The hands on the clock fly around, the next competition looms, yet the numbers need more polishing. Team kids already spend endless hours at the studio in regular classes. How do you fit in enough rehearsal time?

The secret isn’t to schedule last-minute rehearsals or to eat up dancers’ entire weekends, but to have a well-thought out plan for the whole year that incorporates competition group time into your weekly class schedule. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Take the pressure off weekends.

That’s what Stina Smith of Jersey Cape Dance and Gymnastics Academy in Cape May, New Jersey, did this year. Since many of her school’s 34 team members already take technique classes between three and six days a week—even the 6-year-olds—she used to teach team choreography in marathon 9-to-5 sessions on Saturdays. When that wasn’t getting the job done, Smith began bringing in soloists on Sundays. She quickly realized that enough was enough.

“Before we demanded any more of the kids, this year we tried something different. We added a choreography class every week,” she says. Each of the studio’s four teams has its own class on a weeknight, during which members learn and perfect their competition routines, greatly reducing the Saturday commitments. Smith also gave students every other Saturday off at the beginning of the season. “So far, it seems to be working out well,” she says.

Adding a choreography class to the weekly schedule can also prevent rehearsals from encroaching on technique classes. This is the first year Smith hasn’t felt pressured to take time out of class to focus on her competition team—a practice that was unfair to her recreational dancers. “Our recreational students would be sitting around, because they didn’t choose to compete,” she says, “but I felt I had to put that time into the team.”

Limit individual time commitments.

Using regular class time for team rehearsals is a “disaster,” says 21-year veteran studio owner Steve Sirico of D’Valda and Sirico’s Dance and Music Centre in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Parents will have a fit over that.” Sirico’s performance group members attend specific weekly classes to learn competition material, plus a Saturday practice once a month. Rehearsal time varies for each dancer. Auditions are held at the start of the season, and dancers are chosen for numbers based on set skills. A preteen tapper, for example, might be in only one tap number, while a more advanced dancer appears in tap, lyrical, jazz and hip-hop routines. This set-up allows for greater flexibility.

“We try and get the best out of each group,” Sirico says. “It doesn’t overwhelm them and they can compete if they dance for as little as five hours a week, between rehearsals and technique classes.”

The system is a result of “banging our heads against the wall trying to get kids to commit” to the traditional team approach, he says. This year, the performance group numbers 70 dancers, 50 of whom are handling multiple routines. Truly serious dancers can strive for the more elite 25-member studio company, which requires a higher commitment of technique class and rehearsal time.

“The parents love it. Before, the number of hours required would scare them away,” Sirico says. “This gives more kids a chance to be part of the team. If they desire more, they can take those additional classes and work on that particular technique.”

Save time with advance planning.

At Retter’s Academy of Dance in Agoura Hills, California, many parents juggle their kids’ schedules along with their own jobs and family lives. This realization is what prompted Co-owner and Co-director Linda Bernabei-Retter to organize a team calendar that lists all classes, rehearsals and competition dates at the beginning of the season. Sticking to it has become imperative, Bernabei-Retter says.

“It’s all on the calendar, so they can see if they can commit,” she says. “About 10 years ago we realized we were not meeting the needs of these parents, and for us, this has been the way to go.”

The 53 dancers in her mini, junior, teen and senior teams all attend company choreography classes on Thursdays. In October and November, when dances are being set, the team also rehearses on Sundays from 11 am to 2:30 pm. As choreography is mastered, fewer Sundays are required.

Make the most of rehearsals and classes.

Good time management means getting the maximum from dancers in rehearsal and class. If a dancer has a test the next day and can’t concentrate, Sirico will allow a day off from rehearsal with the understanding that the material has to be made up in a half-hour private lesson.
“We try to give them a balance. If you come in and you’re fried, tired and distracted, you’re no good to us. Stay home, do your homework,” he says. “Then come back refreshed and ready to go.”

Bernabei-Retter’s husband and business partner, Darryl, grew up spending endless days and nights at his mother’s dance studio. Neither of them wants that for their own daughter, or their students. That’s why they are careful to start and end rehearsals on time, and keep the dancers dancing fully. Every minute is put to good use, and the dancers themselves know their time will not be wasted. Understudies are set for all pieces, allowing for rehearsals to continue productively if a dancer is injured or absent. Because time is wasted when material must be repeated for absent dancers, rehearsals are mandatory when choreography is being taught.

In addition, all of the Retters’ teachers must arrive for team rehearsals with choreography worked out in advance. “With limited time, those days when we could set choreography on the students are gone. For me, it can take up to 17 hours to pre-produce a number before the kids see any of it,” she says. “It’s difficult, but I insist.”

Remember that time flies when you’re having fun!



With so much repetition required for performance perfection, the fun of competing often gets lost. To keep the experience fresh and exciting, Sirico’s group members attend only two or three events a season. Performance group members hone their routines in front of the recreational students—who, in turn, are happy to show off their own recital routines.



To mix things up, Bernabei-Retter invites master teachers to teach team classes. Sometimes she might run a mock audition. When the tension is thick, she’ll remind the dancers to “check your ego at the door and keep your sense of humor.”



If a rehearsal is lagging, Jersey Cape team dancers will “circle up” and do a motivational exercise, such as saying one nice thing about each other. On “clean-up days,” Smith and her faculty play “good cop, bad cop,” just to make sure the dancers hear some praise along with the technical comments. She also designates one rehearsal as the annual “trophy smash,” where dancers work out their frustrations and anxieties by beating on last year’s trophies with large rubber hammers. “After all, the team is not about trophies, but about reaching personal goals,” Smith explains.



All teachers should watch for the warning signs of burnout: exhaustion, crankiness and zoning out. Usually the culprit isn’t dance alone, but a mix of schoolwork and extra-curricular activities—such as school plays, cheerleading, etc.—weighing heavily on a student. Then, it’s time to sit down with the dancer and his or her parents for a chat about commitment and making choices.



In the end, there’s no one surefire way to beat the clock. “We could always hold another rehearsal, but at some point you have to let it go,” Bernabei-Retter says. “There are other lessons to be learned, such as how to work in a more focused manner in the time the company does have.” DT


Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

One of the surest ways to liven up a lesson is to invite a guest or teaching artist to work with your students. “At the most rudimentary level, it’s exciting to bring someone from the wider world into the classroom,” says John Cimino, president and CEO of The Learning Arts in Chappaqua, New York. “It helps you look freshly at things that may have become a little too familiar.”

First, it’s important to note the difference between guest artists and teaching artists: Guest artists are usually professional dancers or choreographers who can demonstrate, discuss and instruct students in a particular style of dance, such as Horton technique or flamenco. Their visit might include a master class and lecture, setting choreography on students or preparing them for a performance. Teaching artists are also from the professional dance world, but they have received additional training to use dance as a method for teaching other subjects, such as physics, writing and social studies. A teaching artist might use dance patterns to help students understand geometry or haiku, for example, and the lesson might also include a performance opportunity.

Whichever type of artist you choose to work with, here are a few steps to ensure the experience is productive for everyone involved.

Set Clear Goals
Debbie Gilbert, a teaching artist and co-artistic director of Whistlestop Dance Company in Seattle, advises classroom teachers to put a lot of thought into what they want to accomplish during a guest’s visit. “The key to being effective is to create clear criteria for the lesson,” she says. “The TA, the teacher and the kids should all know what they are learning.”

Depending on your goals and budget, the length of the guest’s stay can vary from a two-hour class to a two-week residency, or once a week for a semester. After this is determined, you and the teaching or guest artist can work together to break down the overall goals into a series of developmentally appropriate steps.

Talk It Over
Teachers and artists should talk in-depth about the upcoming visit. “It all begins as brainstorming: Here are our interests, here is a challenge, let’s create something together,” Cimino says.

Topics that should be covered in advance include:

  • district or national standards that must be met
  • how students will be assessed
  • classroom concerns, such as special-needs students
  • who will be responsible for classroom management
  •  informing parents and faculty of the guest’s visit

Ask guests what they will need during their visit and inform them about the size of the space in which they’ll be working and the amount of time allowed for each lesson. In turn, prepare students by discussing what the guest will be teaching and go over relevant information, such as vocabulary words and historical facts. If the class will be watching a performance, review audience etiquette.

Be Present
Gilbert was unpleasantly surprised when one classroom teacher read a newspaper during her visit. Teachers should partake in the experience, though the nature of the participation may vary. For instance, if the visit will stretch over several weeks, consider working together as co-teachers. If the guest is only available for one hour, the lesson might run more like a master class, with the classroom teacher either participating alongside the students or actively observing.

In any case, the classroom instructor should always be present to keep an eye out for potential problems, such as students who act out, and be ready to nip behavior issues in the bud.

Follow Up
Gilbert encourages classroom teachers to stay in touch after her visit, whether to ask for advice on working through challenges or to pass along news of successes. “Many times, you model a lesson so the classroom teacher can continue to teach independently, with your support,” she says. She also loves receiving letters from students, who talk about what they learned or why they enjoyed the experience.

There are many ways to incorporate a guest’s lessons into future classes. If the subject was Martha Graham, for example, you can have students write research papers about her or create their own Graham-style dance phrases.

A guest or teaching artist’s visit can leave both students and teachers motivated and inspired. Guests might even approach curriculum in a new way that clicks with struggling students. For instance, if they say the same things that you have often repeated to no avail, students might finally understand the validity of these lessons. In this way, a visiting artist’s influence can last long after the visit ends.

Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

Like Clark Kent, Alex Bloomstein leads a double life. Every morning at 7:30, he drives from his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to his law office in Hillsdale, New York, and works until mid-afternoon. Then it’s off to his dance studio in Beacon, NY, about 70 miles south. He walks through the door in his suit and tie and minutes later emerges, Superman-like, outfitted in dance gear and ready to teach class. 

It’s all in a day’s work for Bloomstein, who for the past two and a half years has owned, operated and taught at the conservatory-level Ballet Arts Studio, in addition to running a law practice. As any studio owner can attest, running one business is hard enough, never mind two. But Bloomstein isn’t alone in his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep dance in his life—even if that means juggling two careers. 

Take Sheila Ward, an exercise physiologist and epidemiologist who holds an associate professorship at Norfolk State University in Virginia. Friday might find her lecturing at a cancer-survivor conference, while the next day she’s busy setting choreography on members of her Philadelphia-based dance company, Eleone Dance Theatre. And Lisa Lockwood, a former American Ballet Theatre and Broadway dancer, manages a large ballet class load at STEPS on Broadway in New York City while running her own garden and floral design firm in the suburbs. 

All three acknowledge that maintaining dual careers means endless work, limited downtime and plenty of stress. But they say it’s all worth it to hold on to a passion. “I have a dear friend who said to me, ‘You are so fortunate to have two things you love doing,’” says Ward. “Some people don’t even have one.”

A Blessing in Disguise 

Ward holds a BS in physical education with an emphasis in dance, an MEd and PhD in exercise physiology and an MPH (master’s of public health) specializing in epidemiology. One of her areas of expertise is managing chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and arthritis through physical activity. 

Growing up, Ward studied dance in the Richmond, VA, public school system, and later majored in physical education, the mandated course of study for modern dancers at Indiana University. A class in exercise physiology—the study of what happens to the body during and after exercise—piqued her interest and eventually led to a career teaching that same subject, along with anatomy physiology, at Norfolk. “If I had not followed my passion for dance, I might never have found out about exercise physiology,” she says. “Indiana U had a strong ballet program, but that was not my forte. Studying phys ed was a blessing in disguise.”

But Ward didn’t give up dance entirely. In fact, she danced professionally with Philadelphia Dance Company and Philadanco II before joining Eleone Dance Theatre, which she has co-directed since 1998. Most weekends, she makes a four-hour commute to Philadelphia to work with EDT, a company whose diverse repertory spans contemporary, modern, spiritual, rhythm and blues, African and hip hop. During the summer, she stays in Philly longer to help the company prepare new choreography, including her own, for the coming season. She also writes grants, manages money, books gigs, prepares contracts and handles touring arrangements for the 12 company members and two apprentices. 

While she occasionally joins EDT onstage, Ward admits that her days of whipping through multiple numbers are over. Still, she enjoys keeping her strong connection to the artistic world—and sharing her love of dance with others. In addition to her work with the company, Ward has taught hundreds of public school students through residencies in Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. 

Ward finds a way to incorporate dance into all her classes, whether or not they take place in a studio. She remembers a conference at which she was talking to cancer survivors about changing their lives by exercising. “Close your eyes,” she told them, “and when you open them, see how you should feel inside.” On a screen, she had projected an image of an Eleone dancer in a gorgeous leap, arms lifted, head high. “This is you, with joy,” Ward told the survivors, “you with the liberation to live your best life starting right now.”

Choreographing Flowers

Lisa Lockwood’s garden and floral design firm is called Choreanthus. “It’s a made-up word, sort of like ‘choreography’ and ‘plants,’” she explains. “I feel like I’m choreographing the flowers. It’s really fun.”

With a grandfather who was a farmer and a mother who was a gardener, Lockwood was raised with an appreciation for growing things. Yet she spent her early career not outdoors but onstage, dancing with ABT from 1976 to 1985 and on Broadway in On Your Toes and The Phantom of the Opera. After starting a family, she transitioned to teaching dance—but still the world of nature called to her. 

Lockwood apprenticed with a friend to learn floral design technique, and she called upon knowledge passed on by her mother to understand how different types of plants grow and which ones work together. She then opened her own business in the basement of her Nyack, NY home.

Most of her jobs are private gardens, although patients at New York-Presbyterian Hospital enjoy her work through the artificial arrangements she created for a long-term care unit, as do students at a school where she designed an outdoor courtyard with a babbling creek and Japanese elements. She’s even done weddings, but draws the line there. “I have another career going!” she says. 

That career is teaching ballet at STEPS on Broadway, where this year she added classes to her course load. Lockwood says the two jobs are “a wonderful complement. The real issues in garden design are lines, texture and color.” In fact, she often designs a garden as if it were a stage setting—two lines of flowers like the corps, principals in the middle and larger plants for a backdrop. But, in art as in dance, she also likes to break the rules sometimes, whether by adding an asymmetrical touch or pushing a homeowner who wants a neat and tidy look to go for something a little wilder. That creative element has replaced what Lockwood missed when she stopped performing. “I loved being in a company and dancing, and I didn’t have the outlet anymore,” she says. “Floral design has fulfilled that part of me.”

She’s considered giving up teaching to concentrate solely on gardens, but feels that would leave a void. “I’m exhausted at the end of the day,” she says, “but it’s a good exhausted.”

Rediscovering a Lost Love

There was a time when Alex Bloomstein’s life revolved around dance. Enticed into class by a girlfriend at age 18, he immediately dropped everything else and started dancing. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his major was political science and economics, but his course load was predominantly dance. His post-college life was spent teaching, performing, taking class and working odd jobs as a stage manager or lighting designer to make ends meet. 

When his first child was born, though, he realized that those ends weren’t meeting enough. “I looked around and made a stupid decision—I stopped dancing instantly,” he says. “It wasbreaking my heart, but it was the only way. I knew if I kept my hand in it at all, I’d always want to be there.”

After graduating law school and passing the bar, Bloomstein spent three years as a corporate lawyer and 12 years as a trial lawyer, working in family law and criminal defense, with hearings all day every day. Then one day, one of his former dance colleagues, Valerie Feit, called. She owned a dance studio and was looking to pass it on. Bloomstein realized he was not happy and considered the offer.

Though his decision to purchase the studio proved much easier than his decision to leave the dance world all those years ago, it was still a scary leap. But he made it nonetheless, becoming the artistic director of Ballet Arts Studio in addition to being a lawyer. For the past two and a half years he’s been living his double life, logging lots of miles and falling into bed exhausted at the end of each day. 

Bloomstein says that handling the studio’s administrative needs is the toughest part. He admits he is ready for another change, but this time he’ll be cutting back on law, not dance. “The studio is my love at this point,” he says. “That’s what I need to focus on.” 

Bloomstein’s law background does come in handy: When a costume company tried to extend a delivery deadline, which would have left Ballet Arts Studio without costumes for an upcoming performance, Bloomstein penned a quick response—on law office letterhead. “I was not threatening, but I was able to write a letter that packs more of a punch,” he says.

Ballet Arts Studio got its costumes—on time. DT 


Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

Everybody wants to dance nowadays, but who has the time? Kids are overscheduled and parents overstressed, so it’s important to remember one of the basic principles of successfully running a business: Know your customer. This concept holds true especially in today’s challenging economy. If your typical customer is the preprofessional student who longs to spend every waking moment in the dance studio, arranging a studio schedule is not so tricky. Hold the classes; they will come.

But if your customer is the dancer who also likes to play the tuba and run track; the little ballerina who comes in a carpool driven each week by a different stressed-out mom; or the preteen who dances because her friends do, you need to set a schedule that’s convenient for them all. And the top priority should be their convenience, not yours.

Luckily, with a little pre-planning and creative thinking, you can develop a timetable that not only works for your studio but accommodates—rather than complicates—your customers’ busy lives.

What Else Do Your Dancers Do?

Want a healthy enrollment in that sixth-grade ballet class? Better not schedule it at the same time as the local middle school’s soccer practice. Becky Seamster of Kokomo, Indiana, collects school information, from release times to marching band rehearsals, and works her September-to-June schedule around all of it. “The best way is to know what’s going on in the community,” says Seamster, who founded the Becky Seamster Dance Studio 25 years ago. “Even if it’s the brother or sister with a conflict, the neighborhood carpool won’t be running in that direction at that time.”

With parents providing info on sports teams, school musicals, show choir and cheerleading, Seamster fits her schedule around her students’ engagements, paying attention to ages and levels, and prioritizing ballet classes and team class requirements. “It is a challenge,” she says. “I put all the kids in a level together and try to find a common denominator that works for everyone. This one can’t come Tuesday; this one can’t come at 4:30. If it’s not exact, I choose as close as I can.”

Each May, parents at To the Pointe of Performing Arts fill out a form created by owner Sheri Masiello stating which days and times are best for them, and listing all potential conflicts with other activities. Masiello then diligently uses the information when creating her fall schedule. Masiello, who runs schools in both Cranston and North Providence, Rhode Island, says it makes life easier. “It tells us if the child is coming back, lets us know what she wants to take next year and helps us create levels. Our kids tend to do a lot of things—they have no time to dance five days a week.”

Know Your Customer

Parents appreciate timesavers such as schedules that allow siblings to dance on the same night. This is more important with younger ones—when the parents generally stay and watch class—than with older students, who arrive by carpool or are dropped off. Finding out details like this is essential for creating a schedule that works for parents, Seamster says.

Other factors, such as how long it takes students to get home on the school bus, are also worth considering. Due to the large Jewish population in Chicago, the schedule at Jessica Swiggum-Goldman’s All About Dance can’t conflict with the year’s bat mitzvah schedule. In Rhode Island, Masiello is equally conscientious about weekly Catholic education classes.

Scheduling suggestions from customers are greatly appreciated by Swiggum-Goldman, who will gladly fill an empty spot with a new class—as long as the parents who request it can guarantee a five-student enrollment. “Let the parents do the marketing for you,” she says. Then, if enrollment doesn’t pick up, she transfers those students into other classes and tries something else. “We saturate the schedule with tons of classes,” she says. “Once we randomly put classes on a Sunday, and they were packed.”

Schedule Faculty for Maximum Effect

Masiello, who has two studios to staff, hires teachers capable of handling a wide variety of classes. With “a staff that can teach everything and run the desk,” she is free to create a schedule with as many class options as possible, especially for her younger students.

To avoid wasting time by canceling and rescheduling classes due to faculty illness or absences, Seamster arranges her calendar so that teachers with the night off are capable of handling that night’s regular schedule, in the event she needs last-minute coverage. (One hip-hop teacher on, one off, for example.) Or, if that isn’t possible, she places similar styles and levels near each other on the schedule, so that if one faculty member is sick, the classes can easily be combined.

Limit Time at Recitals and Dress Rehearsals

With most studios holding multiple recitals, parents’ complaints about the time required—especially if their child has four dances in one recital and only one in another—are on the rise. This past year, Susan Montrond of Spotlight Dance Studio in East Taunton, Massachusetts, color-coded her class schedule based on the recitals the classes would be in. Classes were either in the red, blue or green recital. This way, by selecting all classes of a certain color, she says, parents limit the time they’ll have to spend at dress rehearsals and shows. “I have no idea where this idea came from—it just popped into my head,” says Montrond. “But it was a real timesaver for parents, and it saved me time and work. In the spring, everything went a lot more smoothly—even putting together the program book was so easy.”

This system also allowed Montrond to give parents recital information much earlier in the year. In the past, recital show order was announced in January. Some parents—particularly those with several dancing children—were either faced with attending multiple recitals or given the option of switching around classes at that time. By color-coding the schedule, everyone either had all of their classes in one recital or knew what they were up against by mid-September.

“The parents appreciated knowing in September if they were in two recitals,” Montrond says. “We only had four sets of siblings that were in two shows, because of the variety and number of classes they take, and those parents were very understanding. Of our 300 students, about 95 percent had all of their classes in one recital.”

Saving Time with Technology

Once the 50-class schedule at All About Dance is set, a scheduling software program helps Swiggum-Goldman stay organized. With classes running Monday through Friday from 9 am to 10 pm, and shorter Saturday and Sunday timeslots, “I feel that half of my job is scheduling,” she says. The software that Swiggum-Goldman uses, MINDBODY, logs details such as class openings and students’ names, information and credit card payments. Students can also register online—a hugely popular feature, especially for her large adult population, many of whom are not enrolled but enjoy the freedom of weekly drop-in classes, she says. (For more information on studio software, refer to “Operation: Studio Update” in the June 2008 issue of DT.)

To Change or Not to Change

After three years in business, Swiggum-Goldman feels she has finally set a basic schedule that satisfies her wide-ranging student population, from youth ballet to cardio striptease to private ballroom classes for engaged couples. “I’m trying to keep as much of last year’s schedule as I can. Last year’s was great—why change what works?” she says.

Keeping the same schedule wouldn’t work for Seamster, whose kitchen table disappears under a snowstorm of papers, schedules and jotted-down ideas for several weeks each June until a new, workable schedule for the next school year emerges. “My life would be simpler if the classes stayed the same and the kids moved around!” she says, laughing. “In the end, you have to prioritize. Find the most important issue, and work from there.” DT

Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

One is fun, but two can be terrific. Partner dancing is all the rage today, with couples twirling and dipping everywhere on TV and in the movies. But before they can thrill audiences with a one-handed overhead lift, students need to learn the basics of good partnering—trust, timing and communication.

“There’s no better feeling than dancing with a partner, moving as one, playing off each other,” says Melanie LaPatin, co-owner of Dance Times Square in New York City, who was featured on the June 2008 cover of DT. “It’s give and take, action and reaction. It’s having a non-verbal conversation.”
Partnering is an artform in itself, and attempting it for the first time is often a nerve-wrecking experience for students. Even if they’ve been studying for many years, adding another body into the mix can be intimidating. Taking time to ease their fears and bring out their talents will have your dancers impressing audiences before you know it.

Build Trust

When LaPatin and her partner of 27 years, Tony Meredith, work with beginners, their immediate goal is to establish a sense of trust between the couple. To achieve this, they start with a simple exercise that requires the couple to hold hands while the woman closes her eyes and allows her partner to guide her around the room. They walk forward, backward, sideways, with the man pressing down with his thumb to signal a change of direction. Then they switch, and the woman guides the man. Not only is this lots of fun but both partners realize fairly quickly how important it is for the woman to let go and trust—and for the man to earn her trust by guiding her safely and confidently “without bashing her into a wall,” jokes LaPatin.
To keep beginners from getting too comfortable with the same partner in a group class, LaPatin lines the ladies up on one side of the room and the guys on the other. When the music starts, all dancers walk straight across and pair up randomly. After a short time, the students switch. “You have to trust someone you’re not too familiar dancing with,” she explains.

The importance of mixing up couples also holds true for ballet. When former Houston Ballet dancer Parren Ballard introduces partnering to his advanced dancers at the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education, he is careful to have the pairs rotate often. “It’s not beneficial to stay with the same partner,” Ballard says. “The boy might be with a girl who turns fabulously on her own, then be surprised when he moves to the next girl who needs a lot of help.” Still, even as they switch, teachers should be aware of dancers’ heights, and aim to place students with similar statures together.
Trust hits its biggest roadblock in ballet when dancers begin overhead lifts. “I’d say 90 percent of dancers are tentative about those,” says Ballard. When teaching lifting technique, he slows down the class considerably and works with one pair at a time, pointing out the timing and the mechanics. Usually once a couple completes a successful lift, the other dancers relax. “Everyone says, ‘Oh look, Sally did it, I can do it.’ They see it’s not scary, and develop trust. But they need little successes for that to happen,” says Ballard.

Perfect Timing

Timing, an element crucial for lifts, turns and intricate footwork, takes dedication to master. To encourage couples to synchronize their movements, Meredith teaches dancers the “mirror” game. Facing each other or standing side by side, one person makes a movement that the other must mirror. There is no contact in this game, and it’s important that one person is the leader and the other the follower, he says. From there, he puts together an easy combo with minimal contact for them to master, perhaps with pulling or pushing movements. The amount of contact is increased gradually.
In ballet, preparations are key to mastering synchronization. Ballard explains to his female students that, for the male to properly time himself to her movement, she must make her preparations large enough for him to see. For example, when going up for an entrechat, she must make her plié deep and obvious, or he’ll miss the timing. The same applies with the tendu leading into turn preparations. “It cannot be a short prep that surprises the boy,” Ballard says. “Right away, I get the girl to understand she must move deliberately. You’ll never be successful without the right timing. If you are too close or far away, you can fix that, but if the timing is off, you are pretty much dead in the water.”

Ballard often instructs girls to practice an adagio combination, while the boys follow along, figuring out where and when they would lend a hand in partnering and focusing on her timing. So much of partnering is experience, he says—the more they do it, the better they get.

Promote Communication

Ballard encourages conversation, allowing time during class for couples to talk to one another. This allows the girls to quickly discover why a step worked with one partner and not another, and by listening to her words, the boys can figure out what they need to do. Leaving them to guess or read the other dancer’s body language is never effective. “I tell the girls to talk, not to say, ‘I don’t know,’” says Ballard. “Instead, I suggest they try, ‘I need my balance forward’ or ‘I need to feel your hand on my hip.’ It’s very important to tell the boys what you need.”
Lastly, to understand good partnering, dancers need to see good partnering. LaPatin and Meredith often demonstrate together, while Ballard uses an advanced female student to show promenades or finger turns during classes.

“Rather than just teaching them, demonstrating allows them an opportunity to see what makes a good dance team,” Meredith says. “Then, they get to experience it for themselves. You don’t realize how limited you are on your own until you have a partner. It’s amazing.” DT

Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

Costumes are so lovely, yet only studio owners realize the hard work, hassles and headaches that lie beneath those innocent sequins. While there is no way to satisfy every student or assure every costume will fit, staying organized, ordering early and choosing costume companies wisely can go a long way toward streamlining the process.

Step 1:

Get a Head Start

“Forty years ago, you could call up a costume company in March and tell them what you needed for April,” recalls Dawn Crafton, of the Dawn Crafton Dance Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “Now, every single year, it gets earlier and earlier.

A studio owner for 55 years, Crafton starts thinking about next year’s costumes before the year ends and orders by mid-December. Owner Nikki Calder, of Top Hat Talent Performing Arts Studio in Oklahoma City, plans even earlier. Last year, she ordered the costumes for her recreational students by the first week in December. Everything had arrived by the end of January, well in advance of April picture day and the May recital.

Studios that order before Christmas tend to get their costumes more quickly, giving them ample time to handle mistakes or wrong sizes. In addition, there are often incentives or discounts provided by manufacturers for those who order by a certain deadline. Watch those delivery dates, warn experts. Sometimes a delay of even a day or two in placing an order will push a delivery back by several weeks.

Step 2:

Reward Reliability

A company might have a super selection or quality, but only those that deliver on time and with good customer service get repeat business from Backstage Dance Studio in Bellevue, Washington. Office manager Melyssa Noren says she stopped doing business with one vendor for 15 years. “We loved the product, but they had manufacturing issues,” she explains. “With 600 kids, however, we finally decided we needed the variety they offered. Over time, they worked out those issues, so we invited them back.”

Two years ago, Patricia Pesca Santillo of Patricia’s School of Dance in Wallingford, Connecticut, lost $1,500 after an order of hip-hop costumes never arrived, and her phone calls to the company went unanswered. “You have to be careful,” she says.

Now, despite the hundreds of catalogs that arrive in the mail, Santillo limits her choices to six to eight reliable companies, while Noren uses five and Calder, three or four.

Step 3:

Keep Decision-Making Simple

When it comes to costume selection, studio owners say it’s important to limit the number of people involved in the decision. Crafton, for example, selects all costumes herself, based on the instructors’ color and style suggestions. Others allow teachers to choose for their individual classes, within a certain price range.

Costume books—and especially price lists—should be strictly off-limits to parents. At Backstage Dance, where parents once tried to find out the name of the costume company with the intention of calling to “get the costume for less themselves,” catalogs are not allowed out of the teachers’ room. Santillo, whose studio parents also demanded to see the costume books, makes ordering a staff-only decision as well. “The most important thing I have learned is to keep the parents out of it,” she says. “You never know what people will do.”

Once decisions are made, you can download pictures of the costumes from the internet or tear them out of catalogs and hang them in the lobby for the entire studio to view.

Step 4:

Measure Carefully

Crafton recalls ordering two sets of costumes for one class, and despite having the same measurements, nothing fit. To combat this, Santillo recommends adding two inches to hip, waist and bust measurements, and four inches to girth, to allow for growth. “I’ve never had a costume that was too big to wear,” she says.

Backstage Dance’s Noren hangs instructional posters in the studio and makes measuring the parents’ responsibility. “That way, we’re not to blame if the costume doesn’t fit,” she says.

Step 5:

Establish Personal Relationships

Top Hat works closely with one of its manufacturers to personalize costumes for the studio’s 100-member competition team. Calder initiated the close working relationship after several years of ordering from the catalog. Now, company reps drive three hours to the studio each July to discuss designs and fabric swatches.

Since many costume companies are small, the owner or designer is often easily accessible. Crafton advises finding out who to talk to, then directing all questions or problems to that person only. “Rather than pushing numbers forever, I like to push an extension and talk to Margie—it’s so much better,” she says.

Step 6:

Account for Time, Cost and Loss

After spending hours measuring, poring over catalogs, ordering, sorting through boxes and trouble-shooting, don’t be afraid to fairly compensate yourself for the time and effort. Crafton builds all of these duties, plus her expenses from traveling to conventions each year to feel fabrics and gauge quality, into the price of her “performance package,” which includes costume, accessories, a recital T-shirt, recital DVD, CD of practice music and class picture. All of her students pay the same price.

Other studios charge on a sliding scale based on size, as most costume companies charge $5 or $10 less for a small child’s costume than for a small adult’s. At Backstage, fees run between $45 and $60, and teachers must choose costumes that cost about $10 less. The leftover is used to offset staff hours spent on costumes, along with shipping costs and other related expenses. “We really don’t make anything on costumes,” Noren says.
At Top Hat, no matter the size, all recreational student costumes are $55, and teachers must select costumes that meet that cost. Sticking to the budget can be tough, Calder admits, but everyone is encouraged to customize costumes by using the sequined belts, boas, ribbons and rhinestones in the studio’s sizable accessories closet.

While payment methods vary (from one payment due early in the season to smaller deposits split over several months), all money is generally due in full before orders go in. But faced with struggling parents and the fear of disappointing a child, all studios say they have been left with unpaid costumes in hand after students quit, moved or just disappeared.

Rather than bemoaning the loss, Calder takes leftover costumes down the road to a children’s home. “We lose money,” she says, “but most our kids don’t want for anything, and those kids have so little.” DT

Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

Among the many things you have to teach young students—proper technique, discipline, performance etiquette—how to choreograph is probably not high on the list. Yet students can reap marvelous benefits from learning the basics of dancemaking.

“If we want them to be more than just technicians—if we have expectations of them as performing artists—choreography is a way for them to find out who they are through exploratory exercises and challenges,” says Diane Jacobowitz of Dancewave in Brooklyn, New York. “This is for the teacher who can see the bigger picture.” (For more on Dancewave, turn to “Reaching for New Heights” on page 80.)
Teaching composition, whether it’s adding five minutes of improvisation to a technique class or designing an entire hour lesson based on dancemaking concepts, opens the door to self-expression for dancers of all ages. Rather than compelling students to always repeat steps by rote, which can lead to burnout for even the most technically gifted dancers, choreography frees them to express their feelings and delight in the knowledge that they have created something important and meaningful.

Classroom Concepts & Activities

While advanced students naturally will be able to use more difficult movements, dancers with any level of experience can experiment with choreography. Emphasize that creating a piece is about more than simply putting steps together; telling a novice to “go and make up 32 counts” is a recipe for disaster. Instead, focus on using choreography concepts, games, suggestions and exercises to encourage students to move, and then show how that movement becomes choreography. “Give them things to dance about,” says New York City–based master teacher Ellen Robbins. “Without improvisation, there is no source of inspiration for the movement; it’s only steps. The passion is what’s important.”

Anne Green Gilbert, founder and artistic director of Creative Dance Center in Seattle, includes a choreography section in all of her classes, even for ages 3 and 4. She sets up a scenario that allows students to work on specific choreographic concepts. For example, her youngest students do a “dance game” in which they are introduced to “energy” by dancing in different dynamics—their movements must be “sharp,” “smooth,” “shaky” or “swinging.” Another week she talks about high and low levels, or plays with verbs—“poke,” “chop” or “brush” the space.

Starting at age 6, students discuss concepts such as exits and entrances, or how a dance needs a beginning, middle and end, just like a story in a book. Green Gilbert instructs them to enter the stage space with a slow movement, create a rhythm with a partner, then exit with a fast movement. “Give them concepts, vocabulary and skills, and the time to play with those skills,” she says.

Robbins starts weaving choreography games into her classes for 5-year-olds. Students make a “dancing sandwich” by beginning with a skip, doing another movement, then ending with another skip. Or they move from stiff to wiggly, change from a caterpillar to a butterfly or dance from happy to angry. She also gives them story outlines—they’re ice skating and fall down; they’re sleeping, the alarm clock rings and they have to rush to get ready for school; they’re lost in the woods—to help them create their own movements.

Critiquing each other’s work is an important part of the process, one that even 5-year-olds can participate in, Robbins notes. “We watch each other’s pieces, talk about what looked good, what could be better,” she says. “After a time, they just talk to each other. I don’t even have to enter in.”
Jacobowitz starts with students in the fourth or fifth grades, who learn to make up movement to fit a story. (Perhaps it’s walking through peanut butter or floating down a river.) To “cook spaghetti,” they start out stiff and straight, “jump into the pot” and slowly become loose and wriggly, then roll out and end on a plate.

Once the creative juices are flowing, students are ready for more serious concepts. Jacobowitz suggests teaching a phrase of eight counts, then asking students to create variations on it—changing the tempo or rhythm, altering the level or doing the phrase backward. Or, she says, teach the first two phrases of a piece of music, and ask each student to contribute one additional phrase.

Jacobowitz also splits students, ages 8 and up, into groups of three to six and teaches each a simple variation. She starts the music and lets each one enter and exit at any time, allowing individuals to leave their groups to dance with another. Exercises like these not only show how a dance is made, Jacobowitz explains, but encourage dancers to work together as a unit.

Classical music can be a wonderful inspiration, adds Robbins. Take a suite such as The Carnival of the Animals, and give a two-minute solo to each child. Allow them to come up with their own scenarios and movements to match. Chopin might inspire an 8-year-old to become a woodland sprite, while Stravinsky might conjure up a more dramatic scenario—one of Robbins’ students did a dance about a melting ice cream cone that she tried to eat faster and faster, only to have it melt onto the ground. “A tragedy in a minute and a half,” Robbins recalls, laughing.

Getting Teachers Up to Speed

One of the reasons many teachers resist teaching choreography is that they never formally studied the subject. Brushing up on composition tools and concepts by reading books or attending workshops can help.

For years, the dance world was so focused on turning out technical dancers, Green Gilbert says, that creativity and self-expression were often left behind. But there is room for both. When she guest teaches at serious ballet schools, she has those preprofessionals choreographing within a half hour by explaining concepts such as doing a step in canon, changing the dynamic or taking a straight-line movement and traveling in a zig-zag instead. “Ask your students, ‘What could we do here? How could we change this?’” Green Gilbert suggests.

While kids will generally enjoy the fun and freedom of dancemaking, parents may sometimes complain that the time should be spent on technique. Jacobowitz often has to explain that studying choreography allows dancers to express themselves, to use dance to speak to the world the way a poet uses words. In fact, many choreographers today demand that their dancers contribute to the movement. Even apart from dance, it teaches students to solve problems, to think independently and creatively, and even how to organize.

“They get so much pleasure from making up movements—not just waiting for the teacher to give it to them by rote,” says Robbins. “The children care about something because it is theirs, and that’s a personal investment that’s good for life.” DT

Karen White is a freelance writer and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

If your students are having trouble understanding the finer points of technique, perhaps it’s time to target their imaginations. Veteran teachers know that, in many cases, comparing a difficult movement concept with an everyday image works wonders, helping students get a better handle on alignment and body mechanics.

“What works best is a quick, simple image that needs less explanation,” says Roseann Ridings, a former Boston Ballet dancer who teaches throughout New England. Ridings sprinkles her lessons with funny, creative images, particularly when teaching younger dancers. For example, when her students’ frappés lack adequate attack, she has them think “karate” rather than “ballet.” “I say, ‘Your foot is a deadly weapon that you need to sharpen,’” she explains. “They laugh, but they get it: They strike the foot a bit stronger.”

Humorous images work particularly well and tend to be more memorable, a plus for teachers tired of repeating the same directives, like “Pull up,” or “Where are your arms?” “It can be as silly or stupid as you like,” insists Glenna Wilson, owner of Dance Dreams Studio in Kannapolis, North Carolina. “You have to be creative and constantly think of ways to entertain.”

Over the years, Ridings and Wilson have amassed a collection of their own images, as well as those from their teachers and friends in the field. Here are some of their favorites:

If you want students to:

Keep their chests lifted

Say: “Imagine you’ve been shot with Cupid’s arrow.”

Ridings asks older students to picture Cupid’s arrow going through their sternum, with the point entering between the shoulder blades and exiting through the chest. This helps them remember to lift the front of the chest rather than let it collapse, she explains. The off-beat image gets their attention. “Any time you can use physical pain imagery, you get a strong reaction,” she says, laughing.

If you want students to:

Stop sticking out their ribcages

Say: “Imagine your chest is an umbrella.”

Wilson has students who can’t shake this habit visualize their spines as the rod of an umbrella. When the rib cage is out, the umbrella is “open.” By placing a finger at the top of the rib cage and sliding it down to the belly button, they “close” the umbrella.

If you want students to: Improve their balance

Say: “Imagine the air is solid.”

This image can lend dancers a sense of support in balance. In first arabesque, Ridings’ students imagine they are placing their right hand on their bedroom bureau, trying to “feel” the support. Later, they advance to thinking that the air around them is “solid.” Ridings notes that this is particularly effective when dancers must hold an arabesque from a moving step, such as a series of chaîné turns.

Or say: “Imagine you’re dancing with an invisible partner.”

Younger students can think of a partner holding them up by the wrists when they’re in fifth-position relevé. When it comes time to balance alone, Ridings says, “Remember that invisible partner? If he were here right now, how would he help you stand in passé?”

If you want students to:

Stand tall

Say: “Imagine you are a scarecrow, hanging by the back of your neck.”

This helps younger students stand tall in relevé while relaxing the arms and keeping the shoulders down. Sometimes, Wilson touches them at the back of the neck, to help them find that “spot” where the scarecrow is attached to the pole.

If you want students to:

Turn better

Say: “Imagine you’re a Porsche, not an SUV.”

If you find that older students are having trouble keeping their balance during turns, try explaining that a sporty, low-to-the-ground Porsche takes turns well, while a top-heavy SUV tends to flip over. In pirouettes, this image encourages students to keep their weight in their hips and helps to counteract the tendency to pull up and topple out of the relevé, says Ridings.

If you want students to: Keep proper alignment

in plié

Say: “Imagine you’re a piece of bread in a toaster.”

Perfect for little ones, this image is especially effective with grand plié in second. Ridings reminds students that if they stick out their belly or behind, it will get burned. To make the same point, Wilson uses a funny phrase: “It’s plié, not bootay.”

Imagery has helped both Ridings and Wilson advance as dancers themselves. Ridings, for example, first heard the “air is solid” metaphor while taking a class in her 30s, and couldn’t believe how much it helped her balance. “Sometimes putting something a different way makes a huge difference,” she says. “Students never forget these images; they really stay with them. I’m always on the lookout for something clever. I wish I had a million of them.” DT

Karen White is a freelance writer and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

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