Ballet may never be the first love of your competition dancers, but they can learn to like it.

Kelly Burke’s competition dancers took 2015 Best Ballet Performance at The Dance Awards.

At Westchester Dance Academy in Mt. Kisco, New York, lyrical class starts with a warm-up in center. Owner and artistic director Kelly Burke plays music by artists like Adele as she leads students through a progression of pliés, tendus and ronds de jambe en l’air. She gives the dancers a ballet barre in a nonballet setting. “Kids who don’t want to be ballerinas are still getting the foundation they need,” says Burke. “They’re just getting it in a style that interests them the most.”

Teaching ballet at a competition studio can be a daunting task. It can be a struggle to fit ballet into an already packed schedule, especially when students prefer working on contemporary, hip-hop and jazz routines. Dancers might show little interest in ballet even though the classical training boosts their technical ability, artistry—and competition scores. Yet despite these challenges, it is possible to ensure that they get the right ballet foundation. Teachers can inspire and engage them with a creative approach, positive attitude and immersive format that reaches beyond the ballet class.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Students need more than one class a week to develop an understanding of ballet basics. Burke sets a minimum for her competition students: Dancers under the age of 12 must attend two 1 1/2–hour classes, while older students are required to take three classes plus pointe. This formula works at Westchester Dance Academy, where students routinely take home trophies—in ballet—from Nationals, including New York City Dance Alliance and The Dance Awards. “I would love to have ballet every single day,” says Burke, “but not with these kids going to school and wanting to compete in every single form. There’s no way.”

To compensate, she incorporates some ballet into every class. Whether they’re taking lyrical, contemporary or jazz, dancers are always working on some aspect of ballet technique. “Every warm-up in every class has all the elements of a full ballet barre.”

Judy Rice (shown here with University of Michigan students) brings personality and precision to ballet class.

Move Slow to Go Fast

In ballet class, teachers might feel the need to rush through combinations in order to keep the students’ attention. But moving at a slow pace can actually generate more enthusiasm. Judy Rice often recruits dancers from her convention classes to audition for the University of Michigan dance program, where she is an associate professor. She recently taught a three-hour class that never got off the barre. “They’re learning to do things accurately,” she explains, “and then they see how ballet helps them achieve stronger technique scores.” Were the students in this marathon class engaged? Absolutely, she says. “I deliver it in a way that’s exciting for the kids.”

For one thing, she breaks everything down in a logical way, talking about anatomy, alignment and symmetry. She has a dancer do tendu side with her right leg, for example, not holding the barre. Then she asks her student to lift her foot off the floor. “If she can’t hold it and has to put her foot down, I’ll tell her it’s because her left hip wasn’t lifted enough. I make the student say what the problem is as she fixes it.” Asking the students to speak out loud helps them understand the physicality. “I get so excited when it’s right, which is infectious to them,” she says. “They understand what’s wrong and they can fix it. It gets really fun to be specific and make minute changes. The strategy is immediately successful.”

Grab Their Interest—and Keep It

Students might show more interest and develop an appreciation for ballet when they see how it relates to their favorite styles of dance. Lyrical dancers might like doing adagio. Jazz and tap dancers might have more fun executing a fast petit allégro combination with playful rhythms. “Acknowledge their strengths,” says Rice. “I told one dancer she was really musical and asked the other dancers to follow her. Turns out she was an amazing tap dancer.”

Rice also has young students skip around the barre and has been known to stop older students mid-class for a series of jumping jacks. “When I see their eyes glaze over and they just can’t stand still any longer, I do something to get their blood flowing.” She also rewards students with a fun, “big foo foo” class (sweeping waltzes, easy turns and a buoyant grand allégro) at the end of the week if they’ve been working really well. “If kids feel good, then they’ll love what they’re doing and are willing to go back to the specifics.”

Westchester Dance
Academy’s Kayla Mak was named National Miss Junior Onstage New York, 2015.

Let Them Discover the Ultimate Payoff—Results

Dawn Rappitt, director of Elite Danceworx in Markham, Ontario, puts ballet classes first on her class schedule. “It’s important for dancers to see how different their bodies feel and operate in other classes after they’ve already done ballet as a warm-up,” she says. To encourage students to get more ballet hours, Rappitt allows them to take other classes below their levels, free of charge. She also makes sure that her dancers do a full barre together before each competition. “When they arrive, it’s just part of the process,” she says. Ballet has become a consistent routine whether the dancers are on the road or at the studio.

Dancers get really excited when they see a difference in their competition routines, and parents notice the improvement, too. “It’s very much part of the culture within our studio,” says Rappitt, who took home the Studio of the Year Award from The Dance Awards in 2014. “I made the decision to put the focus on ballet as its own entity. We don’t treat it as a necessary evil.” As a result, students at Elite Danceworx are never late for ballet—even if they’ve just had another class. And, perhaps even more telling: Ballet class is never canceled in favor of working on the jazz number. “If it’s important to me,” says Rappitt, “it’s important to them.”

Elite Danceworx’s advanced company performed “Grand Pas” from Raymonda at The Dance Awards in 2014.

“Kids start to love it the more they do it. They also see how it changes their bodies,” she says. Lines are longer, spines are straighter and muscles are more defined. “It’s really nice to have 12-year-olds saying they need a ballet class when they get home from a convention or competition weekend,” she says. “Putting ballet first has really made a big impact, because they have a more disciplined approach and a stronger work ethic. And the kids are not going to be limited. They’ll have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.” DT

Julie Diana retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

Photos from top: by Rachel Papo; by Peter Smith; by Rachel Neville Photography, courtesy of Westchester Dance Academy; courtesy of Elite Danceworx

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

abezikus/Getty Images

"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Courtney Schwartz and Jake Mcauley perform a Talia Favia combination at Radix Dance Convention Nationals. Via Instagram

Summer intensives and Nationals make June, July and August some of the richest dance-video months of the year. There is so much fabulous content out there, we can hardly contain our excitement!

We have spent hours down the rabbit hole of class videos this week and thought you should see some of our favorite findings.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

While taking class in 2006, Marisa Hamamoto felt a tingling sensation in her elbows, then suddenly collapsed to the floor. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with spinal cord infarction, a rare spinal stroke that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Despite being told by her doctor that she may never walk again, let alone dance, Hamamoto miraculously walked out of the hospital two months later.

Since her stroke, Hamamoto has found a new lease on life. She has channeled her indomitable will to overcome adversity into a dance company that marries her love of ballroom dance with her passion for social activism. Los Angeles–based Infinite Flow is the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company in the U.S. Over the past four years it has become a torchbearer for social change, performing worldwide and offering workshops and school assemblies to educate audiences about accessibility and inclusion.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox