Circus Training Special: So You Want to Start an Acro Program at Your Studio?

If you're looking to enhance your dance curriculum, adding an acrobatics program is a valuable investment. Natural and exciting for students of all ages, tumbling skills are an excellent supplement to a dancer's education. From a business perspective, offering multiple disciplines is a good boost, not to mention an added convenience for the parents. Plus, contemporary choreography, whether on national competition or Broadway stages, is laced with intricate tricks like aerials, handsprings and illusions. And for students aspiring toward a professional career, tumbling experience on a resumé is practically a prerequisite in today's competitive talent pool. However, before you start adding cartwheels and back flips to your current schedule, there are a few important factors to consider.


Why Acro?

Studio owner and teacher Robin Dawn Ryan, who recently replaced the renowned acro teacher Charles Kelly on the Dance Educators of America faculty, knows firsthand the many benefits of offering acro. “It's fun and kids love it," says Ryan, who was also a circus performer and competitive gymnast. “It's also a beautiful and difficult artform sometimes not recognized or appreciated."

For the more advanced dancers and competition teams, acro can teach students to use their bodies in a totally different way, explains Jennifer Koonce, owner of Adrenaline Studio in Vienna, Virginia. “Acro is dance-based and focuses on flexibility and coordination," she says. When taught correctly, it improves a dancer's technique and increases strength.

Equipment

Before you stress about the expensive equipment necessary, your acro program doesn't need to be equipped to create the future Olympic team. Although, if you have the space and the budget, offering a full-blown gymnastics program is an option. Allison Gaither, owner and director of Siler City Dance & Gymnastics Academy, offers tumbling, bars (single, uneven and parallel), balance beam and vault.

If you are simply adding acro, panel mats are the only essential equipment needed, which can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. You can consider extra teaching aids like crash pads and TheraBands (for strength and flexibility training) as your program expands.

"It's a mistake to throw acro tricks into choreography without first laying a strong foundation. Acro requires tremendous back strength and flexibility." —Robin Dawn Ryan

Finding Qualified Teachers

“The best teacher is, of course, the experienced teacher who was a tumbler, acrobat or gymnast," says Ryan. She recommends special training, such as the acrobatic certification workshop offered by Dance Educators of America's Teacher Training School that she now runs.

Different from teaching a ballet, jazz or tap class, spotting is a mandatory skill for leading an acro class. Encourage continuing education classes to keep your staff informed on the latest teaching techniques. USA Gymnastics offers certification classes, and some basic curriculums are available online if you need an aid in creating your own.

“All of our teachers—both dance and gymnastics—are either university or professionally trained in their area of expertise," says Gaither. “And many of our gymnastics coaches are/were involved in collegiate gymnastics and/or cheer."

Developing the Curriculum

Start simple with offerings that establish the foundations of acro pedagogy. “More studios are teaching aerial work, such as silks, trapeze, hoops and Spanish web, without any acro knowledge, which could be dangerous," says Ryan.

At her own studio, Robin Dawn Dance Academy, in Cape Coral, Florida, Ryan offers a full range of acro classes for all ages, starting as young as 2 years old, from an introduction to the basics (i.e., somersaults and cartwheels) to advanced levels where tricks and tumbling passes are incorporated into choreography.

But keep in mind, one must learn to do a somersault before doing a flip. Acro tricks require tremendous back strength and flexibility. Laying a strong foundation will lead to better—and safer—execution of these more advanced skills. “Unfortunately, I see more and more dancers not being trained correctly," says Ryan, noting that too often teachers throw acro skills into choreography for the sake of adding a trick. It's a mistake, she says, to consider acro technique any less important than dance technique.

When taught correctly, acro can improve a dancer's technique and build strength.

Safety and Liability

As every studio owner knows, safety is paramount. To decrease the potential for injury, keep class sizes small. At Siler City Dance, the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:6 for preschool and beginner gymnastics classes and 1:8 for midlevel classes. Koonce maintains a controlled classroom by capping the maximum at 10 students.

By adding acro, you're increasing the risk factor. Your dance studio liability insurance should be updated, and if you offer bars, beam, trampoline, etc., the cost of coverage will be higher. “The biggest determination in cost is whether or not feet leave the ground," says Gaither.

Make sure you have the right coverage for when accidents happen, because they will. “Kids fall and get hurt," Ryan says. “But learning good spotting techniques, having proper equipment and teaching at the correct level makes a big difference." DT

Betsy Farber is a New York City–based writer and editor who's written for the L.A. Times and Huffington Post.

Headshot courtesy of Ryan; Thinkstock (2)

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