“It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” - Roy Disney
Choosing a dance school can be a challenging, and sometimes overwhelming, experience considering the number of possibilities that are available.
The first thing to consider is the school’s philosophy. Some schools are competition schools where performing and competing are the major emphasis while other schools may offer non-competitive performance opportunities a few times throughout the year. Competition schools require expensive, sometimes custom-made, costumes, extra rehearsals and a commitment to travel to competitive events. Non-competition schools may also require costumes for performances, but they tend to be less expensive, and the performances throughout the year are usually local. Both types of dance education are valid but have different philosophies and a different emphasis.
No matter what the type of school, it is important that the facility be one that promotes healthy dance training. In addition to having enough ballet barres (fixed or free-standing) to accommodate the number of children in each class and mirrors, the studio should also have a wood floor. The ideal floor is a sprung floor covered by marley, but any wood floor that will absorb some of the shock when landing from jumps or relevés will help decrease the impact on the dancer’s body. Concrete floors covered by tile provide no shock absorption and increase the stress placed upon the dancer’s body.
The teachers should be knowledgeable about human anatomy and healthy dancing. They should understand the significance of a thorough warm-up and should be knowledgeable about the techniques they teach. Teachers should never expect students to force their bodies into positions that are anatomically inappropriate, nor should they ever use their body weight to force a student’s stretch. Whether a teacher has a degree in dance or professional experience is not as important as the approach the teacher uses.
It is the dance educator’s job to nurture the student’s passion as well as technique. Dance is difficult, and older dancers spend many hours in the studio each week. Without passion, dance will simply become work. Although dance teachers should be strict and demand the discipline that the art form requires, they also need to help their dancers remember how much fun dance can be.
Prospective students should always take a trial and/or a placement class to determine how classes are conducted. It is important to be certain that most of the class time is spent on technique and that preparations for performances occupy a minimal amount of class time. Usually small amounts of class time will be devoted to preparing a piece for a year end demonstration or performance during the last 8-10 weeks of class.
Classes for young children should be developmentally appropriate. Prior to the ages of 7 or 8, children should not be expected to be part of strict technique classes but should instead be introduced to dance through creative movement activities. More information on appropriate classes for this young age group can be found in my earlier post, Creating Passionate Young Dancers.
Regardless of the age of the prospective student, parents should also ask questions about classes for older children to learn about the dance educator's approach to teaching. It is important that older dancers do not begin pointe work before the approximate age of 12 so that they are developmentally ready. Dancers on pointe should also have several prior years of training and be expected to be taking several ballet classes a week. Additionally, parents should ask for the opportunity to observe an advanced class. It is important to see if there is a progression of skills as the students grow and get older.
Sometimes when a student decides to change dance schools, he or she may be placed into a level that is below his or her expectations. My last post on progression goes into detail on the specific reasons why a student may be held back, but it is important to remember that each school levels its dancers differently. Although the parent and the prospective student may be frustrated and disappointed, it is important to listen to the educator’s reasoning and take some time to think about what he or she has said. Oftentimes a dancer with previous experience may initially be placed into a lower level to work on reversing some bad habits that may have developed and will then progress quickly through to a more advanced level.
Although choosing a dance school may seem overwhelming, it need not be. It will take some time and some research, but in the long run it will be worth it. When you register your child for a dance class, you are entrusting a dance educator with your child’s developing body and psyche. The experience should be a learning one but also a healthy and positive one.