Level playing field in each class. More achieved goals. Clearer expectations. Happier dancers. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But I also know the other side of the argument: Mixed ages means a harder time adjusting for older beginner dancers. Increased feelings of competition between dancers. Unmet goals leading to feelings of disappointment. I understand and appreciate all these points. This is why I think it’s so important to shop around for the right studio experience for each individual dancer. But I also feel strongly that the differentiation between recreational and competitive dance classes is silly. Recreation implies that you’re only having fun and doing no work. Competition implies that you’re only working and you’re motivated to the point of being miserable. Well, I’m here to tell you that any good dance class should offer you both things at the same time, all of the time. The experience that I offer to my dancers is one of meeting high expectations, working as a team, confidence building, pride, passion, being a part of something bigger than yourself and having fun! These are the reasons I chose to level our classes at Studio W Dance.
Much of what a dancer is capable of depends on his or her age and developmental state. The misconception here is that age and development are always in sync with each other, and that there is such a thing as a “normal” child. Any parent or teacher knows this to be absolutely true. Even a child who follows most developmental “norms” will excel at certain things; likewise a child who struggles with learning many things might be exceptional at one or two. Progressing through a dance school program in terms of levels allows for all children on this spectrum of “normalcy” to do so at his or her own pace. Just because a dancer is 11 years old does not always mean she’s ready to go en pointe. There is no magic number for what can be achieved at any age. The idea of holding back one dancer to stay with kids her own age makes me crazy, as does the idea that one child might be feeling completely inadequate in a class of his peers. Having levels that are defined by skills and maturity allows teachers to give each dancer a set of realistic expectations and a more positive experience in the studio.
Each level comes with a list of skills that each dancer should strive to achieve by the time they complete a level. The list can look daunting at first, and some of the skills will seem way too advanced. It’s important to remember that your dance teachers are there to work with you, and we will help you achieve these goals. We want to see you succeed! The idea behind the skills lists is to give you clear expectations, and an easier way to measure your readiness for leveling up. Looking at an actual skill and making a plan to achieve it will always be more effective than just telling yourself “I want to improve my technique” or “I want to be more flexible”. How are you going to improve your technique? How are you going to increase flexibility? There is never a penalty for not achieving a goal by a certain date – some skills may take years (yes, YEARS!) to really master. Patience and persistence are key here. Some will take just a few weeks. Think of how much more likely you’ll be to keep working toward those long term goals after you’ve achieved several other skills in a matter of months. Progress is greater than perfection! With a concrete list of goals, it’s so much more likely that you’ll actually achieve them.
Let’s talk about the F word. No, not that one! I’m talking about every teacher’s nightmare conversation: “But, Mrs. Amanda, she only got a solo because she’s your FAVORITE.” Oh. My. Goodness. You guys. No, just no. I can’t speak for all teachers, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that I do not have favorites in my classes. Do I recognize hard work and reward it with special honors? Yes. Are some dancers more open with me and therefore I talk to them more often? Yes. Are some dancers more naturally inclined to mastering certain skills faster? Yes. Does that mean I like those dancers better? No! My hope is that by using the skills lists that I mentioned before and having super clear-cut guidelines for each level that dancers (and their parents) will be able to ditch the idea that a dance instructor has favorites. I have a fair, but not equal policy. In my mind, for the dancers who go home and practice every day or who show up early to the studio every day to review, or who schedule private lessons to master that one skill, it’s fair for them to be cast in more dances or have a solo. Is it equal? Nope. If everyone has a solo they stop being special. There’s nothing to work toward. And quite frankly, I can’t choreograph 300 solos for every show. Hopefully, it will be very clear why certain dancers are progressing through the program while others are taking a bit longer. Levels and their corresponding skills are my best tool as a teacher to help you progress and explain what needs work. Hopefully, levels become your best tool for understanding how to improve your dancing.
One of my biggest pet peeves in the studio is when two dancers are constantly comparing their skills or technique. It’s human nature to do this a little bit, and we’re all guilty of wanting turnout worthy of the Bolshoi or tricks like Briar Nolet (if you haven’t seen her dance, get on Youtube now!) But, at the end of the day, your only realistic goal is to be a little better than you were the day before. I know that having levels seems like it will encourage more competition, and it probably will. But there is such a thing as healthy competition. Instead of comparing ourselves to each other and feeling bad about what we can’t do, we have these lists that we’re trying to complete together. My second biggest pet peeve is when an exceptional dancer wants to stay in her age group even though she’s ready to move up. Comparing can work against you in this way too. I understand wanting to dance with your friends, and not wanting to stand out because you’re younger or older. But you’re doing yourself a disservice by not challenging yourself. Remember there will be other dancers like you in every class, and dancers not like you in every class. And moving to a new class will give you the opportunity to make new friends! Comparing ages is silly in my honest opinion. Don’t be discouraged if you’re the oldest dancer in the class! Everyone starts somewhere. I didn’t start dancing until I was 14. Being the oldest gives you the opportunity to act as a mentor to the younger dancers, which can be a great learning experience!
More Encouraging Atmosphere
What you need to remember for all of this to work, is that it doesn’t matter how long it takes you. One more time for the people in the back: IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW LONG IT TAKES YOU TO LEARN NEW THINGS. When a baby is learning to walk, what happens on his first try? He falls down. The second thing that happens? The parents tell him he’s a failure, give up on teaching him and never talk to him again. Um, excuse me, what? No! That would never happen! The parents will keep helping and encouraging their sweet baby until he takes his first step. And when he does, they’re so excited and so proud of him. And that’s what your dance teachers will do too. We will never give up on you, and we’ll always keep trying to help you. I want you to use this program as a way of encouraging yourself to keep trying. Use these skills lists as tools and keep working. Remember, progress is greater than perfection.