When Is It Time To Leave The Nest?
The great majority of dancers have their first taste of dance through some kind of recreational program, many under the age of 5, perhaps in a ballet-tap-jazz combo class, or small part in a local community production of The Nutcracker. This leads to further involvement that, by the age of 9 or 10, has started to take root as something more serious. Usually around this age, a student begins to realize they want something more, and they have seen enough of what is possible to thirst after it. If they are lucky, by the age of 12, they have come into contact with someone with professional experience who can direct them towards a more serious training program where the student will thrive and look to the future with open eyes.
Unfortunately, many recreational studios are reluctant to encourage talented pupils to pursue their training goals at schools with more focused programs, falsely touting that they themselves can provide the necessary training. “At least we try to fake it.”, is a commonly heard defensive expression by this type of studio when their level of success in training those with an eye to go on after high school is challenged. They will speak of dreams in their marketing campaign, and perhaps one or two of their students have been on a TV show, but not necessarily succeeded in a performing career as a professional. A lucky few will be assistants at conventions or amateur competitions without ever having enjoyed the experience for which they spent all of their youth training. These schools (or should I say studios) view students as commodities which represent real income dollars and are almost always “for-profit” endeavors. They will compare themselves to other schools of the same type through excessive amateur competition and conventions. In this light, they are the big fish in an extremely small pond, and must conceal the larger world of dance to maintain their delusions of grandeur.
Often these organizations wish to provide a little bit of everything so they can attract the widest variety of students. They utilize mostly young, inexpensive instructors who lack experience both as teachers and on the professional stage, all in an effort to increase their earning potential. They do not allow students to become too engrossed in any one genre which might highlight the weakness of the school. At a certain point, however, most of these types of studios hit a ceiling where class sizes are a little too full, and the level of training is below par. This is of no concern, as long as it is good enough to convince those with an inexperienced eye. At this point, it is “buyer beware”, and one must ask about the faculty and where they performed. It sounds obvious, but if someone was not successful in their search for a career on the stage, how can they possibly show others how to get there? Parents must also ask for real numbers and names of pupils in the school’s claimed history of success. Remember, teaching at a convention or being in any number of TV spots, or appearing in a music video is not representative of a successful training program. Look for students who have achieved the dreams which are sold in the marketing campaign. How many are performing on the professional stage and would still recommend the school to get there? How many have received a scholarship for dance to college, and after they have received their degree, would recommend the school as a way to achieve the same result? How much of the money spent is actually going into the training of the students, versus the amount that is passed through to the owners of conventions or competitions? There are some multi-genre studios who do give students a solid base from which to move on, and there are even a few who encourage their students to do so….but these are difficult to find in a wide sea of offerings, all who may claim to do so.
However, occasionally some teachers advise their students to seek out the best training available, even if it means leaving the nest of their first school, if they see this may be necessary for the student to pursue their goals at a higher level. These gems, these teachers who “get it”, truly desire to put the best interests of the student at the fore, even if it means losing their business. And they realize that if a true professional level training program is not in place at this “starter” studio, that the only way a student will be able to succeed is to leave in search of one, wherever that may take them. For these teachers, having students who go on to more professional training programs, and professional careers, is a point of pride, and in fact, a selling point for their customers—that they have a good quality program that can lead to further successes.
I was lucky….the ballet training school that I found was close enough to home that I did not have to leave home to receive world-class training. Though I did not start out there. The small performing arts studio I was attending before I found this school had the requisite Jazz-Ballet-Tap curriculum…but it was clear that this was not going to be enough for where I wished to go. At the age of 9, I auditioned for a performance of Coppelia with Nutmeg Ballet in Torrington CT (an hour from my home), and they just about pounced on me! Immediately I was integrated into their training program for me to get caught up as quickly as possible. And it was no easy road—the hour’s drive each way every day, with at least 3-4 hours each day spent training. I became adept at eating, putting up my hair, changing, and doing homework, all in the car while en route. As I approached entrance into high school, I did consider attendance at a boarding program to train, as the schedule was grueling, not only on me, but on my whole family to support me in what I was doing. However, we felt that the training I was able to receive was at least on par for a professional course, and I didn’t wish to leave home. Josh had a more difficult decision to make….he knew that, in Arizona, no school existed which had the expertise to train him to the level at which he wished to master his art. And so, at the early age of 13, after being offered a full scholarship to the newly formed Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC, he packed his bags and moved away from his family to pursue his career. A very hard decision, and a tough path to follow, for him and his family. He still carries the deepest respect for the teachers who helped him to come to this decision even though it was not in the best interests of their pocket books.
So…here is a situation: a talented student in a recreational studio is identified by a qualified and experienced teacher to have the potential to really go the distance. The teacher has made the difficult decision to risk their employment (yes, faculty members are often terminated if they encourage students to move on) and encourage the student to pursue their goals. They may even direct the student to a decent training program that could put them on the path to success. Some pupils participate in a micro-training exercise, for instance training for a ballet competition where their teacher has agreed to invest additional time to get them ready. The student makes rapid improvement over this time period, and has a great deal of positive feedback for their efforts and achievement from everyone. After all, it makes the studio look good. The student is inspired and energized to follow up this success with further training, but after a while, seems again content to keep things as they are, citing they don’t wish to leave their friends, and want to be loyal to their studio. Why does this happen? What should be done?
In most cases, the student has been approached by a studio owner or faculty member and “talked to” about leaving. Promises about what the future will hold as far as their own class offerings and casting in the new choreography are outlined. Through reminders of where all their friends are, the insecurity and fear of change is reinforced. Warnings are made to “not burn bridges” and remain loyal to the teachers and studio that got them started. These things are said and done quietly and kindly, with a smile and a hug….and how is a child meant to react to that? The adults who have been teaching them and guiding them for so long are advising them to stay put…..they must be right! Sometimes students, and even their parents, are chastised, publicly criticized or even harassed by multiple calls and emails, in the studio’s effort to hang on to a talented pupil. You see, this child is also seen as a marketing tool. This pupil represents not only the income from their own tuition fees but the possible income they might bring from showing their talent at the next competition. I have seen many students try to stand up to the onslaught, and most buckle under the pressure and either are reintegrated back into the fold (and regress back to where they started), or they quit altogether because they can’t stand the stress. It is not their fault in either case; the adult, the mentor, the one who is meant to be responsible and to care for their ongoing overall well being and their continued development, preys on their formative minds, their insecurities, and their natural fear of change in order to manipulate them into keeping the status quo.
There are more dance studios than ever (more than 32,000 in the U.S.) but there are not a proportionally larger number of successfully trained students. Someone is not living up to their own hype. More students than ever are getting injured. In studios’ attempts to imitate the results at higher level training environments, they push students to try ever more difficult steps at a younger age without the proper preparatory instruction, or taking into account the child’s physical maturity, resulting in an increased rate of injury. So now you must ask yourself, “Which type of school am I attending?” Is it a local introductory studio that is reaching beyond its instructional means to hold on to pupils, or is it a school with the highest goal of teaching students to become artists? What if I don’t want to be an artist…isn’t this “good enough”? For one to garner all of the benefits of training in the arts that are touted by schools of dance, one must actually train with a specific level of involvement. Improved self esteem, grace and poise under pressure, creative thinking, increased self-efficacy and the like, all come from training under the watchful eye of professional instructors. These are the benefits one seeks to apply to other endeavors and is the value of training without the intent of a career. Whether a career as an artist is in your dreams, or you have a different vision, the best training you can find is the way to get there. So…..go find it!