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."

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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

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

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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.

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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!

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