Teaching Tips

5 Tips for K–12 Teachers Tackling High School Dance Concerts

Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

On picking a theme "In order to brainstorm for my themes, I like to take a step away from the dance world. I like to listen to NPR and podcasts to glean inspiration from unexpected places that peak my curiosity. Oftentimes the theme will come from the title of one of the shows, or a quip or catchphrase I hear. I like wordplay, and when I hear it, I ask myself if it's sustainable. Then, I make a list of possible pieces that could be created from the idea. If I can't come up with enough possibilities that cover a range of genres, I scratch it and start over until I find the right fit."

On helping her dancers choreograph their own works "I start by getting them out of their comfort zones. These kids are so saturated with dance that they tend to repeat the same steps they've seen before again and again. I sit the kids down and walk through the process of coming up with an idea. This year the theme was elements, like the periodic table. We started talking about salt to get their juices flowing. We explored what it is, what it tastes like, what history has said about it, and then we created mini dances based off of that brainstorming.

"Once they started on their own works for the concert, I encouraged them not to use known or trendy dance steps. I would say, 'OK, I've seen that step before, show me something I haven't seen before instead.' I'm always open and available for them to come and talk to me about their ideas. I don't make them, but my door is open. I work on the most with them on taking their ideas from words to movement. I help them find a simple visual solution to their complex ideas."

On working within a K–12 costume budget "Budgets are different for every school district. Here, we have a foundation that parents earmark specifically for us. I use this money to buy costumes for our pieces with big numbers because we can reuse them year after year. I like to get them from places like Dancewear Solutions and Discount Dance Supply—they have a teacher's discount. I will often let students get their own costumes, or bring something from home to wear if the theme of the piece works with it. Teachers can also rent costumes from other schools if they'd like to diversify things while staying within budget."

On lighting high school shows "I think dancers need to understand lighting. It really makes or breaks their work. They usually think about it last, but in my opinion they should be thinking about it first. I have my dancers write down lighting ideas early on. I ask them if they want something dark or colorful, or harsh or bright. I teach them about what the different lights are, and how they can impact the audience's perspective on their piece. By the time my dancers are lighting their third piece, they've choreographed since high school, I make them set them on their own."

On school-appropriate music "When the kids audition their pieces, they know they need to check their lyrics first. We can't play anything that isn't school-appropriate. If a dancer auditions a piece to a really popular song, especially if they are a first-time choreographer, I will have them explore other song options. I brainstorm a lot of songs that I think work with our theme and have them explore those, or I will have them put the popular song into Spotify and see if they can find something similar to it that might work better."

On logistics "It's important to communicate what is going on with your show to everyone in your school. I let the custodians know when we will be in the space. I let administrators know what I will need from them. I make sure I talk to the students about keeping up with their grades. I send notices to the other teachers recommending they not give kids leeway, but to know what they have going on so they aren't surprised. I communicate the schedule to the students, and let them know what my expectations of them are. I communicate how long I need them (I usually tell them dress rehearsals will go longer than I think they will, so we are prepared for incidentals), and let them know what days everything falls on far in advance. In fact, most of the information is in their disclosures at the beginning of the semester. I communicate what I need help with from the parents, and what they shouldn't try to help with. It is important to communicate how long you will be there and let parents know what they can help with and what they shouldn't help with."

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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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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."

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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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