Teaching Tips

Four Ways to Help Preschoolers Fall in Love With Dance—and With Your Studio


Do you have new preschool students enrolling in your upcoming dance year? These tiny dancers just beginning their movement journey are poised to become part of your studio community for the next decade or more.

Keep in mind that dance class may be one of the first times a child under age 5 has been separated from their parents. Dance class can be exciting and full of anxiety for both the parent and the child. As their first teacher, you need to set the stage for an easy, happy and memorable first experience. Here's how—with four studio rules for parents—to create an environment where preschoolers can thrive.

1. Do not allow parents in your room—at first.

My intent with my youngest dance classes is to give them the best chance to succeed. If you create an environment for children to feel comfortable, that will turn into trust. Trust will turn into love, and the rest is history. In order to make this happen, I have to have control of my room. I don't allow parents to cross the threshold of my class for at least two months. If they do, they immediately change the dynamic of my class—they break my "mojo," as I like to say. At the end of class I quickly transition to the next class without giving parents a chance to enter. If they have a question, I tell them to e-mail me. A child for whom I have worked so hard to gain their trust and who is finally releasing their fears will fall apart once a parent (even if it is not their parent) steps into the room.

At a recent conference I had numerous teachers ask me to give them dialogue to convince the owners of their studio to implement this policy. I responded with a question: Is the studio's intention to make the parents happy, or the child happy? When you make a child happy, you will in turn make the parents happy. But catering to the parents in the beginning will only set the child up for failure and put added pressure on the teacher.

2. Tell parents what to expect before classes begin.

I communicate via e-mail the week before (and then again the day before class) simple instructions of what I want them to do: Walk your child in, do not hold them. Sit in the lobby with them sitting beside you. I will walk into the lobby (this only happens the first three weeks of class) and "gather dance friends." This does several things. It allows the dancer to see Mom sitting, relaxed, like all the other moms, which creates easy separation. It offers support seeing little dance friends holding hands. It also gives parents a great photo opportunity of all the little ballerinas holding hands walking into dance class together. Parents also understand they are to have their child "potty" before class and not to open the door during class, since this breaks the flow of class.

3. Ask parents to watch their language. (This is not what you think!)

I communicate with the parents to not say anything like "Miss Kim, she is going to have a hard time leaving me." I explain that by saying that phrase (or anything similar), they are setting their expectations for their child—and their child will most often do exactly what a parent expects of them. As parents we all have fears of our child not performing like the others. We want our child to have fun and be involved. But our children can surprise us if we will allow it. As hard as it is to hear their child cry when I peel them away from their arms, seeing them stand in line at the end of class with a smile on their face as they curtsy for the first time is much stronger.

4. Timing is everything for the first class observation.

The week before Halloween, I allow a parent observation. Parents are allowed to watch the entire class. I e-mail parents explaining my expectations of them, such as turn the cell phones off. I explain that this is a high-pressure situation for their dancer, and if their child runs to them it is OK. I suggest they give the child a hug and encourage them to join back in class. If they refuse, it is OK—it is not a normal class, so they should not expect them to perform like a pro.

The next week is Halloween, and we all come to class in costume. It is hard to separate again after observation week—costumes help! The students are anxious to show me who they are and to see who I am. I have another observation in April before our spring break. By this time I have opened the door at the end of class several times and allowed parents to give me a "ticket" to see a sneak peek of their dancer's spring concert dance. Hearing a 3-year-old giggle and seeing them stand so proud while their parent enters is just awesome.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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