What makes you qualified to teach dance? Maybe you had years of dance training followed by a career as a professional dancer. Perhaps you have a degree from a college or university, or you apprenticed at the studio where you grew up. It would be difficult to become a dance educator without meeting at least one of these criteria. But do you need a special certificate or license? Unless you’re a public school dance teacher in a state that requires it, the answer is no. Yet many dance educators still con-sider certification essential, even if it’s not mandated by law. It offers proof to employers, students and parents that you have attained a level of mastery and that you are equipped to teach in a safe and healthy way.
The Pedagogy Problem
“I danced my whole life, and I thought I knew a lot,” says Kathi Halbert of Kathi’s Dance & Gym Center in Poland, OH. Halbert was already a studio owner by the time she was introduced to Dance Masters of America, and she says the experience was eye-opening: “I realized I really didn’t know how to teach.”
For those who lack pedagogical training, teacher certification programs can help fill in the gaps with instruction in developing sequenced curriculums that are appropriate for various ages and stages of development. “Most of us are overqualified in how to teach steps and routines and how to perform,” says Elsa Posey, president and director of the National Registry of Dance Educators and founder/director of The Posey School in Northport, NY. “We don’t need that part of it. It’s the pedagogy—what’s appropriate and safe at what age.”
A Certification Sampler
Some dance organizations, like DMA and Dance Educators of America, offer certification in a variety of genres, including ballet, tap, jazz, modern and acrobatics. Others, like the Cecchetti Council, Royal Academy of Dance and American Tap Dance Institute Teacher Training and Certification Program, focus on a single style of dance. All offer instruction in how to teach students from beginner to advanced levels, and all require participants to pass examinations in order to be certified.
Time and travel commitments vary—most require attendance at intensive training programs, which generally take place during the summer and are usually about a week long. Teachers often attend these training sessions over the course of several years, depending on what level of certification they are seeking. Many programs offer college credits.
Training generally doesn’t end once you’ve passed your exams. Most programs require teachers to participate in some form of continuing education in order to maintain certification—a built-in system to ensure that educators keep skills sharp and stay on top of the latest trends and research. “Sometimes just going over the old basics wakes you up,” says Halbert. “Plus, the disciplines of dance changes so much, you have to keep up with it.”
Improving the quality of dance education is the point of certification. “There are so many more people with dance degrees looking for jobs,” says Posey. “Anything you can do to prove you’re the best is very helpful.”
Benefits for K–12 Teachers
Currently, 37 states require certification in dance in order to teach in public K–12 schools, according to the National Dance Education Organization. This kind of teaching credential is earned through colleges and universities, and the precise requirements vary from state to state.
Whatever their state’s requirements, however, many K–12 teachers also opt for certification and/or accreditation from dance organizations as a way to further their professional development. This is in part because the dance pedagogy content is more rigorous than that offered by many college and university programs. —Michelle Vellucci
Before donning cap and gown for college graduation, Gerri Houlihan was asked to fill out a standard questionnaire. One question, “How long did it take you to complete your BFA degree?” warranted some serious thought. Her honest answer was 41 years.
After many successful years as a dancer, choreographer and revered teacher at Connecticut College, New York’s High School for the Performing Arts and the American Dance Festival, Houlihan reluctantly decided to go back to school. She had been turned down for a full-time university teaching position because of a lack of formal education. “My lack of degree was deciding my future,” she says.
By the time she received her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006, Houlihan was hooked. The American Dance Festival and Hollins University had just started a master’s program with a track designed specifically for mid-career artists, and she signed on.
Not all mid-career artists take as easily to student life. “It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s inherently a big challenge for artists to come back and function under other people’s guidance,” says Wendy Rogers, who, prior to returning to school, had run the Wendy Rogers Dance Company for 12 years. She was in her 40s when she received her master’s in education with a dance specialization from Stanford University. “As I was getting older, I saw the need to look forward to my eventual retirement,” she says, “and the need to provide for myself.”
For those who continue teaching as they study, working out a schedule can be tough, but many schools are willing to offer flexibility. Houlihan worked as a guest artist at VCU while taking classes there. Rogers continued teaching at UC Berkeley while at Stanford, but she found that was too much. After the second year, she took a year off to focus exclusively on her education.
To make the challenges worthwhile, it’s important to go back for the right reasons. If you’re thinking only of a paycheck, Rogers warns, graduation may come with disappointment: “A degree doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get a job. There is a lot of competition for positions.”
Noted dancer and choreographer Dana Reitz agrees: “The master’s itself doesn’t make you a better teacher. It’s what you make of the experience that does that.”
When Reitz enrolled at age 45 at Bennington College for an MFA, she wanted to focus less on traditional classes and more on the research opportunities. “I’d been teaching and choreographing all over the world,” she says. “I wanted to be in one place and develop some ideas.”
She chose Bennington because she was able to devise her own research fellowship. After graduating, Reitz was offered a job and stayed on to teach full-time. The benefits have been huge for Rogers as well, who landed a job at UC Riverside, where she helped create that school’s MFA program.
Currently teaching at Florida State University, Houlihan says getting her master’s showed her new teaching directions: “I think I would like to be dancing for a very long time, but I don’t know how well my body will hold up. I’ve discovered that there are other classes that I am prepared to teach and enjoy teaching that don’t involve me dancing.” —Rachel Zar
For most of the year, Shana Menaker dedicates herself to teaching dance and yoga at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. But this past July, she left her students behind and treated herself to daily technique classes taught by choreographer and former Trisha Brown dancer Vicky Shick in the lofty studio of St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s East Village. She signed up hoping the class would inform her teaching and perhaps provide some new material. But she knew that, if nothing else, it would feed her love of dancing—a hunger that’s good to satisfy when you’re giving so much energy to your students year-round.
In choosing Shick’s class, offered by the New York City–based Movement Research, Menaker wasn’t looking for any specific information or classroom tools. “I was just open to being influenced,” she says. “It’s interesting to consider other styles of teaching and approaches to the body, and sometimes it’s just good to hear a voice that confirms what you’re already doing.”
The class surpassed her expectations. Menaker says she was inspired by the layers of ways Shick talks about and engages the body in class. “Her approach is so multidimensional—it touches on all levels from cellular to intellectual. Watching her helped me figure out how to engage my students in similar ways,” she says.
The class wasn’t for credit, so Menaker didn’t have to document or report on it in any way. “I wrote down specific things—a particular move or a thought,” she says. “I knew I would remember general things, so I just wrote down fine points that stood out that I was afraid I’d forget.”
Though the class wasn’t an official teacher’s workshop, Orange Coast College covered some of the travel and registration costs. “I got to focus on my own body and what it needs and to remember what it’s like to be a student,” says Menaker. “When taking class, you can really see from the inside what works—what the students around you respond to.” —Janet Weeks