We have been on a quest for the right dance studio for our son it seems forever, which is not to say that we haven’t been happy with some of the studios where he has danced. I’m sure that the mothers of female dancers struggle with the same issue, since finding a good fit for any dancer is critical.
Indeed, I firmly believe that creating a great dancer comes down to a combination of great talent, great teaching and great environment. A kid has to first have a talent for dance and a desire to dance as well. Couple that with superb dance teaching and inspiring teachers, and a child’s desire to dance skyrockets, as does their skill level. Add to this a supportive and inspirational environment that offers both other dedicated students and opportunities to perform and to express creativity, and your young dancer will flourish and grow into the dancer they were meant to be – and dreamed of being. But is this dance studio easy to find? Unfortunately, no.
Julian began his dance training in the Batavia, Illinois, Parks and Recreation Department’s dance program. One year or less (I’m trying to remember if we lasted the year and even did the end-of-the-program recital…) of a jazz/tap/ballet combo class sent us off to the local studio, a really good one called Moves. Actually, one of his teachers there, Anthony Foster was chosen as one of SYTYCD’s top 15 out of Chicago the show’s first year running. He’s now the managing director of Moves pre-professional program, but I remember Julian at age five taking private lessons from him. They would do whatever Julian felt inspired to do that day: ballet, tap, break dancing… Anthony began as a street dancer and gave Julian his start as a break dancer. Anthony was also Julian’s first serious ballet teacher. He even made him take written tests, and I had to come in and help make sure he actually could read all the questions – that’s how young he was. That studio put on the highest-quality recitals I’d ever seen. No, I was a newbie to the world of dance back then, and maybe I’d think otherwise now, but I was so impressed. I’d still recommend that studio to anyone in that area, and I think Julian would have had great training there and been inspired for many years.
From there, Julian went on to Dance Attack in Los Gatos, California, where after one year he began performing and competing on their competition team. I would say the first two years there were great, and he learned a lot. Being on the competition team was super also, and he had a lot of fun and learned a lot and also felt inspired. However, the third year there, the studio lost some of its best teachers, and Julian began to feel bored in team rehearsals. At the end of the year, his dancing ability seemed to have declined rather than improved, and we started looking for a new studio. That said, we often go back to Dance Attack for various classes: Juilan’s favorite break dancing teacher sometimes teaches out of there – Remind (Aristan Ripoyla), and my daughter takes hip hop there currently. We did a bunch of rehearsing and clean up with Dance Attack teachers one year for competition as well.
After that, Julian ended up at Ballet San Jose School, a professional ballet school associated with Ballet San Jose, the professional ballet company, which meant he was doing ballet four days a week initially in their pro 3 level. I was so surprised to find that he really loved this school and enjoyed doing ballet three hours a day. He also really enjoyed being in some professional productions with the company members, including three years of The Nutcracker as well as Blue Suede Shoes, Firebird and a few other productions. He supplemented his ballet training with tap and jazz wherever he could, and even some hip hop and break dancing and he did do some competing as well on his own (quite successfully, I might add).
He remained at Ballet San Jose School for three years, working his way up to pro 5. (The program ends with pro 6.) He was on a 50% scholarship, and dancing six days a week there, but last year he played hooky one day per week to go do jazz and hip hop at Studio 10. The year before he had taken class there as well and had taken private jazz lessons with Keith Banks, the studio owner, who also trained Nick Lazzarini, the first winner of SYTYCD, for a period of time. (When he was younger, Nick also trained at Dance Attack.) Ballet was getting a bit boring to Julian – not surprisingly, although they had hired Peter Brandenhoff, who he did find inspiring. He also still enjoyed working with the company members and Denis Nahat, the artistic director, but he wasn’t having as many opportunities to do so.
So, this year (we finally get to the point), we decided he needed at least two days a week to do something other than ballet. After all, Julian had gotten clear that he was not interested in becoming a classical ballet dancer. This boy has the ability to dance many styles and wants to do so. He has no desire to give up any dance styel yet – if ever. But, the director of Ballet San Jose School, who has nurtured Julian and loved him, Lise La Cour, said that was not possible to have more than one day off. He could not miss two days of ballet. He had to be at the ballet school five days a week minimum. Okay…time for a new studio.
After a bit of mulling, we decided that Studio 10 was a possibility, however, we had been told that Keith Banks was not thinking of continuing the small competitive team he had put together the year before. Julian wanted to do some sort of performing, but he wasn’t really interested in competing alone. We had done that for two years, and not only did he not really enjoy competing alone (another subject for another blog), it became really expensive. Really expensive – all those private lessons and rehearsals. Anyway, back on point, he could go to Studio 10 for great jazz lessons with Keith and some decent lyrical and hip hop classes, but we needed something more when it came to ballet. And without the competition team, the studio lacked something.
By the way, he’d been tapping with Sam Weber for two years in private lessons. We figured we’d continue that if need be. (We have not to date.)
To make a long story shorter, suffice it to say that someone mentioned Teen Dance Company to me, and we saw one of the company’s dancers perform. Then Katee Shean became the SYTYCD 2008 runner up, and she had graduated from TDC. We were sold. Julian had been watching SYTYCD, which again reminded him that he was falling behind in or simply not learning so many styles that he loved, namely contemporary and lyrical. Since TDC is a contemporary dance company, we decided to have him do their summer week-long intensive and then audition, which he did. He was accepted in, although I’m not sure this was much of a feat since it looked to us like they pretty much took everyone this year since they’d lost 8 seniors and another 4-6 kids for various reasons and were left with only 6 company members. I believe they now have 21 kids in the company at various levels of dance proficiency. Julian came in with a lot of ballet and tap, a fair amount of jazz, and almost no contemporary or modern experience.
Now…as to this being the right dance studio for my son…well, we aren’t convinced. We were initially, but now we aren’t. We were told that what makes this studio, or company, work are the kids working together – a group of really dedicated, inspired, creative dancers all pushing each other. We’ll see if that is true. It’s too early to tell.
That said, Julian was left out of all but a tap number when it came to student choreography, so he’s a bit disappointed. (We are not sure how much the fact that he had to miss the auditions because of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, had to do with this. Supposedly the choreographers were told to consider him for inclusion in their pieces anyway…)
Now, the kids have been divided up into a “lower” class and a “higher” class (my terms totally). Initially this was an age thing, but it seemed clear it was more about level of dance. Despite the fact that Julian has way more ballet training than some of the kids (a number of them have an extensive ballet background), he was put into class with several kids with no ballet training, because they – like he – had no contemporary or modern training either. This left him feeling lousy about his ballet ability. When they get reamed out for their turn out or how they hold their arms, he’s included in that criticism. He takes that very personally. We assumed he was in the lower ballet class because of his lack of modern/contemporary training, but no one actually told us this was the case. So, he just felt frustrated and bad about his dancing ability based on his class placement – and he wanted to be with the “older and better” kids in the “higher” class – not to mention that this would provide him with more of a challenge.
Additionally, choreographers are brought in regularly, and the kids must audition for each number they will later perform in concerts and shows. Although Julian was chosen for the first piece of choreography with William Lu without problem, which made him (and me) believe that he’d be a shoe in for most pieces, he was not selected for two other pieces just a week or two later. These were choreographed by a student from Juliard and the son of the director. (Well, he was chosen for a tap piece but not for anything contemporary or modern.) Then two bigger choreographers were brought in, Mandy Moore and Cindy Salgado: Cindy only wanted girls (which made Julian feel singled out and at a disadvantage for being a boy) and Mandy didn’t select Julian either. She actually had voiced her desire to have a boy that no longer is with the company in her choreography. She was very disappointed to find out he had left the company. When she then didn’t select Julian, this left him feeling that if he couldn’t fill that boy’s shoes, she just wouldn’t take any boys.
When Cindy didn’t take any boys, Julian was upset and angry. When Mandy didn’t choose him he was soooo bummed. Really. He had his heart set on being in Mandy’s number, and what dancing boy wouldn’t want to be in her number? (Well, what young dancer, period, wouldn’t want to be in Mandy’s choreography?) That event compounded his feeling of just not being good enough as a dancer.
The next choreographer, Ehud Krauss, chose everyone for his choreography, and he liked Julian in general, but didn’t give any special parts.
Then came the student choreography issue, I mentioned above…
All this to say, that Julian has been left feeling frustrated, unhappy, unappreciated, and generally as if his dancing is not good enough. And I, as a parent, am left angry, frustrated, and sad – especially when he sits in front of me crying about how he is in the lowest class and not only do the professional choreographers not choose him for their pieces but now the students don’t choose him either, so they must not thing he is good enough either. OMG…my heart breaks. (And I pay big bucks to accomplish this each month????!!!)
All I want for my son is a dance studio that will see this boy and his talent – and he does have talent (and it’s not just me who thinks so – another story for another day) – and give him wings to fly. I don’t want a studio that will clip those wings. This boy needs the teachers to inspire him and the environment that will support him, and I thought TDC was it. Maybe it isn’t.
Now, maybe it is. Julian may have talent, but he is a newbie a contemporary and modern. I totally admit that — even if my son can’t see that right now. So, we told him he might not be getting selected for choreography pieces for that reason. Maybe, as he was told, he really is just not there yet, and he needs to spend a year really working at these new dance forms. And maybe he needs to find out from his “friends” if they didn’t feel he was good enough for their contemporary/modern pieces or if they just didn’t think he was auditioning because he wasn’t there for the auditions. (That would explain a lot – although they were supposed to consider him.) Maybe they need to tell him what he needs to work on…
Maybe we all just need to communicate a bit better. I left a note for the ballet instructor/director, Mark Foehringer, telling him we needed to discuss Julian’s class placement and other issues that had recently arisen. We never actually talked, but he “allowed” Julian to “try” the “higher” ballet class on the day that they also have contemporary, and said if the contemporary teacher said it was okay, he could stick with this group on Tuesdays. She said, “Fine.” As for Mondays when he has ballet and modern, the modern teacher says he needs to stay with the other, “lower” group. Julian has too much still to learn. Bummer. But at least Julian has made one step in the right direction and that make him feel a little better. Not only did he end up with the better dancers one day of the week where he can do ballet at his level and feel both challenged and inspired (and better about himself), he now understands why he has been placed in the lower ballet class – because of his lack of training in modern and contemporary (which we assumed but didn’t know for sure).
After many discussions, Julian has decided to stick it out at TDC. He’s made friends there and become invested. That’s what happens to him. And he so wants to find a place to dance where he has a community – a family – of kids “like” him. Plus, he’s decided to take the high road and to simply work hard this year at improving so next year getting into choreography (hopefully) won’t be an issue. He does feel inspired by two of his teachers. He loves the contemporary teacher, Heather Cooper, and really enjoys her classes and choreography. Brian Fisher, the modern teacher, seemed to take an interest in Julian from the start, asking him to come to the choreographers class when it was mostly the kids planning on proposing student choreography pieces for this year’s shows. And Julian, who didn’t like modern at Ballet San Jose School, has totally enjoyed Brian’s classes. He would really like to be in the higher class, though, where they do more combinations. He will stick it out in the lower class though and learn the basics. I encouraged him to talk to Brian and ask him for help getting to the next level more quickly. He enjoys the pilates class as well, and will probably like ballet more now that he can spend one day a week at the higher level. The third adn fourth days of ballet has all the kids together.
I’m proud of Julian. This is probably the right decision. He needs the modern and contemporary training. (I fell pretty certain the ballet training will be good enough.) Plus, he is learning about the real world of dance – you audition, and you don’t always get in. And sometimes people who aren’t that much better than you – or who aren’t better than you at all – are selected. It’s subjective. But you can’t be a sore loser at dance any more than you can be at soccer or football or chess. You can’t just walk off the field and never come back, because you didn’t win. You have to keep playing the game until you do.
Entering this new studio provided a bit of a reality check for sure. That’s a necessary thing every now and then. However, it needs to be coupled with a pat on the back. Dancers, like most artists (and people), are sensitive beings. But every studio has the prerogative of placing kids at the class levels they feel appropriate. Even Denise Wall, mother of Travis Wall and Danny Tidwell of SYTYCD fame, stressed that with me. Her studio stays small, because many a new dance student (and the dancer’s parents) take a walk right back out the studio door when they discover that Denise has placed that dancer in a level 1 ballet class when they think they deserve to be in a level 3 ballet class. And there’s no budging Denise. Her decision is final. A discussion with the dancer is probably appropriate, and some encouragement…
I hope in Julian’s case that his briefly clipped wings grow back and the teachers and students at TDC can, indeed, teach him to fly…or at least help him to find the strength to take wing and fly on his own. I just want to see him soar.
For that to happen, the studio really has to be special. It really has to have its focus on the kids. It has to be all about the kids. This one says it is…but I wonder some times. We got caught in some politics…not worth going into…when it came to which Nutcracker Julian would perform in, and that had little to do with what was best for him. The fact that the studio held student choreography auditions on a Jewish holiday and wouldn’t reschedule, that seemed to be more about convenience then about what was best for the kids. The fact that they don’t explain to the kids why they are being placed in a certain class, that seems to about what’s easiest rather than about doing the right thing for the kids.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m unrealistic. Maybe I spent too much time on the phone with Denise Wall when I interviewed her and my standards, coupled with what I heard from her, are now way too high. Maybe the perfect dance studio doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s harder to find the right studio for a young boy who dances.
When it comes to having a boy who dances, I do look for some particular things. I know this studio has no ballet class for boys. Julian is not learning the leaps and turns and partnering essential to a male ballet dancer – classical, modern or contemporary. Most ballet schools don’t have male ballet teachers – let alone enough boys in class to run a boy’s class. TDC does have two male teachers, one for modern and one for ballet. Most dance studios don’t have enough boy’s to run a boy’s dance class; TDC is no exception.
I guess I’m too idealistic. I guess I expect too much. But I’m not going to stop looking for and demanding the best for my son out of every and any studio he attends. (And it’s not just about the money I’m spending either.) And neither should you.