E is for etiquette
By Karen White
Big competition coming up? Let’s make sure your students have everything they need. Costumes and makeup, eyelashes, bobby pins, extra tights, water. Is anything missing? Yes—good manners!
In this world of “anything goes” reality TV and social media, where people behaving badly often generate “likes” and high ratings, good manners matter more than ever. Competitions and conventions—where kids from rival studios are often thrust into a single cramped dressing area, or feel under pressure to excel in a challenging class—can potentially bring out the worst in parents and students alike.
“That’s all the more reason why you, as a dance teacher, have to grab control and set a standard by which you are going to have your people behave when they go to events like this,” says Rhee Gold, publisher of Dance Studio Life. “If you never sit down and talk about what you expect, the only source of reference is what people see on TV or at Little League.”
Statements like, “If this gets below a high gold, there is something wrong with the judges,” sets students up for both personal disappointment and the feeling they let the teacher down, Gold says.
Don’t underestimate the importance of taking the time to prep your team—and your team parents—before any out-of-studio activity. Gold advises spelling out expectations and rules in a handbook given to all team members. Include a commitment line (such as: “I have read and understand all policies in the team handbook”) in all team members’ contracts.
Then, call a meeting and go over the handbook page by page. “Put it in writing—that’s the key. I’d take the handbook with me, and if students misbehave at the event, show them how they are going against the policies they agreed to stand by,” he says. “And you are probably going to come home after every event and have something new to add for the following year.”
Here are some behavior areas Gold advises school owners to address.
Politeness counts. At a convention, students should always thank the teacher at the end of class and be courteous to all event staff (for example, when signing in with the stage manager backstage).
Any problems or concerns should be brought to the attention of the school director—parents and students should never approach competition or convention staffers with complaints.
Dancers need to maintain a professional attitude throughout the event. At competition, all dancers should be backstage, warmed up and ready to go, four or five numbers before their scheduled stage time. Parents should keep an eye out for students in need—for example, the team member with the perpetual messy bun—and offer friendly assistance.
If something goes wrong onstage, dancers need to “dance a little harder” and not make any reaction that would signal a mistake to the judges. Anyone who forgets the dance and runs offstage will not get a “do over.” Let soloists know “they had their shot,” Gold says. “Tell them to let it go, move on to the rest of their numbers, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Stress that students should show enthusiasm for all dances they are in—from solos to small groups to productions of 50-plus members. “Sometimes I see kids and parents who are only into their solos, and not respecting that they are part of a team,” Gold says. “Group numbers are as, if not more, important because there are so many dancers involved.”
Competitions and conventions can be held in less-than-optimal facilities, with dancers stepping on each other’s toes in a contemporary class or crowded together in a basement dressing room. Let your dancers know what it means to act professionally, Gold says. That includes not touching another dancer’s costumes, dance bag, or makeup to make room for yourself without permission. “You could be messing up their setup for a quick change, and now they’re freaking out,” he says.
Remind your students that professional dancers and entertainers often face similar challenges. “Learn how to adjust to the circumstances around you,” Gold says. “Never do anything that could be interpreted by another school as disrespecting them.”
Parents should refrain from talking negatively about other students, whether on their own or another team. Comments such as “I don’t like that choreography,” or “That teacher likes so-and-so better because they gave her a better dance,” show a lack of respect for the teacher. “Parents give kids a signal about how to act,” he says. “If you’re disrespectful, you’re teaching your kids to be the same way.”
Competitions and conventions often run for several days, but even single-day affairs can be hectic. Go over the schedule and be sure that everyone understands which classes and activities you expect them to attend. Gold advises traveling as a group. For distant venues, “put somebody in charge of booking the airfare so you all arrive together, like a team, on the first day,” he says.
When traveling and at events, have your students wear team apparel. This public display of unity and school spirit also helps faculty keep track of everyone. Encourage parents to wear studio apparel as well.
Expect the older dancers to support the team’s younger or newer dancers by helping them backstage and explaining how the day will unfold.
Team members must wear the assigned costume—from shoes to headpiece to earrings—and fix their hair and makeup as instructed. “If I’m the teacher with 80 numbers, and one kid tries something different in each number, that adds so much to my stress by the end of the week,” Gold says. “This way, if I’ve said exactly what I expect, then that’s exactly what will happen.”
All team members need to be on hand to applaud and support each other, even if they aren’t competing at that time. “That $350 or $400 parents are paying in entry fees is not just so their kid can dance onstage for three minutes; it’s to be at the event the whole weekend,” Gold says. And they are there not only to support the school, he says, but “to watch what’s going on so they can be inspired when they get back to the studio.”
At awards, team members should be friendly and interact with dancers from other teams, pay attention to the entire award ceremony, and applaud for everyone. Remind them that despite any disappointments, they must remain polite and respectful. “If students think they didn’t get an award they thought they deserved, no one should see that on their faces,” Gold says. “Dancers and entertainers have to remain professional in circumstances that are not easy. This experience is part of learning how to do that.”
A teacher’s words in the studio play a role in her students’ expectations as well. No one can predict how a judging panel will score on any given day, nor can anyone predict how the competing schools will perform. Statements like, “If this gets below a high gold, there is something wrong with the judges,” sets students up for both personal disappointment and the feeling they let the teacher down, Gold says.
Instead, explain that there is no set standard for competition judging and that two judging panels might score the same number very differently. Don’t focus on the score—instead, pump up your students with positive statements such as, “Give me a performance like that, and I’ll be happy!”
Remind dancers and parents that they will be guests in the venue/hotel/conference center, and they need to follow the venue’s rules. All of them.
“If food and beverages are not allowed in the auditorium, then no one should be caught doing that; there are no exceptions,” Gold says.
Be discreet and respectful when entering and exiting the audience area, he says, and never walk down the aisle or chat loudly during a performance. Beware of unintentional rude behavior—if 50 parents stream up the aisles after a large production number, they will block the view of audience members who are eager to see the next dance. Screams of “Go ABC Studio!” or “Shake it, Suzie!” are unbecoming and unprofessional, while enthusiastic applause is always welcome.
The backstage area at a competition can be cramped and crowded, and students who are new to the experience might not realize how best to navigate this area. Explain the unwritten backstage rules to your dancers—performers should never hang out backstage, sit or stand in the wings where they can be seen by the audience, or in any way impede the movement of other teams, who might have quick entrances and exits or need to move large props.
If staying in a hotel, keep in mind proper behavior at all times. Both parents and students should be aware of noise levels in both rooms and hallways, polite to other guests and staff, and conscientious of any situations—such as screaming or overly boisterous behavior in the pool—that would reflect badly on the team.
Rules for best behavior apply to teachers and studio owners, as well, Gold says. If a team or a number underperforms despite hours of rehearsal time, save any comments and corrections for back in the studio—especially if your team still has 10 numbers left to go. “Lambasting them won’t get you a better performance the next time. They will be more stressed out and will go out on the stage in fear,” Gold says. “And if you’re overheard or seen by dancers, teachers, or parents from another school, you’re not making a good impression.”
If personality issues or other tensions between team members threaten to get out of hand, gather the involved parties (students and parents) in a private area for a talk. Settle the issue, then “go back in as a team,” Gold says.
Studio owners should never use competitions and conventions to solicit students from other schools, and they should make sure that none of their actions—such as chatting with parents from other studios—could be interpreted that way. “If your objective is to get more dance students out of dance competitions, you should either stop attending competitions or do such an awesome job that your reputation helps your school grow,” Gold says.
During his years as a competition director and studio owner, Gold saw plenty of bad behavior—from the unhappy student who threw her special award at a judge, to rival schools who refused to applaud for each other, to coolers filled with beer in hotel hallways and loud, partying parents.
“I can’t tell you how many times teachers tell me they don’t have control of parents or students,” he says. “If you don’t have control, something is wrong. It’s up to you, as the school owner or director, to create the personality of your school.”