For Parents

How to Gauge Progress in Tiny Dancers

Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of BAE

Watching through the studio windows—or even from the sidelines in a Mommy and Me class—can surely make parents wonder what exactly our little tykes are getting out of weekly ballet lessons. After all, they're repeating the same things class after class. Are they bored? Are they progressing? Why are they doing that again?

Repetition, however, is the key to success for the youngest dancers, says Ariella Goldberg, a mom and senior instructor in the Pre-Ballet and Petit Dancers divisions at Ballet Academy East in New York City. "At age 3, for instance, almost everything, everywhere is new. In ballet, they're in a completely new setting—a studio with new faces, mirrors, barres and more," she says, noting that separation anxiety can add tenfold to all the newness. "Repeating the same exercises in the same order—and being able to say what comes next—makes them feel confident and comfortable. They crave consistency." You might liken it to reading the same bedtime stories each night or watching Frozen ad nauseum.

When dancers are comfortable, progress can really take place. Repeating movement each week improves muscle memory and strength, and new skills often take time to perfect. What parents may not see from the windows, Goldberg says, is how differently the teachers approach the same movement. "One week we might talk about keeping a tall back by referencing a princess. The next week we'll imagine a long neck like a giraffe. It's all about what resonates," she says.

By age 6, teachers "add a new level of complexity to steps students have been doing since they were 2," Goldberg adds. "Take a plié, for example. We've done them every class for years, but now we'll talk about the physicality and musicality and peel the layers back to really dissect it." Inevitably at this age, students also begin to question why they repeat the same steps in each class. Her answer? "Misty Copeland still does her pliés and tendus every day, too. It's like her breakfast." That usually does the trick.

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