Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!


1. Let dancers make choices. "We might do triplets across the floor," she says, "and there'd be two measures in which they could do whatever they want: stand still; funny movement; something beautiful; they could turn. Then they have to catch the train, so to speak—after the two measures they made up, they have to get back into mine."

Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

2. Speak in a language they understand. For Robbins, that's metaphors. "The first composition that they make, at 5 years old, is to Mozart's variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," she says. "It has an AABA form. I prepare them for that by teaching them dancing sandwiches. I put down tape to mark off thirds of the room, and they go across the floor doing anything—could be skipping, could be triplets. In the first third, they'll do one movement. Then, they'll get to the center third of the room and do a different movement." For the last third, they repeat their first movement. "It's bread, peanut butter, bread," she explains. "When I take the tape away, they understand that's a sandwich. Mozart had two pieces of bread [AA], and then the peanut butter [B] and then bread again [A]."

3. Keep them honest. Robbins will ask her dancers to stand still and close their eyes—which inevitably leads to swaying. She has them exaggerate the sway and fall out of it, two steps away. "Dancing is a ride," she says. "I want them to feel the trajectory of their ride." The next step is falling, connecting the fall to another movement, taking it to somewhere else in the room and then bringing it to a close. "We watch each other," says Robbins. "I ask, 'Who's really telling the truth? Is your spine really involved, or are you just dancing with your feet?'"

4. Build slowly. "When my students are little, the pieces they create are very short—half a minute," she says. "Then I use suites of music that are a minute and a half. When they're 8, they choose their own music that's three minutes long. It goes very slowly, step by step, little by little, until when they're older—then they're pretty independent."

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

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Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

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Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

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Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

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To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

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Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

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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:

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Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

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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:

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Dance Teacher Tips
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Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

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Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

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