Growth Chart

Creating a dance program is like piecing together a puzzle that doesn’t come with the finished picture printed on the box. You must first imagine the image as you’d like it to look, and then start the painstaking process of arranging—and rearranging—the pieces.

“I think you decide what your philosophy is and what kind of kids you want to grow,” says Martie Barylick, National Dance Education Organization board member specializing in K–12 curriculum and standards, and a 35-year veteran high school dance teacher in Mamaroneck, New York. “Then you figure out what you need to have them do to become those people. You look at the standards and ask, ‘While I’m doing this, which standards am I meeting and which am I not?’ That’s how you flesh out the rest of your program. You’re always reassessing.”

Here, we look at three dance teachers who, like Barylick, have built high school dance programs one piece at a time. All three have earned accolades for their programs, which are held up as models across the country. And each, at one time or another, has run the show entirely on her own. How did they do it? Their approaches may differ, yet all credit their students with making their continued success possible, whether by shouldering some of the creative and administrative tasks, or simply by inspiring unique experiences year after year.

“It’s that exchange of energy between the students and teacher,” says CeCe Kapron, who has taught at Mt. Lebanon High School outside of Pittsburgh for 37 years. “There’s so much energy and interest that it sparks your enthusiasm. I feel as fresh today as when I first started, but I know so much more.”

If You Build It They Will Come
Mary Ann Laverty went to Woodside High School in Newport News, Virginia, a decade ago to revamp a program that offered no technique, had no funding and was rapidly losing students. Parents and students had been bitterly disappointed with the previous program, so Laverty’s first order of business was to turn their perception around. She wrote mini-grants to fund new costumes. She choreographed new pieces and let her students show the school and local community what they could do. “They liked my choreography,” she says. “If you’ve got strong choreography, you’re going to draw kids.” Enrollment quadrupled.

“Those first years were a little rough,” Laverty says. “It wasn’t an instant change at all.” She started out with two dance classes of 15 students each. She eventually added a third level of technique, as well as courses in choreography, theory and history and world dance. “I didn’t want to duplicate what they get in a studio,” she says. “I wanted to have them think in broader terms about what dance encompasses and have the chance to create their own choreography and explore their own ideas.”

Listen to What Students Want
Eight years ago, when Sanja Korman joined the faculty of Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas, the school’s only dance offering was a club with 20 members. She spent her first year getting the lay of the land. When she noticed kids doing hip hop and break-dancing in the halls, she decided to create a dance company that would be fed by two classes, hip hop/break-dance and modern.

“I had the opportunity to choose from the state objectives,” she explains. “But I also listened to understand what is popular right now and to see what these kids are interested in.” After a few hundred of the school’s 3,500 students showed up for an audition, the administration gave her the go-ahead. “The next year I had two beginning dance classes plus the hip hop and modern. And the year after, I created an intermediate class.”
    
Blueprint for Success
Kapron of Mt. Lebanon High School considers it essential to plot a clear outline of what she wants her students to learn and how she will assess their work. She uses a curriculum planning method called Understanding by Design, which advocates starting at the end, i.e. imagining that finished puzzle. “You state your desired results, then figure out how to assess those results, then determine the knowledge and skills necessary,” she says. “To me that makes teaching much more solid.”

Kapron teaches an audition-only performance class, which focuses primarily on composition, and Dance I, II and III, each of which covers units in ballet, jazz, musical theater and modern. “We teach the production, performance and exhibition of dance,” she says. “We also teach the history and the cultural context of whatever genre it is that we’re working on. They learn how to critically and aesthetically respond. And all of my students have an opportunity to create dances and make artistic choices, and perform for the other students.”

Let Students Take the Lead
Korman is Bellaire High School’s sole concert dance teacher, so she relies heavily on her students to keep the program running smoothly. She appoints student officers who help out during classes and create choreography. “They all would like to be my officers,” she says. “It’s a big deal for them. For me, it’s a necessity. In my hip-hop class I have about 60 students, so I could not even take attendance if I didn’t have my officers to help me out.”

The arrangement creates a unique learning experience. “It’s not only that I stand in front of them and teach,” she explains. “I’m using the self-inquiry method where they can choreograph and show me what they’re doing in their groups. I think this mix of teaching styles is good for them. It motivates students to work even harder and really learn.”

Play Fair
Because Laverty was the only full-time dance teacher at Woodside for five years, she felt it was particularly important to establish an objective system for determining which students advanced to the next level of technique. Her solution was to create a panel consisting of two other dance teachers (Hope Hunter, who now also works at Woodside, plus a teacher from outside the school) and a student to help her decide. “It got more competitive to get to the higher levels,” she says. “This way, they can’t say, ‘I didn’t make it because she doesn’t like me.’”
    
Strength in Numbers

The sad truth is that no matter how good a dance program is, keeping it can often be a struggle. Beyond the ever-present threat of budget cuts, students are packing their schedules with more academic courses, leaving less time for arts classes. The result is that dance teachers often find themselves competing with music, art and theater in order to keep their numbers up and avoid having classes cut.

“Merge. Have the same goals. Get allies,” advises Barylick, who adds that Mamaroneck High School long ago adopted an integrated arts program, which means that all students take dance, theater and music as a package, and the three teachers work together to align their goals. “I think we’ve survived all these years because we have the same values.”

Kapron practices this by spearheading collaborations with other departments, including music, television production and English. “I try to do as many varied things as I can in terms of collaborative work in the school,” she says. “Our string quartet will often play for our dance concert. One time, a girl wrote a poem, someone from the music department sang and we did a dance.”

A Work in Progress
It isn’t always a cakewalk, the three teachers admit. Sometimes the puzzle looks like it will never come together, and the
reality is that it’s never finished. For example, because Laverty’s program at Woodside is technically part of the physical education department, it doesn’t have its own budget. “Everything those kids have, they’ve gone out and fundraised for,” she says. Performance ticket sales also help support the program.

Learning to ask her students for help has been one of her biggest challenges, Laverty adds. “I used to take it all on myself,” she says. “I had to learn to delegate. They’re smart and have really good ideas.”

No matter how good a program is, things can always be better. Laverty’s wish list includes a black box theater for student showcases, more time to write grants, an after-school program and dance in schools throughout the district.

And then there’s the age-old problem of space. The studio, originally built as a chemistry lab, is small and low-ceilinged, making partnering treacherous. “Two of our classes are taught in the gym now,” Laverty says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get another studio. And with so many budget cuts, they’re talking about increasing class sizes next year. You always need more time and money. We have problems, but we still have to make sure that what we do is excellent.”

If You’re Just Starting Out . . .
¨    Be open-minded and accept students as they are.
¨    Let students be in charge of something—choreography, warm-up or floor combinations, choosing music, etc. (Do not worry: In the end, you are always in charge!)
¨    Change your teaching style often, offer diversity in your classes and make sure that you are teaching developmentally appropriate skills and
technique.
¨    Keep your classroom rules and
policies simple, but reinforce them when needed. Be consistent.
—Sanja Korman

¨    Be as flexible as possible because things will never go the way you plan.
¨    Treat your colleagues and custodians well. You will always need their help.
¨    Try not to let the cruel things students say get under your skin. They have wide mood swings and the next day they may be your best student.
—Mary Ann Laverty

¨    Establish a positive learning climate that fosters success for all students.
¨    Make a personal commitment to each student by taking the time to get to know their strengths and limitations.
¨    Set high expectations for your
students, create a safe and professional learning environment and model personal integrity.
¨    Become an advocate for dance
education and gain the support of school board members, school administrators, community leaders and state legislators.
  —CeCe Kapron


Michelle Vellucci is a former Dance Teacher editor.

Photo by Nancy Brown, courtesy of Sanja Korman 

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.

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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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Studio Owners
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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