Teaching Tips

First Day Jitters: What to Do If Your Tiny Dancer Cries

Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Meet and Greet: Get Them Familiar With YOU

After registration ends, I reach out to parents and ask them to bring their child by to meet me and see the studio before classes begin. This is especially helpful to those dancers who haven't come to an open house or attended one of my summer camps. It's also helpful for me to see how they respond to their new environment and how they will react on the first day of class.

At this event, I will meet my new students out in the lobby and offer them my pinky finger while saying "Let's go see your room." Making it "their" room makes it much more exciting—almost like a gift. I give them plenty of time to slowly start walking with me. Most will run back to their mom or dad, but a few will continue to follow my lead.

For those that have come to an open house or summer camp, a meet and greet is extremely helpful because I am already familiar to them, and they enter the studio expecting to see the really pretty room with Elsa and Anna doors and a tree painted on the wall. I show them all my fun things in the room like the pictures on the wall and the butterflies on the floor. I invite them to stand on a butterfly then ask them to look at themselves in the mirror, which usually results in a sweet smile.

At the end of our meet and greet, the dancer is given a sticker as a badge of honor for being so brave. I remind them how excited I am to see them on their first day of ballet, and everyone leaves happy.

Baby Steps: Let Them Take Their Time

On the first day of dance, I gather all our "new friends" in the lobby, paying close attention to children who look timid. If they seem scared or were a hesitant dancer at the meet and greet, I squat down, make eye-to-eye contact and say hello. I then ask one of the dancers who is already holding my hand to hold his/her new friend's hand. A peer is much less intimidating than a teacher, so this usually works well.

Another technique is to make a show with the eager dancers by pointing out pictures, ballet shoes, hair bows—anything to allow that shy dancer to gain the confidence to leave the comfort of the mom or dad and join us on our way back to the room. Most of the time, all my new dancers form a chain of hand-holding, and we wave good-bye and enter the classroom. After everyone is inside, I'll close the door and class begins.

On occasion, crying can still happen. If we have an extra-timid student who still doesn't want to leave the safety of their parent, I will take my eager students in and get them settled with my assistant. I'll then return to the lobby, where I look at the parent and confidently say, "I have her, Mommy/Daddy, we are going to go have some fun dancing!"

The first thing I do when we enter the studio is put the dancer "in control" by giving them a choice: "You can hold my hand or Miss Quentin's hand (my assistant)—what would you rather do?" At this age, it is a great attention diverter and often does the trick.

If there is still hesitation and the dancer does not want to participate, I'll let them sit down and watch as I proceed with ribbon play and popular music. I don't pay any attention to the little one, and as far as she/he is concerned, we are having the time of our lives. This gives them time to see that they are in a safe and fun environment, thus giving them the desire to join in.

Once the dancer feels as if he/she is in control and comfortable in the studio, I'll finally ask if they want to participate in the next activity. My song of choice is "The Wheels on the Bus," and I invite them to take a ride with us. This often works for the length of the song, but after the song stops, crying resumes. Remember, though, you saw a glimpse of what they are capable of doing—which proves that eventually they will be just fine. If crying does resume, allow them to go sit back down or stay with the group, depending on the level of tears and distraction it is for your other dancers.

This behavior can be expected for about two or three more weeks and then—all of a sudden—they will decide to walk in on their own. This crier may go sit down and take a while to warm up, but that is still OK. As long as you see improvement, you are headed in the right direction. Before you know it, that same dancer will be running through the door eager for class to start.

Parent Communication Is Key

It's extremely important to communicate with the parent via e-mail and give them weekly updates. Do not allow them to come into the room after class to ask how everything went, because that dancer sees the concern on mom or dad's face and picks up on their anxiety. I realize that sending e-mails is time-consuming, but it gives you the opportunity to show the parent that you care about their child, which is comforting for them. And when a parent feels relaxed, it helps their child feel relaxed.

One of the biggest rewards I have as a teacher is seeing the joy on a parent's face as they watch their little one dance on their own with big smile. This growth happens only when there is a patience and willingness—on the teacher's part—to create the best environment possible for her students.

When you work with little ones, you have to understand that the process is not always a quick one and involves much more than a simple list of songs and dance activities. It is based on each individual and involves reacting to their needs and their parent's needs. When put in practice, your tiny dancers will become beautiful ballerinas. And that beautiful ballerina was not born on the stage. He/she was born in your studio, where they first learned about commitment, movement and the art dance.

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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