In almost any discipline or classroom, finding the right teacher can mean the difference between igniting a student's passion or creating a burning desire to run. Naturally, this holds true in the dance studio -- maybe even more so, since it can be a very rigid and structured environment. A student who doesn't truly love it will be miserable with the wrong teacher.
On the other hand, a great teacher-student match can create the kind of brilliance we've seen on the great stages of the world. (Think Baryshnikov, Graham, Nijinsky, Baker, Kelly and others.) You may or may not want your child on the big stage -- but there's no doubt you want the best fit for your budding dancer.
Finding your right match is a matter of personal preference, and these guidelines will help you pin down the basics so that you can focus on your gut feeling for a final decision. In general, look for a studio (and/or teachers) with:
- CPR - First Aid certified teachers or administrators.
- Experience in teaching, not just performing. Ask about the instructors’ educational backgrounds; did they study early childhood education, or just dance?
- A dance aesthetic that suits yours. Think “prostitots” here – check out the dance performances of current students and make sure it’s what you want your kids doing. (Funny story here: one teacher years ago choreographed an adorable, innocent dance performed to Prince’s song “Cream,” without even realizing the lyrics. You get the picture.)
- An attitude toward dance competitions that agrees with yours. Dance competitions can be fun, and they can also be a high-stress environment – it all depends on the studio and teachers who get you there. The TV show “Dance Moms” comes to mind.
- A commitment to finding the fun and enjoyment in dance, rather than a focus only on the recital. Recitals can be fun, and they’re an important component of a well-rounded dance education, but every single class can be fun, too!
- Live music whenever possible – the importance for both dance and music appreciation can not be overestimated. Whether it’s piano, drums, singing or something else, live music adds an extra layer to the beauty of dance and the synchronicity of performance. Just try it -- you'll see the difference.
- One-way mirrored windows, so that parents can observe without being obtrusive.
- Varied class offerings, and the opportunity to sample all or several of them within a tuition package.
- Family or sibling discounts.
- Creative movement only for kids under 5. Ballet-with-a-capital-B is too much for this young age: too strict, too staid, too uptight. Let them first learn to enjoy the freedom of movement – there’s plenty of time for technique later.
- An open dress code. Part of the fun for preschoolers is wearing the fancy-schmancy stuff that says “dance” – sparkly tutus, pink shoes with extra-big bows, etc. I get the point of a dress code and the discipline it instills, but come on. They’re only 3 once.
- An attendance policy that suits you (make-ups for sick days, drop-ins for wacky schedules, etc).
- A parent policy that makes you comfortable (in-studio observation, drop-off classes, whatever works for your family).
- ZERO emphasis on body size, shape, and weight. At this age, many kids have perfectly normal “padding” and unless your kid is the next Baryshnikov or Fonteyn, there is no reason for a dance teacher to address this.
- Sensitivity to self-conscious kids. Just as the teachers should disregard body composition, they should insist that other students do the same. It might also help to make an exception to the dress code and allow cover-ups for extremely sensitive kids.
- A creative dance component and improvisation in every class. Early exposure to improv goes a long way toward fostering a lifelong love of dance and overall comfort with movement.
- Attention to technique in a positive way, and avoidance of extremes (turnout, stretching/flexibility, etc.)
- Teachers who are able to switch teaching styles on the fly. Boys and girls learn differently, as recent neuroscience has shown. They also dance differently and need to be taught in different ways.
- Movement challenges – rather than restricting them in technique, push them to own the space and the movement.
- No tolerance for gender bashing. Boys will almost always feel out of place in a class full of girls. All-boy classes are great, but rare – so in many cases, the best scenario is a good teacher who helps the children accept each other.
- A more open attitude toward the male dancer. Traditionally a “prop” in ballet, male dancers can often be the main attraction, and should be taught as such.
- If you can find one, a male teacher can really inspire confidence and creativity in boys.
The most important point is to find a teacher who loves kids and dance equally. Once you’re there, the rest will come. Ask your friends, check local class listings, interview and observe at your prospective studios. Go see their recitals or other performances. Give it a good try of at least six months, and then see how it’s going for you and your little one. If it’s not up to snuff, take it from the top again – a-five, six, seven, eight…..