The Magic You May Not Have Noticed

This weekend, we wrapped up our annual production of the Nutcracker Remixed. The show was conceived years ago as a way to allow our dancers to connect to the story of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince, even if they weren’t pursuing classical ballet study. From there, it has grown and evolved in to a beloved holiday tradition for our ATD families. Our first shows featured selected studio dancers and played in our own community theatre with 100 seats. This past weekend, over 300 performers took the stage at the Silva Concert Hall to a crowd of well over a thousand supporters.

While we know that the magic of the show happens on that beautiful stage, we believe there is quite a bit of magic in what happens behind the scenes as well. So, here are a few things you may not have known that brought the story to life.

Two days before show, one of our beautiful dancers dislocated her knee during rehearsal, ending her opportunity to dance in the show. Her teammates not only rallied around her with hugs, love, and a few tears – but they also restaged six dances in the show to make them work with one less dancer.

Courtney Weixelman was our perfect Clara this year. Courtney has danced at ATD for ten years and auditioned for Clara for three years before getting the role. She prayed all summer that she wouldn’t grow because she didn’t want too look too old for the part. Hard work pays off and we could not have asked for a better Clara than this lovely girl.

The day of show, one of our leaders in Ballroom broke his foot. Another ATD dancer, who was taking a year off due to a back injury, was helping out backstage. She learned the entire jive routine in the hallway and went on to the stage to dance it in the show so that no one was short a partner.

The beautiful couch in the Stahlbaum home was a coincidental find. On the day of our promotional photo shoot, our original location was unavailable. We scrambled last minute and our photographer suggested a wedding venue she had used in the past. When we arrived, the beautiful couch was sitting out on the porch in front of their barn. We immediately knew it was a perfect setting for our photos. We later called the venue and they allowed us to use their “porch decoration” for the actual show.

Our Icecream dancers were in the wings waiting to go on when we realized their Icecream hats were missing. ATD staff member Kristie ran from the stage (gracefully in heels), sprinted to the dressing room to grab them and a team of ten older dancers snapped their hats in to place as they were walking on to stage. Now that’s teamwork!

Miss Jaylene’s Bubblegum Machine was much smaller in our minds, but once we measured the tallest dancer in the class (that would be my daughter), we realized that in order to make the proportions correct, the bubblegum dispenser would need to be twelve feet tall! Miss Jaylene also stood on stage perfectly still behind one of the legs of the machine during the entire dance so that she could help distribute the Bubblegum balls.

Our Nutcracker Prince, Carson, had only performed in Tap before this season. Knowing his work ethic and ability to learn quickly, he was invited to be the Prince for this year’s show. He learned ballet steps, waltz, and lifts in preparation for this role and handled it all like a pro.

Our Ice River fabric arrived much later than planned, giving the dancers only one class to set the choreography with the fabric. Since the sixty yards of material was too large for the dance studio, they never rehearsed the actual look until show day. After seeing the white fabric, it looked too harsh, so Marie and I took a Rubbermaid tub outside, filled it with water from the hose, dumped in blue dye, and found an old baseball bat to stir it up – voila! Your beautiful ice river emerged just in time for show!

Makayla Rice, one of our beautiful Sugar Sisters, has danced at ATD for eleven years and this was her seventh Nutcracker. Her first role was as a little Lollipop. This year, she set our show record by appearing in nineteen dances in the show!

There are many more special moments that make the Nutcracker Remixed so much more than just a great show. We watch our students bond together, grow in confidence, handle disappointments, problem-solve, cheer each other on, and communicate through artistry. Now that is true magic.

Lessons learned from the bench

I’m sitting on the cold bleachers as the pelting rain makes me thankful for my extra layers. Concession stand hot chocolate clutched between my gloves, I cheer for the home team. Looking down the sidelines and seeing number 22 is bittersweet. He stands, shifts, stretches – ready to go in to the game at any time. But that time never comes.

My son has been an athlete since he was old enough to clutch a ball. It is who he is. He eats, sleeps and breathes sports. He will watch a twenty-year-old superbowl or a volleyball match with equal enthusiasm – he simply loves the game. He was also blessed with a high level of athleticism that ensured lots of attention, starting spots, and points on the board nearly his entire life. But for whatever reason this year, this season, this game, this coach didn’t see what was so clear to everyone else – this kid was meant to play.

I dreaded the end of the game, bracing myself for the disappointment that I was sure he was feeling. After all, this is a kid who had never sat the bench in his life. As I tentatively approached the field, I saw my boy grinning, punching his friends, tossing the ball around – and lit up in the way only sports can for him. I was humbled.

Seeing your child face disappointment can be overwhelming as a parent, especially when they don’t achieve something that you know they have worked for. I have absolutely been there. I knew the hours of work my son had put in, every practice he’d shown up for, the hours conditioning, the time studying the plays – I knew he had earned it. But that didn’t mean that it was my job to try to change the outcome.

As parents, we may find ourselves on autopilot in our job as protector and champion of our child. There’s no guidebook on how to shift to a new role, so here’s my best attempt at one. Your child will be disappointed. They will be overlooked for something. They will not receive something that they worked for. Someone else will be better than them at something they love. That is the cold hard truth. So, as a parent – how to do we react?

1.     Fake it ‘til you make it. You may feel angry that your child was cast as a rock instead of a princess, but they are looking to you to gage their response. Paste on a smile and tell them how they are going to be the most amazing rock you’ve ever seen in your life and you can’t wait to paint them gray! 9 times out of 10, your child will adjust their feelings to your response. Make whatever role they were chosen for the most important role you’ve ever heard of.

2.     Take a breath. Whatever your immediate reaction may be – breathe on it. Will this truly matter a year from now? Five years from now? The opportunity they missed out on is not as important as modeling good behavior for your child. Show them how to handle adversity with humility and respect.

3.     Do not talk to their coach. As tempting as it may be, there is no good outcome here. If someone else was chosen over your child, it was for a reason. By confronting the adult who made that decision, you are in essence asking them to tell you why another child was better than yours. No one wants to be put in that position. Whether they are right or wrong, the decision is theirs.  

4.     Remember what it’s about. Your child loves what they do. Whether they are center stage or sitting the sidelines, they are following their passion. Remind them that their love for the game, or the dance, was never tied to where they stand on the field. Don’t let that change now.

5.     Life lessons are being learned here. As an adult, your child will not always get the scholarship, or the promotion, or the new car. What are they learning now that prepares them for that moment? We all hope our child gets what they want, but they need to experience disappointment now to help shape their future. You may think they missed out on an experience, but the experience of taking a back seat may be exactly what they needed.

I’ll admit, I was not always as wise and gracious as I appear now, and I may have muttered a few “that coach is crazy to not play you” comments to my son that year. However, I never once called the coach (my son would have killed me), my son did not love the game any less from the sidelines, and my respect for my son grew tenfold. He handled his position with grace, dignity, and a humble heart that forced me to grow as a parent. How could I have asked for anything more?

Olympic lessons are worth more than gold

I don’t know about your family, but our living room became downtown Rio this summer as the TV was tuned in to all things Olympic. There’s no doubt that we were in the presence of greatness each evening. Beyond the initial appreciation of athletic genius, there were so many lessons to be learned through the Olympic experience.

Usain Bolt is not only the world’s fastest man, he’s also a pretty class guy. After winning the men’s 100m, he was mobbed by reporters. During his interview, a medal ceremony began. As the strings of the US National anthem rang out, this Jamaican man immediately paused the interview to give his full attention in honor of the athlete and her country. His respect of a fellow competitor, another country, and for the event as a whole outweighed any need for personal attention. 

My husband walked in one night to find me bawling on the couch. As he rushed to my side, I choked out, “Brazil won!” I was watching men’s gymnastics and Hypolito had just won silver. The hometown hero was collapsed in a fetal position sobbing, and then fell into the arms of his coach as he was physically overwhelmed by finally receiving a medal at his third Olympics. The fact that another athlete had taken the Gold hardly mattered. In the dance world today, many have lost sight of the honor of being a part of something bigger. Many dancers want instant gratification and don’t want the struggle of not placing, or not winning “gold” at every competition. This man gave a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears - and chased that Olympic medal for over a decade! Silver never looked so sweet.

My son is a hurdler and I have watched countless hurdle races. None came anywhere close to the women’s 100m hurdles in Rio. To be honest, it wasn’t the race itself. If you blinked - or loaded a plate into the dishwasher (this may have happened to me) - you could have missed the race all together. (Don’t worry, that’s what DVR is for!) But I did look up just in time for the finish. Three US women crossed the finish line within breaths of each other. And then….here’s where the real magic happened. These women embraced, clutched each other, and cried with joy and pride. The win was so much more significant because they crossed the finish line together. While it may be an individual sport, success is so much sweeter surrounded by your teammates. These women trained together, competed together, and won together. What an amazing experience. The sum will always be greater than the parts.

A simple act of kindness shows the heart of a true champion. During the 5000m, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and American Abby D’Agostino collided and fell to the track. D’Agostino quickly regained her footing, but paused to help her competitor to her feet before continuing. As the race continued, the American competitor crumpled to the floor with a ruptured ACL. It was Hamblin’s turn to return the favor as she stopped to help D’Agostino. The two women finished last, but what they may have lost in race time, they gained tenfold in respect from a global audience. Hamblin summed it up best in her own words, “When I look back on Rio 2016, I’m not going to remember where I finished, I’m not going to remember my time … but I’ll always remember that moment. Sometimes I guess you have to remember trying to be a good human being is more than, you know. If I hadn’t waited for her or tried to help her I would have been 10 or fifteen seconds quicker and what does that matter?” The trophies on the shelf will never outweigh the content of character that is developed through athletics. No win is greater than the friendships formed through mutual respect and pursuing your passion. Whether on the track, or on the dance floor, true sportsmanship is defined by moments that have nothing to do with wins or losses.

When your child is the one licking the mirror...

As moms, we all have great expectations of our child’s first dance class. Visions fill our heads of our little princess in a sparkly tutu and perfect ballet bun gracefully moving across the floor. She will listen to every direction, stand perfectly at attention, and graciously thank her teacher at the end of class. And then the reality sets in…her tutu is itchy and she doesn’t want to wear it, the perfect ballet bun didn’t even last the car ride over, and our princess is standing, arms folded in the corner refusing to participate. As a mom of four, I’ve been there.

My daughter’s first dance recital debut was an epic disaster. She walked out on stage, the lights came up, and she froze – she then ran to the back of the stage and stuck her head underneath the back curtain – apparently the standing theory was, “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me.” The only thing visible to the audience was her toddler tush in the air. I was on stage leading the class and helpless to do anything. My mom eventually walked on stage in the middle of the performance and drug her off the stage by her little pink ballet slippered feet. I was mortified. My daughter’s dance career, however, was not defined by this one preschool meltdown. From that humble beginning, she has gone on to be named as the top junior soloist for her age, dances on a competitive team, and danced the lead role of Clara in the Nutcracker.

We all hope that your child’s first day of dance will go off without a hitch, and we have wonderfully skilled, educated instructors to help make sure that it does. However, it is absolutely normal for children to take time to transition. Many dancers stand and don’t participate in the first class – or even several classes. Countless parents have told me, “I don’t know why she won’t do it in class, she shows me all the moves at home.” I’m here to tell you, it’s okay. They are watching, they are observing, and they are learning. I have seen little ones hide behind their mom’s legs for weeks, and often those same girls grow up to be stand out performers.

We have one young dancer who started with us as a spirited little thing who gave her teachers a run for their money. I remember one day clearly when she ran up to her reflection and licked the mirror – she was being a puppy that day. Her mother was beside herself but I just giggled and brought the puppy over to sit with the rest of the class. This beautiful young lady is now one of our top competitive dancers and graces the stage with effortless beauty every time she performs. And I have had many mirror-lickers follow in her footsteps – all of whom have become graceful, focused, strong dancers.

The moral of the story is, the road to success is constantly under construction. What may look like a failed day of dance class could be guiding your little one to just the right path. There will be less than perfect hair days, itchy dance clothes that beg to be thrown off, open space that beckons them to spin, and mirrors that look good enough to lick! We are here to reassure you that it’s all okay.

Enjoy these moments, because soon enough that little ballerina will be doing her own bun and slicking every hair in to place without your help. Her itchy skirt will be transformed to pointe shoes and beautiful tutus and you’ll wonder when you blinked and missed the time in between. That mirror she once licked will guide her movements to allow her to take the stage with confidence and touch an audience in a way that is pure magic. So enjoy each step on that path – even the less than perfect ones. Success is a journey, not a destination.

It's Just A Grasshopper!


“It’s just a grasshopper!” came the exacerbated sigh of a mom as she dragged her two young children away from the green delight.

We stood in Lincoln Park – listed the # 2 thing to do in Chicago, according to Travel Advisor. Trails twisted and turned in every direction featuring wild cats from leopards to caracoles; there were pools of water with furry otters and sleek seals; long-necked giraffes and bouncing kangaroos waited down the lane. I am sure that this well-intentioned mom started the day with great plans, a purse loaded with snack packs, and visions of smiling, cooperative children in her head. And here she stood, sweat dripping from the 91-degree day, empty snack wrappers strewn in her wake, and two children who wanted nothing more than to sit and watch a grasshopper.

If you are a parent, you’ve been there. We try to give our children the very best of everything – the best education, the best extra-curricular activities, the best vacations – the best life that we can create for them. And most days, we succeed! But there are other times that it feels like it’s all for naught.

As a dance instructor, I see how the ante has been upped in very tangible ways. Dancers used to order costumes from catalogs, now those costumes have to be custom designed and dripping with hundreds of dollars of Swarovski crystals. Dancers used to take class at a dance studio from their dance teacher – now they hop on a plane to attend conventions in a packed Vegas ballroom with TV stars. They used to perform at retirement centers for elderly residents who teared up and clapped in delight. Now, they take center stage at the Rose Bowl with fireworks and a live band in front of a national television audience. The bar gets raised higher and higher and I wonder how we will continue to boost our kids up to hold on. And to what end?

I’m sure in the mind of that zoo-visiting mom, the majestic lion was the best of that day’s adventure. Meanwhile, her two young children were perfectly content to sit and watch the mundane grasshopper jump from leaf to leaf. Sometimes, we are so busy trying to give our children the best of everything, that we forget that true wonder can be found in simplicity.

Do our dancers really need to dance on a stage that looks like it was prepared for Katy Perry at the MTV Music Awards? The simple joy of dancing is truly enough. We all want beautiful experiences and great adventures for our children – and we should revel in all that life can provide them. But every now and again, let’s just sit next to them, take a deep breath, and watch the grasshopper.

Lessons Learned

I am a dance teacher and I take that role very seriously. I can spot a sickled foot from a mile away - and don’t even try to sneak a dropped elbow past me. However, along with my bloodhound sniffing abilities to root out a technical mishap, I also have a heart for my dancers that goes far beyond their skill level. So as the dance season winds to a close, this blog is directed towards all my students. Whether this was your first class, or you’ve been dancing since birth, here are the things I hope you learned at the studio this year.

BE RESPONSIBLE. Show up on time, wear the correct dance clothes, and push yourself to improve. It’s no one’s job but yours to make you better. Be responsible for your own training -- and for packing your own tights! Your mom loves you, but she’s not your personal assistant. You can do this!

BE BOLD. Take chances. Go to the front of the studio -- even if you’re not sure you know the combo. Take a class from a teacher you haven’t studied with before. Push for the triple turn instead of the double. Make mistakes and learn from them.

BE HUMBLE. You’re pretty amazing. You have gaggles of little girls who think you walk on water. You’ve won trophies, performed on beautiful stages, and gotten standing ovations. Now let your dancing speak for itself. You don’t need to be front and center for every combo. You don’t need to tell people what you’ve done, what you’ve won, or who you’ve danced with. Lift someone else up. Encourage someone who might not have had their moment in the spotlight yet. Be better than a great dancer; be a great person.

BE JOYFUL. Dancing is pure joy. Leave your concerns outside the studio door and dance it out. Don’t bring negativity in to your creative space; instead, allow yourself to truly embrace the moment. Look around, see the smiles – and the sweat – and know that you are lucky. You are lucky to be where you are and to have the opportunity to do what you are doing – be joyful!

BE CONFIDENT. Walk on to the stage with the knowledge that you are prepared, you are ready, and you’ve got this! Let your teammates, your teachers, and the audience lift you up and feel the support of a community around you. Look up, smile, dance full out and go for it! No hesitations, no regrets – live life in the moment!

BE THANKFUL. Not everyone gets to do what you are doing. A lot of people have invested and sacrificed for you to be here. Thank your parents, thank your teachers, and thank your fellow dancers. They are all a part of this journey and they give to you on a daily basis. Thank them for their time and energy.

BE KIND. Think before you speak. Consider your words and your actions carefully. You have an impact. You can choose to make someone’s day better or worse by the way that you treat them. Very few of you will go on to be professional dancers, but if you are lucky, you will be lifelong friends with the dancers standing around you. There is enough judgment in the world - be a soft place to land for your fellow dancers.

BE YOURSELF. You are the only "you" there is. No one else has your unique set of gifts. Embrace them. Your leg might not be as high as the girl next to you, but she is wishing she had your clean turns. There will always be someone better than you, and someone wishing they danced like you – this is life. The only person you need to worry about is the dancer you were yesterday. Be better than she was and make tomorrow’s "you" proud of the work you did today. Don’t compare yourself – you are incomparable!

So that’s it! I know it has nothing to do with your turn out, or lack thereof – I’ll be back to pestering you about that next week. But for now, just take a moment to breathe it all in. Every moment, every triumph, every disappointment – they are all part of this wonderful adventure we call life. Now go out there and live it!

With Love, Your Dance Teacher

It's Just Not My Style

            Last night, our studio hosted a guest instructor in our Contemporary class. This morning on the way to school, I asked my daughter, who happens to take the class, how it went. She said it was a lot of fun, but that she wasn’t very good at it because “it’s just not my style.” I cringed a little and then tried to explain to her why a dancer should never say anything is not their style.

            First of all, you are a kid; you don’t have a style yet. You should be a sponge, soaking up anything and everything around you. The moment you decide what “your style” is, you put yourself in a box and close off a whole lot of opportunities. I have seen this with dancers time and time again. Girls decide that they are only good at contemporary and drop out of hip hop class. Or girls think they don’t have great lines, so they drop ballet class. These decisions are limiting who you are as a dancer and each style can support and improve the others. Your hip hop class can help you understand musicality, rhythm, and isolations in a way that will inform your contemporary dancing. Developing core strength and flexibility in ballet class will serve you in every dance style. That musical theatre class may allow you to experience performance in a way that will change your presence on stage. Take it all!

            The concept of something not being your style is really an internal dialogue that you allow to control your movements. What is truly happening is that your body feels uncomfortable in the movement it is being given. My response to that is, “great! Then you are actually learning.” In order to develop as a dancer, you must be pushed out of your comfort zone. Every dance step you have ever learned was foreign to your body at some time. It is only through repetition, focus, and hard work that it now seems like second nature. When dancers are little, everything is brand new and they attack every movement fearlessly. As dancers become teens, they are often less comfortable exploring movement that they might not be good at. I want to encourage you to dance in ways that feel uncomfortable to your body because that is where real growth takes place.            

            My entire studio is built on the premise that all dance should be embraced, studied, and explored. The title of my company “all that” dance is a reflection of my dream of cross-disciplinary training and offering all dance styles under one roof. I still see studios who are known for one dance style. In any given town there may be a really great ballet academy, or a really strong hip hop company, or a fabulous musical theatre program, but it is only when we integrate these styles and give them equal importance that we are truly developing a complete dancer.

            So for my two cents, I don’t want dancers who have just one style, I want dancers who understand their bodies well enough to embrace any style. You are not a hip hop dancer, you are not a ballet dancer – you are a dancer, period. And dancers dance – any style, any movement, any music. You are more than just one style; you are a dancer.


One horrible handstand at a time....


“I’m really horrible at these, but I’ll try my best!” These are the words I heard spilling out of my six year old’s mouth as her gymnastics coach asked her to practice handstands on the bright blue floor. Sandy blonde pigtails flopping, my little one proceeded to fling herself in the air, feet flexed, knees bent, tumbling backwards to her tush most of the time. I giggled to myself and thought, “those really are horrible.”

My youngest follows up a line of three older siblings, all three of whom are quiet, reserved, extremely coordinated, and people pleasers. The baby of the family is none of those things. She has been a whirlwind of energy, sass, and independence from the moment she arrived in the world. The night she was born, the nurses would visit the room each hour and scold me for my lack of swaddling skills. I tried to explain that this little wildcat would squirm, kick and fling herself out of whatever brand of wrapping I attempted. She simply would not be contained – and she still won’t!

As a dance teacher, I spend my life instructing young girls on how to be focused, disciplined, and in control of their bodies. I am good at what I do. Yet somehow I am no match for my own daughter. She crashes in to the room with an exuberance that is unmatched by any of my pretty ballerinas and commands attention in a way that I dream of seeing in my best performers. But she will not be contained!

I’ll admit, her personality can be extremely trying for me and I often believe that God is pushing me to be a better person with every horrible handstand. I am used to making girls good at what they do. In fact, I don’t even settle at good, I am driven to create greatness in every one of my dancers. I correct feet down to the pinky toe. I lift elbows, guide knees backwards, and rotate hips outwards – all in a quest for quiet and focused perfection. And in the midst of all of this, here is my amazing little daughter who bounces through it all in delightful imperfection.

She is a reminder to me of what it means to be strong, to be brave, and to be resilient. All traits that may not have made my top ten until she came along and tore up the list. But watching her, I realize how liberating it must be to simply do what you love, even if you aren’t good at it. How many girls quit dance because they don’t have the right feet, the right legs, or the right body style? How many other girls are afraid to try because they might not be good at it? It’s easy to do something that you’re the best at. How much bravery does it take to do something you are really not good at?

Each day as my bundle of joy swims upstream through the sea of perfect buns and sparkly pink tutus, I am reminded of her ability to blaze her own path. She unabashedly greets every person who comes through the door with a grin and often bounces up to a complete stranger to chat. She doesn’t try to be the best at anything, but instead loves everything she does – a reminder to me that I should knock a few things off of my “to do” list in exchange for some moments of pure delight. So in my daily quest for perfect dancers, with perfect bodies, and perfect technique, I think I’m going to make a little more room for some of my daughter’s brand of wisdom. I am going to do more of the things I love, care less about what others think of me, and allow myself the opportunity to make a mistake. I’m going to dance my way through life…one horrible handstand at a time.


A gold by any other name

Expressions Company at Nuvo Dance Convention competing with "Piano Man."

Expressions Company at Nuvo Dance Convention competing with "Piano Man."

I’ve been involved in the dance competition circuit since before there even was a circuit. When I started competing, there was one competition, run by a local family out of Portland and it was one time a year. We drove up with homemade costumes and high hopes. We sat on a stage and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners were handed a trophy and everyone else was sent home with a participant ribbon. We were excited when we won, we were disappointed when we didn’t, but we had smiles on our faces either way.

I took a group of five dancers to the Nuvo Dance Convention in Seattle this past weekend. These girls are top dancers at my studio and have been to regional competitions in Portland multiple times, bringing home top honors more times than they probably needed to. In other words, they are used to winning. Nuvo, however, is a different level of competition. Conventions are ripe with some of the best dancers in the country and dancers were attending from throughout the nation.

For those of you who may not be familiar with dance competitions, each dance is scored against a point system. The system is said to be “bronze, silver, and gold” – but then they also throw in a “high gold” just to throw the whole system out of whack. And between you and me, I have never seen anyone get a bronze. I’ve rarely seen anyone get a silver. So, most of the competitions we attend the dancers are alternating between getting gold or even higher gold and my girls know that the “higher gold” is where they want to be.

As we sat in the convention center at Nuvo and awards began, I started hearing the word “silver” repeated over and over again. I was pleasantly surprised. There were multiple groups receiving a silver award, which immediately made me think, “oh no, my girls are going to get silver.” I started getting a little concerned thinking that they would be upset if they ended up getting silver instead of gold. After all, they’ve never received a silver before.

Sitting there in that convention center, I suddenly realized something. I didn’t care one bit about the color of that award, but what I did fear is that my dancers would let that color shake their self-confidence. And then I remembered something else. They can only feel less than if I make them feel that way. In my heart, I knew how proud I was of them, so why was I scared about the placement? As adults in these dancers lives, they look to us for validation. If we are truly, honestly, and sincerely proud of them, they will be okay. The same way that I was okay walking in to my mom’s open arms with a participation ribbon in hand all of those decades ago.

Long story short, the girls actually walked off that stage with a gold level placement. Truth be told, they’ve received gold countless times and I often feel like “gold” doesn’t even feel like an accomplishment anymore since they have now gotten used to scoring “high gold,” “lightning gold,” “sparking gold,” or whatever the new catch phrase is for the highest scoring level. I wondered how they would react to their placement. I walked up all smiles and one of my dancers grinned back saying “we are really proud of ourselves for this.” As well they should be.

Your child knows the difference. They know when the competition is difficult. They know when the dancers around them are incredible. They know when the “gold” means something and when it doesn’t. Let’s start giving our children more credit. Let’s teach our dancers to be resilient and humble. Let’s teach them to watch other dancers score higher and walk away with admiration and a fire to work harder. Let’s start making “gold” really means something again.

She Don't Know How to Love You

Six year old Campbell competing her lyrical solo to "Castle On A Cloud."

Six year old Campbell competing her lyrical solo to "Castle On A Cloud."

I am sitting in a dark room, with LED lights flashing, slightly blinded from the flash of rhinestones, watching a scantily clad girl gyrate on stage. No, I did not take a wrong turn and end up in a “gentleman’s club” – I am in fact at a dance competition. A dance competition where currently girls ages 5-10 years old are competing. Their talent is unreal. These mini dancers are performing feats that ten years ago you would have only seen on a professional stage. The level of dance has increased exponentially over the past decade and I am proud to be a part of it. I wonder though, can little girls still stay little girls in this industry? I firmly believe that they can and I am challenging other dance teachers to make it happen.

In my mind, the key to keeping our little ones little starts with the music. As a choreographer, I listen to hundreds upon hundreds of songs. Each piece of music I listen to conjures images of what story that particular song creates. I see what type of dancer it belongs on, what they should be wearing, how they should move – a scene is instantly created in my mind. Which makes me wonder, who listens to the song “I’m Your Lady” and sees an 8 year old in a bikini? Yes, I did just watch that number.

One of my dance idols, Rhee Gold, spoke to this topic and his quip was so on point. He said, “an eight year old girl can’t dance to “she don’t know how to love you” because guess what?! She don’t know how to love you!!!”  Amen! Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t want my eight year old knowing how to love you, and I don’t want her dancing about it either.

Each dancer has a story to tell on stage. They must be able to understand the story in order to have a connection to their movement. My six year old dancer just performed to “Castle On A Cloud” – a song about a young girl dreaming about a better place. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have my little one watch Les Mis, but the song itself is sweet, haunting, and hopeful. The lyrics speak to a mother’s love and the dreams of a young girl.

Even with my teenagers, it is essential to choose relatable topics that allow them to draw on personal experience to bring the story to life. This encourages them to become artists, rather than just play a character on stage. The concept of relatable topics starts with our youngest dancers. Why do we feel like these little ones need to look like miniature versions of our teens? Don’t worry, they’ll get there, whether we like it or not. They will mature and they will be older than we want them to be faster than we want them to get there. As a mother of four, I have seen it first hand and Father Time stops for no dance mom. So let’s stop trying to shove those clock hands forward for our little girls. Enjoy every moment of their pigtails and curls!

I also just saw a beautiful lyrical rendition of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” danced by three young girls in flowing chiffon dresses with gorgeous lines and emotions to go along with it. It was poignant, wistful, and perfect for their age group. It can be done people! So, the next time you are looking for that “perfect” song for your elementary school group, listen to the lyrics. In fact, say them out loud. Even better yet, would you hand those lyrics to the eight year old and have them say the words to their parent? If not, put the ipod down and keep looking!

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! 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.

Aluminum Foil Award of Awesomeness

Competitions have changed a lot through the years. The dancing has gotten better, the costumes have gotten smaller, and the awards have become more confusing. Back in the good old days (yes I’m that old), the awards used to be one of two systems – either 1st, 2nd, and 3rd or Gold, Silver, and Bronze. They were easily recognizable and everyone knew where you stood at the end of the day. In the new era of “no dancer left behind,” we have elevated these awards to a whole new level. I recently returned from a competition where the award levels include Gold, High Gold, and Lightning Gold. That way, no matter what you score – you still won Gold. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand why they do it. This way every dancer feels like they achieved the top level. However, I hate to break it to you, but your kids are not dummies. You can call the levels whatever you’d like; these dancers still know what 1st, 2nd, and 3rd means.

As we continue to elevate dance awards, where does it end? I often joke with my dancers that soon they’ll be competing for the overall, top platinum, diamond, sparkly gold pillar of awesomeness. So, I am calling on all of you dance teachers, dance parents, and dance supporters in general to stop the madness! Your dancer knows how well they did regardless of what you call their award. Let’s start being honest with our dancers by praising their achievements, commending them on their strengths, and giving them an honest assessment of where they need to improve.

In fact, let’s take it one step further. How about we, as the adults in charge of their dance education, allow them to fail and still feel valued. It is up to us how much power we allow that diamond pillar of awesomeness to have over our dancers. They are looking to us to set that standard. Of course we want our dancers to do well, but if they don’t place well at a dance competition, that should not define their sense of self worth. So let’s not allow it to.

During last year’s competition season, I set my own goals for my team that had nothing to do with their placement level. I told them I didn’t care what award they brought home because we would know whether they were successful based on our own measuring stick. I told them I would be proud even if they brought home the Aluminum Foil Award – my own tongue in cheek reference to the crazy placement system that has taken over the dance competition circuit. I figured if Platinum was the new top level, then Aluminum Foil had to be somewhere near the bottom.

That competition day, my dancers performed beautifully, and placed well, although to be perfectly honest I can’t remember exactly how well. What I do remember is watching their faces light up as I passed out my own hand made awards to them – foil wrapped ding dongs with a label on which I had written “Aluminum Foil Award of Awesomeness.” My dancers cracked up, hugged, cheered, and celebrated over these silly little ding dongs. These foil wrapped awards got more attention, talk, and selfie posts than their actual trophy.

Your dancer wants to feel successful, and valued, and appreciated. But I promise that aluminum foil does the job just as well as sparkly platinum – as long as it’s wrapped in love!

Aluminum Award
Aluminum Award

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.