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Choosing a Dance School – Is There Really a Difference?
While on the surface the offerings may look the same, the essence and caliber of each dance school may be completely different. How do you know which school will be right for your child?
Some schools try to create a more conservatory-type atmosphere, requiring, for example, a certain number of lessons per week. This can be fine for more serious students, but for a student who enjoys dancing as one of several other activities, it can create difficulties. Sometimes exceptions can be made. Don’t be afraid to ask! If the school cannot accept you, try another school where your child will be more comfortable.
It is not uncommon for a studio to audition students for placement purposes or transfer students if they end up in a class that does not match their abilities. Sometimes age groups are standard, but if they are inflexible, it can hold back a talented dancer or push forward someone who isn’t ready.
Most schools have a recital at the end of the year. This is a great way to see progress in school work. You will find out how advanced the older students really are! Dancing on stage can be a fun and growth-enhancing experience for children,
if the school you choose isn’t under a lot of pressure for their recital. Some schools actually start working on the spring recital in the fall! However, this greatly reduces the amount of time students learn the art and technique of dance.
It is wise to check the cost of a recital costume when looking for a school. Although the studio prefers the glamor of sequined costumes, which can cost you up to $100 each, their show and their teachers may not be the caliber you’re looking for! Some schools are starting a trend to cut costs by putting together costumes that can be worn again for class or as street wear. In our studio, we had access to a wide range of costume options to support these new ideas. Parents appreciated the lower prices and greater use potential.
What is the school’s policy towards parents who monitor classes? Some schools have viewing windows; some have parent visitation days; some will let you watch anytime as long as you have the teacher’s permission, and some will lock you out completely. There are good reasons behind all of these rules, but as a parent, you should feel comfortable with both the policy and any necessary explanations. It can be distracting for both the children and the teacher when there are observers in the class, so please be understanding about this when you have the opportunity to observe.
Does the studio organize competitions? How competitive are students with each other? A school’s merits have little to do with its competitive standing. Often times competing schools have very demanding schedules and many hidden costs for costumes and pageants. You have to decide if this will work for you, your dancer and your family.
If the school has been around for a while, what happened to the former students? Has anyone gone on to study dance at university or do it professionally? Or do they just teach at the school they came from? If the students have had good training (unless you’re in a school with a professional company), chances are they won’t be teaching in a studio instead of going to college!
I’ve talked to many college dance professors who constantly bemoan the girls who took ten years of classes at the local dance school and were considered “star students.” Unfortunately, when they get to college, young women find out that their technique is terrible and they don’t even know basic dance terminology. These children often have a big ego because they were the pride and joy of their former teacher and are very difficult to teach properly. All that time and money for nothing! Very sad indeed, both for the parents and the dancers. Sometimes those same girls after two years of college decide to either come back and teach at that local school or open their own studio! And the cycle continues!!
What about the teachers at the schools you are considering? Where did they study? What are their credentials? Many dance school teachers belong to organizations such as Dance Masters of America or the Dance Teachers Club of Boston. These are good organizations, but belonging to them does NOT make a person a good teacher. Absolutely anyone (EVEN YOU!), with a little training, could pass their “teacher exam”. It’s silly, but true, that absolutely anyone (EVEN YOU) can open a dance school!
Has the teacher studied dance at a college, conservatory, performing arts school, or school with a professional company? If a teacher has a list of impressive people they have studied with, is it just one or two classes or continuously for at least a year? Does the teacher continue to teach dance in professional quality schools on a weekly basis? Does she carry herself like a dancer? How is her demeanor? What is his/her performance experience? If she is young, is she still performing? Many women performed with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York. This means they are tall, can lift their legs high, and can do precise group work all day with very short breaks. However, according to at least one former Rockette, that says nothing about their ability to teach or dance ballet, tap or jazz.
What are you looking for in classes? For preschoolers, the best type of class involves group stretching, exploring rhythm and a wide range of movement possibilities with a variety of music and sometimes using props such as scarves, tambourines or shakers. Occasionally, a teacher may use notes with teaching games or dances, but a constant diet of these shows an inexperienced teacher with no creative direction of his own.
Starting in kindergarten, many schools offer combined ballet and tap classes. Some schools include jazz, but usually second grade is quite early to teach jazz. Most young children do not have the physical maturity to perform jazz movements and should not take a full jazz class until third or fourth grade. (Why spend the extra money on shoes??) By third or fourth grade, most kids can handle an hour to an hour and a quarter of just ballet, tap, or jazz.
The other big question is “What about pointe?” Most girls dream of tiptoeing one day, but the fact is, most shouldn’t! Before starting pointe training, feet and legs must be strong, bones and muscles developed and technical skills must be good. It is possible to start pointe work ON BARRE around the age of 10 or 11, but it is preferable at the age of 12. Reaching a certain age is NOT an automatic basis for starting pointer work and I would be very wary of any school using age alone as a criterion. Some teachers believe that if a child wants to go to pointe and is not allowed, they will change schools. Any good teacher will continue to say “no” to that student if they don’t have the necessary strength and technique. This is VERY IMPORTANT as the child’s feet or legs may be damaged and they may never be able to dance again.
If you’re not sure about pointe, you can do a few simple tests with your child: Are her feet and legs stable when she’s standing in the first relay position (standing on the footboard)? Can it stand firmly on one leg? Can he lift half a toe on one foot without moving or falling? If it is firm and steady, then perhaps the strength and balance is there. There is much more on a technical level to look for, but this gives you some basic information.
Tap is a popular dance form at the local dance school level. Most parents don’t realize that there are two basic types of Tap: “Broadway Tap” and “Jazz Tap” (also called “Rhythm Tap”).
“Broadway Tap” is usually done in heels and uses larger hand movements. It tends to be more visually striking with less emphasis on the complexity of the sound.
In the style of Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and the old tap masters, the emphasis of “Rhythm Tap” is on clarity of sound and complexity of rhythms. Usually done in flat oxford shoes, it is usually a style taught in better college dance programs.
Above all, you want your child’s dance experience to be a joyful learning experience with quality training in an atmosphere that respects both children and parents. Remember, dance teachers are human beings and they work very hard, with some teaching as many as 250 to 300 students a week alone! Even teachers who don’t meet your standards deserve a lot of respect. (You don’t have to send your kids to them, but they still deserve your respect!)
This should demystify the world of dance schools a bit. Here’s to happy dancing all year long!
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