Why You Must Become Your Dancin’ Son’s Manager

Make sure your young male ballet dancer has a good manager--you!My last blog post about when to send your son to a summer dance intensive generated a bit of off-blog discussion from parents too afraid to comment on the blog. Too intimidated by their studio directors or ballet masters, they didn’t want their names right there in the blog comments as they told me stories that corroborated what I had said in that post: Some teachers, directors or studio owners frown on or disallow their male students attending summer dance intensives because they simply don’t have their male student’s best interests in mind.

Here’s what I heard from one mother of a dancin’ son:

We couldn’t get a meeting with my son’s studio director or teachers regarding summer intensive auditions for this year. He attended a 2-week intensive last summer and absolutely loved it, so he wants more this summer. He’s cast in two productions at the moment, and the school director wouldn’t allow my son to go to other summer intensive auditions due to rehearsals every weekend. It took us three rescheduled meetings to finally meet with her to be told this decision. Fortunately we had already taken him to the one audition in early January. He received a full-tuition scholarship for a 5-week program run by a large, prestigious ballet program. We notified his director that he will be going and haven’t heard a word back from her… No congratulations, no acknowledgement, nothing. I recently received feedback through the grapevine that she is furious that he did audition and that he is going to this intensive. As one of only a few boys who are at the studio every day taking classes and rehearsing, I can’t understand her failure to respond. It’s a harsh reality that the teachers and directors don’t always want the best for the boys.

When I asked this mom to post her comment on the blog, she said the studio had “strict rules” about posting negative things on the internet and social networking sites. God forbid a parent should complain about such behavior from a dance school director, right, no less make it public?

Here’s the thing, as I said in my last post, there comes a point when you have to become your son’s manager. This is one of those times. Only you have your dancin’ boy’s best interests at heart. (Or you should—even if it means longer drives to dance class. The woman above said she is at her driving limit—35-60 minutes each way to the studio; we thought 45 minutes three to four times per week was our limit but ended up driving 90 minutes each way seven days a week for a full year.)

They Need Your Son More than You Need Their Studio

Stop being afraid of the studio owners, ballet masters, and teachers—even the ones with long performing histories or who come from countries where they demand more respect than here in the U.S. Stand up for yourself and for your son. Claim your power. In fact, you don’t need a formal meeting. If you can’t get your studio director or teacher to set a meeting, corner him or her in the hallway. Tell him or her you need a decision now—or you’ll make one on your own.  If she can’t talk…or find time…tell her you will make the decision—or take your son elsewhere. Plenty of studios will want your son, especially if he has a smidgen of talent—and possibly give him a scholarship to boot.

If you aren’t sure if your son has talent, should go to an intensive, should switch studios, etc, you can always pay to have him seen by someone else and to get advice. Or ask a visiting choreographer or teacher. Or trust your gut. You and your son know what is best for him. And you know when you and he are not being treated the way you want to be treated.

I don’t recommend making a uniformed decision, though. Do your research. Ask questions. Have conversations. We spent a lot of time talking to Julian about what he wanted and discussion the pros and cons of changing studios and giving up one thing for another. We also took the time to research what dancers had come out of different studios, who the instructors at each school were, and where the dancers had ended up. We tried to talk to the dancers and the parents at different studios; you can do this while your child takes a class or auditions there. Do due diligence. It’s your right and your job. Don’t let anyone stop you.

Pay attention to the signs—they are there. You know if your son is being stifled, not growing and learning, not being allowed to pursue his interests—and this is a clear indication it’s time for change. And if you don’t make a change it will lead to one end and one end only: He will quit dancing. If he wants to be a triple threat, for example, let him be one—despite what anyone tells you, and it’s a rare ballet studio director who will ever tell you to let your son learn to sing, although they may tell him to learn to act. And they likely won’t tell you to let him learn other styles of dance, although to this day I believe that is what has made Julian such a good mover. (Yes, some of that is natural, but some of it comes from learning many styles of dance rather than only standing stiffly at the barre.) And the fact that he had two years of contemporary dance training (and two contemporary ballet summer intensives as well) and another year at a ballet studio that included contemporary ballet each week (and performance pieces) helped him land his him his current position in Germany. The artistic director immediately knew he had contemporary training because it was evident in the way he moved.

Know When Your Son is Doing Too Much or Too Little

Let your son follow his heart to as much as possible. As his manger, do what you know is best for him, including curtailing some activities and adding in others, like private lessons. If your son, like mine, wants to be involved in every performance—at the studio and at school—you may have to put your foot down and say, “No.” This can be very hard to do, I know. But one parent mentioned to me that her ballet studio actually encourages the students to be in musicals, which is great. However, her son seems to be in everything—not uncommon when studios have few boys. That means he is juggling a ton of rehearsals. When your dancin’ boy spends too much time performing and rehearsing and not enough time in class, his dance education suffers. His technique suffers.

Performance experience is very important; I’ve seen boys get on stage for the first time at age 16 or 17, when they need to be job hunting soon; they need more performance experience than that. However, if they’ve spent most of their time performing rather than training, they will lack the fundamentals—they won’t have pointed feet, they won’t have correct arm placement, etc. Your son should spend more time training than performing. A studio that focuses more time on training is actually better, as long as there are ample opportunities for performance. This means you need to evaluate how much time your son is in class as opposed to in rehearsal.

You have to look at the overall time your son is spending—on everything. Boys (and girls) get burned out. They need time off. They love to be in the studio dancing every chance they can. But be sure their bodies and their minds get down time. Julian used to just want to sit for hours in front of the television and do nothing if he had any time off at all. He just needed that. It wasn’t great…but it was the repercussion of being so overcommitted. If they are overcommitted for long periods of time, and if they over train and over perform, one of two things will happen: they will get injured or they will quit. If someone at your studio is not watching out for their time commitments, you need to do this. I’ve seen too many great dancers with severe injuries and burnout that sent them away from the studio—forever.

Your Son Will Thank You for Becoming His Manager

Step up to the plate. Begin managing your son’s dance career. Don’t be intimidated by your studio director, teacher or ballet master. He or she is more afraid of losing your son than you should be of losing the studio. There are plenty of great ballet and dance studios. Yes, you may have to drive farther to get to them and sacrifice a bit, but typically when you make the change it is the right thing.

You might make some hard decisions—some even your son might not like or agree with initially. However, he’ll know they are right, too. He’ll even admit it—eventually. Recently Julian thanked us because he feels he has never stopped learning. Instead, he has always been at studios where he was able to learn what he wanted and needed to learn at the time he needed to learn it. That takes being your son’s manager.

Photo courtesy of allgord | istockphoto.com

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  1. KatieK. says

    Great post. You wrote what I have understood about many aspects of our children’s interests and education. I homeschool so I have always felt it was my job to advocate for what was best for my kids. Who else will feel and know them as we do? Yet, it is easy to feel and think we don’t because of the professionals training, teaching, etc. I respect and value completely the effort, time, teaching work, the background work we don’t see – in teaching and running a studio or any type of institution, team, club, sport. So as parents we have to find that place where we advocate without taking anything away from the folks who also helped our kid’s successes and growth.

  2. Megankr says

    I am grieved to hear how prevalent such treatment is. Welcome to the world, I guess. I have to say that when there are multiple instructors and performance opportunities, it is difficult to be selective. In our dance school, the director limits each dancer to 2 – 3 performances, and is very careful not to overcommit within her program. I am very thankful for this.

    That being said, we all know that a student who is dedicated and disciplined and focused in one area, will also be a desirable commodity in others. As my son grows and matures, everyone around him seems to want a bigger and bigger piece. I have to limit their access to protect his physical and mental health. Too much stress can pile on too quickly, when this young man gets pulled in 7 different directions at once.

  3. Nina says

    Good for you, Megan. These Dancin’ Boys are desireable commodities in many areas. My son was asked to be in school musicals (and wanted to be in them) because he could act, dance and sing a bit (and did all types of dance). He was called up by other ballet companies to be in their Nutcracker performances. The opportunities get bigger and better and more enticing. You can help him choose the best ones–and it sounds like possibly the pros and your dance school can, too. Lucky you.

  4. says

    Great post, every word a true gem. And the subject applies to both boys and girls (both of ours dance). The best studios will demand crosstraining in different dance forms. The directors will suggest taking class with other teachers to experience different styles of teaching and get different advice. The directors should also suggest which summer intensives to audition for. Even SAB kicks their kids out for the summer to experience other teachers and programs (our daughter made great friends of SAB dancers at 2 PNB summer intensives). I hope every parent reads this and takes it to heart. We all need to be our childrens’ managers in school, dance and other life aspects, and teach them how to manage themselves for when they move on.

  5. Nina says

    Thanks, Mike. You are right! On all counts…especially about teaching out kids to be their own managers. That’s quite hard, though… I see you write about business! I write about it to some extent, too (in my other life).

  6. Danielle says

    I am so happy I read this now. My son, who will soon be eight, is a bit overcommitted. I decided to look at other dance studios but now he is taking too many classes! Do you think four times a week is too much? He also taps once a week and his ankle started to bother him after. He loves one school because he likes their stage productions and wants to do the Nutcracker with them this coming winter. He loves his original boys ballet class because that is who he started with. He also takes a girls class at the same school to keep his “ranking” in what level he is. The boys are just in one bucket. The girls have a bunch of levels. Finally we recently found a gem of a school with an awesome instructor, friendly boys, (nine in the class. Whoot!) and best of all, free! Tough to decide what to cut back on. Especially since I am thinking of having him branch out a bit and try a dance team. Too crazy?

  7. Nina says

    Be careful he doesn’t burn out. At age 8, 4 classes a week is fine if he is enjoying himself and eager. But don’t make him give up other things he loves or enjoys. Make sure he is choosing at this stage. He shouldn’t have to give up sports or other things at that age…unless he wants to do so.

  8. Eva says

    Hi, I enjoyed your blog. My son is nearly 10 and we are just about to change dance schools, to one that is further away of course. People think I’m crazy with all the driving I’m going to be doing! So I was happy to read about the all travel you have done for your son – it makes me feel better, lol.

  9. Nina says

    LOL. Yes, three hours a day at one point. You are not alone. Other people I know have driven longer/farther. Join the crowd. You are a good dance mom. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. Kathy says

    I just discovered your blog and what a gem it is. Congrats to your son on his contract!. I have been reading your posts and wish I had discovered this blog several years back. I have a dancing son, a ballet dancing son who is now 18. I have to tell you that I am a self taught mom in the ballet arena for boys. Many if not all of the difficulties your son has experienced along the way, mine has too. I just want to comment on this post as it is so important to young male dancers. We are from a studio whose director would often “punish” kids for taking a summer intensive by giving them beneath their ability roles in the annual nutcracker, forcing the kids to leave or not allowing them to move up. As We became aware of this when as our son entered his teen years, I couldn’t believe it! I mean, we as parents were paying her, not the other way around. Our son had been dancing at the studio since he was 5. At 13 our director finally mentioned that she thought he was very talented. Unfortunately I did not think much of it until he was almost 15. Big big mistake on my part. By educating myself through dance magazine publications (because I really had nothing else to go on), I realized that that boys really, really need training with experienced male instructors plus they need to be around other young men dancers. My husband and I finally realized we were doing our son an injustice by not seeking out this type of instruction for him. Due to our personal circumstances we decided not to leave our studio and seek out summer intensives. Having done our research we made an appointment with our artistic director (the owner) as a courtesy and told her what we planned for our son. He had already auditioned for the ABT and received a full merit scholarship (when that happened we really understood and accepted the fact that he was very talented). She was very upset. For her it was about selling tickets to the summer show. She threw out arguments that he could get injured, or the training was poor and he would learn bad habits. She feared he would leave the school. Really, ABT bad training? We never waived. He went and we never looked back. Since that time we have learned that we as parents hold all the strings especially if you have a talented son. Unfortunately many studios in our area operate the same way. They do not want to see students going to summer intensives. This is so very sad and a disservice to our talented dancers. Consequently parents do not get honest advice from studio owners. In fact at our studio, our owner had no clue on what these programs offer, especially for men. even after this incident we stayed with our studio, we did have heated discussions about our sons future training but again our personal circumstances and his nature kept us at the studio. During the summers though, he has continued the intensive route. Last summer he studied at the Bolshoi Ballet summer intensive in New York on merit scholarship. He decided Vaganova training was essential and when he returned he was a changed dancer. More disciplined than ever, stronger, more confident. Even the artistic director could not believe the change. This summer he will study and PNB on full merit scholarship. As a family we made the decision to go the college route and that is a story for another time. We leave the studio behind now and I feel I can finally open up more to other parents. Believe me, I will!!!!

    As I have read through your blog, I found my self nodding in agreement with all of your entries. It is so important for parents (both) to become advocates for their dancing sons. It is so important for parents to become informed, really informed… reach out to other parents wherever you can find them, attend performances of professional ballets and help your son find a path that is right for him.

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