Some might call it a high-class problem, but how do you make your best students, well, even better? As dancers approach their technical peak, teachers are tasked with finding new ways to challenge and empower them to grow. “The hardest part is helping advanced dancers make the leap to extraordinary,” says Michelle Latimer, owner of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

On the competition circuit, this challenge exists on an individual as well as a group level, as many dance teams must outshine their own past performances, while avoiding burnout and continuing to grow as dancers. For both teachers and students, this pressure can add up to considerable stress. “I’ve found that the more talented the kids, the harder they are on themselves, and the more insecure they become,” says Michele Larkin of Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio. “If they win first overall, the next year it’s double the pressure because they have to be just as good, if not better.”

So how can dance teachers enable top-notch students to excel and evolve in a healthy manner? Find out with these six tips:

1. Branch out into other genres.

Many technically advanced dancers may be interested in pursuing professional careers. Yet even those at the top of their game in a particular genre may not succeed without a broad skill base. “It’s not just about technique,” says Latimer. “What makes the difference is versatility. Our job is to ensure that dancers are proficient in all styles and forms of movement. If they’re only good at one thing, it will be the death sentence if they want to go out and work.”

Derryl Yeager, artistic director of Utah’s Odyssey Dance Theatre, agrees: “There are a lot of dancers out there who are good at one or two things, but very few excel at all different styles.” With that in mind, Yeager requires the 24 members of the Odyssey company to gain fluency in ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap and contemporary, as well as tumbling. It’s this well-rounded approach that landed two Odyssey dancers, Thayne Jasperson and Matt Dorame, among the top 20 finalists of the most recent season of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Encouraging students to explore other dance forms, from ballroom to breaking to bellydance, can truly help them reach the next level.

2. Transform dancers into teachers.

In mixed-level classes, it can be especially challenging to keep the most advanced dancers engaged. To combat this problem, Larkin often enlists her top dancers to demonstrate skills for the rest of the students.

Latimer chooses to pass the choreography baton to her class. “When I feel students are just going through the motions, I’ll say, ‘OK, now it’s your turn to set and teach eight 8-counts,” she notes. “Instead of being in student mode, they are suddenly the teachers, and it can spark all kinds of growth. When you let dancers become the creators, it changes the way they think, and suddenly they’re engaged again.”

Prompting dancers to seek outside teaching jobs can also foster growth. At Odyssey Dance Theatre, rehearsals stop at 3 pm every day so that company members can report to their studio teaching gigs. Yeager says he has seen great benefits: “Being teachers helps them understand what they are trying to accomplish in their own dancing.”

3. Focus on improv.

While achieving technical excellence is admirable, it’s also crucial that dancers develop a personal style. By learning to flex the freestyle muscle, high-level dancers can kick their game up a notch. “A lot of kids are really good at choreography inside the set structure of a class, but then they go into an audition or solo with no sense of self,” says Latimer. “Improv is key to helping dancers develop their own signature; it allows them to move without rules.”

Latimer often challenges students to freestyle at the end of a combination, asking them to change the tempo or incorporate partnering. “We try to give them different ways to approach the movement in their own style, to trust their own way of hearing and using the music,” she says. “A lot of dancers are uncomfortable at first, but it’s such a great skill to get over the insecurity.”

Sam Renzetti, founder of XTreme Dance Force, a hip-hop/jazz troupe based in Chicago, also is a big believer in improvisation, which often makes up at least one-third of the group’s competition numbers. “We see so many amazing dancers come in to audition, but they freeze when you ask them to freestyle,” says Renzetti. “We do a lot of freestyle circles in rehearsal so that it starts to come naturally.”

4. Work on inner and outer strength.

Even with an intense schedule of classes and rehearsals, it’s important for dancers to work on basic physical strength and endurance. At Xtreme Dance Force, dancers go through a training regimen that includes sit-ups, pushups, battements from the floor and other strength-training drills. “We’ll do a routine three times in a row, with 50 pushups in between,” says Renzetti. “As a hip-hop dancer, you can’t be weak when you hit your movements. The body must be like a machine in that way.”

It’s just as vital to nurture students’ inner strength. For Larkin, even flawless technique is worth little if not accompanied by self-belief, so she remains very aware of dancers’ mental state as they approach competition. “Competition can be a big mind game, and dancers can really psyche themselves out,” she says. “It’s important to focus on mental preparation and confidence-building; in this day and age, our job is not only to be teachers, but also professional motivators.”

To help dancers believe in themselves, Larkin teaches them to fully use their emotions in performance. “We’ll work on different ways of being in character, listening to the music and letting the body be the instrument,” says Larkin. She also suggests incorporating a storyline into competition routines to give dancers something else to focus on besides the pressure of winning.

5. Expose dancers to other choreographers and instructors.

“As teachers, we need to be willing to let dancers go,” says Yeager. “Sometimes studios hold on to their students with an iron grip and don’t let them experience other things because they view it as a threat. Teachers need to be able to realize when a student has learned all they can from them and encourage them to take the next step.”

Sometimes, “letting go” can be as simple as bringing in outside choreographers to set competition routines or teach master classes, as both Renzetti and Latimer have done. Students at MLDA have worked with such choreographers as Mia Michaels, Travis Wall and Jason Parsons, while XTreme Dance Force has enlisted notables like Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Dave Scott and Brian Friedman. “Any time your dancers can be exposed to outside instruction from guest artists, it adds more layers to what they already can do,” says Latimer.


6. Get back to basics.

As dancers become increasingly fluent in their selected genres, they sometimes lose sight of the basic foundation of dance: ballet. Encouraging students to continue their ballet training will help them stay sharp as they explore other styles of movement. “Teachers have to make sure they really understand the importance of ballet as the base of technique,” says Yeager. “Many dancers can do all these tricks but aren’t using their muscles correctly; you start to see the holes in their training.”

Yeager believes it’s also essential to familiarize dancers with dance history. He is “astounded” when he meets young students who have never heard of Mikhail Baryshnikov or the Nicholas Brothers. “Without knowing what has come before them, there is no sense of where they’re going and how they fit into the big picture,” says Yeager. “Being unknowledgeable creates a huge vacuum in dancers’ ability to learn and grow; if they don’t know dance history, they think the whole dance world revolves around them and their 10 fouettés.” Take the time to show dancers old footage and educate them about the dance greats who’ve preceded them: “Education is about more than just steps, and teachers who approach it that way can create a beautiful legacy,” he says.

Even the most talented students can always improve. Bring these ideas into play, and they will be bringing their “A+” game to competition! DT


Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is


Photo courtesy of Dance Teacher archives.

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Aidan Gibney, courtesy of Lanzisera

Walking into Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles at 11:30 am on any given Tuesday or Thursday, you're likely to find a large group of dancers flocking to take Nick Lanzisera's class. Millennium's staff says his contemporary class is so popular, he often fills their rooms with up to 80 students.

Lanzisera, whose professional credits include The Oscars, The Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, High School Musical 2 and 3, Fame, Footloose and more, got his teaching start as a substitute for one of his mentors, Erica Sobol, at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Though he didn't expect to become an educator until later in his career, Lanzisera enjoyed the experience so much that he began to sub in regularly. One of those classes was attended by a manager at Millennium, who invited him to teach their new contemporary class, and he has maintained the same Tuesday/Thursday slot for nearly eight years.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
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:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

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

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

Keep reading... Show less
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via YouTube

For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

So, to show our toes the love they deserve, here are five exercises that are all the self-care you need this week.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox