I’ll never forget the excitement of my sixth Christmas. I opened a beautifully wrapped, beribboned package with great anticipation. It was only the size of a shirt box, but I knew anytime the label said “with love from Santa,” it was going to be a special gift.
For months before that, I had been writing letters to Santa, asking him pleeeeease to fund my next semester of ballet class. I had been dancing since I was three, but my parents had warned me that a few tough twists of fate had eliminated the next year’s dance tuition from our family budget. I was heartbroken, and all I wanted was to find a way to keep up with lessons over the next few months.
So, as I opened Santa’s special package, I was hopeful – and sure enough, the old man came through. Inside were a brand-new leotard, tights, and a note saying that I’d get to dance again. Even now, I don’t have the words to express how excited and grateful I was.
Now that my own kids are near the age that they can take lessons, I’m just as excited to introduce them to the art that lit up my childhood (and adulthood, too!). I had some very special teachers over the years, and some that were not so special too. If you’re about to embark on the dance journey with your kids, there are a few things to consider and seek out. Here are my two cents’.
Try to find a studio (and/or teachers) with:
- CPR – First Aid certified teachers or administrators.
- Experience in teaching, not just performing. Ask about the instructors’ educational backgrounds; did they study early childhood education, or just dance?
- A dance aesthetic that suits yours. Think “prostitots” here – check out the dance performances of current students and make sure it’s what you want your kids doing. (Funny story here: one of my favorite teachers choreographed an adorable, innocent dance performed to Prince’s song “Cream,” without even realizing the lyrics. You get the picture.)
- An attitude toward dance competitions that agrees with you. Dance competitions can be fun, and they can also be a high-stress environment – it all depends on the studio and teachers who get you there. The TV show “Dance Moms” comes to mind.
- A commitment to finding the fun and enjoyment in dance, rather than a focus only on the recital. Recitals can be fun, and they’re an important component of a well-rounded dance education, but every single class can be fun, too!
- Live music whenever possible – I cannot tell you how important this is for both dance and music appreciation. Whether it’s piano, drums, singing or something else, live music adds an extra layer to the beauty of dance and the synchronicity of performance that cannot be overestimated.
- One-way mirrored windows, so that parents can observe without being obtrusive.
- Varied class offerings, and the opportunity to sample all or several of them within a tuition package.
- Family or sibling discounts.
- Creative movement only for kids under 5. Ballet-with-a-capital-B is too much for this young age: too strict, too staid, too uptight. Let them first learn to enjoy the freedom of movement – there’s plenty of time for technique later.
- An open dress code. Part of the fun for preschoolers is wearing the fancy-schmancy stuff that says “dance” – sparkly tutus, pink shoes with extra-big bows, etc. I get the point of a dress code and the discipline it instills, but come on. They’re only 3 once.
- An attendance policy that suits you (make-ups for sick days, drop-ins for wacky schedules, etc).
- A parent policy that makes you comfortable (in-studio observation, drop-off classes, whatever works for your family).
- ZERO emphasis on body size, shape, and weight. At this age, many kids have perfectly normal “padding” and unless your kid is the next Baryshnikov or Fonteyn, there is no reason for a dance teacher to address this.
- Sensitivity to self-conscious kids. Just as the teachers should disregard body composition, they should insist that other students do the same. It might also help to make an exception to the dress code and allow cover-ups for extremely sensitive kids.
- A creative dance component and improvisation in every class. Early exposure to improv goes a long way toward fostering a lifelong love of dance and overall comfort with movement.
- Attention to technique in a positive way, and avoidance of extremes (turnout, stretching/flexibility, etc.)
- Teachers who are able to switch teaching styles on the fly. Boys and girls learn differently, as recent neuroscience has shown. They also dance differently and need to be taught in different ways.
- Movement challenges – rather than restricting them in technique, push them to own the space and the movement.
- No tolerance for gender bashing. Boys will almost always feel out of place in a class full of girls. All-boy classes are great, but rare – so in many cases, the best scenario is a good teacher who helps the children accept each other.
- A more open attitude toward the male dancer. Traditionally a “prop” in ballet, male dancers can often be the main attraction, and should be taught as such.
- If you can find one, a male teacher can really inspire confidence and creativity in boys.
Wrapping this all up into a gorgeous little package like Santa did for me, the main thing is to find a teacher who loves kids and dance equally. Once you’re there, the rest will come. Ask your friends, check ClickAClass.com, interview and observe at your prospective studios. Go see their recitals or other performances. Give it a good try of at least six months, and then see how it’s going for you and your little one. If it’s not up to snuff, take it from the top again – a-five, six, seven, eight…..