There are lots of dance schools and teachers in America. These schools and teachers interact with thousands of children and adults. Right here in Atlanta we have, by enrollment, one of the largest ballet schools in the country, maybe even the world.
Did you know that there is no standard or licensing required for all these teachers and schools which work with all those students? I bristle a bit at the thought of government regulation, but know for a fact that there are people whose money is basically being stolen from them because the quality of the training they are paying for is so very poor. This is a strong judgment. I make it because dance is important to me and I take my commitment to the profession seriously.
So, what should you look for in a class?
1. The Teacher Should be Professional
Quality teachers are trained to teach. Just because you can dance does not mean you can teach. Many accomplished performers make wonderful teachers, but not all.
Dance teachers should present themselves in class and the community as professionals. What a teacher wears to class shows whether or not they take what they do seriously. Would you show up to a business meeting or school conference in your bathing suit? A teacher need not wear a tutu, very few people look good in these glorious and crazy costumes anyway. But, they should wear dance clothes and shoes; these are the tools for the job. Students need to see a teacher move. Part of learning how to dance is imitation. The exception to this is very advanced students and their teachers. These folks are working on the very miniscule details of the work and use predominantly descriptions and analogy to get the point across.
Really good teachers are involved in making the art form better by promoting it, volunteering and helping train other teachers. They are good citizens.
There should be an apparent plan for class. These plans may not always go smoothly, but every class should still be orderly and obvious work should be getting done. This does not mean that a class should be somber. Excellent training is, in fact, joyful because the environment created should communicate that there is nothing better than making the effort to improve.
2. The Dance Space Should be Safe
The body does a lot of work to dance, it intersects with the floor repeatedly and this floor is important. It needs to be what is called “sprung.” This means that it has give and can absorb some of the force of all those intersections. It is like the effect of a trampoline, only on a very small scale. New studio floors must be constructed to have this and many old wooden floors have this characteristic spring already. Without this give, the body does not work as well and will not work as long. This matters for all students of dance. Safety First!
3. You Should be Able to Watch Class
As a person considering a teacher and school you should be able to observe a class. A parent of a student should be able to see what happens in class at anytime. This is not the norm in the Dance School World which is a struggle to understand. Plié is not a State Secret and a teacher should not be doing anything in class that is not fit for public consumption.
Some teachers feel guests are disruptive and depending on how you run a class, they could be. If sitting, watching, truly watching – not chatting on their phone or with another – the work of the students is only supported. Dance is a performing art form. Performing is done in front of an audience which is hopefully full of people!
4. Class Size Should Be Smaller Rather Than Larger
It is very simple. A teacher only has one set of eyes. Make sure that the class size is related to the skill level of the students. The less experienced and younger dancer needs a smaller class. If a class is very large, think about how much time the students spends waiting to take their turn. Look for limits of eight to ten for students under the age of ten. Dance class is not childcare!
5. The Students Should be Asked to Act Professionally
Students should bring themselves, a positive approach and the right tools to class. These tools are dance clothes and shoes.
Clothes designed for dance, like fitted leotards and tights, allow the teacher to see a student’s body and how it is moving. This is part of the teacher’s job, so if they do not ask a student to do this, he/she may not be very interested in doing their job. Some schools have very strict dress codes and others allow sparkles, skirts and feathers every week. A good dance class is not about the clothes.
Shoes are important to technique. The correct foot covering facilities movement and allows the foot to work correctly. If a student’s feet cannot work, how else is the rest of the body going to do anything well? It is all riding on those 56 bones.
A Rant on Shoes: Ballet needs ballet shoes, not the pink bedroom slippers that are sold at the big-box stores. I long for the day when these disappear from the market place! Beginning and intermediate students should have soft, fitted, leather shoes, with a suede sole, simple. Be wary of the many, many, many styles now available. Unless you are an advanced student, they are a waste of money.
Student behavior is important before, during and after class. Students are at the studio and in a class to learn how to dance and grace and courtesy are important to both dance and life. So, look for a school and class that have order, a sense of calm and positive language from the teacher and students. The dance studio is a fun place but it is not a playground.
So, professionalism and safety are key. Look for these and joy. Find them together in a teacher and class and you will have an experience that is truly valuable.