Here are 5 tips to help you find the right fit for your child
By Deb German
Your young daughter is begging for ballet lessons, but when you investigate local venues for dance training you find widely divergent choices. How do you choose the right ballet school, especially if you do not have a background in dance yourself? And how do you know when she is ready?
First Things First
Young children are still learning to stand on two feet — literally. When your girlie was waddling around the house clutching a Sippy cup, her head was — relative to the rest of her body — huge. This trend continues for a while until her body catches up. Formal classical ballet training assumes this milestone has been met — the ability to stand erect and to transfer weight from one leg to the other without much ado; for most kids, that’s around age 7 or 8.
Until then it is better to find a class that lays the foundation for formal instruction —creative movement, for example, or a curriculum that offers training without the use of the barre and with a focus on developing gross motor skills and exploring the unfettered joy of moving with music. Be wary of a school or teacher who is anxious to push your kindergartener or first grader; she needs to stand on her own two feet for a while and develop stability in her torso before she is exposed to a traditional 90-minute class format that includes work both at barre and in centre floor.
A Few Pointers (Pun Intended)
In the United States there is no licensure requirement for ballet or dance pedagogy. Anybody so inclined can proclaim herself fit to teach and plenty do.
Keeping this in mind, here are some basic guidelines for choosing a school:
- Make sure faculty bios are published on the school website or in the literature. If a school does not disclose details about its staff, then all bets are off. For classes catering to the very young, look at the age and wisdom of the person standing at the front of the classroom. These classes are sometimes pawned off on young, inexperienced staff members who do not grasp the developmental nuances of young children.
- Look for a dress code. Proper deportment and a neat and tidy appearance, from head to toe, are part of good training and help prepare a young dancer mentally for the discipline of class. Sloppy kids may be symptomatic of sloppy instruction.
- Ask to observe before you enroll; you can discern much from the demeanor of the instructor and the students. Look for quiet, attentive students and a focused teacher who starts class on time.
- Be wary of combined levels. Younger children in particular need to be among peers and not thrown in with students of different developmental sensibilities. The differences between a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old are monumental as compared with differences between older children or teens.
- If you have a young prince who wants to dance, find out whether the school you’re considering welcomes and accommodates boys. Schools in big cities sometimes have the luxury of offering boys-only classes, but that is rare. If there are male instructors on staff, all the better — they likely will have experienced training alone in a sea of girls themselves and as such often understand the unique challenges of taking classes in the gender-imbalanced ballet world.
Make sure you understand the commitment you are making for your little swan and for yourself. If you are okay with allowing her to bail mid-semester when she decides she does not love ballet after all, make sure the school is, too.
And what of the celebrated (or dreaded) recital or holiday performance? Find out ahead of time whether participation is required and make sure you understand the rehearsal schedule to avoid conflicts resulting in absences that affect the rest of the performers. (Importantly, make sure your young dancer understands this, too!) Prepare yourself also for costume fees that may or may not be refundable if Princess Aurora ditches the tiara and decides she’d rather play hockey halfway through the year.
Finally, when she is ready to cross the ballet threshold, step away and give your child room to settle into her gifts. Ask questions about things you don’t understand, but resist challenging the instructor about milestones. You are the expert where your child is concerned, but the teacher is the ballet or dance expert and knows when she is ready to move up a level, begin the rigors of pointe work or participate in a school performance.
Above all, dance happy!