How to Manage (and Structure) a Mixed-Level Class That Benefits ALL Students

One of Nicole Belanger's reliable fixes for a mixed-level class is the buddy system. Photo by Caitlin Hargett, courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance School

Teen jazz class at Chicago's Gus Giordano Dance School, under the direction of Amy Giordano, has a wide range of students. "Some just started dancing a month ago, and others have been dancing for three years," says Nicole Belanger, dance education director. To maintain a positive environment, Belanger pairs older kids with less experienced ones. "It builds a bond," she says. "Then they're all open to taking corrections and working toward their goals, rather than comparing themselves to the next person."

Teaching a mixed-level class isn't ideal, but sometimes a shortage of space or faculty prompts consolidation. Workshops and open recreational classes may also attract diverse groups in terms of age, level and ability. If the class moves too slowly, advanced dancers might lose interest. If it progresses too quickly, the beginners feel lost. Structuring a multilevel class can be a challenge, but there are some surprising advantages if you manage it right.


Communicate

Set the tone at the beginning of class. "If a teacher takes the initiative to make the atmosphere positive and encouraging, the kids will usually follow," says Belanger. She makes an announcement after attendance, reminding students that everyone will be working on something different. "Our main goal is to build confidence and make the environment welcoming and open to all," she says. "I remind them that it's all about improving themselves and not worrying about others."

If you recognize students' progress and abilities throughout class, you're more likely to keep them engaged. "They feel good when the teacher thinks they're ready for more," says Kristan Ballard, owner of Texas Academy of Dance Arts. She might suggest that more experienced dancers do an extra pirouette or add a jump at the end of a progression. "It's important that the top level doesn't feel held back by students who aren't as advanced," she says. The lower levels will get excited if you promise that they'll tackle a new step the following week.

Encourage Teamwork

With a few standout dancers in a multilevel class, it might be tempting to use them as good examples, all the time. But that can cause others to feel intimidated and self-conscious. The less advanced dancers might be reluctant to step forward and try something new. "I prefer to make general, sweeping comments and corrections so that no one feels singled out," says Belanger. She groups her class into twos or threes to prevent anyone from feeling vulnerable.

Belanger's buddy system pairs more mature dancers with younger ones to develop mentor/mentee relationships. "The older ones are helpers, even though they're still learning," she says. "Then they don't feel put down even though they're mixed with younger students." Ballard might have a second teacher to provide additional support, or invite advanced students to assist with the lower level [see sidebar]. "It's magical how much better they get, themselves, when they're instructing others," she says.

Offer Alternate Versions

When groups within a mixed-level class are separated by more than just subtle differences, give variations of a step or combination. Rachel Chew, ballet mistress and director at California Academy of Performing Arts, will have some students do an advanced version of a combination in center while keeping others at the barre longer. "I break it down for them and make it less overwhelming," she says. "They also don't feel left out, and I don't have to slow down the rest of the class too much."

Belanger might also focus on one movement, like a six-step preparation for pirouette, and divide her class into groups based on experience. Dancers new to the movement work on a simple balance in passé so she can check their alignment. The ones who have already practiced the preparation might start working on single or double turns. "Everyone is moving at the same pace across the floor and still working at their individual levels," she says.

Know When to Hold Back—or Push Forward

Sometimes you might have students with focus issues combined with students who are progressing at a faster rate. Chew sees greater variances in mental, emotional, physical and social development with her minis and juniors. "Sometimes I'll pull the class back because I see the majority is struggling," she says. "Other times, the entire class moves forward because there are more kids who can keep up." If some haven't mastered a step but have a good understanding of the fundamentals, she lets them try to move ahead with the group.

In the summer, Chew experiences more mixed-level classes because students have the opportunity to start changing levels or taking more classes. "Dancers have been on vacation and others have been doing intensives, so I have to assess each class as it happens," she says. "I don't have a foolproof plan, but I try to stay adaptable."

Be sure to make the structure diverse enough in skill level to accommodate all students. "Approach the class so everyone is encouraged but also pushed appropriately," says Belanger. "No one wants to feel defeated or in over their head."

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Patrick Randak, Courtesy In The Lights PR

The ability to communicate clearly is something I've been consumed with for as long as I can remember. I was born in the Bronx and always loved city living. But when I was 9, a family crisis forced my mom to send me to Puerto Rico to live with my grandparents. I only knew one Spanish word: "hola." I remember the frustration and loneliness of having so many thoughts and feelings and not being able to express them.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

It's the middle of the semester and two dancers are sitting out of class, you're worried about one student's mental health and another has developed an eating disorder. Sound familiar? College can be a tumultuous time. To help address the additional demands of being a dance major, some schools have found strategies for enhancing wellness and integrating health services into their departments.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox