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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

One of Those New Years Posts

I'm not big on getting sentimental on New Years' Eve or treating the changing of the year like some momentous occasion. Tonight I'll probably change into my pajamas at five o'clock, drink some cocoa, read a book and fall asleep at nine.  It's tempting for me to feel negative about the past year because, in all honesty, it's been a tough one. Instead of dwelling on the difficulties of 2013, I'd like to focus this post on the fun, rewarding things in my dance life.  I performed and choreographed almost constantly this year and taught so many talented, engaged students.

In January, I became a certified Pilates instructor. I've wanted to teach Pilates for years so successfully completing the course and teaching my first classes felt like a big accomplishment. I'm hoping to complete a more extensive certification in the future and learn more about other fitness methods as well. Maybe 2014 will be the year for that?

In the spring,  I taught my first college ballet and jazz courses. Students from the nearby college take the class at my studio for physical education credit. Teaching these short, half-credit courses gives me new respect for school teachers and college professors and the amount of time they put into grading! Spring 2014 will be my third semester with college students and, hopefully, the semester I finally stay on top of my grading.

In May, my studio produced its annual spring showcase. Directing shows, even dance shows, is way outside of my comfort zone but I'm proud of how it all turned out this year. We had great audience turnout and the kids all seemed to have fun, despite my 36 nervous breakdowns during show week. To everyone I snapped at and to the janitor who may or may not have found me curled up in a small ball in the sound booth when I discovered gigantic ink stains on twelve pairs of brand new tights--I am sorry.

Right after the spring showcase, I leaped into rehearsals choreographing a local production of Rogers & Hammerstein's Allegro. I'd choreographed musicals before, but never one with three separate extended ballet sequences. Most of the cast had minimal dance experience--another challenge. Overall, I was happy with how it turned out and loved being a part of such a good but rarely performed production.  Somewhere in the middle of all those production numbers and jazz squares, my little boy turned one year old and we moved to a new house.

September saw the beginning of a new dance season with all of the usual stress and excitement. We have a solid and growing student base and while there are still times when I feeling like throwing in the towel and becoming a goat farmer or something, I really do love what I do.

Fall whizzed by and I finished the year with another play, Wise Women at The Valley Theatre. For the past week, I've been enjoying a nice break from all teaching and dancing, though I have started the arduous process of ordering costumes for this year's spring showcase--an abridged version of Swan Lake--and begun rehearsals for yet another play.

Looks like I'm in for a fun ride in 2014!

I hope you have a happy new year! Ring it in with at least as much style as me.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Saying "No" and Finding Freedom

 Self-employed people tend to be self-motivated people.
You have to be if you want to pay your bills and feed your family. 
I've been self-employed in some capacity since I was eighteen and realized I could either sit around waiting for someone to give me a job or I could go out and create a job for myself. When I moved to a place where jobs were scarce and jobs in my field practically non-existent, I decided to take the risk of throwing myself 100% into freelance writing. A few months later, I opened a brick-and-mortar business (HMAC). I've lived and supported my family (with varying degrees of success) off of those self-created* jobs exclusively over the past two years, but not without a lot of hard work. There's no such thing as a salary raise without enrolling more students, teaching more hours or writing more words. Sick leave is non-existent and health insurance has been a continuous nightmare.

While I don't think anyone would fault me for wanting to make a decent living, sometimes I admit my fear of not making it becomes a little bit of an obsession. I've got a little Scarlett O'Hara in my worldview and that's not usually a good thing. Sure, business owners should want their businesses to grow and be mindful of profit, but in the past year or so, I've stretched myself too thin trying to keep my head above water. 
This past week, I did something I've never done before:

I turned away students. 

I couldn't figure out a way to squeeze extra bodies into an already-full class without the quality of the class suffering. I couldn't figure out how to manage an extra class in my packed spring schedule. 
So I said, "No." 

Saying that word felt terrible. I apologized profusely and made sure to give the prospective dancers information about early enrollment for summer. For hours afterward, I couldn't shake the guilt that I'd both disappointed a small child and turned down a potential opportunity to grow my business. 

Then, I felt relieved. One simple "no" had made me a little bit freer. I realized that I don't have to say "yes" all the time to be successful or well-liked or responsible. 

I think I'm still going to tend to overbook myself and that's okay; I like busyness. But I'm learning to be open to new opportunities without feeling enslaved by them. I hope, when the time comes again, I won't be so afraid to say "no."

*Self-created is a funny term because I really couldn't have made these businesses work without the help of many, many people. Especially my clients. But y'know. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dance Teacher Boredom

I love teaching dance. I really do. But like every teacher, sometimes I lose my motivation. It's easy to go through the motions of teaching a class, giving the same combinations with the same corrections I usually do. It's easy to "check out" when I feel exhausted or sick or discouraged. Just like I need to prevent my students from getting bored or frustrated, I need to be careful not to let myself become unmotivated.  Here are a few of the ways I try to keep my classes fresh and my mind engaged when teaching dance: 

Stay Inspired 
I stay up to date with what's going on in the wide world of dance by reading my favorite dance publications, especially Dance Teacher magazine. Reading about what other successful teachers and studio owners are up to not only gives me great idea to use in the studio, but helps me remember that I'm not alone in this crazy industry. Live dance performances, good music, art and books can also provide inspiration even when they're not dance related. 

Change Things Up
I follow a syllabus for all of my classes, but allow myself the freedom to change up the combinations and music choices regularly. Bringing in new class music also helps keep my students from getting bored, so it's a top priority for me and something I don't mind spending money on (if I'll get enough use out of it). Even changing where I stand in the room to demonstrate combos can help keep me (and my dancers) engaged. When I can afford it, I treat myself to a new leotard or fun top to wear to class. It sounds trivial, but feeling confident in my appearance helps me maintain my energy and enthusiasm in class. 

Take Breaks
This is the hardest one for me and, I imagine, for a lot of self-employed people. I'm tempted to cram as many classes into each week as possible both for financial reasons and because I enjoy them so much. This fall I've maintained a teaching schedule of about 20 hours per week, which is nothing compared to what school teachers put it, but still draining. Add to that the preparation time for each class (total of about 5 -7 hours per week), administrative duties,  freelance work and raising a toddler and I've got my hands pretty full.  Whenever I'm able to take a week or two off from teaching, I always feel so much more excited to return to the studio.

With our studio Christmas break approaching, I've decided to take a solid two weeks off of all dance teacher related jobs (including private lessons) to rest my mind and body before beginning an even more packed teaching schedule in January. 

When it comes to your job, what do you do to keep yourself motivated? 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Podcast: Dancers and Eating Disorders

   I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on the Eating Disorder Pro podcast with Dr. J. Renae Norton to discuss eating disorders and body image in the dance community.

I talk a little about my own experiences and how I approach the issue of body image in my own dance classroom. You'll also hear me talk about my new book project. (Blog post with more details coming soon!) I don't claim to be an expert on eating disorders or nutrition, but I was very glad to share my own perspective on the show.

Click here to listen to the episode. 

Monday, December 16, 2013


I ostensibly moved to New York, like gazillions of other young adults, to perform. During my four years in that city, I performed in only five or six different productions. I did book a couple of other jobs that I was unable to accept due to my college schedule. (I couldn't bring myself to drop out mid-semester to tour the country as a dancing bear for $300 a week. Stay in school, kids. ) Still, five low or non-paying gigs in four years kind of sucks. Like most young dancers who move to the city with no job prospects, I was too busy trying to keep my head above water to actually, well, dance. At seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, I lacked the courage I needed to succeed in such a competitive industry.

When I left NYC, everyone acted like my dance career was over. I tried to keep my chin up, swearing up and down I was working on demo reels and had plans to come down to the city to audition all the time, but in my heart, I was scared this was it. I was twenty-one and washed up. In some ways, I was right. I'm no longer waking up at 4:00 am to line up in the freezing cold on w. 46th in the hopes of being allowed to double pirouette in front of a casting director. I spend more time teaching others how to dance than taking class in overcrowded studios with 43 other people.  But I'm performing all the time. More than I ever did in New York. I dance at churches and chapels and outdoor festivals, participate in community theater and constantly brainstorm ways to bring dance to new audiences.

I would still like to perform on a professional stage again, sure. It's something I miss terribly, despite the stress and struggle of audition after audition. For now, though, I'm enjoying the opportunity to do something I love for people who seem to appreciate it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Finding the Right Dance School

     A typical dance student in suburban America  has a myriad of options when it comes to choosing a place to learn dance. There's the big studio with flashy competition trophies in the window, the small school with a heavy emphasis on end-of-year recitals, and the ballet school which may or may not be tied to a professional company of some kind. While each studio owner will declare his or her training method the best for your student, you need to take special care to make sure you're choosing the right dance environment for yourself or your child.
    I've taught at many different kinds of dance schools over the years and trained as a student at many more. To help new students and parents without a dance background feel less overwhelmed when deciding where to spend hard-earned money on dance lessons, I've put together a little guide based on my own experiences.

Step 1) Determine what type of training style suits your goals.

While no two dance studios are entirely alike, I've divided types of schools into two major categories, for simplicity's sake: the dance studio and the ballet school. Some schools (like the one I own*) blur this line by offering different kinds of programs, but most of the time you can use the following lists to determine into which category your neighborhood studio falls.

     Think about your child's goals and personality types to decide what kind of school to look for. Is she interested in ballet primarily, jazz or hip-hop, or even many different styles equally? Remember that you don't need professional aspirations to benefit from the more focused training offered by ballet schools, though they do tend to require more commitment even from recreational students, especially as children get more advanced.
      If you opt for a dance studio with combination classes, make sure adequate time is given to teach style. I have taught at schools who have required teachers to teach as many as three different styles in 45 minute classes for teenagers. With that little time, the teacher is only giving a sample of each style, not full instruction. In my opinion, combo classes for students older than 8 should devote at least 30 minutes to jazz and tap and 45 minutes (preferably one hour) to ballet. Students older than ten studying ballet need at least a one hour class each week (preferably twice per week) to develop proper strength and technique.

Step 2) Get to know the studio owner and teachers. 
Ask questions about the owner's training history and teaching experience. Dance related degrees and certifications are great, but the teacher should also have solid training (never study dance with a teacher who has no formal training of his or her own) and a teaching philosophy that's compatible with your goals and desires for your child. Ask to observe a class. Look for the following qualities of teaching excellence:
  • A thorough warm-up. If you're watching a ballet class, this should include at least five to ten exercises at the barre (depending on the age and level of the class). Teachers who don't include a warm-up in their class are setting students up for injury. 
  • A balance of praises and corrections. A teacher should give encouraging and constructive feedback to his or her students. Be wary of teachers who seem constantly negative or--to the other extreme--do nothing but praise students without offering suggestions for improvements. 
  • Friendly, but commanding respect. I'm not a fan of teachers who try so hard to be their student's friends that they lose control of the classroom. On the other hand, a student should never be afraid to approach her dance teacher. 

Step 3) Practical considerations. 
      How far are you willing to drive? What is the cost of classes? Keep in mind that dance classes can be pricey but rates vary greatly depending on location and years in business. You may spend as much as  $100/month on a 60 minute weekly beginner class or as little as $25. You should also ask about recital or performance costs and registration fees (which many studios, including mine, charge at the beginning of the year to cover administrative fees). In my experience, recreational recital-focused studios can be even more expensive than prestigious ballet schools once you factor in the costs of recital costumes and participation fees.
      If you feel strongly that your student belongs at a school but are worried about associated costs, it never hurts to ask the owner or office staff about other options for covering expenses. Many studios offer fundraisers, scholarships or invite parents to volunteer office hours in exchange for free or discounted classes. Remember, though, that studio ow ners are still business people and have a reason for charging what they do. I personally make a lot of sacrifices to keep costs low for my clients and nothing is more frustrating than someone claiming that I'm overcharging.

Step 4) Dance!
Some studios offer trial classes for new students, but if yours doesn't and your research has indicated it may be a good choice for you, go ahead and sign up. I encourage you to stick to your chosen studio for at least a full year  (unless you discover something is very wrong with the program) so you get the full experience and to teach your child the importance of following through on commitments.

There are so many factors to consider when choosing a place to learn to dance, many more than I can discuss in a measly blog  post!

What is the most important quality in a dance school to you?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wise Women

The cast of Wise Women

I'm in the final stretch of rehearsals for Ron Osborne's Wise Women, a comedic play set at Christmastime, 1944. That's right. I'm saying words on stage with nary a jazz square or kick ball change in sight. It makes for a nice change and is definitely a challenge for me as a performer who prefers moving over speaking. I'm thoroughly enjoying the role and the show and can't wait to see how it all comes together when we open next week. This is the third show I've done with The Valley Theatre and might be my favorite so far!

     Check out the full press release and, if you're local to western NY, reserve your tickets!