Ladies and Gentleman

Tips for teaching a lone boy in a class full of girls

Teacher Fury Gold (in purple) gives female students a pointe combination while Asher Noel practices his relevés.

Thirteen-year-old Asher Noel stands at the barre, the only boy in his class at the Gus Giordano Dance School in Chicago. Ballet teacher Fury Gold gives the girls an échappé combination and has Noel practice dégagés instead. “He sometimes gets the very same time signature but a very different exercise,” says Gold. “There’s a difference between what the two genders need.”

While some studios attract male students by offering separate men’s programs or scholarships, most others experience lopsided enrollment and have few, if any, boys. If you have just one boy in your ballet, jazz or contemporary class, how do you ensure he’s getting what he needs? Technically, he’s required to do more virtuosic jumps and turns than his female counterparts. Emotionally, he might need support to help him feel included and engaged. With some careful planning, you can structure your class so that your male student gets everything he needs and more.

Adapting Ballet Class

In ballet, there are significant differences in the male and female vocabulary. Men perform more dynamic steps, like turns in second, entrechats six and double tours en l’air. To prepare Noel for these feats, Gold gives him gender-appropriate exercises to help him build strength. She slows down the music during petit and grand allégro so he has time to jump higher and add more beats. If the girls do piqué turns across the floor, Noel does slower piqué turns in attitude dérrière. He’ll practice à la seconde turns while the girls fouetté. But when Noel works on double tours, he has the floor to himself. “That’s his time,” says Gold. “Some of the more ambitious girls may want to try it, but they have to go behind him.”

At the Giacobbe Academy of Dance in Metairie, Louisiana, Joseph Giacobbe encourages his male student to try “big tricks” in class, like à la seconde turns with hops or fouetté turns en l’air down the diagonal. “It’s fun for him,” he says. “The girls clap and boost his ego a little bit.” When the class practices a series of eight entrechats six, Giacobbe has the boy do another set of eight right away to develop strength and endurance. During grand allégro combinations, he might finish with double tours while the girls do grands jetés or sauts de chats.

Masculine Presence and Strength

Jazz and contemporary classes require fewer adjustments, since the technical expectations are similar for men and women. The main consideration is that boys develop masculine port de bras and sufficient upper-body strength for partnering. Laura Thurston teaches one of Noel’s jazz classes at GGDS. “I’m looking at his upper body and arm placement, trying to make sure that he’s not always imitating me,” she says. “As a female teacher, I’m doing what I was taught, which isn’t always what he should be doing.” Thurston’s corrections for Noel are more hands-on, since he has to learn by feeling the correct shape and not just imitating what he sees.

When the class does strengthening exercises, Thurston asks Noel to repeat the series at home so she doesn’t take time away from the rest of the class. (See sidebar for specific exercises.) “All the girls are bigger than him right now and he wants to be able to lift them over his head,” she says. At The Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, contemporary teacher Cain Keenan encourages his male student to lift weights outside the studio. But in class, everyone does push-ups until their arms tire. Keenan lets the girls count out loud for the boy. “It keeps his energy going and shows that he’s being supported by his fellow dancers,” he says.

Joseph Giacobbe coaching advanced student Robert Montgomery

Offering Support

It’s the teacher’s responsibility to set the tone of the class and make the boy feel comfortable. “Stepping into a studio with all girls isn’t easy,” says Giacobbe. “Being a guy myself helps a little.” He makes a point of walking over to the student and asking him questions to ease any anxiety, and he often places him in front or teaches him flashy steps to make him feel special. “I give him attention since he’s the only one in there,” Giacobbe says. “It’s a big responsibility. If it’s not treated right, you might lose a real talent.”

Keenan taps into his student’s outside interests. “I ask him what movies he’s seen, or what music he likes,” he says. “If he gets down on himself in class, or does something really well, I’ll say something I know will make him laugh.” But there’s danger in giving the boy too much attention and setting him apart from others, says Gold. “You don’t want him to be a hot-house flower, to always feel like he’s being coddled by a bunch of older and younger sisters,” she says. Finding that balance can be tricky, and how much attention you should give depends on the individual student.

Competitive Nature

Research shows that testosterone makes males naturally competitive; they learn better if they can make lessons into a game. But they may find it hard to stay interested without another boy triggering a friendly rivalry. To generate some competition, Keenan will go across the floor with his student or challenge him to be the highest jumper in the room. “I’ll choreograph some virtuosic jumps for him and once the girls see it, they want to try, as well,” he says.

Outside of class, Gold shows Noel videos of other male students and seeks ways to help him feel engaged with the male dance community. “We recommend that the boys go away for a week or two and train at other places to get those kinds of opportunities,” she says. “If they really want to look to dance as a career or a serious pursuit in secondary education, they’re not going to be the only one.” DT

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Exercises to Develop Upper-Body Strength

Gus Giordano Dance School’s Laura Thurston recommends that her male students practice these exercises both in the studio and at home to build muscles necessary for partnering.

  • Hold a plank pose for one minute at a time, four times. Repeat the entire series again.
  • Do “elevator” push-ups: pulsing the arms on the way down and on the way back up. Start with 8 pulses down, 8 up, then 4 down, 4 up, 2 down, 2 up, and 1 normal push-up. Rest in child’s pose.
  • Repeat the elevator push-up series described above, but change the hand position each time. Start with hands underneath shoulders, then “place your index finger and thumb in a triangle position so you get your traps and triceps,” says Thurston. Finish with a wide stance, fingers pointing outward, to target chest muscles.

 

Photo (top) by Billy Weingarten, courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance School; courtesy of Giacobbe Academy of Dance

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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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