Willie Brown, Jr., didn’t know much about dance until a dance coordinator at his school, Greenfield Community College (GCC) in Greenfield, Massachusetts, encouraged him to see an African dance performance being presented on campus. Intrigued by what he saw, Brown signed up for a dance class and discovered his passion. He knew he wanted a professional career. His credits transferred seamlessly to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and, since completing a BFA in 2002, Brown has traveled the country dancing with luminaries like Katherine Dunham, Garth Fagan and Augusto Soledade. “The GCC faculty was so supportive and believed in me so much,” Brown says.
Community colleges offer numerous benefits for dancers who want to use a two-year program as a stepping-stone toward a BA or BFA. The open admissions policy at all community colleges allows students with lower GPAs or less -developed dance skills to catch up academically and artistically before transferring. And students and their families can save thousands of dollars in tuition fees by choosing a community college for the first two years of undergraduate study.
But in considering a community college, it’s important for dance students to know in advance that the school supports the ultimate goal of obtaining a four-year degree. To help students make a smooth transition, dance faculty at many community colleges form close relationships with nearby four-year schools. And many community college dance programs provide personal guidance for students who set their sights on a four-year degree.
This fall, Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, launched a new associate of arts program in dance. But even before the AA program was approved in May 2010, students at MCCC had transferred successfully into the dance programs at Temple University, Eastern University and Muhlenberg College. “We aim to give students a solid foundation in the courses they would be expected to take in the first two years of a BA dance program,” says Melinda Copel, coordinator of dance at MCCC. In addition to a broad core curriculum, dance majors at MCCC take ballet, modern, dance improvisation and composition. Theory, dance history and anatomy are woven into technique classes, and students study nutrition, conditioning and the fundamentals of music.
The curriculum at GCC, which offers an associate’s degree in liberal arts with a dance option, is designed to transfer to all Massachusetts state schools. GCC makes the process easy with “articulation agreements,” formal agreements between institutions that allow credits from one to be applied toward a specific degree at another.
All of the dance faculty at GCC have taught at or been affiliated with the nearby four-year college dance departments, so they stay abreast of developments that would affect their students. The school also participates in the New England Regional College Dance Conference, where GCC faculty and students meet and interact with faculty and students from four-year programs across New England.
When the time comes to move to the university level, students at community colleges often receive personalized attention. “I try to counsel them as they flesh out what their goals are: go professional, go into teaching, run a studio, work with children,” says Tess Boone, associate professor of dance at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), which offers a dance program within the performing arts department.
“That helps me steer them toward a particular program.” If a student is interested in a professional career, Boone knows that the University of Utah is probably a good fit and the student should take advantage of SLCC’s technique classes. If teaching is the ultimate goal, Boone might advise the student to check out Weber State University, which offers a dance major, along with a minor in dance teaching.
Like GCC, Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Arnold, Maryland, has articulation agreements with all of the state schools. Staff at AACC’s Career and Transfer Resource Center help dance students determine where they’d like to continue their education and design an academic plan that gets them there.
Small Bumps, Big Rewards
Of course, there are challenges to beginning a dance degree at a community college. Students usually live off-campus, often at home, and many work full- or part-time. Because of the time crunch, community college students may find it difficult to squeeze in a daily technique class, which means they have to take the initiative to ensure they are prepared to enter a four-year program. And dancers may experience a “big fish/small pond” syndrome upon transferring. “Some of the larger schools like Temple can be overwhelming,” MCCC’s Copel says.
However, many students achieve success after initiating their dance degrees at the community college level. Kurt Gorrell, a graduate of AACC, transferred to Butler University and has performed in the national tours of Movin’ Out and Contact. And Danell Hathaway flourished in the dance program at SLCC and earned a BFA in dance from the University of Utah, where she is now working toward her master’s degree.
“My students just thrive,” says Lynda Fitzgerald, AACC’s dance director. “The faculty is here to let students know that there’s a big world out there and they have a lot of options.” DT
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Photo: Montgomery County Community College student Katie Pflueger in Chasing After the Wind, a self-choreographed solo (courtesy of Montgomery County Community College)
Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Community College
Every dance teacher has a similar story about “the one who got away”: the stellar student who had the physique and technique to become a professional dancer, but who chose to quit dance completely. “Devastated” and “secretly in tears” are some of the ways teachers describe their reactions to this kind of loss.
“At around age 14 or 15, most kids are rethinking who they are as people,” says Mike Riera, PhD, author of Staying Connected To Your Teenager. “The reasons for wanting to quit are many: They feel burnt out, they’re under too much pressure or maybe there are other things they want to do.” But rather than standing by helplessly as your protégé walks out the door, there are several ways you can help teenagers assess their situation and determine whether quitting is the best choice.
Scenario One: Family Pressure
Phyllis Balagna, owner of Steppin’ Out—The Studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, recently received an e-mail from one her most gifted dancers. In it, the 14-year-old apologized for quitting, but wrote that she intended to follow in her father’s footsteps to become a surgeon.
Parents who are very proud of their child’s dance achievements at the age of 10 may start steering them away from a career in dance, even subconsciously, as the child gets older. “We’ve noticed in our area that many of our students’ parents are doctors or lawyers, and they don’t want their kids to have the difficult life of the artist,” says Kathy Blake of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire.
In order to teach both parents and top students about the real world of dance, Blake encourages parents to take their kids to professional auditions, and she also brings groups of students to Los Angeles every other year to talk to professional dancers and hear firsthand stories about the business. When parents and students have an understanding of the world of dance outside the studio, including the availability of dance scholarships, they are more likely to consider it a viable option.
Scenario Two: Type A’s
Often, star pupils are overachievers in other areas of their lives, including athletics and academics, and are eventually forced to choose between dance and another activity. A few years ago, Sue Sampson-Dalena, owner of The Dance Studio of Fresno, California, noticed that one of her top students was drifting off. “You could just tell, Jason’s soul wasn’t in it,” she says. He then announced that he wanted to devote his time to soccer.
Reluctantly, Sampson-Dalena let him go. But for Jason, taking a breather from dance ultimately strengthened his commitment to it—which is often the case for overbooked students. Eight months later, Jason started taking dance classes sporadically and eventually asked to get back on the dance team. “When Jason returned, he was a fabulous leader, he’d built up more upper-body strength and was even more talented,” Sampson-Dalena recalls. Jason Glover went on to become a professional dancer and a top-10 finalist on the hit show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Of course, you can’t always assume your type-A student will come back after a break. Sometimes it helps to sit down with both student and parent and discuss the situation. A student of Balagna’s who’d been dancing since the age of 3 considered quitting her senior year in order to focus on AP classes, college applications and her cello. Balagna met with the student and her mother and asked the girl what she thought she could handle. Together they figured out a workable dance schedule. “It was a win-win situation for both of us: I am going to get to see her graduate through my studio, and she was able to do what she loves while preparing for the next step in her life,” says Balagna.
You might also try offering your student a job as a teaching assistant or asking her to mentor a young dancer. By expanding her role in the studio, she may deepen her commitment to dance.
Scenario Three: Burnout
After winning trophies and dancing leading roles at a young age, star students may feel that there’s nothing more to strive for once they hit their teens. And it’s also tempting for teachers to overschedule their talented dancers with competitions, classes and recitals. “Quite often, because we want them to be the best, we overwhelm them and they don’t have a life outside of dance,” says Joanne Chapman of the Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Ontario, Canada. “We have to be really careful that we don’t exhaust them physically and mentally.”
If a student feels burnt out, you can suggest that she cut down the number of classes she’s taking each week for a few months. That allows her a chance to rest without leaving the studio behind, and it gives the student time to reevaluate her future in dance. Balagna also has her dancers try different classes with different teachers at the studio in order to keep things fresh. “You have to encourage them to find the right path for themselves,” she says.
If you do find that one of your dancers just can’t take it anymore, don’t forget one of your greatest resources: your former students. When a talented teenager in Sampson-Dalena’s studio felt burnt out and started talking about giving up dance, her former student Jason had a heart-to-heart with her. His words of wisdom convinced the young girl to stay the course and keep on dancing.
A Final Note
Keep in mind that these tips apply not only to your best pupils, but to all your students. Sometimes a dancer will come to you because she feels she’s not good enough and sees no point in continuing. Taking the time to find the right approach for her may help rekindle her love of dance. In the end, there may be nothing you can do but let your students go. With these strategies, you can feel satisfied that you did your best for them and for your business. DT
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/George Peters
For many dance studio owners, the idea of conducting staff evaluations is daunting. Many teachers are former students, and owners take pride in maintaining the “family atmosphere” of their studio. So to actually sit down and formally assess an employee, whom you may have known since the age of 5, seems awfully corporate. But according to Sylvia Hepler, owner of Launching Lives, an executive coaching firm, businesses that give short shrift to appraisals miss an essential opportunity to garner feedback necessary to maintain goals and enhance employee performance.
Kathy Blake of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire, initiated a performance review process two years ago. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “The entire culture of my studio shifted.” So to help you use staff evaluations to your studio’s advantage, we asked several veteran studio owners to share their experiences.
Ease employees into the process.
It’s a good idea to hold staff reviews twice per year—at the beginning of the season to set goals and expectations and again at the end to measure progress and update goals for the next evaluation period. Consider scheduling an extra review mid-season if an employee seems to be having difficulty meeting expectations. Each performance appraisal should last between 45 minutes to an hour and be held somewhere neutral, like a staff meeting room or a local coffee shop, especially if your office might seem intimidating to some. But don’t forget to inform staff members about their upcoming evaluation with enough notice for them to plan—you don’t want to make them feel uneasy, or even worse, ambushed.
Give credit where credit is due.
Before the meeting, both employer and employee should fill out an evaluation form. Begin the meeting by exchanging and reading each other’s form. “The beauty of this is that it provides the springboard for your conversation,” says Hepler. “You can ask, ‘What are your observations about the similarities in our answers? What about the differences?’” A few questions Blake likes to ask are: What worked for you this school year? What didn’t work and how did that impact your performance? How were your talents recognized? How did you solve problems that arose? What would you do to improve for next year? And when giving feedback, make sure to balance the positives with the negatives. Start by focusing on the contributions the employee has made, then coolly discuss the areas he or she needs to improve on—this is no time for heated debates.
“I’ll put it in their boat,” says Bonnie Schuetz, owner of Boni’s Dance and Performing Arts Studio in The Woodlands, Texas. “I’ll ask a teacher, ‘How would you like to see yourself grow? For example, to be more patient or more creative?’ And often that will bring out points for discussion.” Schuetz also takes notes during the review, which she keeps in each individual’s file, and she refers to any parent e-mails received during their time of employment. “Of course, I deal with anything that comes up as it arises,” says Schuetz. “But at the end of the year they may have forgotten all about it, so we can discuss any new concerns then, as well.”
Ask for feedback.
The simple act of sitting down with each employee can be enlightening. For example, Blake noticed that one of her front desk workers seemed to be increasingly disgruntled. “During the evaluation, I realized that she didn’t want the extra responsibility I was pushing on her,” Blake recalls. “She simply preferred to do the basics. We adjusted her job description and her pay grade and then she was happy. I might have fired her otherwise.”
Nancy Giles, owner of The Southern Strutt in Irmo, South Carolina, turned the tables on her staff and asked them to evaluate her for the first time this past September. “I said to them, ‘Tell me what you need from me to make this better,’” she says. “I asked them what they expect out of me that’s not happening, as well as what I can do to make their job easier and help them feel supported. That’s hard to do, but I want to get it right.”
Just last year, as a result of staff feedback, Blake realized that her employees wanted more in-house education, and she quickly initiated a teacher-training program. “Before, I would have thought I was imposing it on them,” she says. “I think directors make a big mistake if they don’t evaluate themselves.”
Although you may feel that your “open-door” policy works just fine, performance reviews provide an official forum for discussions that might not take place any other time. “My faculty and staff look forward to evaluations now, and they’re more forthcoming with problems as they arise,” says Blake. “They feel listened to, praised and supported, and it makes them more willing to come forward.” DT
Conducting the Conversation
Be prepared. Know what you’re going to ask and how you will phrase it.
2. Give honest feedback. Don’t skip over difficult issues for fear it will be upsetting. Likewise, don’t inflate praise. Employees will learn to trust you.
3. Lead with the positive, then suggest areas where you would like to see improvement.
4. Keep criticism constructive. Restrict comments to observed job behavior and back each up with specific examples. Don’t say: “You’re sloppy.” Do say: “I’d like you to keep your filing up-to-date. It looks bad to have personal student information on your desktop where it can be lost or seen by others.”
5. Make it a two-way conversation. Invite the employee to suggest goals, listen to their feedback and make good eye contact.
6. Be consistent. Your process should be the same for all.
7. Avoid surprises. Performance review is a year-round process. Give immediate feedback, both compliments and criticism, so that an employee has the chance to make adjustments before the official review.
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Retailer News.
With the economy still sput-tering along, dance teachers shouldn’t rely on last year’s marketing tactics to get them through the seasons ahead. Instead, be creative and devise a new plan to get potential students in the door. And if you’re tightening your belt, be careful not to cut ad dollars too short. “You don’t want to cut your marketing in a tight economy. You want to cut extraneous marketing,” advises Kim T. Gordon, author of Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars. “You want to put your dollars where they’re going to work the hardest.”
Fine-tune your target customer and message.
Gordon suggests starting your new plan by writing a list of target customers—those who have a need, can afford what you’re offering and are willing to pay for it. “Whenever you have a tight budget, the first thing you do is reallocate dollars to the tactics that reach customers when they’re closest to making a buying decision,” says Gordon. A couple of examples include moms of 4-year-olds interested in beginning ballet, or senior citizens looking to enroll in a weekly tap class.
When your list is complete, decide on the image you want to communicate to potential students. Keep in mind that four years ago customers were more interested in the benefits of a product, but now price is at the top of the list. “You have to get the message out to parents that you understand what they’re going through,” says Gordon.
Weigh your media options.
With the target client and your message in mind, the next step is figuring out which media outlet will best suit your business. Here are a few options for you to consider:
E-mail marketing is an inexpensive way to reach target audiences, and sending out e-newsletters is an excellent way to keep your customers informed while promoting your studio. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater puts out a newsletter each month with information on The Ailey Extension, which offers dance classes for the general public. “I can honestly say the more targeted you can be, the higher the return rate,” says Alison Lucek, Ailey’s associate director of marketing. “For example, if we’re offering a belly-dance class, we’ll send out a dedicated e-mail to people who’ve already taken one. But the monthly newsletter works really well and we pack it with what people want, like jazzy pictures and lots of information.” (See below for more newsletter do’s and don’ts.)
Don’t forget to include print media when itemizing your budget. Advertising in dance-related magazines and trade newspapers will go a long way toward reaching your target audience, as will a colorful brochure with class schedules that can be handed out to walk-ins. Rachel McRoberts, communications manager at Malashock Dance and the Malashock Dance School in San Diego, California, found that mailing or giving out postcards is a great way to make new contacts in the community. “We are also more aggressively looking for free trade and marketing opportunities,” says McRoberts. “For example, we put out other arts organizations’ collateral materials at our shows, and vice versa, basically creating a win-win situation.”
Don’t be afraid to try out new strategies.
Sometimes just pairing creativity with your business smarts is the most effective budget-cutting method. Last September, Pamm Drake, director and owner of Dance/10 Performing Arts Center in Alameda, CA, noticed a steep drop in enrollment and decided to cut corners elsewhere. “We backed off spending money on competition entry fees and costuming, and instead played up the educational component of dance. Parents are always going to want to spend money on a child’s education—that’s a given,” says Drake. The strategy worked and enrollment is now back up and growing steadily.
Providing customer incentives could also do the trick. According to Gordon, about half of all Americans belong to at least one customer rewards program, so offering discount cards for classes is another way to draw attention to your business. Randy Allaire, owner of EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, offers class cards at a regular and professional rate, for anywhere from 1 to 30 classes. Rates are listed on the website, with savings noted in red. Drake offers a discount for students who register before September. Last year she also instituted a spring special: one month of unlimited classes for $99, which brought in a lot of new faces. “You have to pay your dues,” says Allaire. “But if you have a really good message that’s supportive of the kids, that’s a great plus.” DT
Newsletter Do's and Don'ts
Do highlight one of your teachers, course offerings and/or special events each month, using a photo and detailed information.
Don’t jam up your clients’ inboxes with e-newsletters—once a month is fine.
Do use software like PatronMail or Constant Contact to keep track of how many subscribers open your e-newsletter and click on links within it.
Don’t include more than six small articles within the newsletter. Content ideas include new classes, schedule changes and upcoming recitals and
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Bette White Fernandez first graced the pages of DT—then called Dance Teacher Now—in its inaugural “Spotlight on Successful Teachers” (Summer 1979). And the former Rockette has remained true to her life’s work. Only briefly sidelined after undergoing heart surgery earlier this year, 80-year-old White is now in her 56th year of teaching.
Beginning her dance training at age 8, the Wilmington, Delaware, native relocated to New York City after high school to study with legendary teachers like Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Luigi. White held several teaching jobs at various studios before founding the Bette White Dance Center in Maplewood, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. (Back then, her monthly rent was only $275 and her ballet, tap, modern, jazz and adult disco classes cost just $3 each!) The studio is still in business, but it is now in the hands of a former student, which White couldn’t be happier about.
Today, the mother of five teaches tap in Long Branch, NJ, where she lives and also performs with the Jersey Shore Seniors Legend Showcase at local charities and fundraisers. Read on as this dedicated teacher shares her teaching joys and some career advice she wishes she’d known three decades ago.
Dance Teacher: After all of these years, what is it about teaching that keeps you going?
Bette White Fernandez: The students are my best friends; they have so much spirit. I’ve always tried to maintain the technique and discipline, but I get caught up with the students’ spirits and just having fun with them. They know I still enjoy it.
DT: What teacher influenced your style the most?
BWF: Luigi influenced me a lot. His style was a segue from jazz to modern, with these flowing movements. Luigi’s whole idea was that you should feel the movement from the inside out, and there was so much expression in his technique. It changed my choreography and the way I was teaching.
DT: Was it a challenge to balance your job while raising a family?
BWF: When my kids were very young, I’d put them on a blanket to play in the corner while I taught; I’d just incorporate them into whatever I was doing. I remember a student once asked why I put a particular kick into a routine, and it was because I had to keep stepping over a Tonka truck while I was choreographing. But my two daughters helped out and both taught when they were older.
DT: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known earlier on in your career?
BWF: I remember when I first began teaching, I’d sometimes put a very shy student in the front row and then they’d drop out. I wish I had known more about human nature and people’s capacity for what they can handle—that took a while.
DT: Do you have any more advice to share with other dance teachers?
BWF: You have to remain excited about dance and not think of it as just a job. And you should really encourage your students and let them lead you. I once showed my boys’ tap class a barrel turn and said, “When you’re older, you’ll be able to do this.” Well, they all went off on their own and started trying it, saying, “Look at me, look at me!” It’s all about listening to your students.
DT: How did you feel about handing over the business you created?
BWF: A former student of mine named Dancette Pratts, who started dancing with me at age 4, is now running my studio (currently called Inspirational Dance). She has danced professionally and always wanted to own a studio, and now she’s there. And that’s the greatest reward we can have as teachers, when our students become teachers. It’s like passing the baton.
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
While the majority of dance studios now have websites, the idea of adding video footage to showcase their facility, teaching style, faculty and students is just catching on. When Tude Della Maggiore O’Connell, the owner of Tude’s School of Dance in Santa Clara, California, was approached by two of her students with the idea of adding video to the studio’s website, she figured, “Why not?” The website now has a link to the school’s YouTube channel, where more than 60 dances recorded from past recitals are posted, along with a history of the school and a brief bio of the founder. And she couldn’t be more pleased with the response. “People call to ask about classes and I tell them they can check out videos on the website, and they tell me that they already have!” says Della Maggiore O’Connell. But before you hit the record button, there are several artistic decisions to make. Read on to see how these studio owners have used this tech trend to their business advantage.
Earlier this year Merce Cunningham Dance Company began posting a series of free webcasts, titled “Mondays with Merce,” to provide a behind-the-scenes look at classes and company rehearsals, as well as interviews with Cunningham on his teaching methods. Nancy Dalva, producer and writer of the webcasts, advises interested teachers to first define their main audience and purpose of the video to get the right material. If you want to entice new students, for instance, a brief clip of a class might be the way to go. “You have to decide if you want to show it from the teacher’s or the students’ point of view,” says Dalva. “Or try for more than one point of view to make it more interesting. Have a side view of the teachers and students together, and maybe a close-up of a teacher demonstrating a phrase. You want to have some control over the look of the finished project and still have it be spontaneous.”
Gina DeBenedetto-Forcella, owner of Dance Stop studio, located in Parlin and Monroe, New Jersey, found a way to provide online viewers with a well-rounded look at her business. One year ago, she hired a professional video production company to create content for her website’s home page, after being encouraged by her marketing firm, Marketing Plus One. The company created a two-and-a-half-minute commercial that gives a dynamic look at the studio, its teachers and students, and it put together a seamless montage of recital footage. DeBenedetto-Forcella was amazed by the results: “By using video, I was really able to express what my studio is all about,” she says. “It’s a personal way to reach out to people. It’s like they’ve already met us before they even make a phone call.” The cost for this kind of videography ranges between $2,000 and $4,000, according to Kenny Baroff, owner of Marketing Plus One.
Whether you choose to hire someone, shoot the footage yourself or use pre-existing recital and performance videos, it’s easy to post directly online to sites like www.dancemedia.com and www.YouTube.com. You can then post a link on your personal website, Facebook page, MySpace profile or in newsletters and other mailings. While some dance professionals are concerned that posting video online might encourage less imaginative onlookers to steal ideas and choreography, Della Maggiore O’Connell believes the benefits outweigh the risks. “I don’t want someone to take a whole routine and take credit for it. That’s not right,” she says. “But we all learn from each other, and sometimes you want to see what other people are doing. It’s enriching and enlightening.”
Regardless of your approach, there are many benefits to promoting your business with online dance videos. Prospective students can easily check out your studio, class offerings and teaching approach while surfing the web—and what better way to pique their interest in finding a studio to call home? DT
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Starting from Scratch
As web editor for Dance Teacher, I knew I’d be learning the ins and outs of the internet. What wasn’t in my original job description—but soon took up the majority of my time—was shooting and editing videos for www.dance-teacher.com and www.dancemedia.com.
I had taken a media production course in college, but the information I learned then was hardly fresh. With a new camera (a very basic, user-friendly and affordable Canon miniDV) in hand and instructions to “go out and shoot dance videos,” I was ready to relearn the basics. Here are a few tips for first-time videographers.
Lighting: When you’re looking through the viewing screen on your camera, the lighting may seem fine. But you’re likely to see a very different picture when the footage is tranferred to your computer. The camera screen’s lighting is almost always brighter than it will be on your computer or TV. Do various test shots with different lighting to see how things look on camera and on your computer monitor.
Filming Angle: Avoid shooting in front of windows—the light coming in from behind those dancing will make them appear as dark silhouettes. (Not ideal for dance videos—you want to see definitive movements.) Watch out when shooting in front of mirrors; seeing the dancers’ reflections can be confusing. You also want to make sure that whoever is filming doesn’t get into the shot. And with instructional videos in particular, consider shooting demonstrators from behind, to mimic the way a student would learn in class.
Sound: On most handheld video cameras, the built-in, internal microphone will pick up a lot of background noise. So if you’re videotaping a teacher in class and want to be able to hear what he or she is saying, make sure students aren’t talking, fidgeting or time-stepping nearby.
Editing Software: Some of the most professionally made videos aren’t put together in high-tech editing suites. A simple program like iMovie (which comes preinstalled on all Apple computers) makes adding titles, photos and background music a cinch. —Alison Feller
In 1990, Diane Chambers, owner of Diane Moore Dance Academy in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, was approached by the mother of a 6-year-old girl named Julie who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes abnormal development of the spinal cord. After being turned away from other studios, Julie’s mother was desperate to fulfill her daughter’s wish to take dance lessons. “I thought it would be wonderful to do that for a little child with a dream,” says Chambers. Julie blossomed in class with the other dancers, and she even learned how to do a mean shuffle step on crutches.
Word spread that Chambers could work wonders with special needs children, and soon she had enough special students to form a separate class. Almost 20 years later, there are approximately 50 “miracle dancers” enrolled in her academy, who not only take class, but perform as well.
Chambers’ students range in age from 4 to 40, and they have conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome, blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. When forming her class, Chambers split her students into age groups, ranging from the Junior Miracles (ages 4 and up) to the Senior Miracles (ages 12 and up) to the Miracles in Motion group for ages 18 and up. The dancers are assisted by helpers, a mixture of academy students and instructors, who volunteer their time. Classes incorporate stretching, barre work, counting out rhythms and learning a routine.
The Miracle Dancers perform in recitals and at local community events, and they have made several television appearances. A couple of years ago, Chambers even registered the dancers in the open category at a dance competition. “It was so quiet when they went onstage,” says Chambers. “But they ended up bringing the house down. They received a standing ovation; the judges were all crying. And at the end of the competition, another school came up and gave all of their trophies to the Miracle Dancers.”
For Chambers, the keys to teaching children with disabilities are constantly coming up with imaginative solutions and never giving up. Like the time one child in a wheelchair wanted to tap dance: The instructors made a wooden table to fit across her wheelchair, then attached taps to gloves so she could tap with her hands. Or, as when a blind student wanted to do a solo during a recital but was afraid of falling off the stage, Chambers and her team solved the problem by placing a rug onstage so she could feel where she danced.
There are other success stories. A few years ago, a 9-year-old autistic boy named Aaron came in for private lessons, but spent the whole time running circles around the studio. When Chambers warned his mother that dancing might not work out, the distraught look on her face made Chambers reconsider. She discovered that by offering Aaron a reward—playing with the microphone, for instance, or tossing pom-poms—she could help him focus, and he slowly responded. When he turned 12, Aaron performed a tap number during a recital—something no one could have imagined happening three years earlier. “You have to be very creative in finding the individual talent and strength of each child so they will feel beautiful onstage,” says Chambers.
Because the families of special needs children have many expenses, Chambers recently founded a nonprofit called the Miracle Dancers Scholarship Foundation to request grants and donations for costumes and tuition. “I want each child, especially kids with special needs, to have the opportunity to be in the arts and love dance,” says Chambers.
For more information about the Miracle Dancers or the foundation, visit www.dianemooredance.com. DT
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Seven Tips for Teaching Special Needs Students
The rewards of working with special needs students can be tremendous, but doing so requires attention and preparation. We asked experienced teachers to share their advice.
Learn about each student.
Use pre-enrollment screenings or pre-application forms to find out all you can about the student’s particular disability, his or her physical challenges, special requirements and personality. Ask parents about favorite things, likes and dislikes, what sets a child off and what has a calming effect. “We had one autistic girl who loved heavy metal rock music,” says Christine Rich of the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center in Savoy, Illinois. “We didn’t have any at the studio, so we had to find some. We played it, and she calmed right down.”
Choose whether to separate special needs students, or to integrate them into an existing class.
There are reasons to consider both approaches—it depends on your particular students. Rich discovered that her seven Down’s syndrome students functioned well together in a group. However, her autistic dancers were uncomfortable in any kind of class setting, so she teaches them privately. At Kennedy Dance Theatre in Webster, Texas, Director Mary Lee Kennedy separates her 45-minute special needs classes by age (age 3 to 7, then age 7 and up) rather than by diagnosis, and includes 12 in each. Elizabeth Fernandez-Flores, director of the New York City–based New American Youth Ballet, works with students on an individual basis before integrating them into standard classes. Those with unacceptable or violent behavior are taught in 15-minute private lessons. In the Boston Ballet School’s “Adaptive Dance” program, Down’s syndrome students have their own class. “This is their one opportunity to have fun with friends like themselves,” says Michelina C. Cassella, director of the Department of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Services at the Children’s Hospital Boston.
Ensure there is adequate assistance during class.
A parent accompanies all special needs students to class or private lessons at Rich’s studio, and at Kennedy Dance, every student has a “buddy,” an advanced dancer that helps the student manipulate movement. In the Boston Ballet School’s program, each class of a dozen Down’s syndrome students is assisted by a teacher, physical therapist and several adult volunteers.
Keep the dance movements simple.
Both autistic and Down’s syndrome children can generally do simple movements, such as walking, hopping, jumping, demi-pliés, tendus, galloping, heel steps and toe steps, along with patterns, like four marches, four claps. A general rule is to teach a few levels lower than the student’s age. For example, for an 8-year-old, play age-appropriate music, but try techniques at a 5-year-old level. Curriculum can vary. The younger class at Kennedy Dance studies tap, ballet and tumbling, while the older class does hip hop and tumbling. Again, talking to parents is important, since some children should not be attempting somersaults because of neck concerns.
Adapt to special requirements.
The structure and flow of class will vary depending on your particular students. Rich, for instance, found that autistic students require more attention to transitions and more visuals, such as breaking the classroom clock into colored segments. She tells her students, “We will work on this step while the clock is blue, then go on to another step when the hands point to red,” and she also allows plenty of time to adjust to new concepts. It is often necessary for autistic children to exit the class to calm down. At Boston Ballet, the piano accompanist proved to be a distraction and was quickly replaced with a percussionist beating out strong rhythms. Also, the teacher stands with his back to the students rather than facing the class, because the students better imitate than reflect movement. To teach right from left, a teacher can place colored tape on ballet shoes. To help students stay focused, some dancing can be done while sitting in chairs.
Decide what type of performance outlet best suits your special students.
Whether special needs students participate in the recital is an individual studio choice. Kennedy put special thought into her recital experience. The special needs students were provided a separate area in the dressing rooms, where parents were allowed. The class performed very early in the show, “buddies” danced onstage, and the children could leave immediately after their performance. Rich, on the other hand, after discussions with parents, decided her special needs students would be more comfortable giving a small in-class performance.
Find the right teachers.
Cassella knew the success of Boston Ballet’s Adaptive Dance program depended in part on finding the right teacher. Gianni Di Marco, a company corps de ballet member, has the “right personality and temperament—enthusiastic, patient and creative, with a sense of humor,” she says. Other teachers, such as Jennifer Holbert of Kennedy Dance Theatre have a lifelong interest in working with special needs children. A good rule of thumb is to look for teachers who have worked regularly with children ages 5 and under. —Karen White
To increase your confidence when working with this population, consider additional training in early childhood development and/or dance therapy. Suzi Tortora, who runs a clinical dance movement psychotherapy practice in New York City, recommends that teachers begin with a basic child development class, progressing to more specialized courses relating to the specific disabilities of students. “Every class should discuss how children with special needs process the environment differently, and their ability or inability to attend—that is, to hold their attention at a physical level,” Tortora says. “Courses should also discuss how to appropriately use supports and aides to help integrate the child into the class in a way that feels natural.” Tortora particularly recommends the programs at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Drexel University in Pennsylvania and Antioch University New England in New Hampshire, but notes that good courses are available at schools nationwide. —Margaret Fuhrer
On a windy fall morning in a studio at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City, Raymond Lukens is gleefully leading a class through barre exercises. The students, who range in age from 22 to 62, listen and laugh as he urges them to make their tendus “more like a nice juicy roast beef than beef jerky.” Two hours of technique later, the students are exhausted but still laughing. And then the real work begins.
The students sprawl out on the floor, notebooks and binders in front of them, as Lukens sits and surveys them. “Tell me how you develop good posture in a child,” he asks. Answers range from “Show the alignment of the body” to “develop the musculature.” But it isn’t until one student says, “Make them feel good about themselves,” that Lukens breaks into a wide smile. “That’s right, it’s all about their state of mind,” he says.
These students are members of a new graduate dance education program that ABT is offering with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Officially called “Teaching Dance in Higher Education and the Professions: ABT Ballet Pedagogy,” the master’s degree program is the only one of its kind in the country and aims to prepare participants for careers in studios, conservatories, company schools, colleges and universities, as well as further study at the doctorate level. The 21 students in the inaugural class—16 women and five men—spend mornings at ABT taking Lukens’ “Theory and Methodology in Ballet Pedagogy” class, then speed over to NYU to round out their studies with courses like “Principles and Practices of Performing Arts Administration” and “Adolescent Development.” The program requires three full-time semesters, although many of the students hold dance teaching jobs during the evenings and weekends.
The NYU program is just one facet of ABT’s National Training Curriculum, a codified program for the development and training of students that was designed and written by Lukens, artistic associate for the ABT/NYU masters program, and Franco De Vita, principal of the JKO School, in collaboration with a national artistic advisory panel. The impetus for the NTC first grew a couple of years ago, when the ABT staff noticed that dancers at auditions often lacked sufficient technical training and were stylistically inflexible.
“We thought the fastest way to raise the quality of ballet training in this country would be to provide additional training for teachers,” says Rachel Moore, ABT’s executive director. At the same time, she says, the company “wanted to respect that each teacher has his or her own voice and a way of eliciting the best from students.” As De Vita puts it, “We’re not there to judge the ability of a teacher; we just want to help.”
The goal in developing the NTC was to allow teachers to safely train dancers with solid technical skills in a wide array of styles. Topics that Lukens, De Vita and the advisory panel felt needed to be addressed included health issues specific to dancers and the chronological stages of child and adolescent development. They compiled the curriculum in binder form, complete with photographs and information regarding eight levels of instruction—a primary level followed by levels one through seven—that incorporate elements of the French, Italian and Russian schools of training. “Most major ballet companies do classics along with Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp,” explains Moore. “Students need to be able to shift gears quickly and protect their bodies, but also have the mindset that this is an exciting and interesting way of experiencing dance.”
Keeping in mind that students learn at different rates, Lukens and De Vita considered it essential that the curriculum be outcome-based, so that teachers can recognize what skills students need to acquire at each level before moving on to the next. This way, dance teachers who follow the curriculum can impart the fundamentals whether their students study five days a week in preparation for a professional career, or two days a week as a hobby. “We’re not expecting every student to become material for a ballet company,” says De Vita. “This is our future audience and future backers. When a student enjoys a class, they will come to see the ballet.”
A large section of the curriculum is devoted to guidelines for dancer health and covers such topics as how to introduce pointe work, the phases of development, eating disorders, the menstrual cycle, nutrition, how to prevent injuries and dealing with peer pressure. It also provides important safety advice for dance teachers who are considering opening a studio, like what type of ventilation and flooring should be considered.
While the advisory board consists of world-renowned medical professionals, the guidelines were written to be easily understandable to the layperson. “You’re dealing with child physiology,” says Moore. “Sometimes professional dancers don’t understand how to teach a 7- or 8-year-old. Their bodies aren’t formed yet, and those things are what teachers need to learn.”
In addition to the NYU program, ABT disseminates the NTC to ballet teachers across the country through teacher training programs and student examinations. The teacher training programs include weekend workshops, which provide an overview of ABT’s methods, and five- to seven-day intensives, which cover specific levels of the NTC, focusing on anatomy, body alignment, kinetics and coordination.
The intensives provide teachers with a much-needed sense of community, affording them an opportunity to connect with others who are just as thirsty for knowledge and passionate about their work. They also recognize and reward schools that stress age-appropriate training. “We noticed that schools that really train well seem to go more slowly when their students are younger,” explains Moore. “And for some parents, teachers and students, that’s just not sexy enough. We wanted to be able to give the schools that were doing high-quality work a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
Teachers who complete the training program and successfully pass both oral and written examinations receive certificates, are eligible to become registered teachers of the NTC and are officially recognized on ABT’s website. They can also use the ABT logo in advertising and other materials. “We think that having the ABT name behind the school will help the parents and students see what is important,” says De Vita.
The second component of the NTC is student examinations, which are scheduled to begin this year. Registered teachers can present their students annually to ABT for exams, and those who pass receive a certificate of accomplishment and have their names listed on ABT’s website.
The final element of the NTC is the ABT/NYU masters program, which so far has been a huge hit with the graduate students. “You learn so much about the basic knowledge of ballet, ballet history and curriculum and the different styles,” says Hannah Guruianu, a 29-year-old who taught dance part-time while working as a journalist before enrolling in the program.
Students in the master’s program have the opportunity to observe classes at the JKO School, as well as attend ABT performances. Over the course of three semesters, they are required to develop a business plan for their own studio or school, including a mission statement and budget. They also take a course on teaching dance in higher education. One student is merging the two, developing a plan for a conservatory for teenagers that would be connected to a college.
“We have them do research and curriculum design,” says Barbara Bashaw, former associate director of the dance education program, and current coordinator of the Pre-K–12 Dance Teacher Certification track at NYU Steinhardt Dance Education. “That’s rather unusual, specifically within the ballet culture, to really build these researchers in pedagogy. These are the students that are going to jump start some of the future research.”
A major highlight for the students is the morning class with Lukens. “It’s three hours of story time,” says Adam Holms, a 28-year-old who hopes to teach in a professional school some day, as well as do public outreach programs. “We get exercise, learn about dance history; we’re bombarded with everything. It’s the most positive dance experience I’ve ever had. You’re using ABT’s curriculum, but it’s all about how we can incorporate it into our own teaching styles. We won’t be cookie-cutter teachers.”
Lukens enjoys the class as much as the students. “I won’t see results until they start teaching, and we go out to look at their work,” he says. “Perhaps some of their students will come here and become members of the company. But we hope all of their students become enthusiastic audience members of ballet. That’s where the solid reward lies.”
As they grow the three branches of the NTC—the master’s program, teacher training intensives and student exams—Lukens, De Vita and Moore hope to bring ballet up a notch, training teachers to instruct students in a way that is both medically sound and effective with regard to technique and artistry. “As these teachers go out, they’re going to be the greatest ambassadors we have,” says Moore. “As a national company we feel strongly that we have to be a leader in dance training and dance education, and by helping teachers fulfill their potential, we’re doing just that.”
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.