Levels levels levels
When I first started teaching ballet in Los Angeles in the 80’s, I found the standards of training in the area to be weak and the opportunities to be sparse for young ballet dancers wanting to train. There was a lot of jazz, some great advanced, pro classes if you were willing to travel but in comparison to the meticulous training I had grown up with in my home country of New Zealand, strong ballet training for children was hard to find. I taught part time at several schools but felt manipulated into dumming down the classes to keeping it “fun” and I often had too many levels in one class. I rented a space and began teaching a small ballet class to a group of about 6 young dancers who were in the 10-12 year old range along with my intro to dance and pre ballet tap classes where I developed the curriculum that is still taught at LABA today. The girls had some previous training and a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I began by instructing them how to wear their shoes with ribbons and how to put their hair in a bun. We then moved on to the barre where I spent considerable time working on getting them to stay on the barre, the parents to stay in the lobby and to explain why cartwheels between exercises was not good form. Upon what probably seemed like a lifetime to them we finally progressed to the center and I will never forget the question that was asked….”Miss Andrea when are we going to get to do turns and leaps across the floor in this ballet class” to which I replied “you may be ready for that in about 3 years”.
I feared that the LA crowd would not be interested in non commercial training, or in slow careful, meticulous methodology. I had a few colleagues who were on the same page as I was, so I found strength in aligning myself with them and I plodded on. I demonstrated a lot for the children as I was still dancing professionally myself and I had no advanced dancers for them to look up to. Those parents and their children (many of whom graduated from the school with me and I am still in touch with today) trusted me, believed in my philosophy and allowed me to train them.
To my surprise the program grew rapidly with 30 students in the beginning of the first year and 150 in the second. Obviously the parents and dancers who came to me for ballet were looking for what I had to offer and 21 years later we have the vibrant and evolving program that we have now.
Now I’d like to tell you about some things that ruffle mine and my colleagues tutu’s the most.
The number one complaint that I receive on the first day of our Summer Intensive is “my daughter is not in the right level” This often happens after the first class on the first day of the program, however it has also happened BEFORE the first class!……It also happens during the first week of the fall session. I will also say that this is also a compliant more about daughters than sons because parents of boys often do not feel the same pressure as the parents of girls. Boys motivation to dance and how parents respond to it is a whole other post……….hmmm I already feel the ideas flowing.
When a parent makes this complaint about levels it is extremely rare that the parent thinks that the class is too hard for their child and they want them in a lower level…….. 99.9% of the time the parent feels that their child should be in a higher level than they have been placed in. Their reasoning often goes along the lines of the fact that their friend is in another level, their child is taller or bigger than the other children in the class, they perceive that their child is older or more physically gifted than the other students in the class. Surprised by this? I know as parents we have all felt this way at some time or another about our children or have heard a parent in the parking lot or the lobby expressing exactly what I am describing here.
I would ask parents to consider the following. Most of the children in our program have been auditioned and placed carefully before they arrive. THEN on the first day the teachers and the director evaluate the students to verify that the levels are correct. They then continue to evaluate the children in the program because their MISSION and objective is to make sure these dancers have a positive experience and progress and are inspired during the program. Whether they are members of our program or are visiting from another teacher, we all want them to go back to regular classes looking better and feeling stronger. The success of any program world wide depends on this.
The Director of the program you have chosen spends their days looking at and evaluating dancers they have probably been doing this for 10-15-20 or 30 years. Is it reasonable to question their ability to evaluate your dancer? Often a teachers feels that a quiet shy child will benefit from being one of the strongest dancers in the class so they can build confidence. Or a more assertive child may benefit from being in a bit over their head in order to remain grounded.
Often parents mistake a child with a natural ballet body or great feet to have superior understanding. Those children’s muscular skeletal anatomy are just as vulnerable and delicate as other children their age and “pretty feet” do not indicate a heightened ability to comprehend the concepts and idea’s that are being imparted by the teacher in class.
So my advice to parents is this: Leave the rose colored glasses at home. Take the word “challenged” out of the equation and let the ballet experts do their job. Allow your child to feel satisfied and comfortable in the dance environment. If your child is moved to a different level let them feel that they have attained a promotion on their own without any intervention from Mom or Dad. Consider that a knee jerk reaction on the first day, immediately approaching the staff, calling the office 3 times during the day, crying to the office manager, often diminishes your child’s chance of being moved even if they should be. The office staff have absolutely no input on the levels the students are placed in and become stressed and frustrated by these interactions and it can cause a negative backlash for everyone involved. Also consider sending your child to the intensive without a cell phone or agreeing ahead of time that they will turn their phone off until the end of the day. A grumpy text from pre teen or teenager who is struggling, sore or tired can make you crazy and cause you to possibly react in a way you may regret.
You have most likely looked at many programs before you decided where to send your child to train. Show your child that you trust the teachers and support their efforts. Do your job, support your child and their teachers, and expect the directors to do their jobs. With these ingredients in place a positive experience and success will be guaranteed.