Teaching Tips

Check Out This Teacher's Tips for Teaching Tiny Competition Dancers

Misti Ridge teaches class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. Photo by Arlyn Lawrence , courtesy of Ridge

The dance teachers who work with kids ages 5–7 have earned themselves a special place in dance heaven. They give artists the foundation for their future with impossibly high energy and even higher voices. Enthusiasm is their game, and talent is their aim! Well, that, self-esteem, a love for dance, discipline and so much more!

These days, teachers often go a step beyond giving tiny dancers technical and performative bases and make them strong enough to actually compete at a national level—we're talking double-pirouettes-by-the-time-they're-5-years-old type of competitive.

We caught up with one such teacher, Misti Ridge from Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, The Dance Awards 2019 and 2012 Studio of The Year, to get the inside scoop on how she does it. The main takeaway? Don't underestimate your baby competition dancers—those 5- to 7-year-olds can work magic.

Goldie Ford- Jada www.youtube.com

On what her 5- to 7-year-old jazz class looks like

"I do a full class from warm-up to center to jumps—I don't baby it down for them. In our warm-up we include abs and correct push-ups (I believe they need to start getting strong at a young age so they can hold themselves correctly, rather than look like noodles). I teach them the basics like passés, pirouettes and how to open from second to first for chaînés. I don't skip over things, but I'm also not afraid to give them something challenging."

On pushing her littles

"I like to give them something beyond their present skill level and then help them reach it. Some will grasp things at different times than others. Some will be amazing at leaps while others will be amazing at turns, and they may need to work extra hard at what doesn't come easy to them. Even still, I want to give everyone the opportunity to grow through challenging work. Different teachers will have different opinions on this, but I've found it's the best way to help them make progress."

Tessa Ohran - Feeling Good www.youtube.com

On using analogies as teaching tools

"I like to use visuals to help my students understand different concepts. I teach them that their hip bones are headlights, and if they turn them off the road, they'll wreck. As they pull into passé, I like to use the analogy of a rocket. Our legs are like the flames that push toward the ground as it blasts off, while our body is like the top of the rocket in the air. I'll usually show them a picture as well, just in case they don't know what a rocket is—they're 5 after all. During Halloween I bring a skeleton to class to show them the proper position of the hips, where the tailbone is and how everything should be placed."

On choreographing routines for this group

"Similar to my classes, I try not to dumb my choreography down. They will perfect their movement in technique class, so I start by giving them difficult stuff to work with. I can always pull back if it ends up being too much. Throughout the whole year they work on the technique in the pieces I gave them, and they rise to the challenge."

Ruby Taylor - Wind It Up www.youtube.com

On her secret weapon

"I almost always have an assistant in class with me. One of us is always walking around the room and correcting the students, while the other is demonstrating. This is really helpful for this age group. They can both see and feel what their dancing should be like."

On helping young dancers pick up choreography

"I use a lot of repetition—we do each movement over and over and over again. I also send home a video of me or my assistant doing it with the dancers. I tell them to watch it a few times before they go to bed, because I feel like it really helps them remember."

On keeping her students' attention

"I have to have a lot of different incentives. I have a star chart for their attitudes, and then I have a star chart for reaching goals. When they reach certain goals like right splits or left splits, I will try to reward them for it. A couple of my kids are very clingy to their moms, so I will say 'OK, if you come into class without crying, you get a star!' Some teachers disagree with this, but for me, it's really helpful."

Center Stage Performing Arts Studio - Queen of Hearts www.youtube.com

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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