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Why Adult Ballet Students Should Be Taken Seriously

Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.


Adult ballet dancers are a big question mark. Former professional? No. Dance teacher keeping up her technique? Hardly. Like a handful of adult dancers I know, I started ballet as a kid. I liked it okay but quit when I discovered singing and theater. My interest was resurrected in college, thanks to a professor who treated us like real dancers, not just kids looking to round out their academic load with electives. From that point on, I was hooked and took class on and off throughout my 20s and 30s.

About four years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, I had more time to devote to classes. After getting lots of "Sorry, we don't have classes for adults," I landed at The Brookline Ballet School near Boston, where I was challenged alongside students of all ages, from teens to 60-plus. I loved everything about class—from the first plié to my stilted saut de chat. My skills were woefully rusty, and it took a couple of years to make it from barre to grand allégro without feeling like my legs were going to fall off.

But even though I was progressing at a pretty good clip, I could never shake the feeling that I was kind of a joke, that adult students are an afterthought, in a placating, "Aw, that's cute" way. My teachers took us seriously, so why didn't others?

It didn't help that, a few days before my first pointe class for adults, I called a dancewear boutique about a shoe fitting and got the irksome question. Again.

"For your daughter?" the saleswoman asked.

"Nope. For me." I remembered how a former bunhead/acquaintance huffed when I told her I'd love to do pointe work one day. "Adults," she smirked, "have no business wearing pointe shoes." Her remark inferred that I was simply going to slip into a pair of Blochs and flail around like some wannabe ballerina. Of course, I knew that pursuing pointe meant ensuring I had the proper leg and ankle strength assessed by a teacher familiar with training adults. There would be hours and hours spent at the barre, doing more relevés than I could count. But I looked forward to savoring each wobbly échappé and piqué—even if the people in my life couldn't understand why a 45-year-old woman would devote so much time to something she would never, ever master.

Fortunately, there are teachers who relish older students. Kathy Mata, of Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dance Center in San Francisco, is revered in the adult dance community. Wanting to give adults the chance to experience performing in front of an audience, she started Kathy Mata Ballet in 1988 and produces multiple shows a year.

Kat Wildish, a ballet teacher in New York City, gives her adult students opportunities to perform classical repertoire as part of a showcase held three weekends per year. They've grown from a 20-person studio audience in 2008 to frequently sold-out shows.

Mata feels that adults can bring a lot to ballet, and they shouldn't be overlooked as potentially powerful performers. "They have maturity and knowledge of life events—they really yearn to dance to fill their souls. Children sometimes follow the teacher, but the adult has the wisdom to digest the material given," says Mata.

The adults where I currently train, at Open Door Studios, in Charlotte, North Carolina, are all about soaking in corrections. We pepper our teachers with questions about arm placement or piqué turns, or laugh about striving to touch our legs to our ears with each grand battement. While I often default to what my body isn't able to do yet (multiple pirouettes, a penché to die for), I am hopeful, dedicated and determined.

The funny thing is, my now-6-year-old takes ballet. "Just like you," she says. That's right. Just like me.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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