Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has emerged as a dance education pioneer who is committed to students’ well-being and teachers’ continuing education. DT goes behind the scenes to find out what makes her tick—and what keeps NBS’ curriculum and training programs on the cutting edge.

"I can't stand to do something just because it's tradition if it's not the most effective way." —Mavis Staines

When Mavis Staines was called to the office of the National Ballet School’s founding artistic director, Betty Oliphant, she thought she was out of a job. After a year of teacher training at the Toronto school, Staines had been filling in for a teacher on leave. She was expecting the director to tell her that the teacher was returning and that, consequently, she was no longer needed. But Oliphant had something much more dramatic in store for her. “She asked me if I would like to train to take her place [as artistic director],” Staines recalls. “I trusted my intuition and said yes on the spot. It touched something in my heart and soul, and I knew it was the right direction for me.”

In the years since, Staines has become a visionary and inspirational leader in dance education. Her compassionate approach to educating students, her focus on health and the innovative new ventures she has introduced have led NBS to the forefront of dance training. Despite her accomplishments, she remains characteristically modest. “It is such a privilege,” says Staines of her leadership role at NBS. “[As artistic director] I have the chance to draw gifted people into my ideas, then I sit in awe. They take it further than I thought possible.”

Staines herself is a testament to the excellence of the student and teacher training programs of the school she has adored since childhood. After receiving her training at NBS, Staines studied in London and Paris for six months before launching a professional career, first with National Ballet of Canada and then with Dutch National Ballet. A leg injury brought her back to Canada, and a wrist injury was the catalyst for her entry into NBS’ teacher training program.

After six years as associate artistic director, Staines became artistic director upon Oliphant’s retirement in 1989. Her clarity of purpose, contagious enthusiasm and leadership skills guided her through the transition. “At first she was directing people who had taught her, and Betty was a hard act to follow,” says Laurel Toto, NBS teacher and manager of the school’s Junior Associates division. “But in the 20 years I’ve known her, she has never disappointed me. She is a great director to work under, and I regard her as a colleague and a friend.”

Staines acknowledges that her leadership qualities were in evidence even when she was a child. “When I was playing with friends, I’d always have ideas I thought were exciting and found I could draw my friends into them. We would play imagination games that took us to other realities,” she recalls. That same imagination has been taking NBS to new heights in recent years.

Nurturing Body, Mind and Spirit

Staines has implemented changes in the school’s curriculum and its programs to help develop healthy and well-balanced dancers. She is perhaps best known for her insistence that students should not be undernourished and for protecting them from becoming overly lean. But her focus on “advancing health and excellence in tandem” goes beyond weight. “It is about individuals fully exploring [their] talent and developing self-awareness and community consciousness,” says Staines.

NBS students are required to take body-conditioning classes, and the staff includes a cadre of physiotherapists and counselors who teach classes and are available for individual consultation. Although the conditioning and physiotherapy programs were in place before Staines became artistic director, she has been active in their evolution. To help educate the NBS staff about dance students’ specific physical needs, she enlisted Irene Dowd, a neuromuscular facilitator who works with Juilliard students and maintains a private practice in New York City. Dowd visits NBS three times a year, working directly with students as well as instructing teachers.

Fostering students’ spiritual health is also central to Staines’ educational philosophy, and she looks for ways to help developing artists toward self-expression and understanding. “It’s key to keep recognizing that the body is the vessel of expression, of the spirit,” she says. “When you are educating young people, it is important to teach them to trust their instincts and sense of self-awareness. They can do this without arrogance; they can be inspired to have a sense of themselves in their community; and they can learn self-respect and thoughtful respect of others.”

Toward this end, Staines invited former Royal Danish Ballet principal Sorella Englund to join the NBS faculty in 1999. Englund had suffered from anorexia as a dancer and nearly died as a result. Her recovery included developing a new belief system that emphasized self-expression. She now works with young dancers on issues of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. In addition to serving as an open and honest role model for students, Englund teaches classes in drama and expression. “It’s a rare teacher who can get teens to dig into their souls,” says Staines. “She creates an environment where teenagers feel safe to express what they are really feeling.”

Staines is aware that by encouraging self-exploration and expression in her students, she is creating dancers who may question choreographers and artistic directors. “Mavis doesn’t want dancers to be little boys and girls who keep their mouths closed and just follow directions,” says Toto. “Artistic directors want artists, people who will collaborate with the choreographer and director, and that’s what’s happening here.” As part of National Ballet of Canada’s 50th anniversary celebration last year, the company hosted a summit of artistic directors called “Past, Present and Future.” Staines derived great pleasure from watching NBS students interact with artistic directors from leading ballet companies in a public discussion and an evening dance presentation. “They directly yet respectfully asked questions. They are bright young people, and their questioning will enhance rather than undermine the quality of our art,” she says.

Developing The Curriculum

One of Staines’ first projects as artistic director was a revision of the NBS syllabus. She used the Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques as a springboard because of their familiarity. From those, she and her staff developed what she calls “an amalgam of our beliefs about which principles and what order of presentation are most effective for dancers.” Throughout the curriculum development and other initiatives, Staines has been a strong leader who remains open to the ideas of others. She is as interested in the individual voices and opinions of the teachers on the NBS faculty as she is of students and encourages individuality within a framework of common goals and ideals. “Mavis wants us to have strong opinions, then come to some consensus,” says Toto. “No matter how much you don’t agree on something, she’ll look for a solution and try to make it work. Sometimes you want her to tell you what to do, but she insists on getting us to work through our problems, and you never feel that she’ll hold your opinion against you.” In a continuing effort to bring in new ideas

as well as nurture an international dance community, she established annual student and staff exchanges, which now involve 12 professional schools around the world.

The faculty continues to examine the syllabus and make changes, according to its growing understanding of students’ needs and the changing demands on professional dancers. “I can’t stand to do something just because it’s tradition if it’s not the most effective way,” Staines says.

Her commitment to the mental and emotional development of her dancers also influences the school’s training methods. “It’s time to remember that the entire ballet vocabulary is meant to convey something emotional and spiritual,” she says. “Athletic feats have to be driven by an interior message. All drills and technical repetition should be connected with the artistic and musical experience of ballet. The physical aspect is much better and more beautiful when the artistic [aspect] motivates your approach to technique.”

Empathy And Understanding

Because NBS is a preprofessional school preparing dancers for a highly competitive field, students are evaluated each year before readmission. Students whose bodies are not developing the flexibility and strength necessary in the top ranks of professional companies, or who do not exhibit the drive and career focus that they need to reach these ranks, may not be readmitted, despite considerable talent and skill. Staines tries to explain these factors to departing students and their parents, who may be heartbroken and confused. “I’ve sat in on a lot of parent interviews, and I can’t believe the courage Mavis has,” says Toto. Staines tries to show students and parents that there are plenty of alternatives to NBS and that not being readmitted shouldn’t be seen as a blanket judgment on their talent. Often she offers to help them get into other schools. “She tries to help parents celebrate their children’s achievement," says Toto. "Mavis is compassionate, and that's the policy we work under."

IT is possible that dealing with her own disappointments has helped Staines to be able to guide students past inevitable setbacks. When she was tapped by Oliphant in the early '80s, Staines was at a physical and emotional low. Not only had her dance career been cut short by injury, she had also lost both her parents in one year. "I thought [offering me the position] was a particularly courageous choice on Betty's part. I was depressed and withdrawn, lacking in confidence and uncertain about my place in the world," she says. "She told me that, knowing the way I loved the school and the ideas I had about educations, she knew I would do well."

Oliphant's instincts about Staines were right on target. She has been able to turn even her most difficult experiences to the advantage of the students and colleagues with whom she works. "I believe that you have to celebrate the high points in life and not count on the world always being way we want it to be," she says. "None of us achieve every dream the exact way we want to. the important thing is to express ourselves in a thoughtful way." DT


Teacher Training at the National Ballet School

Full-time programs devoted to dance teacher training are few and far between in North America, although they are more common in other parts of the world. The National Ballet School program offers a number of options for training, depending on an instructor’s previous training, teaching and performing experience and professional goals.

Graduates of the three-year program receive certification from either the Cecchetti Society or the Royal Academy of Dance, in addition to their diploma. Dancers with extensive performing experience may qualify for a two-year or one-year condensed program, also resulting in a diploma and certification. All full-time students take classes in art history, psychology, pedagogy, anatomy and music, as well as ballet, modern and character dance.

NBS offers joint five-year programs with York University in Toronto and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, through which students may earn a bachelor’s degree as well as their NBS diploma and certification. Teacher training program manager Anuschka Roes hopes to develop similar arrangements with U.S. and other Canadian universities. Because the coursework is roughly equivalent to two years of a BFA curriculum, students can transfer credits to other colleges or universities, but NBS’ formal arrangements make it easier, says Roes.

Roes works closely with artistic director Mavis Staines to ensure that the program reflects the overall philosophy of the school. Ongoing research into developmental stages and learning styles informs Roes’ management of the program, and teachers in training are offered a wealth of opportunities to learn how to encourage “health and excellence in tandem” in their future students.

“Our goal is to produce teachers who are better than ourselves,” says Roes. “Our students get resources they aren’t even aware of from their experience here, particularly the ability to problem-solve. Teaching is so much more than knowing what a plié is; mechanics are only about 10 percent of the process. Teachers who keep training are the movers and shakers of the future.”

Teachers who want to continue their professional development without enrolling in the teacher training program can also benefit from the vibrant learning environment at NBS. Five-day intensive teacher seminars are offered each summer, and include technique classes, observation of NBS children's classes, lectures, workshops and discussions. Staff for teacher seminars includes neuromuscular facilitator Irene Dowd, NBS teachers and guest teachers.

National Ballet School L'Ecole Nationale de Ballet

105 Maitland Street

Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1E4, Canada


Founded: 1959

Major source of funding: Government of Canada

Curriculum: NBS’ ballet syllabus is in continual development, incorporating elements of major traditions and the demands of ballet as it evolves. Students also take classes in body conditioning and modern and character dance. NBS’ academic curriculum results in the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

Campus and facilities: Two downtown Toronto blocks in the North Jarvis neighborhood, including studios, residences, classrooms and administrative offices, plus the 297-seat Betty Oliphant Theatre, an indoor pool and physiotherapy department and The Shoe Room, a retail store that offers expert pointe shoe fitting. “Project Grand Jeté,” a CN $88 million capital campaign, is in the works to renovate and upgrade the school’s facilities.

Staff: includes about 20 full-time and part-time dance teachers and numerous guest teachers, 20 academic teachers, 15 pianists, six body-conditioning instructors, three physiotherapists, 10 consulting psychotherapists and six consulting doctors

Professional program: Grades 6 to 12, full-time dance and academic curriculum, approximately 150 resident and day students, 75 percent of whom are Canadian and 15 percent American. Fees range from approximately CN $4,500 to $13,000, depending on Canadian citizenship and residential versus day-student status. Each year 1,000 students audition for about 50 places.

Junior Associates program: 250 day students, ages 6 to 12, take one to three classes per week with the same NBS faculty who teach in the professional program and with a syllabus that reflects the same principles.

Teacher Training program: 20 to 30 students, mostly Canadian; tuition ranges from approximately CN $3,000 for Canadians to $11,000 for noncitizens. Housing arranged by individual students.

Intensive Dance program: Approximately 20 dancers per year, including NBS graduates and dancers from other international academies, take this post-secondary year of intensive professional training.

Summer programs: In addition to a July session required of most students in the professional program, the school offers intensive 5-day summer seminars for teachers.

Jennifer Brewer, MSEd, is a freelance writer and dance and academic teacher based in Saco, Maine.

Photography by Eduardo Patino

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox