Choosing Not to Compete
In a culture that glamorizes competitive dance, some studios continue to quietly educate dancers without trophies.
When Tori Rogoski opened her studio in 2001, she decided to model her curriculum on that of a university dance program. As an undergrad, she had loved her experience at University of Wisconsin–Madison and wanted to pass along the holistic approach of college-level instruction to younger students. This means that, in addition to teaching daily technique classes, Rogoski and the six part-time teachers of Dance Education Center give lectures and instruction on anatomy, healthy lifestyles, dance history and the creative process. She emphasizes a ballet foundation, requiring two ballet classes a week, but otherwise allows the students to explore whatever genres or styles they want. One thing, however, is conspicuously absent. DEC does not offer participation in dance competitions.
It seems a bold move considering the way competition pervades current entertainment culture. From local talent showcases, to traveling circuit competitions and international ballet events like Youth America Grand Prix, to television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” dance competition is a $2 billion industry, according to the Association of Dance Conventions & Competitions. And yet, it reflects only a small percentage of the overall dance student population. For instance, competition dancers often comprise as little as 15 percent of total studio enrollment (see sidebar). There are plenty of school directors who forego competition completely, without sacrificing business success or opportunities for their dancers.
There’s no question that competitions can broaden a young dancer’s experience. They meet dancers, choreographers and teachers beyond their home communities and gain new perspective about what is possible. And performing next to winning dancers can be a compelling motivation to up one’s game onstage. But for some dancers, the added stress comes at too great a price. This was the case with Rogoski, whose personal childhood competition experience is reflected in her decision as a studio owner not to compete. “Being a perfectionist made it harder for me,” she says. “I always felt I was being judged, when dance should be the place where you don’t need to think about other things.”
An alternative that has worked well for students of her Stevens Point, Wisconsin–based school is a shared three-day intensive organized jointly by Rogoski and two dance-educator colleagues based in Chicago and Minnesota. DEC opens its space to the group of 30–38 dancers, and faculty and students serve as host families for the visiting students. They split into two groups for classes and then come together for a large master-class experience. There’s plenty of opportunity for the dancers to make friends, and on Sunday, they do a “dance share” to show what they’ve learned over the weekend.
Sometimes, the competition decision is a matter of market research. For nearly a decade before opening Dancer’s Extension in Saluda, North Carolina, Sonya Monts had taught at another studio that emphasized competitions. But when it came to starting her own business four years ago, she decided her rural North Carolina community would not support a competition studio model. She says students “didn’t want to be on competition teams, perhaps because they wanted to do other activities, too, or their families simply couldn’t afford it.” She was committed to being inclusive and, with all the extra costs associated with competitions, including entry fees, travel and costumes, she hated to see many in her working-class community left out. “Competition does work for some people, and they thrive on it,” she says. “For me as a mom and a dance teacher, though, it is just not necessary. You can learn the art of dance without the added stress of competition.”
Of course, one of the best arguments in favor of competition is that it gives student dancers much-needed performance opportunities. Rogoski admits she works hard to give stage time to her 175 dancers. The opportunities come through community-based performances, a spring showcase and performing groups for her more advanced dancers. She is proud that her students are giving back to their community by performing at social and cultural events for children, the elderly and other diverse audiences.
Most of the choreography is created by DEC faculty, but every year Rogoski brings in a guest artist. Last year it was a former professor from UW–Madison, and this year a former teacher who now dances with Scorpius Dance Theatre in Arizona—these choices demonstrate a preference for solid training and strong education credentials over celebrity status. “I’m always trying to bring in someone,” she says, “because it’s a challenge to get exposure for the kids.”
Rogoski offers herself as an example that a studio can survive and thrive without going the competition route. But she points out the decision is an individual one to be arrived at after clarifying business and teaching goals and developing a mission statement. For her, the absence of the rigorous schedule of technique and rehearsals necessary to prepare for the yearly competition circuit makes it easier to focus on artistry and getting to know her students personally. Plus, without the pressure of trophies, “kids can be kids,” without getting overwhelmed by performance and competition anxiety. Certainly her dancers are no less serious about dance, and many of them go on to pursue dance degrees in college. “I feel my number-one job is to help my students become really strong, both physically and as people,” she says.
And what if the child or their parents think they’re missing out on the competition element? Monts says this really hasn’t been an issue. Parents choose studios that are right for their family’s philosophy, she says. Those who want their children to gain benefits from competing will find a school to suit their child’s needs. DT
Lisa Traiger writes frequently on dance from the Washington, DC, suburbs.
5 Ways to Rock Your Recreational Program
When the yearly recital rolls around at The Dance Studio of Fresno, owner Sue Sampson-Dalena takes a page from the Hollywood book for making a grand entrance. Beneath a massive sign showcasing the studio logo, students pose on a red carpet in front of a themed step-and-repeat backdrop, and parents capture the moment for posterity. Sampson-Dalena first introduced the idea two years ago for the studio’s 30th anniversary and says it’s been a huge hit ever since. “Everyone likes to feel important and glamorous,” she says.
That sentiment also speaks to her philosophy, overall. Whether a student is a member of the Extreme Edge traveling company, the Jumpstart local competition team or a recreational dancer, she wants all dancers to understand they deserve the spotlight. “It’s so important to make your rec students feel like they’re part of your school and part of your team,” she says, “even if they only come a few times per week.”
This “everyone’s a star” approach is also a matter of smart business. Sampson-Dalena is acutely aware that recreational students comprise roughly 85 percent of her clientele. (Out of 800 total enrollment, 125 dancers participate on the competition teams, with 50 on Extreme Edge and 75 on the Jumpstart team.) “When you’re talking about financial success, the bigger your rec department, the better,” she says, explaining her reasoning like this: Students receive steeper discounts the more classes they enroll in. So someone taking eight classes weekly is essentially paying much less per class than a dancer who attends once or twice a week.
With all the time and energy it takes to support a competition team, Sampson-Dalena knows it can be all too easy to let that take priority. But, in order for a studio to thrive, it’s crucial to ensure that all dancers feel invested and have a great experience. Here, she shares the approach that has been key to her studio’s longevity.
1 Be strategic with class times and structure. When scheduling, give prime time priority to rec classes. “At the Dance Teacher Summit [where Sampson-Dalena presents seminars on best business practices], a lot of studio owners tell me they’ve made the mistake of giving away all their best class times to the dance team kids,” she says. “I understand they’re trying to provide opportunities to train and improve in order to be competitive, but they’re also giving away optimum times to families who aren’t paying the optimum price.” To avoid this, she makes sure her 5:30 pm class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is filled with recreational students.
2 Measure progress and skill attainment uniformly. Sampson-Dalena maintains a syllabus for all classes, so that parents can easily keep track of learning goals. “Parents really like the fact that we have a syllabus for every single level; it helps them see the value when we say, ‘This is what we expect your child to master by the end of the year,’” she says.
3 Find ways to give recognition. At The Dance Studio of Fresno, a student of the month often has their picture posted in-studio and on the website. “Teachers nominate different students whom they feel deserve recognition,” says Sampson-Dalena. “We make a big deal out of it.” Her staff also snaps candid photos of rec classes to be posted on the studio’s Instagram and Facebook pages—a picture of a Mommy and Me class in progress, for instance, or jazz students rehearsing for recital.
At the end of each season, teachers fill out congratulatory placement cards for all students, with handwritten messages such as: “Congratulations, you’re moving up from Basic Jazz I to Jazz I,” and “Keep up the good work on your turns.”
4 Avoid differentiation. Whether a student is on Extreme Edge or Jumpstart, or registered as recreational, makes no difference when it comes to class placement or opportunities. At The Dance Studio of Fresno, all classes are grouped by skill level, not company classification. “I will put rec students in with the dance team students if they are at level; I don’t separate them,” says Sampson-Dalena.
5 Take your inclusive approach all the way to the recital stage. Sampson-Dalena offers the same ticket distribution opportunity to all families, avoiding any preferential treatment for members of the competition teams. She also stages a professional photo shoot and uses the images to create a poster to advertise the recital and showcase the studio’s theme for the year.
Choreography is another top consideration. “I make sure my staff is aware that they need to give all rec students their moment of glory in recital routines, rather than spotlighting just one dancer,” she says. “We make sure every student feels special.” —Jen Jones Donatelli
Photos (2) (from top) by Alan Smith (Smith Photographic Arts), courtesy of Dance Education Center; by Robert Parsons, courtesy of Dancer’s Extension; (2) courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno