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.

The Conversation
Dancer Health
"We think as dancers, 'Oh my gosh, if this thing isn't working hard enough, I have to work it harder.' In order for these muscles to work, they have to have a chance to relax, too." –Kathryn Maykish

As deeply familiar as dancers are with their bodies, there's one muscle group that can remain mysterious. You can't see it, and it can be tough to access, but the pelvic floor serves a major role in your posture and body function. Dancers and other athletes are more prone than the general population to dysfunction of the pelvic floor, and this can have major ramifications in dance and life.

Keep reading... Show less

Showstopper sees all types of different dancers from across the world at their dance competitions. Sometimes it can be hard to know how to stand out among the 100s of dancers that perform on their stages.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty

The holidays are here, and as everyone knows, the real best way to spread Christmas cheer is serving your community and helping those in need. Luckily for dance teachers, dance studios are the perfect backdrop for the start of some seriously awesome service projects. Your dancers will learn the value of helping others, and you will all feel warm and fuzzy inside!

Check out these three service-project ideas, and try implementing them at your studio this season. Let us know over on our Facebook page, or in the comments below, what other projects you do at your studio that make a difference in your community!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by TutuTix
Photo by Allef Vinicius via Unsplash

The holidays can make this time of year fly by. But successful studio directors know that December is not the time to rest on their laurels. Here are four projects to consider this month to give your business a year-end boost.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, and there were an estimated 1.3 million suicide attempts. While it's a myth that suicide rates are higher in December than any other time of year, the holidays give us an opportunity to consider the health and happiness of those we love. As dance teachers, we spend more time with our students than even their parents do, which means we are in a particular position to notice the pain and distress they're experiencing.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What do you do with parents who constantly complain about where their daughter is placed in choreography?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Photos courtesy of Google

Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

It's a dance teacher's job to prepare students for professional careers. As everyone knows, this means more than just giving them precise technique and exceptional performance capabilities. Perhaps more than ever, it's important that teachers prepare their students to know how to make smart and safe decisions when entering the workplace. It's important that we give them the skills to say "no" when a project doesn't fit with their personal values, puts them in a dangerous or toxic work environment, or is discriminatory to their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Teachers need to help their students advocate for themselves in order to create a career they can be proud of.

Here are four tips for helping your dancers make safe and smart professional decisions when they leave the warmth of your caring and supportive studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I've noticed a clicking or popping sound coming from my right hip joint when I raise it to the side, and I tend to be far more flexible on my left leg. Are these two things connected? Should I be worried?

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

Q: I want to do a holiday performance and need some advice. How do you get parents on board? How do you keep it economical? What other money makers do you do at your holiday show other than ticket sales?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Genshaft in Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

Dana Genshaft was a beloved dancer in the San Francisco Ballet for 15 years, rising to the rank of soloist. Some of her SFB career highlights include performing lead roles in Frederick Ashton's Monotones I and Wayne McGregor's Eden/Eden and originating roles in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House and Mark Morris' Joyride, as well as working with Christopher Wheeldon and William Forsythe.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored