Finding the “BEST” Ballet Training

Because of my background as a professional dancer, and because I currently teach, I’m asked on a regular basis about my opinion on the “BEST” ballet training. It usually evolves into a longer conversation than the parent may have anticipated, and that is because the “best” training depends on a number of factors.

Just in case you don’t run into me anywhere, or have 20 minutes to have a conversation about it, I wanted to share the following thoughts on the subject to be used at your discretion to find the BEST training for YOUR dancer.

Consideration #1: The AGE of your dancer?

If your son or daughter is just starting out (for girls, ages 3-7; boys 3-13 apx.), the “BEST” studio provides dance exploration and experience. This is your child’s introduction to dance. It should be fun and engaging. These first classes may have little to do with impressive training and proper technique, and that is okay. Even if your 5 year old has declared he or she would like to be a dancer “when I grow up,” potential, aptitude, discipline, and everything else has yet to be determined or developed.

Look for an experience your beginning dancer will love. A lengthy drive in the car might kill the whole deal for a younger person. Pricey tuition might kill it for you. At this point, it is totally valid to consider cost and convenience as major factors in this decision. And when your son or daughter is having fun, dancing even outside of class, and begging for more, not only do you know you found the “right” place, but it may be time to think of taking the next step in your dancer’s training.

That next step, taking it up a notch, going to the next level means building a solid technical foundation. That is the goal of the training offered at most dance studios for girls between ages 8 and 15, and boys all the way to 16. At this point, it isn’t enough to wiggle around the stage in a cute costume. It’s time to really begin dancing. To build that technical foundation, most studios will begin to offer and recommend longer classes more often. 

That is consideration #2: How often your dancer is able, or wants, to take class?

Assuming your dancer is loving it, when more and longer classes are not offered or recommended, it may be time to shop for a new studio. Proper technique is key for improved dancing, and it is unlikely to come together at the rate of an hour or so once or twice a week.

This increased time commitment moves the young dancer from discovering different forms of dance and generally exploring it as an art form, to building him or herself as the instrument which will one day create art. Girls generally shouldn’t begin dancing en pointe until they are 12 years old and have sufficient strength and understanding of ballet technique. (In other words, if your studio hands out point shoes almost like a birthday present, you’re probably in the wrong place for good training.) 

Once your dancer is en pointe, adding a pointe class is essential. Simply taking a ballet class with point shoes on won’t give her the strength or articulation in the feet she needs to move from novelty tricks on her toes to true dancing. By the time she is 14, this pointe class should absolutely come in addition to, and not in lieu of a regular class. That means some days, she’ll be taking more than one class.

For boys, at about 14 or 15, make sure their training includes partnering (dancing with a girl) and the turns and jumps particular to men in ballet. This can be taught by a woman, but if you can find a male teacher, or your studio will bring in a guest male instructor, even better!

In summary, a dancer who wants to improve (not just have fun moving in balletic ways) should be in class MORE than 2x/week by the time he or she is 12, taking 3 technique classes AND a pointe or partnering class. (Yes, your 11 year old may NEED to be in class 4 days a week to remain competitive in the field of dance!)

Listen to your dancer. Enough is enough when it seems he or she has reached all he or she can handle. Tolerance for or drive for more will often be a reflection of your dancer’s ultimate dance goals, which is the next consideration to keep in mind.

Consideration #3: What my dancer wants the outcome of all of these classes to be.

If your dancer can’t tolerate more than two classes a week, it is likely his or her goal will NOT be to dance as a profession. Still, other dancers eat it up, but ultimately want to do other things with their lives. If the desired end is fun and exercise, most dance studios will meet that need just fine. If your dancer wants to see how good he or she can get, possibly go for dance scholarships, or even dance professionally, then ramping up to dancing 6 times a week by the age of 15 or 16 is not only likely, but completely appropriate.

Naturally, at this point a lot of children – or now-young adults – decide they don’t like dancing that much. It may have been fun once or twice a week. But not fun enough to do 3, 4, or 5 times. Not fun enough to give up soccer, or piano, or even time to relax and be a kid.  That is okay. Don’t buckle under pressure from anyone about your dancer needing to take more classes than he or she enjoys. (Again, it may be time to shop around if number of classes is dictated by the studio based on age, and not by the student’s passion.) Certainly, dancing on a professional level isn’t for everyone (that’s why we find that level so amazing!) so neither should be the training to get there.

Of course, when it comes to building a solid technical foundation, there is more to consider than how old your child is and how often he or she is taking a ballet class. Ask:

What is the background of the teacher? What have his or her students gone on to do?

The best teacher or teachers to help your dancer become the best dancer he or she can be may not be the closest/cheapest/friendliest. Look for a background of the teacher that matches the goals of your dancer. This is true for whatever those goals may be. If your dancer wants to dance through high school on in the High School’s dance company, a teacher with that background will give the best insight on how to go about accomplishing that dream. If your dancer wants a professional career, look for a teacher who has had one.

The other important point to keep in mind, however, is what the teacher’s students have gone on to do. If the teacher you find has only danced on a University level, for example, but his or her students have been employed by major companies all over the country, you’ll be in fine hands to give your dancer the same shot at that dream. Conversely, if the teacher danced professionally, but her students struggle to move beyond the school, it may be a sign the training won’t reflect what the teacher has accomplished personally. (Note that the background you should be looking at is the background of the teacher your dancer is working with. Studio owners or directors often don’t work with all the students in their program. Their background may be irrelevant to your student if he or she doesn’t spend time training him or her.)

The best way to find a teacher to match the goals of your student is simply to ask. Many dance studios are proud of the background of their teachers and make that information readily available in brochures, on websites and in their marketing efforts. Others like to keep the details vague. When in doubt, just ask. Don’t shy away from asking for names and numbers of current parents (if you don’t know any) you can call to ask about their experiences with specific teachers or schools. 

Of course, one of the best ways to find this match is to have your dancer go and take with a teacher, joining a class he or she already teaches. If the studio doesn’t offer when you call for information, ask if it’s a possibility. If they resist, ask to come and observe the class. Most studios will be open to either option.

After your dancer has taken or watched a class from a teacher you are considering, get plenty of feedback from your dancer. What did your dancer like? What did he or she learn? How did he or she compare to the other students in the class? (If your dancer was the best one there, it may not be a good fit if your dancer’s goal is improvement.) Involve your dancer as much as possible in this decision. If the goals of your dancer and the accomplishments of the teacher and students are a match, you may be set for a very long time.

There is more to know when your dancer’s heart is set on a professional career, but I’ll leave that perspective for another post! Remember to listen to your dancer: make sure he or she is having fun, being challenged at a level appropriate for his or her dance goals, and working with a teacher who has been there and done that, whatever the goal might be!

Happy dancing and enjoy your training!