Dance Teacher Tips

Get Tween Ballet Beginners Started on the Right Foot

Robert Garland of Dance Theatre of Harlem says the key to engaging older beginners is keeping them focused on their own success, not others'.Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy of DTH

Imagine that your studio has a new 12-year-old student, who is interested in studying ballet. She has no formal training, yet she wants to take class with her peers. Where do you place her, and how do you ensure she gets the necessary foundation and stays excited and engaged?


Most ballet schools offer a robust youth program and separate classes for adult students. But sometimes preteens and teens want to take beginner ballet, and there are few, if any, classes specifically designed for their age and level. These dancers can feel stuck in the middle—too young to be in a class with adults, and uncomfortable in a room full of 7-year-olds. When this kind of placement becomes a challenge, consider these key strategies to make new in-between students feel included and inspired.

Create a new class, if possible

Some schools, like Dance Theatre of Harlem, have enough children at this level to support separate classes. "We have two different tracks for students, including a lower school for children ages 8 to 12 and an upper school for 12- to 17-year-olds," says Robert Garland, resident choreographer and school director. "If they're new dancers and they're young, we put them into groups by age." Garland has noticed an increase in high-school–age beginners, and he is developing a curriculum to serve these older teens as well.

Libba Owen, school administrator at Alabama Ballet, says that her school once had a teen ballet class—but it didn't last. "After a month or so, they dropped," she says. "We stopped doing it because they didn't come consistently." Now, Owen places these dancers as close to their age range as possible, even if there's a bit of a gap. "We might put a 12-year-old who has never danced before in class with 10-year-olds," she says. "The level is a little more advanced than we would like, but they're smart and can pick it up."

Set expectations

Teachers can help manage expectations by giving students a better understanding of the time necessary to achieve technical milestones and explaining that it might be different for each dancer. Garland recommends doing an orientation for all new students, so that they and their parents know what to expect once classes begin. "Let them know it's going to be extremely repetitive," he says. "They need to have patience and understand that you only gain proficiency by doing pliés and tendus well, over and over again."

Part of the prep includes a warning that they might be the oldest ones in class. "If they're really interested in learning ballet, they're OK with it, and they come anyway," Owen says. She also suggests that these dancers take private lessons and classes during the summer, to catch up to their peer level faster.

Students who start later are often very driven when they see and trust the process. "We explain why it's necessary to maintain safety—so they don't harm themselves by moving too quickly," says Renee Griswold, general manager of Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy. "It's difficult in those early pointe years, because students need to have a solid foundation first. We'll have a conversation with the students and parents to make sure they understand that the child's health is most important, not catching up with their friends."

Stress individuality

It can be difficult for dancers to join a class with younger students, even with good preparation and an understanding of proper class placement and training. Teachers can promote an inclusive environment to ensure that these late starters have a good first experience and hopefully stick with it. "You never want someone to feel like they're less than anyone else," says Garland. "Even if they don't pursue a professional career, maybe they'll be ticket buyers, if we play our cards right."

Students should feel accomplished and proud of their personal development, without comparing themselves to other dancers their age. "Teachers can encourage them to focus on their own experience," he says, "and not tie their success and happiness to those around them."

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox