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Q. How do you choose a ballet school for your son?
A. With extreme caution.
I've been prompted to jot down a few thoughts about choosing ballet schools by seeing an advert for 'accredited' dance studios.
While the idea of listing schools which have a Code of Professional Conduct, staff with certain 'valid' qualifications &c. is a very positive idea, I think it is misguided to assume that any school on such a list would automatically be right for your son.
Here, then, is just a scattering of thoughts which parents might want to think about when choosing a school. (NB This post is mainly based on my extensive experience as a boy - not a parent. I hope it's useful.)
- To qualify as a dance teacher one does not have to have performed in a professional capacity. While it is often said that the best practitioners do not necessarily make the best teachers in most fields, dance is essentially a performing art. If you want to take dance seriously you might, therefore, like to think about a teacher who has been there, done that. Any teacher should be prepared to show you their CV with pleasure!
- Some forms of accreditation for dance schools/teachers cost an awful lot of money and smaller schools may not want the financial burden. It is worth remembering, therefore, that a really excellent school may not appear on some of the official-looking lists.
- Some dance schools have an attitude that most children dance simply because they enjoy it and want to have fun (with no further ambitions). Sometimes these studios focus on having an entertaining time in class and place secondary emphasis on technique. This is one valid school of thought. Another school of thought is that learning proper technique is, in itself, the most rewarding and fun approach to dancing. Boys in particular may respond best to this second approach to ballet because it is more structured. As boys see their technique develop, they also watch their strength and control increase - and their confidence as dancers grows.
My own experience in a school which did not focus on quality technique was enormously frustrating. While the girls seemed happy to come to class and play at ballerinas, I did not feel I was making any progress. This sense of stagnation and failure to grapple with the real stuff of ballet is one of the factors which, sadly, led to me giving up - like so many boys - around the age of 13.
- Male teachers are one great way of resolving this problem because they are inevitably more aware of what it feels like to be a young male dancer - they also make excellent role models. One reason I continued modern beyond ballet, for example, was because I had a male teacher who stimulated me in a completely different way (not limited to, but as simple as, starting every class with press-ups. He made me feel like a young man and not a child interested in playing prance-around.) However, a male teacher is not at all essential, especially for younger boys. A studio with a male ballet teacher might be worth further investigation, though.
- All boys classes are an even better idea, whoever teaches them. Boys not only thrive in a male environment where ballet is seen as masculine and everyone is dealing with the same issues (from tights to dance belts to completing that second tour en l'air) but male technique is definitely different to female technique and this is what boys should learn. Again, however, this is less important for younger boys and popular syllabuses (notably the RAD syllabus which is followed worldwide) feature different exercises and enchaînements for boys from the start. Learning to partner is certainly a major part of male technique so banishing girls completely is not a good idea (for other reasons, too...)
All-boys classes are, regrettably, quite rare (but they are on the increase). If no boys' class is offered at a studio that does not mean it won't suit your son. Many dance companies offer regular boys' workshops as part of their outreach programmes and these can provide just the impetus needed. We hope to list some of these on the site in the near future.
- It may seem too obvious to mention but every teacher has their own style and every pupil responds in a different way. It is definitely worth trying to arrange a trial lesson to see whether your son is likely to gel with a specific teacher. Boys often won't speak out if things aren't going quite right so it's best to try and nail it from the beginning.
- In a similar vein, you might like to try and observe a class to gauge what the school's approach really is (some people will say anything on the phone). Even better, try and see a school show. It can be revealing to see how boys are handled: Do they just have to fit in with the girls (sadly seen too often)? Or are they given their own boys' solos/dances? Do the boys have their own proper costumes? Or just a token nod to being on stage? Are there lots of boys who seem serious and happy? Or only younger ones who are tagging along with big sister for Mum's convenience?
- And here's a final disconcerting thought: it is perfectly feasible that a school might exist with a boys' technique class taught by a male teacher in a nice studio with lots of pupils that simply isn't very good. So this is why I advise caution - and asking your son (and other parents) for lots of feedback. If your son isn't finding every ballet lesson he goes to tough - i.e. mentally stimulating, physically challenging and stamina testing - he may well not be at the right school.
There is, certainly, a lot to consider. But getting it right may really be the difference between your son loving ballet - and finding it mediocre and dropping out. I have often heard of boys having a 'wobble' in dance only to move schools and discover their passion once again.
I am sure there are lots of parents with thoughts to contribute on this topic. Please leave a comment or email info [at] boyswhodance.com - we would love to include your contributions.