Picking a Dance Studio for a Budding Ballerina or Dancing Diva

As parents start getting ready for back to school, it’s also the time when many parents start looking at and enrolling in extracurricular activities.  I’m not the type of mommy who puts my kids in tons of after school activities, but I am really particular about where I put my kids.

 As a longtime ballet teacher (much longer than I’ve been a mommy), I know the benefits of high quality after school activities.  I’ve taught at many, many, many different dance programs all over the country and even abroad.  I’ve taught at some really high quality, pre-professional programs and some less than stellar small studios but I gained something from every experience and more importantly, no matter the setting, my students learned how to dance as well as the discipline involved in being a dance student.

 When my daughter showed interest in starting ballet as well, I did some research and picked a studio.  I thought I’d made a great choice but two years later, too many hysterical crying fits to count and disappointing results, I realized I didn’t do enough research and I’m now on the hunt for a new program.

 As a ballet teacher and now Dance Mommy, here’s my advice on picking a dance studio:

 Look at the schedule.  How often is each class offered?  How many levels are there?  Does the studio focus on one dance style or many?  How long are the classes?

High Quality studios will generally:

  • Focus instruction on one dance style with other supplemental styles and will offer many classes a week in the main style for the intermediate and advanced dancers.  An emphasis on students taking many different styles and only one or two classes a week of each prohibits students from getting good at anything.  It takes many classes a week of a single style to become proficient (especially ballet).
  • Offer varied levels for each age group.  Children should not be placed in a class purely by age, there should be multiple level options for each age group (with the exception of the younger dancers)
  • Have classes which are 45-60 minutes for young children and 90 minutes for advanced students.  Classes that are too long for little ones can result in behavior problems and classes that are too short for older and advanced students indicate a lack of quality instruction.
  • Do not offer combo classes, especially after the preschool years.  Classes which are single-focused provide better instruction by placing students with the best teacher for each style and giving ample time for each style (by 6 children should be in single-focused classes).

 Research the teachers.  What is their teaching and performing experience?  Have they taught anywhere else?  Where did they train?  Did they go to college?

High Quality studios will generally:

  • Have adult teachers.  Teenagers should not be teaching alone as they do not have the knowledge to safely teach.  Along with a lack of complete training themselves, they also generally do not understand anatomy (especially that of young children who are rapidly growing and changing) or behavior management.
  • Hire knowledgeable teachers who have varied teaching and performing experience, college dance degrees and/or are part of professional dance organizations.  Just like anything else, the more experience the better you can expect someone to be.
  • Use teachers from varied backgrounds.  While it may sound great when a studio employs it’s former students but what this really means is that ALL the teachers are going to teach the same.  Just like anything in life, variety is good.  Dancers these days need to be versatile and the best way to become a versatile dancer is by training with many, many different teachers.
  • Utilize each teacher’s strengths.  Most dance teachers are really good at teaching one or two styles and are usually best with a specific age/ability group.  Studios that use a few teachers to teach a lot of things are generally going to be lacking in their instruction somewhere.

 Take a tour of the studio.  Are there windows for observing?  Is it clean and well-kept?  What kind of floors are installed?  What kind of sound system do they have?  Are there any instruments?

What to look for:

  • A lack of windows for observing classes (or windows that are covered) always make me wonder why they don’t want people watching.  Yes, parents crowding around small windows can be distracting for young children, but teachers should be able to manage the class’s attention.  For older kids, what are they trying to hide?
  • Cleanliness is key since dancers often wander around barefoot and in some styles are required to roll around on the floor. 
  • Studio floors should be raised above the lobby/hallways floors indicating a sprung floor which is essential to injury prevention.  Floors should be hardwood or marley (vinly flooring specifically for dance, usually laid in long panels), be weary of tile, laminate and concrete floors which can all be dangerous and are not made for dance.
  • High quality ballet studios will often have pianos in the studios indicating live accompaniment and studios with a good reputation for modern/contemporary dance may have live drummers.  If live accompaniment is not used, a quality sound system is important since it allows the teachers to easily adjust the music as necessary for each class (adjusting tempo, cuing for rehearsals, having ample volume for the open space, etc.)
  • Show up during class times and take in the atmosphere.  Is the front desk staff friendly; are the parents hanging around and what is their behavior like?  Do you see yourself fitting in with the other parents and families? 

Watch a performance, read through the performance program and/or look at the pictures.  How many performances are there?  How long are the performances?  What are the costumes like?  What kind of music do they use?  Do the teachers dance on stage with the children?  How long are the dances?  How many dances does each class/dancer do?


Remember, performing should be fun!  Things to keep in mind:

  • How you feel about the costumes and music selections.  How a studio represents their students on stage says a lot about the atmosphere and philosophy of the studio.  Studios that use age inappropriate costumes, extremely expensive costumes, vulgar music or music that doesn’t match the dance style may place emphasis on the wrong things (such as the “look” rather than proper technique, teamwork and discipline).
  • The time commitment at show time.  Performances that are extremely long (2 ½ hours is okay, anything over 3 is too much); put young children in multiple dances; spread the dancers out throughout the whole show (as in your ballet dance in 2nd and your tap dance is 2nd to last); or do too many performances in a short period of time (in addition to run-throughs and dress rehearsals) can all put a strain on your child making them too tired and/or agitated to enjoy the experience. 
  • Children should know their dance without a teacher doing it with them.  If students can’t do their dance without teacher assistance either 1) they are too young to be on stage or 2) the dance is too hard.  Even if a teacher isn’t on stage, check for the class looking to the side of the stage indicating they are following a teacher off stage.

 Look at the total cost.  How much is tuition? Is there a registration fee?

Other expenses to look at:

  • Uniforms.  Many studios now require their students to buy leotards, tights and sometimes even shoes directly from them.  While this is not necessarily a sign of poor quality, it is an added expense since their specific items will almost always be more expensive than buying yourself from a local store or online catalog.
  • Performance Fees.  If you plan to have your child perform, make sure to enquire about the performance fees before committing or you may be in for an unexpected big expense come springtime!  Many studios require you to buy expensive costumes (one for each class; sometimes two for preschool combo classes), minimum number of pricey recital tickets and/or ads in the program all on top of a “performance fee”.

 Other opportunities.  How many performing opportunities are there each year?  Does the studio attend conventions or competitions?  Does the studio offer master classes, bring in guest teachers or do workshops?

Things to consider:

  • Older students should have multiple opportunities a year to perform.  And while more than one performance opportunity a year is good for younger children as well, make sure class time is not being used entirely for rehearsals.
  • Is there a performing company or completion team?  A lot of high quality dance programs will offer additional opportunities to their children through participation in a performance sompany or competition team which is usually by audition or invite only.
  • Do you want to do competitions?  I personally don’t really believe in competitions.  While dance is indeed athletic, I believe it’s artistic aspects come first and aside from the extremely prestigious ballet competitions, dance should be about teamwork and sharing the art, not competition or being the best (only an individual best).  BUT if you want to participate in competitions, look for studios that offer participating in competitions and research the quality of the competitions attended.
  • Will your child get the opportunity to work with different teachers through conventions, master classes, workshops and/or guest teachers?  As mentioned before, variety is key to becoming a great dancer as is taking class with great teachers.  Working with different teachers also helps students learn the discipline, etiquette and hard work which is required to be successful in the dance world.

 Ultimately, the decision comes down to what you want out of your child’s dance education and what is important to you.  My criteria now are very different from what I looked for two years ago when I was just entering the world of “Dance Mommy” (and weeks into the process, I’m still looking for the right place!)

 Read about my journey as a Dance Mommy (and as a Dancing Mommy!): 

First experience as mommy to a little dancer: "My Baby Ballerina"

First time as a backstage mommy: "Show Time!"

Parent observation week as a mommy/dance teacher: "Parent/Teacher Observations"

Dancing pictures with the kids: "Ballerina Mama: Moments in Pictures"

 

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