 and at the peak of his career. A small plane carrying him and eight other members of the Colón Theater ballet company crashed in the waters of the Plata River on October 10, 1971. All nine principal dancers died, along with the pilot, in an accident that would go down in history as a tragedy in Argentina’s ballet history. Mechanical problems were suspected, but the details will never be known.
José entered the ballet world by chance—he knew nothing about it until his father came home one day and said that he had met a great dancer named Michel Borovsky, who had offered to train one of his sons for free. José was chosen because his brother was too tall. “I was frightened because I knew nothing about ballet, and really didn’t want to know anything about it, but out of respect for my parents I decided to learn it,” he was quoted in a 1971 article in La Opinión, a Buenos Aires newspaper, published after his death.
After two years of study with Borovsky, he was accepted at the Ballet Institute of the Colón Theatre and began to take his studies seriously. By age 21 he had been promoted to principal. In 1962 he was honored with the Nijinsky Prize from the International Dance Association, earning him the nickname “the Latin Nijinsky.” In 1968 José won the top honor, “Best Dancer,” at the Cannes International Dance Festival. Critics referred to him as a “complete” dancer, and he was known for his extraordinary ability in character roles. Offers to travel were numerous throughout his career (including one to dance with Margot Fonteyn in London, which came just a few days before his death), many of which he turned down to stay close to his family.
Sergio, 44, was only 8 when his father died, but he remembers his father’s athletic dancing, vivid imagination, and robust personality. “My dad was a great storyteller,” says Sergio. “I believed he was Tarzan; he would entertain me with tales of his travels to Peru and Bolivia and bring me back bows and arrows.” Sometimes they would play Tarzan together on the stage when the theater was empty. “I remember hopping around after my father finished dancing Sleeping Beauty,” Sergio says.
Sergio’s most potent memory of his father is of a performance of Witch Boy, a ballet by English choreographer Jack Carter. During the curtain call, remembers Sergio, “he reached out to me from the stage and pulled me up to bow with him.” A few films exist of José’s dancing, which Sergio says are “very difficult to watch . . . because I am reminded of the tragedy. I don’t know if I will ever get over growing up without a father. Still, it’s amazing how similar we are onstage in our facial expressions, passion, the attack of movement, the way we stand and run.”
As a young child, Sergio had no intention of becoming a dancer. “I wanted to be a captain of a ship,” he jokes. But with renowned Russian dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar, his father’s good friend and mentor, as his godfather and namesake, Sergio seemed destined for ballet. He entered his dance life at age 6 with Ukrainian folk dancing and began ballet two years later, with Olga Ferri, one of José’s partners.
Although Sergio says he has always loved ballet, as a young student he hated the comparisons to his father. “The teachers at the Colón would applaud me every time I did a step and call me Josecito—little José,” he says. Also disturbing was the attention he got because of his father’s death. “You know—things like ‘Oh, poor thing,’ or ‘Oh, he’s so cute, just like his father.’ ” After talking to his mother about his feelings, he left the Colón school to study with Rodolfo Fontán and Mario Galizzi, with whom he was able to take his training seriously.
At 16 he left Argentina with a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB), where he studied with Andre Kramarevsky, Stanley Williams, and others. Nureyev and Baryshnikov used to take Williams’ class every morning, and at times they would work with Sergio after class. “Nureyev, a good friend of my father’s, was extremely detailed in his comments,” says Sergio.
Some of Sergio’s fondest memories of SAB are of his encounters with George Balanchine. “Once when I felt I wasn’t getting enough height, he said, ‘Seryusha, it’s not about the jump; stop jumping. Imagine that you are jumping, and you will create the illusion that you are jumping,’ ” Sergio recalls. “He then took me to the State Theater, where Peter Martins, Suzanne Farrell, and the company were rehearsing. He stopped the rehearsal and made me do the variation on the stage. When I was done, he patted me on the back, said, ‘Good,’ and left the stage.”
Sergio had an international career, dancing with Santiago Ballet in Chile, Miami City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, The Slovak Ballet, and Japan’s Nishina and Okamoto Ballets. It was a childhood dream come true: “When I was 10 or 11 my dream was to dance all over the world like Nureyev,” he says. “That was my inspiration, unlike my father, who really had no interest in that. He wanted to stay home with the family,” says Sergio. He still teaches in Japan on occasion, in addition to dancing with his own company, Neglia Ballet Artists.
Like his father before him, Sergio married a dancer. When Heidi Halt, now 44, met Sergio at David Howard’s class in New York City in 1987, she was taken with him and his superb dancing. They married a few years later. “He was always talking about his father. It was such a tragic death, and so hard to grow up without a father,” says Halt, who continues to dance character roles in addition to teaching and co-directing Neglia Ballet Artists. “After we settled in Buffalo in 1994 and started the studio, the Neglia name had more of a presence in our lives. When we first started the school we had no idea where we were going with it. But as we developed the school and company, we wanted to preserve José’s way of dancing—in particular, his artistry—and also honor his name.”
Sergio and Heidi’s son, Nico, is the third generation of dancing Neglias. (Their preschool-age daughter, Elisabeta, has not yet begun to take class.) A happy sixth grader, Nico enjoys fencing, painting, and playing Spider-Man video games, along with dancing. “He always danced whenever we put music on, but most children do,” says Halt. “When we started putting on productions in 1999, his interest in dance seemed to perk up.” Just as José had pulled Sergio onstage to take a bow with him after Witch Boy, Sergio brought his 2-year-old son onstage with him after a performance of Spartacus. Nico’s arrival onstage became a tradition: Sometimes he would bring flowers; other times he would take a bow. “I was so cute,” Nico jokes.
When Nico was 5 his mother signed him up for a class that was half art and half dance. He wanted to take only the art portion, but Halt encouraged him to give the whole class a try. It wasn’t long before he was asking to take more dance classes; at 6 he started pre-ballet. But when he hadn’t yet performed by age 9, Halt told him he was “too old for bowing when all the rest of the kids in his class were working hard to perform. He would come on just to bow and get bravos.” So in 2006, after a performance of Baba Yaga, Nico again took a bow with his father—and rightfully so, since he had danced the role of a goblin. In the role of mini-Baba Yaga, says Halt, “it is frightening to see how much he can move like Sergio.”
Any reluctance to get onstage has long disappeared; these days performing ranks highest on Nico’s dance meter. “I get to be in shows and sometimes miss school,” he says. Asked what he likes in class, he replies, “I love tendus—no, no, tours are my favorite. I like the fun stuff like jumping and turning.”
Today Nico is living the life that Sergio was denied—a boyhood with a father. He takes classes three times a week, one of which is a boys’ class with his father. (The Neglias are proud of the crop of boys they have developed over the years and feel strongly that they need the special attention of an all-male class.) When Sergio steps into the studio he’s no longer Nico’s father; he’s his teacher. “I am just as tough on Nico as on the others,” says Sergio. “There’s no special treatment.” Though tough, he is known for peppering his classes with hilarious tales of his ballet life. His stories keep the students from getting too tense and provide constant reminders that dancing entails a full range of emotions.
Unusually articulate and wise for his tender years, Nico gives the impression that he is well aware of his family’s past and his place as one of three generations of Argentine dancers. His parents, however, put no pressure on him to carry the family’s legacy forward. “I don’t know where ballet is going to take him,” says Sergio. “I do believe he will do something in the arts. He’s such a theater kid at heart.” Nico can tell the story of his grandfather’s death in exacting detail, but he also knows how to put on his extra-long nose for Baba Yaga. He has already assumed the role of ambassador for dance in Buffalo, where he’s known for his charm at post-performance parties and enjoys life in the spotlight.
The Neglias see their role in the ballet world as encompassing more than the preservation of the family name. Sergio keeps his ties to Argentina by bringing his former teacher, Mario Galizzi, to teach in the school’s summer program. The couple remains focused on the future of their studio, company, and two children and measure their contribution in part by the accomplishments of their many students who dance professionally or have moved on to train at company-affiliated schools.
Last May Elisabeta, then 2, took her first bow with her father after a performance of Romeo and Juliet. The tradition continues. This family’s dance story is an ongoing one, full of promise and honoring their unique history.