Delicate Dance

Dance Dynamics instructors such as Tyler Mark design dances that highlight students’ joy and confidence.
Photo courtesy Dori LaMarra Matkowski

A teacher’s recital choreography isn’t working. Now what?

by Heather Wisner

The pacing is sluggish. The transitions are clunky. The students are struggling with steps that are above their skill level. And the teacher who choreographed this recital piece is looking at you expectantly for your feedback. What do you do?

Dance Studio Life spoke with three studio owners about how they establish clear expectations for recital choreography, how they help instructors to create good work, and how they handle issues that may arise along the way.


Setting expectations

Making sure your teachers know what you want from their recital pieces—and when—at the start of the season can go a long way in preventing heartbreak later.

“We set a standard from the very beginning, before choreography, before music, before anything,” says Dori LaMarra Matkowski, artistic director of Dance Dynamics Performing Arts Center in Walled Lake, Michigan. “We say, ‘This is what we want the audience to feel when they see the kids perform: their joy, their confidence. The choreography might not be what you, the teacher, want to do, but we are performing for an audience of the children’s families. We need to produce what the audience would like.’ ”

Matkowski, who oversees more than a dozen teachers choreographing pieces for 450 kids performing at five shows in May, gives her teachers specific choreography guidelines. “Each dance has to have certain elements,” she says. “I might say, ‘For this class, I want them to do a single pirouette in the dance, somehow, somewhere.’ Also, find a place for everyone. If they are Row 2, side corner, they have to be in Row 1 at some point.”

Blair Dance Center pointe students with instructor Sharon Kermoade.
Photo by Jill Sailors

She and her staff also discuss which age groups teachers feel comfortable setting dances on. “We have five groups of tap kids; they all do the same music and the same dance,” she explains. “One person, whoever we think is the best person, choreographs the dance and videotapes themselves. That goes out to the teachers with notes, so they’re all teaching the same routine.”

Jill Sailors, whose Blair Dance Center in Blair, Nebraska, serves 230 students, brainstorms ideas for bringing the recital theme to life as well as possible music choices with her eight teachers in a preseason staff meeting. She notes that choreography begins in January and should be finished with at least five weeks to clean before showtime.

When Debbie Werbrouck, owner of Debbie Werbrouck School of Dance & Music, in Osceola and South Bend, Indiana, meets with her 10 teachers in August, she hands out recital guidelines and deadlines for music choices and choreography. At her school’s two locations, the goal is to finish choreography by spring break, so that teachers have a chance to clean it before the show. And, she says, “I stress the fact that they need to think about what they want to do and the end result, then work that into the first semester; they should have a handle on what steps to incorporate.”


Watching the process

Once choreography is underway, all three studio owners check in periodically to monitor teachers’ progress. “We don’t do a lot of group meetings and I don’t schedule observations,” Werbrouck says. “A lot of my teachers have been with me for a long time, so I trust their judgment.” Instead, she drops in on classes to observe.

So does Sailors. Most of her teachers are former students who have a good idea of what she wants. “I don’t micromanage my teachers. I encourage them to be creative with choreography and music choices. I want them to feel artistically fulfilled,” she says. Instead, “I pop in when I hear music start and I always keep an eye on things.” Both owners say they learned early in their careers that observing early and often is critical to preventing problems that may need last-minute fixes. And both encourage instructors to come to them, and to each other, throughout the process to ask questions and get feedback. Sometimes classes will take a field trip to other classrooms to perform their recital dances for each other. “This gives teachers an opportunity to observe and give an opinion,” Werbrouck says.

Matkowski’s staffers—and the alumni who come in sometimes to set pieces—know that she will be observing them, and that she and the school’s other teachers will chime in with suggestions on pieces. “We all work together as a creative team, so you need to be open if another teacher comes in and says, ‘Hey, that’s not working,’ ” she says. “If I see or feel something isn’t right, we’re going to take care of it. Everything looks great by March 1.”


Having the conversation

Most often, what isn’t working is choreography that’s too difficult for the students or isn’t age-appropriate, or staging that doesn’t give each student a moment in the spotlight.

“My biggest problem is that my teachers are so enthusiastic, they want to push the kids, but sometimes they give the kids choreography that’s over their heads,” Sailors says.

Whether students are just starting their dance journey (here, Dance Dynamics beginners) or honing advanced technique, they will shine brightest in recital choreography that showcases mastered skills.
Photo courtesy Dori LaMarra Matkowski

So what’s the most effective way to get teachers to understand problems and fix them without feeling demoralized? Do you offer general observations or suggest specific fixes?

Sailors speaks with the teacher privately, starting with the good news first, couching the bad news gently, and setting a deadline for corrections. “I think encouragement is the best way to get what you want,” she says. “I will say, ‘I love this line, but I’m concerned that the students can’t do the step properly. If they can’t do it in two more weeks, we need to change it.’ These employees are doing this because they love it, so you need to be kind and groom them.”

Werbrouck asks her teachers questions to help them evaluate their choreography. “I have said, ‘How do you think this is working?’ Or I’ll say, ‘I like this part, but I noticed Susie is having difficulty with this step,’ to give them an opening to figure it out,” she says. “It’s just making them see what other people are seeing.”

Matkowski takes a more direct approach. “I’ll go in and say, ‘I’m just going to adjust this a little.’ I don’t get permission. Sometimes it works; sometimes we have to go back to the teacher’s original plan. Or I might ask a teacher, ‘What is the plan for this part? What is your story for this hand movement?’ ” she says.

“My best advice is to create open dialogue and not get married to ‘This is the only way.’ There’s always another way.”


Making it work

That said, Werbrouck and Sailors have dealt with situations that required firmer measures.

“A lot of times, younger teachers who are infatuated with their choreography aren’t focused on what will make students look good,” Werbrouck says. “Many years ago, I wasn’t pleased with a teacher’s choreography. It wasn’t awful, but it was beyond the students’ abilities, and didn’t show them in their best light. She didn’t come to me—she kept trying to fix it herself. It needed to be completely revamped, so I took her basic premise and changed the choreography so that they could do it.”

Sailors once had to insist that a hip-hop teacher not use a piece of music because of objectionable lyrics. The teacher, who couldn’t see what the problem was, doesn’t work for Sailors any more.

As far as Matkowski is concerned, constructive criticism strengthens the dances, and the studio, as a whole. “You have to have team players on your teaching staff,” she says. “Just because you’re a good teacher doesn’t mean you’re a team player. I’ve had some great teachers who become part of the team. They see the joy that comes when you’re not on your own and solely responsible—you have a team supporting you.

“I think because we open this line of communication at the beginning of the season, it’s not like, ‘My choreography is the best and/or I can’t be told my choreography isn’t working.’ The goal is to make the kids look good and take ourselves out of the picture.”



Steps to a sterling recital

These studio owners agreed that recital choreography must show students in their best light. To accomplish that, they suggest keeping the following in mind:

It’s not about you. Make sure the choreography shows what students have mastered this year. “The biggest thing is to do choreography that shows what your students can do well, not what they can’t do,” Werbrouck says. “Make sure all the students are seen and treated equally.”

Build in flexibility. “We have a rule for recreational kids: you don’t have a specific partner, because somebody’s partner probably isn’t going to make it for the show,” Matkowski says. Instead, she says, students practice partnering sections with different partners. Then, if one student’s family decides in April to take a vacation over recital weekend in May, her partner won’t be left hanging. “Someone else does the part,” Matkowski says. “It alleviates a lot of stress.”

Another solution is to avoid partners altogether and, instead, use small groups that can perform choreography in canon or complimentary movements during one or more sections of the dance.

Timing matters. “I talk a lot with my girls about the timing of teaching their routines,” Sailors says. “They think they have 12 weeks, but it’s really only 11 lessons, and some kids aren’t going to make it to all the lessons.” Werbrouck agrees: “At the end of the year, there are so many conflicts. You’re probably going to have very few classes where you have 100 percent attendance.”

Consider your audience. “We’re family friendly: dads and grandpas have to think this is a wonderful routine, so I don’t do anything even on the borderline of inappropriate,” Matkowski says. “I tell my teachers: ‘If there’s a moment where you think, ‘Maybe this isn’t working,’ it isn’t. If there’s any moment when you think the choreography is questionable, it is—take it out.’ We’ve got to wow families. They have to want to come back.”


DSL managing editor Heather Wisner is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She has written about dance for SF Weekly, The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, Pointe, and Dance Teacher, among other publications.