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.”
Pain and hardship, but no regrets
By Jaclyn Hoffman
I was 2 when I first sprinted through the studio doors to my first dance class, eager in my black leotard and skirt, pink tights covering my short legs and my tiny feet enclosed in ballet shoes. I had already picked out where I would sit for warm-up and which color butterfly I would pretend to be when the time came to stretch in butterfly position. I had no idea that because of my last name, my life as a dancer would be filled with hardships that no one at the studio would understand—but also with joys that no one else would experience.
I had practically lived at the studio all my life. My mother had a studio-wide bet on when I’d be born, which gender I’d be, and how much I’d weigh. After my birth, my days were spent in the office with a babysitter, my mother already engrossed in studio work and teaching. I was allowed onstage at the recital’s finale before I began dancing, even after throwing a fit and insisting on wearing my Snow White costume. I started class at 2 as opposed to the usual 3, and I instantly fell in love with dance.
I first became aware of the repercussions that came with my last name when I was 8. I had been moved from my competition group to one with kids who were at least three years my senior. I was young and oblivious to all around me, at least at first. I didn’t hear the whispers of the stage mothers behind my back. I didn’t care about the hostile stares the others gave me—that is, if I even noticed them. Eventually, though, I started to catch on. No one liked me there, and I wasn’t welcome.
Now that I’m older I understand how annoying it is to dance with kids so much younger than you; you’re scared that they might surpass you in ability. However, my mere presence, not just my age, angered my classmates. After all, they had no problem with my friend (roughly my age) who had been moved up with me. Who I was clouded their vision, and they couldn’t see that I danced as well as they did. They, or more accurately their mothers, thought I didn’t deserve to be there. In their minds I was allowed such an opportunity only because my mother owned the studio and she could do what she wanted with me.
To my face, the mothers at the studio have always been pleasant, perhaps too sweet at times. But behind my back, they lash out about me and other children. I heard what they said about me then and what some of them still say about me. Today I try to give people little reason to gossip about me. I’m always pleasant to everyone, and I appear sincere, though many days I’d rather claw my eyes out than talk to some of them.
I’ll admit that I heard few of the things said about me firsthand, and the facts could have been completely distorted by the time they reached me. The point, however, is that I believed it all to be true. I was 8 years old, and suddenly I was stripped of my childhood. I could no longer believe that everyone liked me, and their doubt in my ability made me question my class placement. I stopped trusting people; for all I knew, they were the ones talking about me behind my back. Or maybe they were only pretending to be my friends because they wanted to get a solo. I went from being a mostly confident third grader to a girl with her eyes glued on the floor.
Being the studio owner’s daughter has made me feel that I must always be perfect. From the get-go, I’ve felt the need to prove myself; if those mothers don’t think I belong here, I’ll have to show them just how much I belong. The year I was in seventh grade I had the hardest time with gossip; not only had I been moved up to the highest level, but I was injured and couldn’t dance for most of the year. How could I prove, even to myself, that I belonged if I couldn’t so much as stand to prove my point?
No one can attain perfection; I understand that. Yet I still try my best to be perfect. The mirror is not the help it is supposed to be; instead, it is the enemy, catching all the flaws I was unaware of. Class is the place where you’re supposed to mess up, but there are days when I still stress about forgetting a combination or falling out of a pirouette. I assume that any whispers are about me, that any stares are centered on my lack of a typical dancer’s body.
The need to attain perfection has carried over to other aspects of my life. Any Bs I receive in school are tragedies to me; I always feel the need to get As. My projects have to be the best in the room, and I’m that annoying girl who always does the homework even when there was none.
Because no one is perfect, I’ve suffered major blows to my self-esteem. I don’t have confidence, and I haven’t had any for as long as I can remember. If people mention how well I danced, I don’t believe them. I always make up reasons why they would compliment me, whether to suck up to me or to cheer me up because I said that my dancing had felt awful.
My life as a studio owner’s daughter has had its ups and downs, but I’d never wish for any other life. Growing up as I have has shaped who I am.
However, like my mother, I can appear confident even when I’m not. For example, every year at intensive week the guest teachers hold a mock audition. We all know it’s fake, but secretly we stress about it. I am not necessarily nervous about getting the “job,” but I get nervous about how I’ll be viewed by everyone around me. Still, I feel it is my responsibility to appear confident, and I’m always the first in the room.
My life has not made me a basketcase, though, and I’m sure that my self-esteem would have plunged without the studio’s help; after all, I’m a typical teenage girl. I may lack confidence, but I’m not stupid. I know that it isn’t healthy to live as a perfectionist. I’m trying to rid myself of such awful habits as staring constantly in the mirror. I’m trying to no longer care what people think of my dancing, though I’m responsible enough never to give them a reason to dislike me as a person. Trust issues have often come back to haunt me; I’m trying to learn to trust with my whole heart, though all of these things are easier said than done.
Despite the downsides, because my mother owns the studio I receive opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t, though none of them have to do with my class level or choreography. Teachers at master classes always know who I am, and I often have personal relationships with them. At only 15, I was given my first classes to teach on my own; though parents saw that I was young, for once my relationship to the owner quieted any qualms they might have had. I found that I love to teach, something I never expected. I don’t plan on becoming a dance teacher, but perhaps teaching will allow me to get through college without having to wait tables.
My life as a studio owner’s daughter has had its ups and downs, but I’d never wish for any other life. Dance shapes so many different people, defines who they are. Growing up as I have has shaped who I am. Through dance, I have the ability to bare my soul without uttering a word. It allows me to be free, while other aspects of my life confine me. It lets me channel my anger and frustration into something positive and fulfilling. My mother gave me the gift of dance, and though it came with unforeseen consequences, I’ve never been given anything better.