When Rosemary Sabovick-Bleich stresses the importance of turnout, she shows her class of 9- and 10-year-old students that the rotation should come from the very top of the hamstring—just under the gluteus maximus. “I told one of the girls that she had to feel that little muscle and pull up from there," says Sabovick-Bleich, who teaches at New Jersey School of Ballet. “Before I touched that spot, I explained what I was going to do."


Many teachers have a hands-on teaching philosophy, in which they adjust students' bodies to help them understand proper alignment. “Dance is such a physical thing—sometimes words don't fully convey what you mean," she says. “You have to actually put them into certain positions." Others, however, rely on visual and verbal cues to instruct. Effective teaching often involves using a mix of different approaches. How hands-on you should be depends on individual learning styles and comfort levels, as well as your own common sense.

Have a written explanation of your hands-on approach in your studio literature, and take time to explain the benefits to students and families. ©Thinkstock

1. Safety First

As in any educational setting, instructors need to make their studio a safe place. “My number-one goal when I work with kids is for them to know that I love them and care about them," says Patricia Brewer-Jones, who substitutes at The Portland Ballet, after a 40-year teaching career. “If they don't feel safe, I can't teach them." She often crawls on the floor to shape a dancer's foot or gently turn a leg to face the proper direction. Advanced dancers in her class demonstrate, but they are not allowed to give physical corrections. “No one can touch the students but me," she says. “I'm always very careful and respectful."

2. Ask Permission

Teachers should not assume they have permission to touch students. When Brewer-Jones has a new class, she talks to them first. “I explain that dance is an artform where you may be touched a lot," she says. “If they have a problem, I want them to tell me. I like to get feedback right away." Students might not verbalize their discomfort, but their body language will reveal how they really feel. “They could get fidgety and squirm," she says. “If you don't pay attention to those cues and you touch them anyway, it takes you so much longer to get that permission."


When teaching a private lesson, invite parents to watch. ©Thinkstock

3. Use Common Sense

All hands-on corrections should be made in a sensitive and professional manner. “Fixing a sickled foot, crooked shoulders or an inclined head are very common places for hands-on correcting," says Sean Boutilier of Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance near Toronto. “There are certain areas you can fix, and other areas you can't. It's really just common sense." Male instructors have to be especially careful when correcting students in this way. Boutilier recommends facing the dancers, so they can see you, and offering a lot of verbal reassurance. “The children have to trust you," he says.

4. Be Prepared to Be Hands-Off

If students don't feel comfortable with or respond well to physical corrections, you can try other techniques to communicate the same information. One way to do this is to give dancers the tools for self-discovery. Offer them age-appropriate information about their bodies, and give them time to find the muscles themselves. Brewer-Jones teaches basic anatomy to all of her students, to help them better understand the way they should move. “I tell them where all their muscles are, and they learn the names," she says.

Brewer-Jones also uses imagery to convey a concept, such as the opposing forces of an attitude derrière. “I have kids wring out a rag to show them the spiral," she says. If they're on demi-pointe in relevé, she has them imagine that their outer hips are pushing in, and their inner thighs are pushing out. Demonstrating also goes a long way. Sabovich-Bleich says, “The little ones especially need to see what it's supposed to look like."


Have an accompanist for class, if possible. "I have another person there so it's not just me," says Sean Boutilier of Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance. Photo by Brian Noon, courtesy of Boutilier.

5. Find the Balance

“You have kids who are auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners," says Brewer-Jones. “If you're not teaching in all three modalities, you're losing two-thirds of your room." A student's body language can illuminate their preferred learning style. For example, if a dancer's eyes shift from side to side as a combination is given, she might be an auditory learner. “Don't touch them," says Brewer-Jones. “They could be in auditory mode and need to hear counts and names of steps that they can play in their head." Other students might look down at the floor, suggesting they are kinesthetic learners who would benefit more from feeling the right positions. “Those kids don't want to make eye contact," she says.

Still, many students need to be touched so they can feel the proper position or shape. “It's the wisdom of the teacher," says Brewer-Jones, “to know which child is in front of them and how to best make them feel respected, loved and inspired to work hard."

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

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Students need strong feet for pointe work, but few concentrate on their toes specifically. "Fatigue sets in and they start knuckling," says Atlanta Ballet podiatrist Dr. Frank Sinkoe. This puts excess pressure on the nails, causing bruising. The exercises below strengthen the arch and intrinsic muscles, which flex the toes and support the feet.

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What are your non-negotiables? Share on Dance Teacher's Facebook page.

It could be argued that half the battle of owning a dance studio is getting people to follow the rules. To ensure your business will run like a well-oiled machine, it helps to have clear expectations in place for students and their families—and, most important, to make sure everyone knows them from day one. Of course, every school is unique, and behavior that may be acceptable to you might be out of the question for someone else. "There are so many studios out there," says Dana McGuire, a studio co-owner in North Kansas City, Missouri. "Know and stand by what you're about." Here, four seasoned studio directors discuss the issues they consider non-negotiable.

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