Take advantage of today’s tumbling craze by adding acro dance to your schedule
by Debra Danese
The popularity of acro is skyrocketing with studio-aged kids. More and more often, dance choreography features acro moves, and the blend of the two disciplines benefits students by expanding their movement vocabularies.
With that in mind, perhaps you are considering adding an acro program to your studio’s offerings, but are uncertain about staffing, equipment, safety, or curriculum. While acro instruction has much in common with dance instruction, it also differs in significant ways that may make starting a program seem daunting. Here are some things to think about before launching a program.
“You don’t need expensive equipment. You can build a strong program with panel mats or a foam mat.” —Sandra Mitchell
Space and equipment
Consider your available space. You’ll need a good size room with no barriers such as poles. As your program grows, you will need ceilings high enough for students to perform advanced skills.
Lynn Herrick, executive director of The Dance Refinery in Indianapolis, recalls her early days as an instructor at another studio: “We had to add safety bars to the windows to make sure none of our advanced students would go right through them when doing tumbling passes.”
Herrick started her own business in 1976, offering dance and tumbling to 88 students. She began her acro program with two roll-out mats, one spotting belt, a solid curriculum, and knowledge of how to spot all tricks. Today, The Dance Refinery is Indiana’s largest dance, gymnastics, and cheer facility.
“You can definitely start simply” when considering what equipment you’ll need to begin, says Mandy Yip, founder of Acrobatic Arts Inc., which trains and certifies acro instructors. Yip started an acro program at her former studio, Star Baton and Dance Company in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada, with a few inexpensive mats, and over the years purchased more mats—but no fancier equipment. After all, she says, dancers have to perform acro skills they learn in a studio on a bare (and unsprung) theater or ballroom floor during competition and performance. “Dancers who train with a lot of extra equipment often find this transition to the floor very difficult,” says Yip, who ran SBDC from 1998 to 2009.
Sandra Mitchell, owner and creative director of Performing Arts Empire in Corona, California, agrees. “You don’t need expensive equipment. You can build a strong program with panel mats or a foam mat,” she says. “Cartwheel mats that show hand and foot placement are great for younger students. Yoga blocks and resistance bands are also great for developing strength and flexibility.”
Your room size will determine your class size. Students need enough space to perform tricks without kicking each other, and to execute group choreography safely. Classroom space, class size, and student–teacher ratio are all part of a well thought-out syllabus and lesson plan.
Staff and curriculum
Just as your dance program follows a syllabus, so should your acro program. The curriculum should start with basic body positions and include a balance of exercises that work on strength and flexibility.
Mitchell, certified to teach acro through Dance Masters of America, says: “All acro tricks move through a rolling movement, a handstand, or a bridge. When those basics are solid, you can build skills effectively.”
Herrick suggests investing in a predesigned program for preschoolers; several well-done programs—such as Patti Komara’s Tumblebear Connection—are available online. Her staff receives training focused on preschool and beginner tumbling levels through USA Gymnastics, which offers a variety of training and education programs to members.
“You can start with a curriculum you know and have been taught,” she says. “As you hire reputable people, let them redesign, tweak, and improve upon it. Allow them to incorporate their knowledge and skill sets to make it suit your business.”
Acrobatic Arts’ curriculum features 12 levels of progressions in the 5 main areas of acro dance: flexibility, strength, limbering, balancing, and tumbling. Teachers who train with Acrobatic Arts learn how to teach and spot all skills, starting from preschool dance and simple acro shapes to advanced tumbling.
Finding qualified staff is important and can be one of the most challenging aspects of starting an acro program. Instructors need to understand safe progressions and the training sequence from basic to advanced skills. Programs that train staff and/or offer continuing education are available. Along with Acrobatic Arts, some other training/certification options include Acrobatique, USA Gymnastics, Dance Educators of America, and Dance Masters of America.
Herrick says professional development is important for all instructors. Her dance staff goes to at least one convention a year, while her gymnastics staff attends at least one annual clinic.
When researching programs, beware: gymnastics training is not the same as acro dance training. “Acro dance skills need to be performed on the hard floor, not a sprung gymnastics floor,” Yip says. “An unqualified teacher can cause great harm to a child if they don’t understand these techniques.”
Yip feels the most important factor in a safe acro program is the instructor’s knowledge of proper progressions. “Just as you would never put a dancer on pointe doing fouetté turns without relevant ballet training, you should never ask a dancer to try a back walkover without the progressions that go into training it,” she says. “Many teachers don’t know all of these progressions. That’s when injuries can happen.”
Safety and liability
Mitchell recommends a ratio of two teachers plus one youth assistant for a maximum class size of 12 to 15 students. (As students advance, class size can increase.) Her youth assistants don’t spot, but demonstrate tricks, keep dancers in line, and work with students on strength and flexibility drills.
Herrick has a ratio of one teacher per seven students. She allows up to 13 students in a tumbling class with a qualified assistant, or 16 students with three instructors and assistants.
Acro can be a liability and requires insurance in addition to the studio’s or program’s regular policy. Studio owners should talk with their insurance provider and make sure acro is covered. Mitchell says insurance requirements may vary by state. “In California, extra insurance is not required as long as I don’t use a trampoline or springboard,” she says.
Not all acro programs are the same, and neither are insurance policies. “High-level tumbling with tumble tracks, for example, is very different from what Acrobatic Arts teaches, and requires more insurance,” Yip says. “Be sure to tell your provider that you are performing acro dance, not gymnastics, and then be sure to stay within those requirements. It also helps to have a teacher who is certified on staff.”
Important in-studio documentation includes signed release forms and injury reports that teachers can fill out.
A solid acro program can build dancers who are strong, flexible, confident, and fearless. Dancers trained in acro benefit from increased versatility, cross-training, and a new sense of body awareness.
Acro programs are also profitable. You will create a whole new revenue source for your studio when current dancers simply add acro to their schedules. “It takes very few advertising dollars to sign up dancers who are already customers,” Yip says.
Just be sure to realize the risks, and take them seriously. “Research it and know what you want out of it. It’s too dangerous—don’t offer it unless you’re committed to doing it right,” Herrick says. “Start small. If all you are knowledgeably ready to offer is the lowest levels, then do that first. You can grow the program as your students become more advanced.”
Debra Danese is a full-time teaching artist who holds multiple certifications and degrees in dance.