We have just completed our dance year. Your student’s worked so hard and as instructors we have been pleased with their effort and progress. I want to thank you as their parent for the support and encouragement you give them and for your support of the studio. Through the dance year I will receive questions in regards to placement and advancement or why we approach our dance instruction in a certain way. Earlier this year I received an anonymous note from a student expressing concerns about her training and whether she was advancing as a dancer especially as it related to receiving pointe shoes and class placement.
As I have pondered this student’s concerns and other e-mails and conversations with parents, I felt it might benefit all of our dancers and parents to understand where we as directors and teachers are coming from in the decisions we make regarding certain aspects of a dancer’s training.
Over the last 17 years of running the studio, my philosophy of training has continued to be refined. I have tried to build a program that centers around my core beliefs both as a dancer and as a person. My goal is to run the studio with integrity according to my beliefs and what I have learned. It isn’t always perfect. But we strive to do things according to a set of core values and principles. I believe I am serving the students best when we train and teach with integrity to our philosophy.
How do I measure my progress as a dancer?
As my directors and I were discussing how to measure a student’s progress in a meeting, my jazz director came up with the perfect word to describe what has become a strong foundation in my beliefs about dance. This word is mastery. We want our students to understand that the goal isn’t just to do movement or to take class, but to master the elements that build a strong dancer. We want them to strive to work correctly. This builds truth in a dancer’s body and movement. It is what makes dance beautiful– when you see someone who has fine tuned their instrument so that it is moving in truth—with proper alignment, form and technique. This also allows the dancer to build strength, flexibility, advance their skills and leads to a higher level of artistry.
One of the benefits of not competing is that we get to really focus on the students training. There is no pressure to push them to do skills they do not have the foundation to perform correctly. In the long run, this methodical, building block approach to training builds a stronger artist.
The following is from our jazz teacher-training manual written by Ms. Ashley. It illustrates the culture we hope to establish in our students from a very young age.
We must remind the students, we cannot run from our problems. Moving on to more complex steps when you have not mastered the basics will not make your problems go away. Often the issues are magnified with more difficult steps. We must teach our students the importance of mastering the basics.
“Enjoy the process of learning to dance. The process of our profession, and not its final achievement, is the heart and soul of dance” (Jacques d’Amboise). Sometimes mastering steps and creating muscle memory can be arduous and tiring. We must continue to encourage, inspire and push our students to keep working towards mastery. This will allow our students to build an appreciation for hard work that will carry into their life after dance. Class work should always be about mastery not just keeping up.
In dance as in life, all things come with practice. I think each day of our lives is about us practicing to live true principles and to become better people. We are the healthiest emotionally when we view life as a practice and not a destination. Each day we try to do a little bit better then the day before with a lot of self compassion and patience. We also shouldn’t fear labor and can come to appreciate the joy that comes from doing things that are hard and cause us to stretch. The same principle applies to dance.
Looking for external sources to validate our progress
It is human nature to desire praise and validation and not all of it is bad. We want to live in a world with kindness and where sincere appreciation is expressed. However, continually looking for external sources to validate our worth or progress is an unfulfilling process—one that breeds discontentment and lowers feelings of self-worth. It is easy to want a trophy, a certain class placement, pointe shoes, or even the constant praise of a teacher and peers to tell us that we are improving and getting better, but none of these are real. A 1st place trophy at a competition is not a true indicator of about your competency as a dancer.
Anyone can purchase a pair of pointe shoes. Unfortunately there are unqualified teachers in the world that give out pointe shoes to students who have no mastery of ballet technique. Mastery of technique, good alignment, and executing steps correctly are the true measure of advancement. Just like developing true character, success as a dancer comes from within the individual. Here are a few examples:
- Students who work just as hard when a teacher’s focus is across the room from them, then when the teacher is looking directly at the student.
- Students who retain corrections from week to week, are mindful of them and motivated to fix them even if it means discomfort. We cannot improve if we are not dedicated to applying feedback
- Coming to class consistently. Often students complain to us about their lack of improvement and when we examine the rolls, they miss a lot of class. Consistency in coming to class is key to developing strength and muscle memory.
- Pushing yourself physically and mentally—working outside of your comfort zone, expanding the boundaries of your comfort zone each week. I read a blog post by another studio director. She shared an experience of telling a mother that her daughter had really started to progress because she had finally learned to work. A week later the studio director received a note from the mother. The mother said at first she was offended by the teacher’s words and felt like the director was calling her daughter lazy. However, when she brought up the conversation with her daughter who was the student, her daughter laughed and said, “Yep, I’ve finally learned what it really means to work and push myself this year.” It is human nature to stay in our boundaries of comfort, but true growth comes from working outside of those boundaries. This is hard for most children to learn.
- Stretching or doing conditioning exercises outside of class. Practicing and going over things at home and coming to class prepared each week retaining what was taught the class prior so the teacher can move on and not review what was previously taught and forgotten.
- Students who learn to worry about themselves! Successful students stay positive mentally. They do not compare their current abilities or limitations to other students in the class. They focus on their own progress week to week and believe in themselves—that through hard work and dedication they can progress and improve.
If a student’s doing the above things, they will not only advance as a dancer, they will develop character and discover the meaning of true self worth. I understand I am asking my students to live to a higher law by learning to look within themselves instead of to external sources for signs of success. I promise that any student who is doing the above things, will overtime reach their potential as an artist. The end result of this training philosophy is a truly competent dancer, all the other sources of external validation are superficial and do not lead to true greatness.
Why do some studios learn more dances?
My job is to teach students how to dance, not to just learn choreography. If a student is learning several dances, in replace of class time, they are not learning technique. Lifehouse company students spend 85% of their time on technique, conditioning and training. Below are our priorities in training students. This is included in our teacher’s manual.
- The students emotional and physical well being is #1. Our highest priority is creating healthy dancers both physically and emotionally who are trained in a way that is safe physically and positive emotionally.
- The students training. We are here to create strong artists who have true understanding of technique and how to improve their skills. However, their training comes second to their physical and emotional well being.
- Meaningful performance opportunities. Dance is a performing art. We want the students to be successful on the stage and to feel like they are part of something of true excellence. However, performances come second to their training.
We offer optional performance opportunities outside of their regular class work for students who want more opportunities on the stage. We would be compromising their training by learning more dances during class time. A dancer’s progress can be greatly limited when too much class time is spent learning choreography.
What are Lifehouse’s philosophies on pointe?
We take putting students on pointe very seriously. Students have to have the strength, alignment and technique before they receive their pointe shoes or it is dangerous. Putting a dancer on pointe before they are ready can cause permanent damage to the child’s feet and body. It is a matter of integrity for us. We will never compromise a student’s safety. Pointe is absolutely miserable if you are not ready for it. It is impossible to be successful if you do not have the proper strength and technical foundation. Because Lifehouse students are so well prepared before they are placed on pointe, they advance quickly in their pointe work. In time, our students achieve a higher level of excellence over students who started pointe earlier, but were not properly prepared.
What if I want to advance more quickly?
If you are not achieving your goals as a dancer there are lots of options! We want all of our students to achieve their dreams. If you want to advance more quickly we can get you more hours in the studio, a few private lessons for individualized feedback and set up a training system for you to do at home. We will also be honest about what we see from you in the classroom as far as focus and work ethic. One of the values of Lifehouse is “I do not fear the truth, for that is how I become all that I am meant to be.”
Being a good dancer is work, but attainable for most people. Being great takes an incredible amount of dedication and hard work. It is okay to be honest about what you are willing to give to your training and the results that come from your efforts. Dancing is beneficial and joyful at lots of different levels. We will do all in our power to help each student become the dancer they hope to be by mastering technique and self. In dance, as in life there are no shortcuts to true greatness. Looking for shortcuts or falling prey to seeking counterfeit validations leads to regret and disappointment in the long run.
Thank you for letting me share my training philosophies with you. We talk about these at the studio and especially at dance camp. When your students come to you with frustrations and concerns, these are good things to keep in mind. I hope this helps to clarify the why behind our systems and structures at the studio.
Nesha Woodhouse, Director; Ashley Petersen, Jazz Director; Kristi Hill, Ballet Director; Annie Woodhouse, Saratoga Director