Playing Catch-Up

Addressing the needs of late-starters

Arantxa Ochoa at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jenna Savella, a second soloist with The National Ballet of Canada, didn’t get serious about ballet until she was 15. When she auditioned for Canada’s National Ballet School, she was placed two levels lower than most of her peers. “I didn’t have a fundamental understanding of technique. I was playing catch-up the whole time,” she says. Savella admits that even now, she struggles to gain strength. “That challenge will never stop.”

When a student starts dancing in their teens or later, it’s difficult for her body to physically adapt to dance. Megan Richardson, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York, says a crucial time in dancers’ training is between ages 7 and 12, when muscle and joint tissue is pliable enough to be stretched and shaped. It becomes more difficult for a student who begins dancing past that age to change their physique. “When you’re working with kids who are young and growing, you can mold their bodies and get the most out of their anatomy,” she says. “Some late-starters have a gorgeous line if they’re naturally inclined, but others will have to work extra hard to achieve the aesthetic.”

Tackling Technique

Assigning a class level to a late-starter may depend on their previous experience, since many become interested in dance through similar physical activities, like gymnastics. Regardless, students should be in a level appropriate for their ability, not their age. This may mean grouping a teenager with 10- and 11-year-olds, which was the case when a 13-year-old recently enrolled at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. Principal teacher Arantxa Ochoa asked the student to take classes with two different levels so she receives basic training but still feels challenged among dancers who aren’t significantly younger than her. In the more advanced class, Ochoa alters the combinations to suit her level. For example, instead of a diagonal of piqué turns, she’ll suggest a series of simple piqué passés from the corner. “I simplify things for her,” she says. “We want to challenge her without letting her develop bad habits.”

Eastern Connecticut Ballet’s Gloria Govrin

When teaching late-starters, Eastern Connecticut Ballet artistic director Gloria Govrin works very hands-on to help them form the muscle memory of correct shapes and coordination, concentrating on their alignment, legs and feet. During class, she’s constantly kneeling on the floor, shaping dancers’ feet with her hands and poking them in the stomach as a reminder to pull up. “You have to stay on top of them,” she says. “They’ll shake their head ‘yes,’ but physically they can’t feel it. You have to go over and do it for them so their bodies can respond.” Once they understand a shape or concept, it may help to repeat the step with their eyes closed, so they can begin to sense what that position feels like without the mirror.

Play to Their Strengths

It’s easy for late-starters to feel embarrassed, so taking a positive approach and offering encouragement will help them excel. “You don’t want to deflate them and make them feel like a failure before they even get started,” says Texas Ballet Theater School Ft. Worth principal Kathryn Warakomsky, a former Houston Ballet principal who began dancing at 14. A beginner may not actually know what their strengths are, so if their musicality is beautifully phrased, they’re a gifted turner or they have a commanding stage presence, let them know. “Technique is important, but it’s not the end all to making a good dancer,” says Warakomsky, “especially if they have other qualities that shine through.”

Govrin adds that these new students are often some of the most driven, committed and focused. Sure they’re behind, but they will progress much faster than a young child. “Intellectually, they can process corrections better, and they’re more focused,” says Govrin. “With somebody a little older, you can get them to understand that they have to crawl before they can walk.”

Savella agrees that the pressure she had put on herself to catch up lessened when she finally acknowledged that it wouldn’t happen overnight. “Understanding the basics of technique doesn’t take a day or even a year,” she says. “And I feel like that’s something I’m still learning, even today.” DT

 

 

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

Photos from top: by Matthew Murphy; by Vanessa Murgio, courtesy of Eastern Connecticut Ballet

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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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