Friday, May 22, 2009

Finding the Perfect Ballet School

Parents of ballet crazed children spend a lot of time thinking about ballet schools. They wonder if the school their child currently dances at provides the best training, the most nurturing environment, the right atmosphere and the list goes on into infinity.

As a parent whose child has tried every dance school in her area, I have come to one conclusion: there is no such thing as THE perfect ballet studio. Ballet students are by nature perfectionists and there is no way any school can live up to their expectations. Accepting that simple truth now will make things much easier for you as your child travels down the ballet pathway.

That does not mean, however; that you should dump your child at the local dance studio and hope for the best ( unless the local dance has a really, really good reputation). Ballet training is a long, slow, arduous process. It can be dangerous both physically and emotionally so you want your child to be in the hands of competent professionals. even if your child doesn't want to be a dancer or doesn't think he or she wants to be a dancer, you as the parent need to make the best possible choice because the wrong studio can lead to injuries and for girls especially, low self-esteem - even at a recreational ballet school.

So what should you look for? Well, there are always articles in parenting magazines about that. There are also books out there. Some of the information is good, some only applies if you live next door to The Royal Ballet Academy, which most of us don't. Below you will find the most common advice with comments from me about the reality of being able to follow that advice.

I have read many articles titled "How to Find the Right Dance School for Your Child". As I stated above, there's a lot of good advice there but there's a lot of unrealistic advice as well.


The first thing that comes up is usually, discuss your child's goals, what does he or she want to get out of dancing? I usually laugh at this point. Why? Because most students, usually girls, take their first dance classes as young as three years old. Ask a three year old why she wants to dance and the answer is inevitably, "I want to be the Sugar Plum Fairy." Not "I want to someday become a professional dancer who will one day have the opportunity to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker." These little girls really do want to be the Sugar Plum Fairy!

Most ballet students do not make the decision to pursue a full time dance career until they are between the ages of 12 and 14. That can be a problem. Ballet is all about developing good habits. Training for 5 years at a sub par ballet school means five years worth of bad habits that may be close to impossible to break.

So that particular question is pointless because the answer is meaning less.

Syllabus or Not to Syllabus?

Other articles will tell you to look for a school that has a written syllabus. This is good advice because a written syllabus is like a master plan for training ballet students. In theory the syllabus addresses training goals and strategies, makes sure all the teachers are teaching the same way and provides a quick check to make sure students are progressing appropriately.

In reality, few schools have a written syllabus. Small, neighborhood schools usually have a "mission statement" but ask to see their syllabus and you will be met with blank stares. This doesn't mean that the school is a bad school. Sometimes there are only one or two fabulous teachers, who are on the same page with each other and never got around to writing anything down. On the other hand there are schools with a written syllabus that the teachers never follow.

Show Me Your Credentials

Looking for teachers with great dance credentials is also a must have on these lists but in reality teaching and dancing are completely separate skills. A teacher with 20 years of experience as a professional dancer with a major dance company could be a worse teacher than the one who never made it as a dancer but loves kids and works hard to give them the best training possible.

Company Affiliated Schools

Occasionally dance articles will advice parents to look for ballet schools affiliated with professional dance companies. These schools are said to provide experienced teachers, excellent technical training and for those who want it, the best chance at attaining a career. In reality, these schools are located in large cities, often only take children through an audition process and your child may be dismissed anytime the teachers decide the child doesn't have what it takes. There are also schools affiliated with small professional, regional companies. They are usually accessible to everyone but don't get it into your head that just because the school is associated with a professional company it is a pre-professional ballet school. The quality at these schools can be uneven. Dancers from the professional companies teach but they may not be good teachers and professional companies have been known to use the schools as a way to provide an extra "paycheck" for their apprentices and company members they don't want to lose.

Okay, so we've covered some of the advice and some of the reality. So what should a parent be thinking about when it comes to finding a dance school?

Parents need to think about quality of instruction, how much they are willing to pay and what they can get for that, and whether or not the school will be a good fit if the child does decide at 12 that a ballet career is the only thing he or she wants in the entire world.

In short, a parent should look for the best training he or she can afford in the town he or she lives in.

How Do I Do That?

The answer is to do a lot of homework and a lot of legwork. Find out what type of dance schools are in your area? Don't just look at the school that's a five minute drive from your house, also look at the one that is a 30 minute drive. Why? the 30 minute away school might offer better training which translates into safer training for your child.

I'll discuss the types of dance schools for fully in another blog but basically schools are divided into recreational schools, performing arts schools, competition schools and pre-professional ballet schools. They all have pluses and minus but when looking at training for a young dance student, they should all have these things:

Good teachers. Teachers have a lot of influence over whether or not a child will learn to love dance or learn to hate it. The stereotypical Russian dance teacher screaming at her students and carrying a large cane is just that, a stereotype. And such teachers are not good teachers. For young dance students, the teachers should have dance experience, should not be teenagers taking advanced dance classes at the school and should themselves exhibit a love of dance that the students can emulate. And it goes without saying that they should be very patient.

Clean Facilities. A school should be clean. The bathrooms should be clean, the carpet should be clean, the studios should be clean. A good studio has "marley" on the floor. This is a kind of covering that makes the floor less slippery and easier for dancers to dance on. If the floors are wooden, they should be sprung wood floors. Sprung floors cushion a dancers impact during jumps. This results in less injuries. Finding these in a studio, usually means the owners care about the students they are training and that the school is somewhat successful because sprung floors and clean marley are not cheap. However, don't dismiss the studio that looks a little worn around the edges. The building might be old and the windows a little grubby but as long as money is being spent on good floors and a clean environment, chances are the owners are putting the money the studio makes to good use.

Comfortable Atmosphere. If the parents are sitting around a window, pointing out the mistakes each child makes and discussing how unfair last months casting decisions were. Run. The reality is that parents need to be as comfortable with the dance school as the student. If you feel like you can't talk to other parents without hearing a million complaints from the other parents. If there is an air of unhealthy competition, you will consciously or unconsciously transmit those feelings to your child and then you will both be unhappy. Find a place you and your child like.

Good Training. Well, this goes without saying but how are you, the clueless parent going to know what constitutes good training? Well there are clues and there are ways to find out. Three clues are:

The number of technique class offered and how long the classes are for the older students. Young students take one class a week but intermediate students ( around age 11 or 12 if it is a good school) should be taking a minimum of three, hour and a half long ballet technique classes a week. If those are offered its a good sign. If your intermediate and advanced students are taking two hour long ballet classes a week and that's all that's offered, its a good sing that ballet is not a priority at that school.

Nine year olds on pointe. Parents seem to assume that the younger a child is placed on point the better but the opposite is actually true. Pointe work involves placing the child's entire body wait on the tips of their toes. In order to do this without getting hurt, a child's foot must be a class to fully grown as possible, otherwise a lot of damage to a child's growth plates can occur. Also at nine very few children have the strength or the technical ability to dance on point. A good studio not only keeps children off point until age 11 or 12, they don't put students up on point just because they are 11 or 12. Students going up on pointe, en mass, as it were, is a bad ideal since not all 12 year olds are technically ready to go up on pointe even if they are physically strong enough. I've seen a lot of girls who could have been beautiful professional dancers, sidelined because of chronic injuries developed because of being put on pointe too young or without strong technique.

Rehearsals for recitals, performances or competitions happening during class time. Class time is for training. Its for perfecting technique. When class time is used for other purposes, you are wasting your money. Your child is not spending enough time learning proper technique which cause the development of bad habits and can lead to injuries.

Taking all of this into account. what do you do now? Visit the schools in your area, try to get a feel for how accessible the owners and teachers are. If they don't want to talk to you now, they probably won't if there is a problem. Watch not only the class your child will be in but the intermediate and advanced classes. Compare what you see at one studio to what you see at another. If the advanced girls at one studio look better than at another, there is probably a reason for that. Have your child take a class. Most studios offer a free trial class. Don't just sign your child up at that studio just because she comes out smiling. Have her take at different studios and then decided together what feels right.

What should you ask? When girls go up on pointe, how many competitions the school participates in ( more than 1 is too many), how many dancers have graduated from the school have gone on to professional careers or into dance programs in college, are there separate rehearsals for the recital or the performance, how may performances a year, do you have to pay for performance costumes and what does that usually cost, are recitals mandatory.

This is of course my view of the world. For more information get a copy of A Parent's Guide to Ballet or follow this link:


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why Ballet Moms Need a Blog

Blogs about ballet are numerous. Written mostly by dance teachers, dance professionals and dance students they offer an excellent glimpse into the world of ballet but like most blogs they are written from the point of view of said dance professionals and students.

What about the parents?

I know what you are thinking - why should parents be involved? Aren't they just pushy people who think their daughters are the next Margot Fonteyns and their sons the next Baryshnikovs?

Well, the simple answer, is that parents are already involved. They pay tuition, they support studio fundraisers, they drive their children to class and they buy pointe shoes, pay for summer intensives and tickets to watch professional productions. They are already involved and they deserve to know if they are getting their money's and time's worth.

That's the purpose of this blog. To help parents navigate the mysterious and complicated world of ballet training. It is a place where I will share some of my experiences and knowledge about ballet training, from a parent's point of view. I am not a ballet professional. I've never even taken a lesson but my daughter has wanted to be a professional dancer since she was little and has never changed that focus.

In order to help her, I have had to learn - sometimes the hard way- as much as I could about locating good dance schools, how pointe shoes are fitted, and what it takes to survive and thrive in a world that, to me, seems, completely illogical and sometimes detrimental to a child's health and self esteem.

This blog is not a place for me to brag about my child's accomplishments or a place to "dis" schools and programs. I will blog about things I know and things I wonder about. Most of the blog will be from the perspective of a parent of a girl. I don't have a boy that dances so I can't explore the issues surrounding that, although I can share things I have heard.

Overall, I will try to be informative and accurate but I will probably make mistakes or pass on information that might not be true anymore. I'm sure my readers will make sure to share their own wealth of information.