I come from a small town and have taught in some small cities where dance studios struggle to maintain integrity and keep their business (or non-profit) afloat. Access to educated and experienced dance teachers is sometimes minimal. Below, I’ve listed some circumstances that occur in dance studios across the country. They are not absolute deal-breakers, but potential students should proceed with caution and armed with knowledge and awareness when such situations are present.
- Combo classes. Many say to avoid them altogether. However, they can be useful for exposing younger children to complimentary styles of dance, or providing an introduction to ballet for children who may not choose ballet as their one dance class per week. However, if combo classes are offered for anyone over 8 years old, this shows signs of an à la carte philosophy on dance training. Dabbling in dance this way often results in an unsuccessful and incomplete education. If a student wants to pursue many dance styles and still become proficient, they need to put in the time, something combo classes don’t provide.
- To many, following a ballet syllabus is extremely important so as not to confuse students (not all ballet is the same). However, basic technical principles should serve the recreational student as long as there is consistency within the class, or students are made aware of how the codified techniques differ should they encounter a need for this information.
- A proper dance floor is extremely important to the well-being of the dancers. Dancing on anything directly over concrete subflooring is unacceptable as a long-term situation and instructors must demonstrate precaution for the sake of their student’s bodies in the interim. For the sake of their student’s bodies studio owners should recognize if their current flooring is sub-standard and have a plan in place (fundraising or otherwise) to improve their situation. If they don’t see it as an issue (and they may not if it’s not hurting their business), move on. The same goes for studios that are too small for full-grown students to fully extend their arms and legs, setting up patterns and habits that will be hard to break later. In a perfect world no studio would open with sub-standard flooring. However, if the school is otherwise providing quality education, I consider this area middle ground. Ask questions and make it known that this is important to you. There is a flooring solution out there to fit every space and budget.
- Student teachers are a deal-breaker for some. As a teen, I assisted experienced teachers at my studio for three years before taking over my own classes, and the students were once-a-week students between 6 and 9 years old. Was I really prepared to have my own class? Maybe not, but I worked hard, took care in what I was doing, and learned an awful lot that prepared me for things to come. Therefore, I think a student assistant/teaching program certainly has value. Some guidelines to consider: Preschool classes are best taught by someone with experience in the classroom management of dancers this young. Also, teachers too close in age to their students can cause disciplinary problems. Again, students as teachers are not ideal but a school that is closely monitoring and evaluating their student assistants and teachers on a regular basis may be fostering tomorrow’s educators.
- Age alone is not a reason to move dancers to the next level of dance. In a setting in which students are taking only one or two classes per week and not attempting to learn advanced skills like pointe work, difficult turns, or leaps, advancing by age is not a deal-breaker. Otherwise, I would avoid any school that blindly moves up or holds back dancers because of age, or concedes to class-placement simply because someone requests to take class with a friend. If the school has clear ideas about what their curriculum includes and methods to assess if a student is ready to move on, subjectivity can be reduced and complaining minimized. If a school cannot point to reasons why they have advanced a student, they leave themselves open to question and speculation.
There are those in the dance world that consider competitive dance studios a red flag in quality training. However, it is my opinion that competitive schools can, and some do, offer quality dance education. Be wary when, like performance, competition becomes more important than the training itself. I’ve witnessed, too often, superficial rivalry, tricks, costumes, and medals replace the reward of cooperation, hard work, self-improvement, long-term goals, and mastering a craft or art form. It is a fine line to walk, and a studio that chooses to compete must take extra care to ensure that students’ appreciation of dance does not depend on the thrill of winning alone. When their winning days are over, the 99% of students who do not become professional dancers still play a major part in the advancement or decline of the art through their support. And if winning and sport was all it meant to them, their dedication to dance may falter when the incentive is gone.
Please remember that when looking for the studio or teacher that will suit your needs, it is important to shop around, armed with questions and knowledge. I’m always surprised that students and parents spend so little time choosing a dance school (many dancers spend more years at a dance studio than they will a college). Dance instruction is an investment of time and money, and you don’t want to waste either. The guidelines you’ve read here about quality instruction are no more than my educated opinion, offered so that you may thoughtfully consider the topic for yourself.
What are some of your experiences? Do you disagree or agree with some of my opinions, or with my assessment of deal-makers/breakers? I’d like to hear your thoughts.