Teaching Tips

The Perfectionism Problem: How Teachers Get Risk-Averse Students to Open Up

Though dance is intensely pleasurable and exciting, it's also hard work. Dancing at a high level requires daily renewal of commitment. Most teachers, however, know the dilemma of the dancer who, caught up in the difficulties of technique, can't, or won't, allow herself to really dance. We've all seen it: the student with the "perfect" body who is so focused on being "right" that she can't experience the flow from one movement into another. A pirouette, for instance, isn't just a shape; it's an action requiring momentum and a feeling of revolving. Stephanie Spassoff, co-director of The Rock School, remembers just such a student, a ravishing girl who "picked herself to pieces," until finally she dropped out of dance altogether. Her compulsive drive for perfection led only to frustration.


Perfectionism separates the dancer from the dance. She looks in the mirror without really seeing herself, consumed with self-judgment. Douglas Nielsen, a dance professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, says, “To do something original, you have to be open to the unexpected." That sort of openness is anathema to the perfectionist student, but it's an essential part of the creative process. “Accidents are interesting," Nielsen says. “When Balanchine was choreographing Serenade, a dancer rushed in late to rehearsal. As we now know, he incorporated that happy accident into the piece."

For the student who already leans toward punishing perfectionism, ballet feels like a perfect fit, since it's based on a geometric ideal of the body that doesn't exist in nature. Think of Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing, “Vitruvian Man," which attempts to demonstrate not only the ideal proportions of man, but also of music and architecture. But if we actually met Vitruvian Man, we would probably find him very odd-looking indeed. Notes describe the ideal in such terms as, “The maximum width of the shoulders is one-fourth of a man's height," or, “A palm is the width of four fingers." (Interestingly, Vitruvian Man is pictured in the logo of the School of American Ballet.)

There may be a neurotic element in the self-negating student: Fear of authority (parent, teacher); an insatiable need for attention or reinforcement; an exaggerated desire to please; making big problems out of little ones. Some students don't allow themselves the natural learning curve they would gladly grant a baby, for example, learning to walk: the falling down and getting up again, the trial and error, the obvious pleasure in the process. “Technique is a lifelong journey of refinement, “ says Alan Hineline, CEO and resident choreographer of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “It's a means to an end. A perfect fifth position is not the point."

Happily, most of the teachers I spoke to only rarely find perfectionism to be a permanently crippling problem. Spassoff suggests that balance is the key to producing happy, healthy students. “We try to create a supportive atmosphere," she says, “critical but positive. Don't be afraid to crack a joke. We're not soldiers here. Emphasize what is working. Urge the students to climb inside the music, to let it move them."

Nielsen has found that encouraging risk-averse dancers to train in multiple dance styles can also be helpful. “Learning more than one style of dancing is both useful and necessary for today's dancers," he says. “Maybe something is working in modern class that they can transfer to ballet, or vice versa. Mix it up! Risk-taking is contagious when an atmosphere of trust is established."

Reducing the perfectionists' feelings of self-consciousness can encourage them to open up and really go for it, as well. Experiment with turning class away from the mirror, which keeps dancers from obsessing unhealthily over minor technical or physical flaws. If possible, teach in a mirrorless room, and change body-facings often. Nielsen quotes the Iranian architect, Zaha Hadid: “We have 360 degrees. Why not use all of them?" Partner work, which gives the student a body besides her own to think about, can help, too. And why not try incorporating singing into class? I remember a wonderful teacher, Nenette Charisse, who had the class sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," as we waltzed across the floor. It freed everyone from their technical hang-ups and helped us find the breezy movement quality more immediately than a string of corrections would have.

Remind the students (and really mean it!) that class is the place to make mistakes. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained," as our mothers used to say. Nielsen says he gives a student who falls down an “A" for the day.

A teacher's sense of mission can be strengthened by remembering that, in teaching the art of dancing, she is also teaching the art of living. Balance in the body is reflected in balance of the mind. Student and teacher alike would do well to remember the Navajo weavers who incorporate a small imperfection into their rugs, because “Only God is perfect."

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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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