Ties That Bind

I often say that I consider my dancers to be family. They each feel like my own children in a way, and although I’m happy to send them home to their real moms at the end of the night, a piece of them stays with me. I think every teacher can relate to the bond that is created with a student. The unique part of being a dance teacher is that rather than lasting one school year, our bonds are developed over years and years of training, often from preschool through high school. No other teacher will invest as much time in your child as their dance teacher. So what is the return on that investment? To some teachers, it may be watching the dancer develop, the awards or accolades they receive, or perhaps moving them on to a dance career. For me, the return has always been the joy of having these amazing, smart, witty, loving kids as a part of my life. And believe me, my investments have yielded extremely high returns.

Recently, I was reminded of the ties that bind these dancers to home in very concrete ways. I have many students who have since graduated and have been out of the studio for years living their own lives. Some have continued to dance, some have not, but they all find a way to stay connected.

The buzz in my pocket called my attention to a bright screen filled with a picture of jet black pointe shoes. I didn’t even need to check to see who the sender was. Hayley finished her degree in dance at UNLV this past term and was sending me a photo of her final performance where she was wearing the black pointe shoes that she had coveted since she was a little girl twirling across my dance floor.

From across the Atlantic came another message, “Tonight I got to see the Dutch National Ballet Company perform Giselle. It was truly amazing, and I was the hit of the night because I could explain to everyone who was who, and what was going on.” This one was from Courtney, a long-time dancer who grew up in the studio and attended Bunhead Bootcamp each summer, where we studied this exact ballet. She was studying abroad in Amsterdam, bravely going on an exchange program where she knew no one and diving in to Dutch culture. Her study of ballet was a lifeline that connected her to a foreign country, a teacher who supported her back home, and a legacy of art and culture that has spanned centuries.

A photo pops up of a dark night, with a few people in what looks like a giant red wagon…..the message is “I found it!” On closer inspection, it is Holley – one of my grads who was at that moment in Spokane, Washington at a conference. She convinced several of her school friends to go out that night in search of the giant Red Flyer wagon that is located in River Front Park -- the same Red Flyer Wagon where we took a team photo when our dance company visited Spokane nearly a decade earlier. Not only did she remember the wagon, but went in search of it, found it, and sent the photo to prove it!

I could fill pages with the texts, calls, and messages that I receive from my “former” dancers. Which only goes to show, there’s nothing “former” about being one of my students. They don’t need to be in the studio in order for those connections to hold because it was never just about the dance training. It was about respect, communication, support, and love. These are the ties that bind.

It's About So Much More Than Just Dancing


If I had a dollar for every time I said the words “it’s about so much more than just dancing,” I’d be on a beach in Bermuda right now. Actually, let’s be real, the truth is I’d probably still be in the dance studio, but I’d be buying some amazing costumes for this year’s show. My studio building is a bit of a maze…stairways to the second floor, a catwalk over the main studio, a rehearsal studio over the top of the community theatre, which backs up to a costume room. I make my way through this path which whips and weaves through classes of bouncing dancers, racks of sequin-covered costumes, a black box stage with actors shouting out prose, a room full of kindergartners shaking maracas – I love the energy of this organized chaos. But the other day, as I walked this familiar trail, a few obstacles were in the way.

I started in the back studio where my Mini Team was rehearsing. The teacher was having issues hooking up the music and it kept cutting out. As I helped, one little boy yelled out, “this music sucks.” One glance in his direction and he immediately wished he could suck the words back in to his mouth. I calmly walked him out of the classroom and knelt down to eye level. I explained that his comment was not an appropriate or helpful thing to say. He was immediately remorseful, walked back in and apologized to his teacher. He even freely doled out a hug with the apology. It’s about so much more than just dancing.

On to the student lounge, where the studio suddenly turns from a professional business to a teenage girl’s bedroom. The typical cast off backpacks, empty cups, and Birkenstocks (we do live in Eugene) littered the floor as two of my teen dancers lounged on the couch. “Look at all of these things looking for a home. I’m sure you can find a place for them to be,” I remarked as I walked through. I swear I could almost see the words “but it’s not my stuff” formulate in their brains, but based on failed past attempts, they knew better than to mutter them aloud. Instead, I heard “okay, no problem” as they hopped up and started putting the “not my stuff” in to cubbies where it belonged. It’s about so much more than just dancing.

Downstairs to the lobby, a mom looks frantic and a little girl is attached to the arm of the couch like it’s a life preserver in the middle of rough seas. As I meet eyes with the mom she blurts out, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her, she begs to come to dance class and now she won’t even go inside!” I laugh to myself, place a hand on her shoulder and say, “what’s wrong with her? She’s a toddler!” I sit down next to little Miss Obstinate and start chatting about her pretty tutu (the clench on the couch loosens), then her pretty new ballet shoes (she’s on my lap now) and finally if she thinks they are going to use the ribbon wands in class today (that closed the deal). Little Miss Thing grabs me by the hand and pulls me in to her classroom with hardly a wave to mom on the way in. As I tiptoe back out, mom hugs me saying, “thank you so much, this is the only time all week I get an hour to myself.” It’s about so much more than just dancing.

It's now been nearly an hour of failed attempts to actually reach the dance floor when I see one of my former dancers stroll in to the lobby. She says “do you have a minute to talk?” and of course I do. We go in to the staff lounge and she tells me that she’s heard from some of my current students that another dancer may be struggling with depression. This grad has had similar issues and has the scars on her arms to mark her battle wounds. I spent many a time holding this lovely girl’s hand and shouldering tears through her high school years, so she knows where to come when the chips are down. She looks at me with sincerity saying, “I just knew I needed to tell you, she really needs someone in her corner.” It’s about so much more than just dancing.

So you see, this particular afternoon, I never even stepped foot in the studio. So if I only included “teaching dance” in my job duties, I may have considered that day to be a failure. Instead, I believe my job description includes the words “leader, teacher, mentor.” I may not have taught dance steps that day, but I’d like to believe I taught a few things that matter even more.

Five minutes inside the brain of a choreographer....


Maybe it's just me, but I think this is what went through the mind of every choreographer as they listened to Adele’s new song… It’s amazing. Oh my goodness. Are you kidding me? Her voice is amazing. I must choreograph to this. This song needs movement; it deserves movement. Do I have girls that can even pull this off? Wait, it definitely needs a boy. Do I have a boy that can pull it off? Ahhh…listen to the build, if she ran and jumped right here – yes! Oh....do you hear that? I’m feeling a lift on this section….oh geez, her voice is incredible. Should we use a physical phone on stage? No, too literal. How can I cut this down to three minutes? I am in LOVE with this song!!! I must choreograph to this song!

And then….

Wait, every choreographer in the nation is listening to this right now…they all are hearing how amazing it is. They all want to choreograph to it. This song is on every radio station right now….everyone is listening to it. It’s going to be used at every competition and dance performance I go to. It’s going to be so overplayed. This song would be the kiss of death. I can’t use this song. What was I thinking? But I still love it. I still want to use it. Why can't I use it?!?! Life is so unfair!!


Sorry Adele, we could’ve been beautiful together.

Note from the author:

CLICK HERE to check out the class combo that I used to fill the void left by the harsh realization that I can not choreograph to this song.

Embracing the "reality" of reality TV

When one of my students was invited to participate in the filming of the reality TV show “Dance Moms,” I’ll admit I felt a little torn. On one hand, it was an amazing opportunity. On the other hand, the show highlights so much of the worst aspects of my business – catty moms, rivalries between studios, adults yelling and screaming at each other in front of children – I could go on. But in the end, I just couldn’t pass up a front row seat to the crazy chaos that is reality TV. Arriving at the filming, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I stood backstage with my little six year old in pigtails, I watched her eyes light up as she saw the dancers who graced her TV screen waltz in to the wings. We stood quietly to the side as this group of young girls giggled, hugged, joked, and lounged to the side of the stage. There were dancers representing two different studios – the ALDC (the stars of the show) and BDA (their supposed nemesis). As I watched the two groups interact, it was clear that any perceived animosity was for show purposes only. The girls embraced each other like old friends, supported each other, and handed out “good lucks” and “congrats” on both sides equally. They carried themselves exactly as I would expect of any of my own dancers. They were kind, gracious, humble and sweet – until the cameras came out.

Once the crew stepped up, the boom swung overhead, and the cameras lit up, adults quickly ushered the groups in to their separate corners. A few dancers who were chatting with us were promptly pulled away and told to stick to their own group – one sweet teen even kneeled down and told my little dancer, “sorry we can’t talk to you, it’s not your fault” before she was whisked away. The girls were then given lines to repeat, scenarios to play out, and coaching to create great TV moments of drama, animosity, and discord.

In “reality” these girls are like any other dancers I’ve worked with. They work hard at what they love, they express their artistry through movement, they respect their teachers, and they lift up their fellow dancers. It is unfortunate that we, as adults, have decided that these sweet, humble girls are not worthy of air-time. Instead, a contrived version of these competition moments, featuring outlandish behavior by the adults who are supposed to guide them, are what makes it in to our living rooms.

Now we can blame the producer, or the crew, or any number of other people involved in the creation of the show for the moments of negativity that pepper each episode. However, the truth is that TV is a business like any other – they produce what sells. So perhaps we need to take a closer look at ourselves to explain why an hour long episode of Dance Moms features ten minutes of dancing and devotes the rest to drama. I for one would love to see the dance community represented as I know it to be – one of compassion, creativity, and inclusion. But I suppose that version of the show would be off the air in no time flat. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch the dancing, and cheer for dancers both on the show and off. But as I watch the drama unfold on screen, I for one will remember the true “reality” of these dance TV stars – young girls like ours doing what they love and loving each other as they do it. Everything else is just for show.

The One Who Needs Me The Most


I was recently bemoaning the fact that with all today’s technology, they have yet to find a way to clone a mom. I just need one more of me out there to pick up the slack because this current model isn't able to keep up the pace. Between running the studio full-time and being a daughter, granddaughter, sister, wife, and mom to four – there needs to be at least one more of me to knock some items off the to do list. I come from a legacy of large families. My grandfather was one of ten children, my mom is one of seven, and I myself have four kids. It seems to me that Murphy’s Law comes in to play quite often in my life to rattle my carefully laid scheduling plans. Google calendar has nothing on God, and I think He may get a chuckle out of seeing my carpool schedules and lesson plans brushed aside with one quick toss of a monkey wrench. Inevitably, it seems that no matter which of my four children I am attending to, I am somehow neglecting the other three. To make it to my older son’s track meet, I had to miss my youngest’s music concert. Doing my daughter’s hair for her photo shoot meant that I couldn’t make it down to the tball game. Staying up late helping my son study for a geology test means I forgot to pack lunches for his sisters. It’s a never-ending juggling match and I constantly feel like the balls are dropping.

My mom shared some insight on this topic straight from my great-grandmother, C-Mama, who was mother to ten. When asked who her favorite child was, C-Mama would reply “the one who needs me most.” This became an ever-changing rise and fall in priority of each of the ten children based on their respective successes and failures. Yet each of those ten children felt loved, valued, supported, and mothered.

I reflected on this same philosophy within the dance studio as I have often been accused of having “favorites.” To an outsider, I suppose that the favorite is the one who gets the role or is featured in some way. The truth is, a choreographer is very selfish in their vision and no amount of favoritism has ever affected my decision-making. As an artist, I have a vision in my head of what my dance should look like long before it takes shape on stage. The dancer who makes that vision come to life in front of me is who is chosen. Period. Favorites don’t play a role.

I do, however, have favorite dancers. Sometimes it’s the little girl who wipes away tears and still comes out to dance. Another day it is the teenager who started dancing later in life, knows she isn’t as good as those around her, and shows up to class anyway. It has been a girl whose parents are going through a divorce and dances out pain in class. It’s the soloist who forgets on stage, but doesn’t run off. Some days it is the pre-teen who stops to tie a little girl’s shoes, or the dancer who rushes to help an injured friend carry her books. These are all my favorites.

As a teacher, each of my dancers needs something from me, and it can be an overwhelming task to meet the needs of the hundreds of dancers I see each week. This one needs alignment correction, that one needs to strengthen her ankles, this one is ready to move on to multiple turns, but that one needs to fine-tune her singles. Whatever one needs may seem to come at the expense of another and there is never enough of me to go around. Yet with gentle pushing, continued support, and a constant focus on love and respect, I believe that they all get what they need. Much like those ten rowdy kids my great-grandmother wrangled, they all feel loved, valued, supported, and mothered.

With that in mind, next time I am accused of having a favorite, I can smile with confidence and say “I most certainly do. The dancer who needs me the most.”

It's Summer! Where to take class and why.


As summer approaches, many dancers are asking for input on summer training and how to continue to support their dance education. One key question is where to take class and sometimes that boils down to inside or outside their home studio. My answer is BOTH!

Take class at home.

If your home studio offers classes during the summer, take them. Teachers notice which dancers show up for summer training and which do not. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a break - you should! Go to the lake, go on vacation, by all means have a barbecue and eat lots of pie. It’s summertime - enjoy it! But when there are opportunities to train during the off season at your studio, show up. And here’s why:

  1. Smaller class sizes. Class sizes are typically smaller during the summer, which means that you will have more individualized attention.
  2. Guest teachers. Many studios bring in guest teachers or alumni students during the summer, giving you the opportunity to experience a different teaching style in the comfort of your home studio and without the high pricetag of traveling.
  3. Get noticed. Your teacher is ultimately the one who makes decisions about team placements, casting for shows, etcetera – you want to be seen and make an impression when you can. I personally have seen dancers show up to a class and unexpectedly blow me away. Later, when I need a dancer for something, I remember that moment immediately, and that dancer is the first to pop in to my head. You never know when you are going to be noticed and by whom. But if you aren’t there, you can’t be noticed.
  4. Bond with friends. You miss your dance friends during the summer. Give them a call and make plans to go drop in to an extra technique class. It’s fun, it’s healthy, and you know you can’t be away from the studio that long anyway.
  5. Keep training consistent. Your teacher knows what he/she is looking for in your training. That is the training that you will receive during the summer, which puts you a step ahead when fall comes. Summer is also a time that instructors often set choreography that they are considering for the regular season. If you nail the choreography in summer class, then your choreographer knows you are capable of it when it is revisited that year. Keeping up your training in your home studio puts you on even stronger footing when the season begins.

Take class outside of your studio.

Summer is a great time to stretch your dance wings and try out some new opportunities. If you are considering dancing outside of your studio, first thing’s first. Call or email your instructor and ask their input. Let them know you are interested in outside opportunities and ask for their guidance. Your teacher is invested in you, give them the respect of including them in your decisions. This will promote goodwill within your studio and keep your instructor in your corner, which is right where you want them to be. No one has better insight in to the dance world than teachers working in the business, so use them as a resource to support your training.

Drop In Classes. On a basic level, you could try out a new class from a new choreographer. Is there a university in town that offers open summer classes? Check in to a neighboring town and see what other studios are offering during the summer. Take a beginning drop in class in a style you’ve never tried before, or push yourself to take a class slightly above your level in a style you are training in. Summer is a great time to take some risks and step out of your dance comfort zone.

Summer conventions. Conventions are another option, and are offered throughout the nation, allowing you to study with master teachers. Conventions are typically 2-3 days in length and held in hotels and convention centers. While dance conventions are certainly not a substitute for solid dance training, the opportunity to work with new teachers can inspire you and be a break from your typical class regiment. Taking class with dancers who are not your studio besties can also push you to dance at the next level. Convention work focuses mainly on exposing dancers to new styles and choreography.

Summer Intensives. If you are ready for even more, there are summer intensives that are offered for weeks at a time. Many of these provide for dancers to live on a college campus and dance full time. This requires travel and can be expensive, but for a dancer who is considering a career in dance, this experience can not only bolster your technique, but give you an inside look to what a professional dancer’s day may look like.

No matter where you decide to train, one thing’s for sure – the more you dance, the better you get! So if you are serious about dancing, be sure to work in time to train in your summer months.

Let’s Hear It For the Boys

When I opened my own studio, my five year old sons were my first two students. They are all grown up now and at age twenty, they have seen the studio grow in ways we never expected. From the humble beginnings of these first two boys, our program has grown to include over 30 male dancers. I realized that my own sons have spent the better part of their life in the dance studio. It made me wonder how they felt about growing up as dancers, so I decided to sit down with my son Kaelen and ask him. Here’s what he had to say.

How do you feel about dance versus sports?

I’ve always been an athlete. I was on the football team, basketball, and track & field. But I consider dance to be just like other sports. There is a team aspect, at least for us there was, where you knew your team was depending on you. There are people you are around all the time and you create a bond. The relationships I formed in dance were very similar to my teammates I had in sports.

Were you ever uncomfortable being a male dancer?

I never felt weird about it. I knew dance wasn’t always thought of as a masculine thing, but I enjoyed it so I never really cared what other people thought. Even if other people had stereotypes about it, I knew that dance was very physical and very masculine.

Were you ever teased about dancing?

Not really. I remember once before the middle school talent show people heard we were signed up to dance. A couple of guys gave us a hard time hearing that we were dancers. But after we performed, they completely changed how they treated us. Then they were telling us how great we were and how cool it was. It was just because they didn’t really know what to expect, but no one ever gave us a hard time after they saw what we actually did.

What were benefits of dance?

All around athleticism. I mean I could go into so much detail on this - flexibility, agility, strength, body control – there are so many physical benefits. More than that though, there’s the aspect of friendship and creating bonds with people. Especially dancing most of my life and having so many people involved from where the studio started to where it is now. We grew up together in the studio.

What parts of your dance education do you use in your life today?

Learning choreography and the detail-oriented aspects of cleaning movement has helped me in almost every aspect of my life. It has helped me to be more aware of details in all parts of my life. Breaking steps down and making them more simple is a way to look at life and a problem-solving skill. Any task, whether it is school or a life issue, can be broken down in to more simple solvable steps just like we break down the movements when we are learning a dance.

What are your thoughts about the boys program now versus when you started?

The boys program has grown like crazy. I mean we started with 3-4 boys and now we have over 30-40 guys. These boys aren’t even just doing the boys hip hop program - they’re reaching beyond and taking ballet, tap, modern – so much other stuff. There are so many male dancers in the studio right now and it’s great to see how much it’s grown. It feels good to know that I was one of the original members of that male group and to be able to have influence on the younger kids. I enjoy having the experience to teach them what I’ve learned from all of my past teachers as well. It’s humbling to know that you are looked up to as a role model.

What advice do you have for boys who might be unsure about dancing?

What’s it going to hurt? Just try it. Honestly, I would just tell them to give it a shot because if you don’t try it you won’t ever know.

Pretty good advice if you ask me. The lessons my sons learned through dance are invaluable - discipline, focus, creativity, and an appreciation for the arts. In my humble opinion, the world needs more men with these characteristics. I’m so glad that my sons were able to learn them on the dance floor.

My sons with their all male hip hop crew.
My sons with their all male hip hop crew.

Why I’ll never give up my preschool class

Walk in to a preschool dance class at any given studio and you will most likely see a young, fairly inexperienced teacher leading the group. For some reason, the prevailing wisdom is to assign the most experienced teachers to the advanced dancers and to give the least experienced teachers to the youngest students. I could not disagree more. Preschool dancers are the most challenging, and most important age group at the studio. This is when students develop foundational training that will last a lifetime. Dance habits, good or bad, form in these early years of class. This is also when your students fall in love with dance – or decide that it’s not for them. This important course needs to be set by a trained dance educator.

At my studio, I only employ teachers who have a minimum of collegiate level dance training and who are actively pursuing their craft as a dance teacher. In addition, either I, or my assistant director, personally teach all of our toddler and preschool classes. Both of us have decades of teaching experience and understand how to both encourage and challenge this age group. While there is no required certification process for dance teachers, it is the job of any responsible studio to ensure that this role is filled by an experienced dance professional.

Young dancers need more attention than any other age group. They can quickly lose focus and are easily distracted. You must be completely engaged for their entire class and have an airtight lesson plan and music playlist that keeps them moving quickly through their curriculum. It takes more energy to teach this age group than my most advanced competitive team.

In a more advanced class, a teacher might be able to give verbal cues to their dancers and expect them to follow along, not so in a preschool class. A teacher must be prepared to dance full out and exaggerate their movement to match the level of enthusiasm given by the dancers. Preschoolers have a kinesthetic response to movement and your energy level drives their understanding of what dancing looks like. If you want your teens to dance “full out” in class, teach your toddlers what “full out” looks like.

In addition, the emotional needs of preschool dancers must be met in a way that requires a subtle understanding of each dancer’s personality. While one dancer may need constant praise and attention, another dancer might shy away from too much focus. An experienced teacher will know how to accommodate every student in their classroom and adapt to each of their abilities and needs. This skill is developed through years of teaching and should not be expected of a first year teacher.

But most importantly, a three-year-old dancer who twirls in to the room and lights up as the music begins is the best kind of medicine for a dance teacher. On the days when your teen dancers are trying your patience or your competition teams are sick, injured, or complaining – embrace those tiny dancers in their sparkly tutus. Those sweet dancers still think you walk on water and dance is their first love. I have spent decades earning the right to cultivate that love of dance, and I’m not planning on giving it up any time soon.

Why don't I look like that?

I get this question a lot, especially after dance competition weekends. And I completely understand it. We stand in awe of gorgeous dancers with long legs, perfect bodies, and flawless technique and wonder, “why don’t I look like that?” The answer is simple, but one you might not want to hear. With a few exceptions of course, the answer is one of two things, or maybe a combination of both. One, you weren’t born that way, and two, you don’t work as hard as she does. I know it sounds harsh, but sometimes the truth is a bitter pill. First, the “born with it” answer. Don’t get me wrong, dancers come in all shapes and sizes and every dancer should embrace the body they have. Dancers can be absolutely brilliant on stage in any height, weight, or shape – I’ve seen it first hand. Do not believe that just because you don’t have the “perfect” dancer body that you should not dance – that is absolutely not true. But when a dancer stands back and looks at “that girl” on stage and wonders why they don’t look that way – sometimes it is as easy as a simple anatomy lesson. Some girls are born with long legs, great turn out, high arches, a long neck – and a list of other things all dancers wish they had. It’s just that simple; they were born with it. Of course they had to work to develop it, but you can’t trade in the body you were born with for a different model. You can however, embrace it, improve it, and learn to work to your strengths. You can create the best possible version of your body through hard work, dedication, and solid training. Which brings us to part two.

The “work harder” answer. This is the honest and brutal truth – she probably works harder than you. I call this the “Maddie” syndrome. Suddenly, every young girl who takes a few dance classes a week wonders why they don’t look like Maddie from Dance Moms. Apparently they watch the show, but don’t pay close attention to the details. Like the fact that she doesn’t go to school, and that she trains all day! When she was recently interviewed about her dance schedule, Maddie replied usually on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I start at about 1:00. On Thursday I have rehearsal at 9:30 in the morning. I do ballet and then I go to my tutor and then I go back to dance at 4:00. It really depends on the day, but I always end around 9:30 or 10.” Now I did the math, and that’s about ten hours of dancing a day!

I’m not saying that every girl should be dancing ten hours a day – in fact, I don’t even think it’s healthy. But when you wonder why she looks like that and you don’t – it’s because she is dancing over forty hours a week and you are dancing four hours a week. You are not going to look like Maddie Ziegler.

Dance is not magic. You are born with a certain body and then you develop that body to become a dancer. The harder you work, and the more time you devote, the better you will get. Dance is hard work. Period. Your teacher can’t make you better. They can give you all of the information and training and encouragement you need to be amazing, but the magic resides in you.

That’s the truth. Dancers aren’t created by a magic wand or a tv show camera – they are built by dedication, passion, and drive. Their “magic” on stage is built upon hours and hours of blood, sweat, and tears in the studio. The seemingly effortless movement you see on stage rests on the foundation of hundreds of sit-ups, of full day rehearsals, of classes upon classes upon classes – day in and day out.

So don’t stop watching that girl on stage, she deserves your attention. Keep your eyes focused on her, but don’t wonder why she looks so great. There’s no need to wonder, because I know the answer. She looks amazing because she is amazing -- and she has put in the work to get there. Now, stop comparing yourself to her and instead develop yourself as an artist, because you are just as amazing! So give her a heartfelt round of applause, then get back to the studio and get to work. You’ve got magic to create.

Ten Ways to be the perfect Dance Mom

It's competition season. I have a lot of first time parents attending competition this weekend and some of them are wondering what their role is as a "Dance Mom." I can assure you that what you see on TV is not what dance competition is about. But there are tips that can help you be the perfect Dance Mom at dance competition.

  1. Be informed. Your teacher wants you to have the information that you need. Most likely you received emails, handouts, maybe even a parent meeting, to go through the details of competition. Listen carefully and take time to review those materials before competition.
  2. Ask a parent first. Another dance parent may know the answer to a question you have. Your instructors are juggling a lot of balls during competition, so if you can get the answer from a fellow parent, start there first.
  3. Go to your teacher, not event staff. If a parent can’t answer your question, ask your teacher. Competitions are typically hosting anywhere from ten to thirty studios with hundreds, or thousands, of dancers. Event coordinators are there to manage studio directors. Studio directors are there to manage dancers and parents. If you have a question or concern, the appropriate “chain of command” is to go to your instructor or director first. When you approach the competition director or staff, you give the appearance that your studio director is not doing their job. We work very hard for our students and if you need help, please come to us first.
  4. Don’t discuss other dances. Every dancer worked hard to be at competition. Whether you care for their dance or not, they are deserving of your appreciation and respect. Even a seemingly innocent comment can be misinterpreted and you may be sitting the row behind that dancer’s parent. Keep your comments to yourself for the car ride home!
  5. Praise the process. Find times to praise your dancer throughout the day, not just after they perform. Compliment them on how prepared they are. Tell them you are proud of the hard work they put in and how much they practiced. This way the focus is about their effort to reach this point, regardless of the outcome on stage.
  6. Don’t question the scoring. Competition should be an opportunity for your dancer to express what they love on stage and be acknowledged for their hard work. If you start analyzing their total points or what division they are in, or when the age cut off is, or how many years so-and-so has been dancing – you are missing the boat. Your dancer is doing what they love on stage – embrace the moment, don’t spend it nitpicking scores. If you have a legitimate question, send your teacher an email after the event is over.
  7. No armchair quarterbacking. This is not the time to give your dancer last minute advice. Everything they need to know, they have learned and prepared for in class. Last minute “don’t forget to…” advice from parents doesn’t help the process. First of all, we never draw attention to areas of weakness before performance, it only makes the dancer focus on them more. Second of all, pointing out an area they typically struggle with may make your dancer doubt themselves before walking on stage – they need to walk on with complete confidence. Do not go backstage, this is their teacher's job. Sit in the audience and show your dancer and their teacher that you have confidence in their abilities.
  8. Remember, it’s just a trophy. Of course we want our dancers to do well, we train hard for these opportunities, but your dancer is the same dancer ten minutes before their awards ceremony as they are ten minutes after. Do not let your dancer be defined by a plastic trophy. If your excitement and enthusiasm for them ebbs and flows based on the trophy level, their self worth becomes tied up in a trophy.
  9. No excuse-making. If your dancer didn’t score well or place higher it was not because the judges didn’t like their dance, or that another studio had more entries, or that the stage was slippery, or any other of the thousands of excuses I’ve heard from dancers and parents. If you think your dancer needs some encouragement, you can say – “every judge has their own opinion and on another day it could have gone differently.” Then follow that up by “the dancer that won was amazing, and that gives you something to work towards.” Dancers should be inspired by other dancers. Embrace difficult competition and use it as motivation.
  10. Get back to training. Take time to enjoy competition and celebrate this special moment for your dancer. Then remember that most of the time and energy they put in is daily studio work. Celebrate that as well. It doesn’t take a glittery costume and false eyelashes for your dancer to feel good about their dancing. The most powerful thing you can tell your dancer is “I love watching you dance.” That can be in the studio, on a competition stage, or in your living room. Celebrate their dancing in all areas of their life and let competition be one facet of their training.

And most of all - enjoy this time! Competition can be an amazing, fun, supportive time for your dancer and for you. Take time to thank your teacher for their work with your child. Tell another dance mom how great her make-up skills are. Thank the dad who made a Starbucks run. Find something to laugh about - and let your dancer make you tear up - it's all part of this crazy, wonderful roller coaster that is the dance life. A true dance mom embraces it!

Making room for the right kind of students

I built my studio from the ground up, literally. Like many other dance teachers, I built my own studio, swinging a hammer next to my husband, in my garage. I started with just a of couple classes one day a week. I had my two sons and a few of their friends in my first class and believe me, every student counted. I worked overtime to make sure that every student was happy and every parent was happy. I built a reputation one dancer at a time. Flash forward fifteen years and I now own two successful studios and my handful of dancers have blossomed in to hundreds. I still make it my mission for every dancer to leave my class with a smile. My perspective on making sure that every parent is happy though has definitely changed. In September of this past year, I had a class that was problems from day one. Two of the parents had a falling out and they were determined to hash it out through their daughters’ dance class. I had one mom march in to the class and yell at the teacher because the other girl was touching her daughter. The same mom confronted my office staff to say that she didn’t want her daughter in the same class as the other little girl. Soon they were dragging other parents in to the situation to choose sides and bad-mouthing the teacher and the studio. It was ridiculous. It was disruptive, immature, petty, and in no way supported our studio policies or the learning environment. And I’d had enough.

Now in my younger years, I may have tolerated the behavior, or even tried to appease these moms, but there is wisdom in my years. I have learned that it is not my job to make every parent happy. In fact, for some parents there is just no making them happy. And when making them happy is in direct contrast to the needs of the dancers, it’s time to take a stand.

I called this particular mom and told her politely, yet firmly, that her behavior was not in line with our studio policies or the climate that we promoted within the studio. I told her that therefore, I did not feel that our studio was a good fit for her family. It was amazing how fast she tried to back pedal and did not want to leave the studio – the same studio that the week before she had publicly trashed. But I held firm. I knew she would probably continue to talk badly about our studio, which she did, and try to pull other students to leave with her, which she did, but I was willing to accept that rather than allow the behavior to continue.

When all was said and done, five students left the class as a result of this debacle. At first, I was frustrated, upset, and feeling defeated that I had lost so many students. First of all, I felt as if I had failed those dancers, and secondly, the studio is a business and losing students is a financial blow. We moved on though, and focused on making the class a fun, positive learning environment for the remaining dancers.

This past week, I walked in to that same class and had a moment of clarity. I now have a full class of fifteen dancers. These young ladies come in each week with smiles on their faces and are working incredibly hard. They are quiet, focused, hard-working – and I’ve never heard anything but compliments from their parents. In fact, this class that was such a terror earlier in the year is now one of my favorite classes to teach. It is filled with talented, happy, cooperative dancers – and parents who support their dancers and our studio.

If I had tried to make that one parent happy, I know that this class would not have existed. As dance teachers, we need to stop being afraid of losing students. We can not sacrifice our integrity for the will of the “customer.” If we know that we are treating our dancers well and genuinely invested in their dance education, then we need to stand strong.

If you know who you are and stand by your principles, then you will attract people who want what you have to offer. Sometimes letting students go is just making room for the right kind of students.

How Can I Help? Top Ten Ways to Support Your Studio

We know that the biggest supporters of our dancers are their parents and if you are a Dance Mom or Dad, please know that we appreciate you! I get asked by parents all the time "how can I help?" This usually comes in the two minutes between classes or the end of a long night of rehearsals and at that point, all I can do is smile and say "thanks, but I think we are all good." It's only later in quiet moments that I think, I should have taken them up on it. So, for all you dance parents out there who want to help, here are my top ten ways you can support your studio.

1. Write a positive review. If you love your studio, let other people know. Facebook is our key way to connect with parents right now and we would love to have you take five minutes to give us a 5 star rating and tell people why you are committed to your studio. We wouldn't ever ask you to do it, but it sure would be appreciated.

2. Pick up trash. We know, it's not glorious, and we don't like it either. But you know how you send your kids with their snack, dinner, drink, homework - it all adds up to piles of trash. And at the end of a long teaching day, the last thing we want to do is maid service, but we do! If you're there to pick up your dancer, take ten minutes to walk through the studio and pick up the trash that's on the floor (trust me, it's there) and get it in to the trash can. It means more than you know!

3. Say hi to our office staff. Stop by the window to just say hi and give them a smile - they work hard. They are greeted by fussy customers, demands, and complaints all day and they face it all with a smile. They'd love someone to stop by not because they needed something, but just to wish them a great day.

4. Bring healthy snacks to a long rehearsal. If it's a long rehearsal day, bring down some snacks - but make them healthy please. We know the kids love cupcakes and it's fine to have a treat every once in a while, but bringing down some water bottles and fruit would be fantastic! And if you clean up afterwards, we're even more grateful.

5. Stay connected. Read the emails and newsletters. Visit the website or Facebook page. We spend a lot of time and energy putting out information. Before shooting off an email to us asking a question, take a look here first. The less time we spend on emails, the more time we spend developing curriculum for your dancer. If you know what's coming up, it's a huge help to us. Even better, if another parent isn't sure, you can help them out.

6. Volunteer. We have many activities throughout the year that need volunteers. We put out online volunteer sign-ups in advance of each event. Please sign up to help!

7. Keep time! Bringing your dancer to the studio on time for their class and picking them up promptly after their class is a huge help. Our teachers are going straight from class to class and we don't want to leave your dancer alone. Dancers waiting for parents means a teacher is waiting with them and not able to give attention to their next class, or to get home to their own family.

8. Respect personal time. It may seem like we live at the studio, but we do have a life outside of those four walls. If you need to reach the studio - please email or call the office. While we may use Facebook or cell phones for certain events, texting or messaging studio issues at all times is not fair to your teacher. Their time outside of the studio is precious, they deserve time to be a person and not just a dance teacher. Wait for business hours and contact the office.

9. Spread the word. A studio's best advertising is their own students and your support of the studio can help build a stronger program. If you love your studio, let people know. The performing arts needs people like you who see the value in artistic endeavors. Let your community know that you support the arts and share the benefits of dance education. Take a moment today to tell a friend where your child dances and what dance means to them.

10. Follow the "True, Kind, Necessary" Rule. When you start to say something about your dancer, about their teammates, about the studio - ask yourself, is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If you can not answer yes to all three, keep the thought to yourself. Remind your dancer of this same rule. Contributing in a positive way to your studio is the best way that you can possibly help. Take it one step further, walk in to the studio with the goal to say something encouraging. Tell a dancer you enjoyed their performance, compliment a teacher on their patience with the students, tell a parent who always volunteers how much you appreciate their energy. There are so many great things going on in a dance studio, take time to appreciate them.

We are so lucky to have dance parents at our studio who not only help in all of these ways but in so many more!

Blessed to be sore

Last week at the studio, I had a “Come to Jesus” talk (at least that’s what we call it in my family) with my oldest dancers. Normally, my teens are the best around. They are respectful, kind, compassionate, and dedicated to their art. But even the best teens are susceptible to what every dance teacher wants to avoid --- drama. This talk followed the typical teen trifecta ---negativity, whining, and gossip. I thought about letting it go, but as dance teachers, we have a unique gift. We gain the trust of our students through years of support, encouragement, and honest critiques. We can use this trust to steer the ship. And let’s be honest, all young people need a little direction. So here’s what I told my teens. Feel free to pass it along and claim it as your own. In fact you can cut and paste it right in to an email or read it verbatim. I’m pretty sure the kick in the butt my girls needed is well-deserved by teens nationwide.

First of all, you are blessed. You are incredibly fortunate to do something you love. You come to this place where you are supported, encouraged, and allowed to practice your art every day. How lucky are you? There are people in the word with REAL PROBLEMS. You are not homeless, you are not hungry, you are not neglected. You are blessed. So what if you had a bad day at school? Dance it out! Does reliving every moment of your bad day and repeating it to everyone around you help you feel better? Does it improve their day? No! It brings negativity in to a space that should be about healing, growing, and creating.

Some of you come in to the studio whining about being sore and tired. Are you kidding? You are a dancer! You will literally be sore and tired every day of your life. You are pushing your body to do things that it was never intended to do. You are trying to create art with your body – and it’s tired…and it’s sore. Teenagers whining about sore muscles is like preschoolers having to go potty. In my preschool class, one little dancer utters the dreaded “I have to go potty” and suddenly ten little girls lose all control of their bladders. Flash forward ten years and one of you mutters, “I’m sore” and instantly every girl is bemoaning her aches in pains. So you’re sore. So what? Embrace those sore muscles, they are a sign of your hard work. You are blessed to be sore.

You are surrounded by a group of people who love what you love – your job is to lift to them up. Win or lose, your commitment to each other outweighs any performance, any trophy, any prize. No mistake made on stage can possibly outweigh the memories you are creating together. Keep it in perspective. You are on stage in gorgeous costumes, with beautiful hair and make-up and you are dancing! This is not a tragic event. There are people in this world struggling to survive and you just fell out of your double turn. Come on now, life is not so bad.

I’ll admit, I rambled on a bit longer, but those were the main points. Come with a positive attitude, stop whining, and be nice to each other. Now you may wonder, would any of this penetrate the teenage shield and actually sink in? At least that's what I asked myself. I doubted whether my words would have any real impact. After all, teens are pretty good at tuning out adult lectures. But that night, I saw a tweet from one of my dancers. Her four simple words gave me a very clear answer “blessed to be sore.” I consider the ship steered. blessedtobesore

It is about respect.

I recently attended The Pulse On Tour convention and in our luncheon, a teacher asked the group, “what do you think about studio-hoppers?” I am frequently asked how I feel about dancers taking at other studios. There is no good answer this question. If I say I have no problem with dancers taking class elsewhere, it’s viewed as an admission that our studio can’t meet their needs or that there are better opportunities outside of our studio. If I say that I don’t want them to take elsewhere, it is perceived as egotistical or possessive of the student. Neither is true. The fact is, there are lots of great opportunities for dancers. I believe in my teachers and our programs, but ultimately I am a supporter of dance in general. Since I am at a loss for a good answer though, I was thrilled to hear Pulse faculty member Tessandra Chavez answer this in the most perfect, pointed, “hit the nail on the head” way. I’ve decided to share her response since it is so much better than mine. I’m going to do my best to remember it as closely as possible, so apologies in advance if I paraphrase, but I think you’ll get the message. It is about respect. Respect for your teacher and the time they have put in to teaching you. Students now have lost that. If I saw my teacher today, I would still bow down to her. I would literally bow. I would kiss her feet if I could because I have that much respect for her even now. That is something that we are losing in today’s students. It is not about whether you take a class from someone else. A good teacher wants you to experience anything and everything you can to make you a better dancer. It is about going to your teacher and talking to them with love and respect. It is about asking your teacher what they think about another opportunity and taking their opinion seriously. It's not about getting everything you want right now and moving to a different studio if you don't get your way. It's not about trying to be the best and going where you think you'll get more attention. It is building a relationship with someone and allowing them to invest in you because you are invested in them. And if a dancer needs to move on to another studio for any reason, it is about going to the teacher and telling them thank you. Thanking them for all that they have invested in you and showing appreciation for what they have given you and explaining why you are choosing to go another direction. But students don’t do that, they just move on or don’t show up or take another class without saying anything. That is when it is hurtful and it disrespects the time your teacher has given you. Dance is a gift and they are sharing it with you. You should bow down to that gift and be so thankful.

These are exactly the thoughts I have that I couldn’t find the words to express and I am so thankful to Tessandra for finding those words. I want my students to experience anything and everything that will enrich them as dancers, but with respect for their foundational teaching. Every dance teacher who is truly invested in their students will support their training and give good advice. Go talk to your dance teacher! If you are thinking about going to an outside class, a convention, a competition, a workshop – ask your dance teacher! They are there to help and support you. The best dancers have a support network behind them and if you want your teacher to be on your team, let them be. It is about building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. You can't just take from your teacher, you also have to give. If you want to receive their training and wisdom, you have to be willing to give of yourself and allow yourself to be taught. If you want your teacher to invest in you, you need to be invested in them. With total respect to all of my teachers and to Tessandra Chavez for teaching me just the right words.

Choosing the "elite"

Recently, I was asked to form an elite team at my studio. First of all, I take issue with the term “elite” right out of the gates. The definition of elite is “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.” Being asked to select a part of a group that is superior to the rest is enough to put any dance instructor in to an immediate cold sweat. However, I’ve decided to rise to the occasion and form my elite group today with no apologies! So, here goes… Molly is on my elite team, because she has the most superior smile of any of my dancers. When I walk in, she greets me with a glow and it makes my day better.

Hailee is a no brainer – because she remembers the choreography every single week and for those days I am too busy to review – I can count on her superior memory to pull us through.

Sydney has a way of making the people around her try harder – she gives high fives to each dancer as they finish their across the floor sequences and when she cheers them on, you can tell she really means it. That’s a quality that few possess and we need her uplifting spirit.

Isabelle is the hardest worker I have in class. She tries a skill over and over and over, no matter how much she is struggling with it. She doesn’t give up or walk away; she attacks a challenge with a superior resolve.

Natalie makes the team because she is dynamic. She has a power and energy to her movement that energizes a room and you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on stage. Even if she is in the back corner of the formation, her spunk catches your attention. She is a superior performer.

I know, I know…I haven’t mentioned the height of their extensions, or the number of turns they can cleanly execute, or which splits they have – and that’s all important too. Dance is a discipline and there is technique. I can objectively select which dancers are stronger technically and clearly I want each of my dancers to execute their skills correctly and to the best of their abilities. But each dancer has their own set of assets, and every one of them brings something superior to the group – their kindness, their spunk, their work ethic, their support, their quick wit. So, I guess if you’re asking me to select "part of a group that’s superior to the rest," you’ll just have to be a little more specific.

"Honest & Genuine" - music to my ears

Last night a guest teacher came in to work with our Jazz III class. To be perfectly honest, bringing in a new teacher is a little nerve-wracking. This teacher has his undergrad from U of Alabama, danced in NYC, worked for Celebrity Cruise Lines, was faculty for the ABT summer intensives, and is now pursuing his master's degree in Dance at the University of Oregon. In other words, he knows his stuff. Which leads to the thoughts of, how are my dancers going to stack up? Is he going to walk in and expect to teach "those dancers" - you know, the ones who have their own agent by the age of ten and touch their toes to their nose while doing triple pirouettes. So I watch the class and I see my dancers working hard, listening intently, smiling at each other when things go well -- and when they don't go well. I see them crack a sideways grin when they crash in to each other trying a new move, then adjust and get it right the next time....and I think to myself, I wouldn't trade these dancers for anything! So after the class is over and the studio is quiet, I give the new teacher feedback on his sequences, the pace of the class, the overall material -- and then I ask him, what did he think? He says, "your girls are genuine and honest. They work hard and you can tell they love what they are doing. They are real. That's not often the case when I go in and teach."

Wow! What a great compliment. Not only do our dancers work their butts off, but they do it in a way that is "genuine and honest." I'll take that over the triple pirouette toes to the nose any day. So to all of my dancers, you should be proud of yourselves and your work, I know I am.

There's no "fair" in dance competition

Dance competitions are a tricky thing. Now between you and me, I have a dirty little secret. I don't love competitions. I know that as a tried and true dance teacher, and coming from an award-winning studio, I should sing their praises. And don't get me wrong, I can tell you a lot of great things that happen at competition. Life lessons are learned, dancers have the opportunity to be exposed to other dancers, they get professional feedback about dancing - there are plenty of reasons to compete. My dancers do grow from competition experience and I believe that there are benefits to competing. But ultimately, a competition is ranking dancers. Against each other. That is the bottom-line. And there's no way to make it fair. Now I'm all for the competitive spirit, and in athletics it is pretty straight forward. You play a game, there are set rules, someone wins and someone loses. Now in the interests of full-disclosure, I should admit that I was the mom sitting on the sidelines as my son's football team went up 42-0 thinking, "can't they just let the other team get one touchdown?" The few times I muttered such a thought out loud, I got the evil eye from the die-hard sports fans who equated giving up a goal to a mortal sin. So, I guess I don't have that out-for-blood mentality. That said, I understand the concept of winning and losing in sports. Sure, you can argue a call, or think a team played dirty, but for the most part, it's pretty clear cut when someone wins and someone loses. Everyone shakes hands and walks away knowing that this is how the game is played. Not so at a dance competition.

While there is certainly a scoring system in dance, there is just no true way to declare a "winner" in dance. And there's one good reason why - because dance is an art, not a sport. I have seen the same dance, with the same costume, same music, and same dancers "win it all" at one competition and then not place as well at another competition. This is because there are too many incontrollable factors at a dance competition. A judge could feel a connection to one piece of music and not another. Another judge may love tap routines. Another judge may think a song is inappropriate, while a fellow judge has no problem with the content. It is all subjective. It is all out of our control.

Now admittedly, good dancing is good dancing. Judges do their absolute best to be as objective as possible and for the most part, competitions are able to reward great talent. But we've all sat in the audience at one point or another and gone "huh?" when a top routine is announced. This doesn't mean they made a mistake, it doesn't mean that they chose the wrong routine. It means the judges connected to a piece of art in a different way than we did. It would be no different than hanging a set of three paintings on the wall and asking which was the best. Ask 100 different people and you might get a wide range of answers.

At a dance competition, dancers, parents, and instructors can often spend hours replaying every moment of each dance trying to determine why it won, or why it didn't. But the reality is, we may never know. And we don't need to. The idea behind dance is to create a moment on stage that moves people. If we become too consumed by "winning" a competition, then we as instructors begin choreographing to win. This is a mistake for many reasons. First of all, we lose the authenticity of our work. Choreography should come from within, from the hope to express a message that comes authentically from us as artists. If we start guessing what the judges want to see, we are no longer listening to our own voice. Secondly, we can't predict a win. We can create a visually appealing, innovative, creative piece of dance - but we can't guarantee it will win. Our work is not better when you put a diamond, gold, or platinum label on it. The work is the work. If people appreciate it, we succeeded. If the judges are some of those people that appreciate it, so much the better. Third, when dance becomes about winning, we do a disservice to our dancers. They need to know that they are not defined by a trophy. They are not suddenly a better or worse dancer depending on where they are standing in a top ten line up. If they allow outside forces to determine their self-worth, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. Because you can't always win. And life, like dance, isn't fair.