When you graduate from student to professional dancer, you still need to take daily class. But while the structure of class is the same, I've found the mindset to be drastically different. My first job post-graduation was with the Sarasota Ballet, and the last thing I wanted to do was look like a student. I knew wearing a black leotard and pink tights without warm-ups could be a dead giveaway, but all another new company member had to say was "Why are you wearing your tights under your leotard? You look like a kid," and I hurried to the dressing room to change! Beyond the way I dress as a professional, my class philosophy also changed. Here are four things I've noticed:


Company class is a bit more relaxed.

A company class is full of people with jobs—they're more secure than pre-professional students with uncertain futures. The general atmosphere is more relaxed, too. There's room to check a combination or timing with another dancer if you're unsure. More than once I've asked someone next to me for clarification, or quietly commiserated about a difficult step. Also, class won't be the only dancing you do all day—in fact, some dancers view it only as a warm up, or a way to prepare for rehearsal. It's not necessarily required to take all of class, either; if an injury is flaring up, you might not jump, or only repeat the combination once. If I have a light day, I try to give class the energy of a performance, whereas with a heavy schedule, I'll go easier. It's up to you to determine what you need from class each day.

When it comes to corrections, you're often on your own.

Photo by Indiana Coté, courtesy Madeleine Purcell.

Like in an open class, company teachers give general corrections but very little individual attention: It's assumed you know what you need to work on. Because improving is up to me, watching more experienced dancers is the most valuable part of company class. I love observing their artistry when they rehearse and perform, but seeing seasoned dancers in class means I can study their technique, break down exactly what they're doing, and apply it myself. That way, when I repeat the combination I have my own correction to apply. It also serves as a reminder that even principal dancers aren't perfect—the polished Princess Aurora you see onstage can miss a step in class, fall out of a pirouette or have an "off" day.

You'll be exposed to a variety of techniques and ideas.

I trained at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and at Ballet Academy East. Though the style of each school is different, their respective looks are cohesive: everyone's technique is similar. In company class, however, there's much more variation because dancers are from all over. It's sometimes even surprising: I spoke to one dancer who I thought looked very classically trained, only to find out she was from School of American Ballet.

As I'm exposed to a variety of ideas and aesthetics, I'm discovering what works for me and building it into my technique, even if sometimes it requires more than observation. When I really admire the way someone does a step, I'll ask them after class what they're thinking about or aiming for in their execution. I might not always receive a helpful answer, since I've discovered some dancers don't think about anything specific. But talking about a step and learning how they were taught can help me figure out what I should change. There's nothing wrong with incorporating an idea or tool that works for you, even if it's not necessarily in the training you received!

Dancing is about the big picture.

Purcell with Sarasota Ballet coryphée Nicolas Moreno. Photo courtesy Madeleine Purcell.

In school classes, certain complex combinations could terrify me to the point of psyching myself out of a double pirouette on pointe. Because I felt so stressed, I wasn't able to focus on anything other than what the most difficult steps, and could get stuck in self-doubt and self-criticism if a turn didn't work. As a professional, I quickly realized that the whole picture of dancing was more important than a single step. Yes, a clean double is essential, but the dancers I admire most are those who can make a difficult transition appear effortless. That's what I want to master.

Company life has freed me from a lot of the stress I used to feel in class. At times when I feel anxiety creeping back in, I stop and remember my former teacher, Peter Frame, saying to me, "Stay present! I want to see Madeleine. Show me one hundred shades of you." Now, because class is for me, my focus is on growing as an artist. It's the greatest gift to find myself in my dancing, let go a little bit more, improve beyond the technical and aim for excellence rather than perfection.

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Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

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According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, and there were an estimated 1.3 million suicide attempts. While it's a myth that suicide rates are higher in December than any other time of year, the holidays give us an opportunity to consider the health and happiness of those we love. As dance teachers, we spend more time with our students than even their parents do, which means we are in a particular position to notice the pain and distress they're experiencing.

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Studio Owners
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Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

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It's a dance teacher's job to prepare students for professional careers. As everyone knows, this means more than just giving them precise technique and exceptional performance capabilities. Perhaps more than ever, it's important that teachers prepare their students to know how to make smart and safe decisions when entering the workplace. It's important that we give them the skills to say "no" when a project doesn't fit with their personal values, puts them in a dangerous or toxic work environment, or is discriminatory to their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Teachers need to help their students advocate for themselves in order to create a career they can be proud of.

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Dana Genshaft was a beloved dancer in the San Francisco Ballet for 15 years, rising to the rank of soloist. Some of her SFB career highlights include performing lead roles in Frederick Ashton's Monotones I and Wayne McGregor's Eden/Eden and originating roles in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House and Mark Morris' Joyride, as well as working with Christopher Wheeldon and William Forsythe.

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