Before reading my open letter, please understand the background of where it is coming from. I’ve been wanting to get back to teaching, and I’ve been contacting studios, and seeing such a loss of culture, that I’m getting disheartened. Maybe the world that I fell in love with is gone. Maybe all that is left of dance is just the steps…
I remembered an incident today from a few years ago. I was working at a studio, and one of the students there disrespected a teacher in front of the entire company. Talking back, disregarding her corrections and advice, and rolling their eyes when the teacher pointed out that ‘this is not how a rehearsal works in this industry, and this is not how you interact with me’.
I then remembered another incident where one of my students in a class I was subbing decided I was spending too much time on barre, and stood there leaning on the barre while the rest of the class worked on the fondue combination I gave. I was shocked. Never in a million years would I have chosen to stand by while my classmates worked. Never in a million years would I have disrespected someone that was pushing me and working with me to help me develop into a better dancer. Never in a million years would I have said ‘oh well, I have homework to do anyways’ to a teacher asking me to leave class for being so disrespectful. But that is what happened.
I have too many memories of students that claim to love dance, that are so disrespectful of it. I’ve always felt that part of the reason I’ve seen it so often, is because I started teaching young. Maybe there wasn’t enough age gap, or maybe I didn’t have enough professional experience to have that respect from the students at the studios I worked with. But then, I noticed these experiences were not just happening with me. They were happening to instructors with degrees, with years of professional experience, with none of the reasons I could come up with as reasons I was receiving so little respect. And then I looked at the older dancers I worked with. People that were once my peers, people that were older than me, people with more experience than me. These people respected what I said and did. They listened to my instruction, and worked hard. They pushed themselves in my classes because they wanted to improve; because class meant something to them, and they recognized that I could help them.
I am young. But I consider myself an older dancer. I was raised in the older style of teaching. As a student, I was poked and pushed and stretched by my instructors, I was yelled at and scolded by my instructors, I was pushed and pushed and pushed by them. But not a single day of my training was merely about dance. They never went a day without explaining why it mattered so much to do it their way. From when I was a child, I was taught there was more to dance than dance.
Any person walking down the street can come into the studio, put their heels together and point their toes out in a V shape, and bend their knees. But any one of the older dancers that I consider myself to be a part of understand that it takes a dancer with awareness of their body, with respect for the history of the step, with respect for the fact that without this simple step they could not leap, or fouette, or function in dance, and with an understanding that its not as easy as it looks, to truly do a plié, and make someone pay money to come and watch them do it. We also understand that at the end of class, you clap, and you thank your teacher. You thank them because in class, they guided you through training your body to do something unnatural without hurting yourself. You thank them because they passed on wisdom that comes from an art that goes back farther than anyone alive can remember. You thank them because without them, maybe you wouldn’t have pushed that extra inch in your extension and hit that gorgeous line. You thank them for investing themselves in your future as a dancer. And you wouldn’t dare disrespect someone that you have so much to thank for.
In dance, we were taught that the right way is always harder at first, but that it’s actually easier after you work on it.
In dance, we were taught that you can’t slack off, because even if you’re the best that you have ever seen, there will always be someone better in the next town over.
We were taught that our bodies are our instruments, and that we need to respect and take care of our instruments in order to continue doing what we love.
We were taught that anything worth having, is worth working your ass, and feet, off for.
We were taught that when things get too difficult, instead of getting frustrated, go back to your basics, and your foundation; that is what helps you through the advanced stuff.
We were taught that someone can be your very best friend in the entire world, but in class, they are your competition. And the best of us were taught that our competition is not someone we sabotage, but someone we want to encourage so that we grow together. Because once you reach the top, you grow slower, and no one wants to grow slower, not when there is someone in the next town better than you.
We were taught that there is a magic in the history of our choreography, and we keep the classics alive for a reason. We want to grow, and break new ground, but not at the loss of our foundations.
We were taught to smile through the pain. Never let anyone, especially the audience, know how hard you’re working.
The list goes on. Through dance, I learned to work in a group, and well as on my own. I learned to be a leader, and a follower. I learned to push myself, but also to know my limits. I learned to encourage those around me. I learned confidence, pride, awareness. I learned about working towards a goal. I learned about sacrifice. I learned about pain, and beauty, and art, and using that art as a therapy and an outlet. I learned wisdom, and I learned respect.
I remember that girl often, she was the only person I have ever asked to leave one of my classes. I was so upset. At her age, I was twice the dancer she was. My technique was better, I was more advanced, I was stronger, cleaner, hungrier. I wanted a career in dance more than anything in the world. And I worked every day towards that goal. I worked so hard, that my body couldn’t keep up. I worked so hard, that my body couldn’t develop muscle fast enough for how much I was growing. I worked so hard that I developed a chronic inflammatory problem. And then I worked so hard, that I could barely walk. I was a freshman in High School, and I woke up in shooting pain. I couldn’t walk up the 3 steps from my garage into my house without grimacing. I had to start sitting out of parts of dance class because the pain was just too much. I had to sit and watch my friends, my competition, growing right in front of me. And then, I had to tell my instructor that all of the time and work we put in together to develop my abilities, was for nothing, and I had no choice but to walk away. I had to hear her tell me how sad she was, and ask if I was sure because they had a plan and a path for me to get everything I ever wanted out of life. And then here this girl was, with the strength and talent to really make it, and she was standing there being lazy…
I have been wondering for a while what it is about today’s dancers. Why don’t they work as hard? Why don’t they respect as much? Why don’t they want it as bad as we did?
And I figured it out…
We are failing our students. We know we are. We talk about it all the time. We sit down, and try to decide what classes to teach, and how to fit them into the schedule. We talk about how great it would be to set up the classes so that the students get the training they need to really push like we did. And then we talk about how unrealistic it is, because the kids wont show up. We can’t support that schedule because the kids today don’t commit like we did. And then we cater the schedule to that, know that we need to keep the studio open, and this is the only way to do that.
We are failing our students. That conversation isn’t over. Yes, we need to keep the studio open, so we need to set the schedule to get the kids in. But we need to do more. In the classes we do have, lets push. Let’s start imparting more knowledge and wisdom. Lets raise our expectations. Let’s teach them more, and then they’ll slowly understand that they need to push more to really make it.
The moment a student expresses interest in dance as something they want to pursue with their lives, we have a responsibility. We need to teach them the industry just as much as we need to teach them the technique.
Today, we have to be careful. Our teachers berated us. It wasn’t that uncommon for us, or a classmate to cry because of our teachers being so hard on us. We can’t speak to our students like that, and we don’t really want to. But there is still a way to impart that knowledge on them without traumatizing them.
Instead of keeping a dancer in a beginner class when they’re ready for intermediate just because of their age, move them up! Instead of putting a teenager that’s never danced before in an intermediate class just because they’d be way older than those in a beginning class, put them with the younger kids! Don’t move up a dancer that’s not technically ready just because all their friends are moving up. Don’t make apologizes for being truthful about a student’s ability.
Teachers lose their ability to truly train dancers when we’re not realistic about student’s level. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working with a group of dancers, we get to the next session, and we’re ready to progress to the next level of steps, but instead the entire class has to go back and re-do the previous stuff because now we have a new student that has never danced before, and needs the basics. No wonder we have a problem with class retention. These kids get bored after 3 sessions of beginner jazz with the exact same steps because the new kids have to catch up when they’re ready to move on. No wonder teachers get stuck in ruts when they’re trying to keep students interested while repeating everything.
Stop letting kids take a class with their pointe shoes on when they haven’t taken a class on flat first to warm up. Stop letting kids take class with their pointe shoes on when it’s the only ballet class they take in a week. Stop letting kids and parents that don’t understand the risks, make the rules. If that means there’s no one in the studio taking a pointe class, then fine. They’ll eventually want it badly enough that they’ll cave, and follow your rules.
Stop allowing students that say they want to become dancers take only a few classes per week. Let them know that if they want it, they have to put in the hours, no matter how naturally gifted they may be. Prepare them for the industry they want to be in. there’s more to this world than movement, and if they want to make a career out of it, they deserve to know all aspects of the industry, the good and the bad. They deserve to know that they’re getting into, and they deserve to be given the knowledge so they can make an educated decision while planning their future.
As students, it was not uncommon for us to hear from our teachers to lose weight. That we needed longer necks, or bigger arches in our feet, or smaller breasts, smaller bottoms, longer legs, the list goes on. Instead of telling a single dancer that they need to lose weight, or that their body or feet aren’t right for the industry, like we heard growing up, let’s introduce them to interviews of Misty Copeland. Lets show them that our world is wonderful, but it’s still behind the times in some aspects. That if their body doesn’t fit the traditional mold, they’re going to have to work harder to make it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with their bodies. They are gorgeous, and strong, and beautiful/handsome, but they are going to have to be technically and expressively wonderful to force people to pay attention to them. That the industry is wrong, not their bodies, and motivate them to prove the stereotype wrong. But lets also not ignore the fact that some of our students truly don’t have an industry body. Don’t fill them with false hope. Let them know that as wrong as it is, there is a reality to this industry they’ll have to overcome, and it will be hard. Many of our students are teenagers going through puberty. They see ads, and hear comments on a daily basis about what is and isn’t ‘beautiful’. They are fragile, and need to see how wonderful their body is, exactly how it is. But they also need to see that if dance is what they love, they have a steeper hill to climb to make it than some of their competition.
Let’s inspire our beginner and intermediate students by having them see the advanced dancers work sometimes. The younger ones will work harder when they see the advanced dancers. The older ones will work harder to not be embarrassed in front of the younger dancers. As the younger ones progress faster with the added motivation, the older ones will work harder to maintain on top.
Let’s invite professional dancers to the studio to teach master classes, and give demonstrations to inspire our students, and show them what it really takes.
Let’s expect more from our students. Make them do 64 changements instead of 32. Make them hold their extension for 4 counts instead of 2. Call them out when they drop their leg out of passe’ and put the foot on the floor when they’re supposed to be balancing at the end of a combination. But also explain to them that we can see they’re trying, but here is a more effective way of trying, and here is a more effective way of re-finding your center.
Have students demonstrate the combination for the class before everyone tries it. Have a student go across the floor again, alone, and point out what they’re doing right. Have a student go across the floor again, alone, and work with them on something that needs fixing.
There are so many things that we’ve lost in our classes because we’re scared to lose students, or hurt someone’s feelings, or the studio owner we work for is scared to lose students, or hurt someone’s feelings. As teachers, we’ve forgotten about part of the responsibility we have to our students. Let’s bring that back.
Your fellow teacher