San Francisco Ballet School dancers choose their own academic study time.

A generation ago serious ballet students often agonized between pursuing a performing career and going to college. Now they’re facing that decision even earlier. Attending online high school has become common for teenage pre-professional students who spend upward of five hours a day dancing.

“It’s where the ballet world’s headed,” says Jenifer Ringer, director of the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles. Ringer initially worked hard to schedule Colburn classes so dancers could attend an abbreviated day of regular high school classes. But when she realized nearly all her students had opted for online high school, she made the choice many school directors have made—to hold pre-professional dance classes during academic school hours.

The demands of pre-professional training and the rapid proliferation of online schools and improvements in both their rigor and reputation have coalesced to make alternative schooling more appealing to a wider range of students and their parents. Dance schools large and small have responded by creating academic environments within their schools to support students’ independent study. But how does it work? And how active a role should the dance school take?

For dancers, the primary appeal of alternative academic programs is flexible timing, both in their daily schedule and over the long term. “Most of the programs are flexible enough that if you don’t do your four hours of schoolwork Monday, you can make them up later in the week,” explains Christina Rutter of San Francisco Ballet School. Online programs vary widely, ranging from free cyber charter schools to rigorous programs created by elite universities, and from programs with little to no interaction with virtual teachers to those where students Skype with teachers several times a week.

Recognizing that students have differing academic goals and financial resources, most dance schools allow dancers and their parents to choose individually among programs. San Francisco Ballet School provides students and parents with a list of programs. “Our philosophy is that flexibility is the most important aspect,” says Rutter. “The families drive the academic goals for their children, so they ensure they have the right program for their students’ needs.” Though SFBS doesn’t administer any particular online program, it does provide support in the form of free Wi-Fi and a library. Students choose their own study time.

The Rock School schedules formal academic study periods.

Other schools formalize the academic schedule, setting times for students to be in the school’s classroom, with school administrators and occasionally tutors on hand to help. The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, for instance, schedules academics in the morning and dance in the afternoon. At The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, students switch back and forth between academics and dance. Nutmeg also provides a large community room that offers offshoot rooms for small-group work and quiet spaces to record foreign-language practice.

Among dance schools that have elected to administer one primary online program for students, the Keystone School is popular. It’s run by the publicly traded, for-profit company K12 Inc.—the nation’s largest online education company. “There are two main things Keystone brings to the table,” says Robert Hodges, academics and student affairs director at The Rock School, which has been using Keystone since 2001, in addition to Commonwealth Connections Academy, a public cyber charter school for the state of Pennsylvania. Among the many considerations involved with selecting these programs (accreditation, tuition/fees, graduation requirements, teacher availability, range of support services, courses/electives offered, religious affiliation), Hodges considered what size course load would be optimal for dancers.

“At Keystone there are no deadlines per se, except students have 12 months to finish,” Hodges says. “And there’s a good balance between academic rigor and accessibility. The amount of work fits with the time dancers have.” Students have the option to register individually for Keystone, or the dance school can create an academic program that includes a certain number of Keystone classes.

While many schools rely almost entirely on online curricula, others such as the Joffrey Ballet School blend online programs with in-house teachers to mitigate some of the primary challenges of online schooling. 

“Definitely the hardest thing is to get the kids to take ownership of their education,” says Hodges. “To be very honest, it doesn’t work for everybody. While it can be a much more efficient way of getting a high school education, the lack of deadlines can be difficult for some students.” A recent study by Stanford University found that online charter school students working from home learn less on average than students in traditional schools, in large part because of lack of support. “That’s why we have tutoring and weekly updates, so students don’t fall through the cracks,” says Hodges. “And I, too, act as tutor, teacher, principal, guidance counselor and cheerleader.”

Beyond setting up classes and registering, Nutmeg’s academic program director Donna Mattiello helps students negotiate the realities of online schooling. “Especially coming from a brick-and-mortar school, it can be hard to understand that there’s a teacher out there looking at their work and caring about what they do,” she says. “Kids need help developing a relationship with their teacher.”

Online schooling also requires “a huge amount of discipline and self-motivation,” says Rutter. These are qualities pre-professional ballet dancers usually possess in abundance. But they are teenagers, often more excited about pas de deux class than trigonometry. “It’s difficult for anybody, let alone teenagers, to focus for four or five hours on academics,” says Mattiello. “A lot of my job is making sure they stay focused—not sneaking text messages—and take breaks.”

This emphasis on academic focus is essential, because, realistically, not all students will become professional dancers. For some, the path may lead to a college dance program. “I tell them they’re doing a college prep course whether they like it or not,” says Hodges. “We want them to be set up to be successful wherever they end up.” And there is evidence that online schooling can breed academic excellence: In recent years SFBS students have gone on to Stanford and Princeton.

In fact, the independent thinking cultivated in online school can provide a lifelong lesson. “Every negative of online schooling has a flip side that’s positive,” says Hodges. “One of our greatest joys is when a freshman who is struggling finds that moment when it clicks and then realizes she can take ownership of her learning. That idea alone can translate into a profitable dance career, and it’s something that they might not learn in a traditional high school.” DT

Caitlin Sims, a dance parent based in San Francisco, is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet School; Cat Park, courtesy The Rock School for Dance Education

Don’t miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

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

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

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

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox