Choosing a Dance School – Is There Really a Difference?

While on the surface, the offerings may appear 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 a certain number of classes per week, for example. This can be good for more serious students, but for the student who enjoys dance as one of several other activities, this can create a hardship. Sometimes, exceptions can be made. Do not be afraid to ask! If the school cannot accommodate you, try another school where your child will be more comfortable.

It is not unusual for a studio to audition students for placement purposes or to move students around if they end up in a class that does not suit their ability. Sometimes, age groupings are the standard, but if inflexible, this can hold back a talented dancer or push ahead someone who is not ready.

Most schools have a recital at the end of the year. This is a great way to see the progressive work at the school. You’ll find out how advanced the older students really are! Dancing on stage can be an enjoyable & growth promoting experience for children,
if the school you choose is not high-pressure about their recital. Some schools actually begin working on the Spring recital in the Fall! However, this greatly reduces the amount of time that students are learning the art & technique of dance.

It is wise to check into recital costume fees when you are looking into a school. Although a studio prefers the glamor of sequin costumes, which can cost you as much as $100 a piece, their show and their teachers may not be the caliber you are seeking! There is a trend beginning in some schools to keep costs down by putting together costumes that can be worn again for classes or as street-wear. At our studio, we had access to a wide range of costume possibilities to support these new ideas. Parents appreciated the lower prices and greater usage potential.

What is the school’s policy about parents watching classes? Some schools have observation windows; some have parent visiting days; some will let you watch anytime as long as you have teacher permission, and some will lock you out completely. There are good reasons behind all of these policies, but as a parent, you should feel comfortable with both the policy and any needed explanations. It can be distracting to both the children and the teacher when there are observers in the class, so please be understanding of this when you do have an opportunity to observe.

Does the studio do competitions? How competitive are the students with each other? The merit of the school has little to do with its standing as a competitor. Often times, schools that compete have very demanding schedules and many hidden expenses for costumes and competition fees. You must decide if this will work for you, your dancer and your family.

If the school has been around for a while, what has happened with former students? Have any gone on to study dance in college or perform professionally? Or are they just teaching at the school they came from? If the students have had good training (unless you are at a school with a professional company), chances are that they will not be teaching at the studio instead of going to college!

I have spoken with many college level dance professors who constantly lament about the girls who have taken class for ten years at the local dance school and were considered to be the “star pupil.” Unfortunately, when they get to college, the young women learn that their technique is terrible and they don’t know even basic dance terminology. These kids often have a big ego from having been the pride and joy of their former teacher and it is very difficult to coach them properly. All that time and money wasted! Very sad indeed, for parents and dancers alike. Sometimes, these same girls decide after two years of college to either go back and teach at that local school or to open up their own studio! And the cycle continues!!

What about the teachers of 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 Dance Teachers Club of Boston. These are fine organizations, but belonging to them does NOT make a person a good teacher. Absolutely anyone, (EVEN YOU!), with a little bit of coaching could pass their “teacher exam.” It is preposterous, but true, that absolutely anyone, (EVEN YOU), can open a dance school!

Has the teacher studied dance in college, at a conservatory, performing arts school or school with a professional company? If the teacher has a list of impressive people he or she has studied with, was it just one or two classes or continuously for at least a year? Is the teacher continuing to study dance at professional quality schools on a weekly basis? Does she carry herself like a dancer? How is her posture? What is his/her performing experience? If she’s young, is she still performing? Many women have performed with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. This means they are tall, can lift their legs high and can do precision work in a group all day long with very short breaks. According to at least one former Rockette, however, it says nothing about their ability to teach or to dance ballet, tap or jazz.

What do you look for in classes? For Preschoolers, the best type of class includes group stretching, explores rhythm and a wide range of movement possibilities with a variety of music and sometimes uses props such as scarves, tambourines, or shakers. Occasionally, a teacher may use records with instructional games or dances, but a steady diet of this shows an inexperienced teacher with no creative direction of her own.

Beginning at the kindergarten age, many schools do combination classes of ballet and tap. Some schools include jazz, but usually second grade is plenty early for teaching jazz. Most young children do not have the physical maturity to execute jazz movement and should not be in a full class of jazz before third or fourth grade. (Why spend the extra money on the shoes??) By third or fourth grade, most children can handle an hour to an hour and a quarter of just Ballet or Tap or Jazz.

Another big question is “What about pointe?” Most little girls dream of someday dancing on their toes, but the fact is that most should not! Before beginning pointe training, the feet and legs must be strong, bones and muscles developed and the technical ability must be good. It is possible to begin pointe work AT THE BARRE around age 10 or 11, but age 12 is preferable. Reaching a certain age is NOT automatic grounds for beginning pointe work and I would be very wary of any school using only age as criteria. Some teachers feel that if a child wants to go on pointe and is not allowed, then they will change schools. Every good teacher will continue to say “no” to that student if they do not have the strength and technique necessary. This is VERY IMPORTANT because a child’s feet or legs could become damaged and they may never be able to dance again.

If you are not sure about pointe, you can do some simple tests with your child: Are her feet and legs steady when she stands in first position releve (standing on the ball of the foot)? Can she stand solidly on one foot? Can she raise herself to half toe on one foot without wiggling or falling? If she is solid and steady, then perhaps the strength and balance is there. There is much more on the 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 greater arm movement. It tends to be more visually showy 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 the clarity of the sound and complexity of the rhythms. It is usually done in flat, oxford type shoes is most often the style taught in the 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 the children and the parents. Remember, Dance Teachers are Human Beings and work very hard, some teaching as many as 250 to 300 students per week by themselves! Even the teachers who do not meet your standards, deserve a great deal of respect. (You don’t have to send your kids to them, but they still deserve your respect!)

This should demystify the dance school world a little bit. Here’s to joyous dancing throughout the year!

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