Competition Zone | Getting Tough With Team Drama

by Joan F. Smith

Mama drama might garner high ratings for reality television series, but nobody wants to experience it in real life.

Louise Taitz, owner/artistic director of On Your Toes Academy of Dance in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, co-founder of Dance Teachers Forum, and competition judge, stops drama before it starts by setting (and upholding) clear expectations for her team parents and students.

In a mandatory pre-season meeting, Taitz covers topics like attendance (absences excused for illness only; exceptions must be approved pre-season), and who makes decisions about costumes and choreography (Taitz and her choreographers). Parents sign every page of a strict contract, and throughout the season, “if parents claim they didn’t know something,” she says, “I tell them we talked about it at the meeting.”

From then on, parent involvement is discouraged. Taitz has found that if parents work the front desk or aid in fundraising, they sometimes expect—or other parents think they are getting—special treatment. “I encourage parents to drop off their kids, leave, get coffee, and pick them up,” Taitz says. “We’re there to teach kids, not parents. My goal is to make kids self-sufficient.”

The same is true for competition events. Parents check in their dancers and leave them with their teammates. “Parents are directed to the auditorium—I don’t phone, text, or find them when dances come on,” Taitz says.

Taitz employs a “no correspondence” rule concerning artistic decisions. “I trust in my choreographers,” she says. “They have a vision of what they want each particular group or solo to be.” What happens if Taitz receives emails complaining, for instance, that a dancer is in an unfavorable stage spot? “I straight up ignore them,” she says. “They become irrelevant by the end of the day.”

As for the kids, Taitz sets realistic expectations in the pre-season meeting. She reminds students that they probably won’t be in the front row for every dance, and she’s forthcoming about the subjectivity of awards placement. “If we’re taking 14 solos to competition, we’re not going to sweep the top 10,” she says. “If anyone says they’re competing to win, they’re going to be disappointed and miserable. I actually wouldn’t want them to compete if that’s how they felt. You can’t win every time.” Instead, she tells them, dancers should be “satisfied with how they danced—how they hit their turns and their leaps, how they felt—not what they scored.”

What happens if Taitz receives emails complaining, for instance, that a dancer is in an unfavorable stage spot? “I straight up ignore them,” she says.

Taitz encourages her team members to demonstrate professionalism by “congratulating other teams, and complimenting them when they do well,” which they do by distributing goody bags with anonymous notes saying things like “Congratulations on an awesome performance!” These small gestures help steer dancers toward good behavior, she says.

As anyone who has been backstage or in a hot, crowded dressing room with hundreds of dancers and parents can attest, tensions between dancers and their parents can run high. Taitz’s solution? “If dancers are old enough to dress themselves for school, they should be old enough to put on their costumes,” she says. To make this possible, Taitz has cut down on elaborate hair changes, and assigns older students to help younger ones. The atmosphere is one of teamwork and respect.

It’s a balancing act to create a positive competition experience for students, families, and dance educators, she says. “Studio owners and teachers have to have boundaries,” Taitz says, adding that emails received after 4 p.m. Friday are answered on Monday. “We shouldn’t be available 24/7,” she says. The bottom line: “We love our students dearly, but we’re running a business.”

 


Published author Joan F. Smith is lead faculty of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and a longtime instructor at Dance Express in South Easton, Massachusetts.