College prep. Clubs. Sports. Boys. High school students face a lot of pressure—and dance classes are often only a small part of their hectic schedules. So how can you keep your teenage students from dropping out of dance entirely? DT spoke with several teachers about the innovative ways they keep their busy teenage dancers in class.

Make It Social

“High school is when either sports or boyfriends begin to lure kids away from the studio,” says Hedy Perna, owner of Perna Dance Center in Hazlet, New Jersey. But the stronger your school’s social network, the easier it will be to keep recreational students interested year after year. Perna found that offering ballroom and hip-hop classes increased the number of boys enrolled at the school, which helped her keep her female students. “The girls have a social life here. It might drive me crazy, but they are not isolated,” she says. “We try to keep the energy level high and create an atmosphere that they won’t want to miss.” She also hosts social activities such as an annual awards party, known as the event of the season, which the kids liken to the Academy Awards.

Offer More Time Onstage

Non-competition or recital opportunities are a great way to keep teens engaged: These performances are fun for recreational students, and they offer much-needed experience for serious pre-professional dancers. How can you get your students extra time onstage? Becoming involved in your community can help you land gigs. “As soon as you reach out, the offers start coming,” says Kim DelGrosso, owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studios in Orem, Utah. DelGrosso’s willingness to make connections with area theater directors recently got 20 of her teens cast in a production of the musical Smokey Joe’s Café. “When I saw the local theater company was doing Smokey Joe’s, I literally walked up to the director and said, ‘I have a group of 20 of the best dancers in the state,’” she says. “They needed dancers, and my dancers needed to perform. It was a win-win situation.”

Learn how to market your students—and how to help them market themselves. “In the end it really is a sale. It comes down to business,” DelGrosso says. She advertises her dancers’ availability for community productions, and she teaches her seniors how to speak to the media, how to identify what kind of jobs they’re right for, and how to write a resumé. Even recreational dancers can translate these valuable skills into the non-dance job market.

Give Them a Little Credit

Earning academic credit for dance classes appeals to both casual and serious dancers. “Every high school has internships. Students are working with high-tech companies, hospitals, greenhouses,” says DelGrosso. “They should be recognized for their work in the arts, too.” Though state and federal laws prohibit students from receiving physical education credits outside of school, DelGrosso’s students have been earning high school internship credits for the last 10 years. Each school has different requirements, but generally the first step is for the student or parent to request that credit be given for dancing outside of school hours. Then, the studio owner or representative should follow up with the counselor. “Explain how many hours each student puts into dance and show that it is a viable business,” DelGrosso says. “If the dancers can get credit for it, that’s an incentive for both teenagers and parents.”

Strategic Scheduling

Ultimately, it’s impossible to avoid every one of your teenage students’ scheduling conflicts. But establishing scheduling rules from the get-go will help you stay structured and maintain order. Begin by keeping in close communication with parents so that you always know your dancers’ other activities, as well as their homework loads. Next, insist that you are told about scheduling conflicts during registration. “My competition team knows that I will work around other things, but I need to hear about those conflicts by registration time,” says Becky Seamster, owner of Becky Seamster Dance Studio in Kokomo, Indiana. “If they don’t turn their schedule in to me at registration and I plan something on a day that they have something else, then I get priority.” Stephanie Jarvis, owner of Relevétions Dance Centre in Dudley, Massachusetts, also recommends that teachers hold registration early. “If registration is in August, then I actually have enough time to figure out the whole schedule,” she says.

Setting up a contingency plan for unforeseen conflicts is also helpful. “My students know that we will work with them, but they need to work with us, too,” says Perna. “If there’s a single conflict on a day they’re scheduled for class, they do a makeup class. If they are involved in a longer-term commitment such as a school play for two weeks, we find them an appropriate class where they’ll be a ‘guest’ for that time. Of course, they’re responsible for all work missed in their own class.”

Seamster assigns an understudy to every student whom she deems at risk for missing a performance or competition. “I always have an alternate for kids who are involved in a lot of things, because I know there’s always a chance at the last minute that something will get changed,” she says.

In the end, you can’t force anyone to do something they don’t want to do. Sometimes the best option is to let a student go. But be supportive, and leave the door open for them to return. “I had one student who danced for years, and then she got into high school and she wanted to see what cheerleading was all about,” says Sheri Masiello of To the Pointe of Performing Arts in Cranston and North Providence, Rhode Island. “A year later she came back. She said, ‘I should never have left. I’m so happy you weren’t mad at me.’ If I hadn’t allowed her to go on that journey, she wouldn’t have realized how much she loves dancing.” DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

photo courtesy of Sheri Masiello

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