Adjusting to Life After Summer Study

Do you dread the first day back from summer vacation, when all of your students who studied at other programs return to class? It’s exciting when these dancers are inspired, motivated and improved, but it can be disheartening if they are discouraged or if they sport a new style that doesn’t mesh with your teaching style. Maybe they insist on spotting chainé turns front, though you prefer the corner, or perhaps they have picked up a bad habit.


Attending a summer study program can be an important part of dance education. New teachers, new techniques and new approaches are essential elements in producing well-rounded dancers. But as more (and younger) students attend these programs every year, teachers must develop strategies to support them as they readjust to the routine of their home studio, without undermining or undoing the positive aspects of summer training.


When students return to class in the autumn, expect varied reactions. Some may have had extraordinary experiences, showing drastic technical improvements as a result of taking class every day all summer. Others may be less satisfied if the atmosphere was especially competitive or if they didn’t receive a lot of attention, which can sometimes happen in larger programs. Be prepared to help rebuild confidence, if necessary.


Most likely, they all will be looking for your approval on the first day back. “The main thing to do when [students] return is to acknowledge that you see improvement and praise them for the growth,” says Tanya Durbin of Jimmie DeFore Dance Center in Costa Mesa, California. “Your acknowledgement will give them confidence and make it easier to accept your corrections. During their first class back, I zone in on new developments, whether it is a new way of holding their arms, learning combinations quicker or the way they work through their feet.”


Durbin also recommends taking time to talk to students about their experiences. Ask if they enjoyed the training, what stood out for them as different or similar to their classes at home and which corrections they would like to continue working on. “It gives me a clue as to how I can help them to keep growing,” says Durbin. This will also remind them that the training they receive elsewhere can go hand in hand with the training they receive at home. “I remind them that they have a whole year to keep working and improving,” adds Durbin.


If a student returns with a completely different style of dancing, reintroducing him or her to your method can be an opportunity to compare the artform’s myriad approaches. Speak respectfully about the teachers from the summer program while reminding students how you prefer to see them dance.


“There isn’t a right or wrong choice between schools of technique,” says Durbin. “I tell students that different styles in dance are like different colors and that a dancer or choreographer can use those colors to create many beautiful things. Put that style in your back pocket for now. Hold on to it, because you never know when you’ll need it.”


If a student develops a bad habit, try not to overreact by placing the blame on his or her summer teachers. “[Sometimes students] take a correction too far. They think, ‘Aha! That’s the way professionals dance,’” says Robin Sherertz Morgan, co-director of San Diego Ballet. “You can offend them if you try to change it, so I work on changing bad habits gradually and calmly, almost so [students] aren’t aware of it. Otherwise they can feel attacked for what they consider to be an improvement.”


Help dancers maintain their technique and energy level year-round so that they continue to improve. “It’s my job to constantly encourage and remind them of their summer experience,” says Durbin. “I will come up to them throughout the year and say, ‘Remember when you studied at that company last summer?  Remember the correction you received about your shoulder? Keep working on that!’ That way, the intensity of the program and their current training form a connection in their minds.”


Another way to help students transition from summer study to regular classes is by being involved in the selection process from day one. Your dancers will get the most out of their summer experiences if they are matched correctly with a school. Ask students to come talk to you in January if they want to audition for a program, and find out about their interests, financial limitations and professional aspirations. Take into consideration technique level, age and emotional maturity, and evaluate each student individually, not grouped within a class or age bracket.


Talk to parents, too. “Sometimes parents can be lured by a big name, and they underestimate the amount of strength required for a program where students train from 9 am to 4 pm, five days a week,” says Jo Anne Emery, managing director of City Ballet of San Diego. Emery recommends younger students approach summer study as a series of stepping-stones. “Start with a less competitive school,” she says. “Not everyone needs to go to New York City their first time away.”


You can also prepare students emotionally and physically so that new teachers, rigorous technical demands and more competition are less overwhelming. “Before they go, it’s helpful to make them aware of styles they may encounter when they arrive,” says Morgan. “It can be hard since many programs offer a variety, but if they are going to attend SAB, for example, we will start doing straight arms and legs on preparations for pirouettes, work on high arabesques and emphasize turnout. We start preparing a couple of weeks before they leave so that students don’t feel discouraged or, even worse, resistant to the new technique.”


Teach coping mechanisms to help bodies adjust. Victoria Koenig, founder and director of Inland Pacific Ballet Academy in Montclair, CA, advises students to try every correction they receive throughout the summer program, even if they have to take some time on the side or after class to find their center again. She also tells students that if they are asked to push turnout more than they are used to, they should be especially mindful of alignment and get very warmed up before class.


Stress the importance of being open-minded and trying everything. “You can use any experience, bad or good, to grow as a dancer,” says Koenig. “I tell [students] that if a teacher asks you to stand on your head and touch your nose, do it enthusiastically.”



Kathleen Edens is a freelance writer and dancer based in Southern California.

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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