In 2010, Darryl and Linda Bernabei Retter celebrated the 20th anniversary of Retter’s Academy of Dance in Agoura Hills, California.
What’s the secret to your studio’s longevity? We understand that very few studio dancers will actually go on to become professional dancers. So our mission is to guide, educate and inspire the students and provide them with the highest standard of dance education.
Why did you first start taking your dancers to competitions? We started with the first year we opened. But we’ve always told them that it’s not about competing, it’s about performing. We don’t say, “We have a competition next weekend.” Instead we say, “We have a performance next weekend.” The competition part comes second. We make it very clear at parent meetings that we understand the scores are important to the kids—but being onstage is a privilege. Whatever score the dancers get is a wonderful acknowledgment of their efforts and a way to help them figure out what they need to work on.
What do you do to help your dancers succeed offstage as well as onstage? We created the Thoughtfulness Committee several years ago to unite our competition dancers and our recreational dancers. Often the non-competition kids see the beautiful costumes and trophies all over the studio and feel slighted. This program brings everyone together—we’re all dancers, after all. The program is based on the idea of practicing random acts of kindness and was initially created to eliminate separation within the studio. It has since exploded into a huge community outreach program. It’s teaching the dancers how to be leaders.
Winter is a busy time for competition studios. How do you balance the start of the regional season with the holidays? Every year we come together as a studio during the holidays and raise money to meet the needs of an underprivileged family. At Thanksgiving, we host a food drive to support our local food bank. In January, the dancers donate their previously worn party and prom dresses to The Princess Project, which provides dresses to inner-city kids. All of these efforts are really empowering for the kids.
What is your advice for new competition teachers? Even if you’re new to competition, you’re probably not new to dance. That passion has likely been brewing in you for a long time. So stay true to that and maintain your artistic direction. If you don’t have a vision, get one quickly—without it, your dancers and parents will pressure you into doing what they think is best. If you don’t think a song is appropriate, don’t let your students convince you otherwise. If you love a certain costume, don’t let the parents tell you that booty shorts and a bra top is a better option. Your instincts are right. You know what gives you goosebumps, so do that.
Photo: Retter’s Academy of Dance (courtesy of Retter’s Academy of Dance)