Choosing the best dance school for your child
I have strong views about dance schools, their philosophies, their intentions and how they come about. When writing a recent post, I looked for good guidance. I wanted to link to a great list of what to look for, for those researching dance lessons for their child. Alongside the expected “how do I choose a dance school” I found “how many dance lessons should a 5-year-old take”, “what is the best dance school”, “easy dance classes for kids”, “why ballet is right for your child”, “why Latin and ballroom dance for children is best”, “what is the best dance school in the UK for children”, “best street dance classes”…. Really? In other words, I found a mixture of total tosh and well-intentioned cognitive bias. It left me angry. I decided to write something better. Advice that doesn’t treat parents like idiots, that has a level of proportionality, that is objective (and explains why when it isn’t), and that supports diversity in terms of dance form, culture and of your child’s needs. This is the result.
Choosing a dance school for your child?
Here are the things you need to consider when choosing a dance school for your child. I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible so that you need not be. Other than grouping points into sections I have not tried to order them. And I trust you. You know your own – and your child’s – objectives, so can ignore any that aren’t appropriate for you both. It would be great if you let me know of any questions I have not listed. I can then include them for other parents’ benefit.
Try Outs and Auditions
- Can we watch or try a lesson?
- Can I meet and talk to other parents?
- Is there an audition? If so, is this for selection or streaming?
- If the audition is for selection, what proportion of applicants (or what numbers of students) will be selected?
Some schools might not allow try-outs, but it might be possible to attend an end-of-term show, sharing or parents’ night. If none are available, ask yourself why.
Dance Lesson Locations and School facilities
- Are dance floors wooden or sprung?
- Are there cushions or seats available?
- Is the school close enough for us to get there regularly?
Other constraints such as price, community, and locality might make you wonder if finding a sprung dance floor is a necessary consideration. However, all dance forms take a toll on the body. So, given a choice, why take the chance? If you are still unsure, just make sure the space is appropriate and safe.
Very young children might need cushions to fall upon, play with, or for rest. I can think of times when I could have done with a cushion or two too!
Assessment and Dance Exams in schools and syllabi
- Do I want my child’s dancing assessed?
- If students are assessed, how is this done?
I’m not going to discuss different dance examinations or the dance forms they serve. It would make for an over-long post. That said, don’t assume that a formal – or well established – syllabus will necessarily provide what your child needs, or what you expect. When in doubt, ask!
Syllabus, Education and Student Development in dance schools and courses
- Do I want a broad syllabus?
- Do I want the school to be social, academic or both?
- Does the school plan performances or special activities?
- Does the school teach a recognised syllabus? Its own syllabus?
- How does this school help introduce my child to different dance cultures?
- What dance forms are taught?
- If students are streamed, how do they progress?
- Are other events encouraged (for example visiting performances, participating with others, community outreach)?
If I had a penny for the number of times I had been told that ballet was the hardest dance, I’d have a lot of pennies. That ballet is hardest to get to grips with is untrue. Watch experienced, disciplined dancers struggle through lessons with Thomas Talwa Presto’s Tabanka codification, or flamenco, or Bharatanatyam, or Butoh, or more. Ballet is great, and the structure of teaching ballet well established. But the idea that ballet is the be-all and end-all is narrow-minded and white-euro-centric. It is not even necessarily the most likely to get your child an income if that is what you are working towards.
Ballet, contemporary or something else?
Depending on the child, a ballet school might – or might not – be the optimal start. Just as people are attracted to certain types of music, they are attracted to certain movement vocabularies and rhythms. I’m not sure how or why. I don’t even think it is about hereditary cultures. It certainly was not with me. I love dance, but spent at least a year of childhood hiding in the toilets reading comics instead of attending the ballet lessons my parents had found. Had I been introduced to something Latin or from the African diaspora, I’m sure my life would now be different. On the other hand – and at a completely different level – Misty Copeland clearly felt a need to dance ballet, and did well for doing so.
So please, before you look at those dance schools directing you to one dance form or another, look to your child.
Dance technique to build the best foundation
It is undeniable that sound technique helps, especially if your child is likely to continue dance into adulthood. But be aware that all techniques shape the abilities and approaches of those who use them. Make sure that techniques (and warming up and stretching) are part of the school’s normal way of operating. All will underpin their dancing and hopefully reduce the likelihood of avoidable injuries.
Other cultures’ dance forms
Even if you go the way of something mainstream such as ballet, contemporary dance or commercial jazz, consider how other cultures’ dance forms are treated by the school. Do you want the idea that cultures – through their dance – can be dismissed or rejected? I wouldn’t. It would take more lifetimes than I can imagine for one person to learn a reasonable proportion of the worlds’ dance forms so comprehensive coverage is not practical. However, if nothing specific is mentioned about other dance cultures in a syllabus.. that’s a statement of culture too.
Meeting Students Needs in dance classes and schools
- Are teachers and school sensitive to the needs of differently able students?
- Does this school serve a community?
- Is the school part of a community?
- Does this school have classes of mixed abilities?
- How flexible is the school in terms of meeting students’ needs?
- How large are the classes?
- If classes are large, does this matter to my child?
- How might the classes help with my child’s confidence?
- What sort of dance is my child likely to enjoy and does the school provide it?
- Can I join my child’s lesson? Be there for my child if necessary?
Some people will be looking for a fun activity their children can join in with on a regular basis. Others a way of building confidence, or of developing proprioception, or of socialising, or something else. Does the class or school provide this? If it doesn’t, go elsewhere.
Are differently abled children included in classes? There are some wonderful mixed ability dance companies that do very well for both students and alumni so such a school might be a valid choice.
My disability includes a form of chronic fatigue. It is mostly unpredictable and when it hits, it hits bad. That means I can miss whole swathes of choreography. Most teachers and classes are well structured and sympathetic but there’s no avoiding the need to catch up. So even as an experienced adult I think twice before starting a new course. Good schools are welcoming, considerate communities. But how much harder for a child? And for different types of disability?
Performance and Creativity in dance teaching and dance schools
- Does the school’s philosophy and practices enable me to perform on stage with my child?
- How are students taught or encouraged to use their creativity?
- To what extent is the creativity of the students included in choreographies?
- What is the performance philosophy?
I do not know of a choreographer who works with children (or in fact any young adults) without incorporating their input. However, the sensitivity with which ideas are integrated or rejected also depends partly on the dance form and partly on the type of organisation, school, or lesson. I added the first of the points above thinking of the lovely memories that might be built by a shared experience.
Dance School Policy
- Are sufficient members of staff trained in health and safety, and do they keep this up to date?
- Does the school communicate with students, and if so how?
- How does the school communicate with parents? How well will you be kept informed?
- Is the school properly covered for public liability?
- What age/s does the school accept?
- What are the aims and objectives of the school?
- What is the school’s policy on exams, competitions, and performance opportunities for students?
- What is the school’s policy regarding parents or friends observing classes and what are the exceptions?
- What is the school’s policy regarding students participating in classes at other studios and external holiday programs or performances?
- What are the safeguarding policies and how are they managed?
Most policies are boring but important. They form the backbone of the way that the school and your child’s lessons are managed. Do the policies match your child’s needs and situation? Are they consistently implemented and sensibly reviewed? Are they sensibly implemented?
Artistry Youth Dance introduces its students to extra curricula activities as a matter of policy. Their awesome list of well-known guest teachers, frequent visits to see dance performed and other initiatives are all informed by a policy that seeks to provide role models as well as broaden the views of those young people it reaches.
Artistry Youth Dance performing No Woman No Cry at U.Dance London. (c) Carole Edrich
Dance teachers, dance school staff and assistants
On one side, extremely competitive environments run the risk of comparing students rather than celebrating individuality, unique skills, different body types, levels of ability and more. On the other side, informal laissez-fair environments will fail to give an enthusiastic student the foundation, skills, and discipline they need for success in both dance and life. So, look to your child’s needs.
- Are there assistants around regularly?
- Do I like the teachers / creative directors? If I don’t like them – is this an indicator that they aren’t right for my child?
- Do teachers have other strings to their bows, that might contribute to their perspectives in working with my child?
- Do teachers participate in professional development courses and activities?
- How are fill-in teachers recruited?
- Is there good continuity of staff, so that my child can get to know teachers and vice-versa?
What informs the dance teachers?
I don’t need to tell you that children can pick up both good and bad attitudes from their teachers. The same is true for technique. Check on teachers’ experience and qualifications and, if possible, chat to them too.
A larger school or company will have full time teachers. They might also employ part timers and freelances. We know through regulation that they are background checked in the UK, but what else do they do? If their other work informs their teaching practice, they are likely to be able to give more to your child.
Dance school costs
- Do I need to contribute towards costumes, and if so, how often?
- How are student fees structured?
- What do I need to purchase?
- What is the school’s policy regarding missed classes?
- What is the school’s policy regarding uniform or other dress requirements?
Horrible subject, but most of us don’t have limitless pockets. For some, the biggest question might be can I afford to get my child to the lessons. For others it is more about knowing what is expected. One thing to bear in mind that while examinations, certifications, uniforms, and costumes are likely to be costly, there are often bursaries available.
Just in Case
- Am I reasonably confident that the school will be around next year?
- Are the lessons primarily for fitness? For fun? For learning?
- Are there remote options?
- Can I – or my child – get assistance when needed?
- Is the school covered by public liability insurance and its teaching staff covered by professional indemnity insurance?
- What is the school’s injury/illness policy?
- What safety procedures does the school follow (health and safety but also movement safety and dance safety)
And here are some other things you might need to know about learning to dance.
What is the youngest a child can start a dance class?
Wrong question. How about ‘how can I be sure my child is ready for dance’.
OK, yes, most schools have an age policy, but some are flexible. Escuela de Baile accepts children as young as 4-5 depending on ability. That phrase is important. The principal is ethical and experienced and flexible.
If your child is too young, or not ready for regular classes, there will most likely be a children’s movement class available somewhere. In this they will focus far more on fun than on dance.
When is it too late to start dancing?
American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland started training at 13, and modern dancer Holley Farmer began at 16. Some great hip hop dancers started a little later in life. I have a friend who started flamenco in her 20s, went all out and is now a professional in Seville.
What do I need to look for in a dance school?
That depends on what you want for your child. See above.
What dance should be easiest for beginners?
That depends on your culture, the kind of music that makes you feel like moving and the quality of the teacher.
How do I know if the school and my child have matched?
You know your child far better than me. However, if your child enjoys the lessons, is happy in class, wants to show you or practice at home, and seems to be learning, then things are probably OK.
La Escuela de Baile http://ledb.co.uk/
Dance for All http://www.danceforall.co.uk/
Artistry Youth Dance https://www.artistryyouthdance.com/
Redbridge Drama Centre https://redbridgedramacentre.co.uk/RedbridgeDramaCentre.dll/Page?PageID=2&SubPageID=38
Mampara Dance https://www.mamparadance.com/
National Dance Company Wales, Kids https://ndcwales.co.uk/kinkids
One Youth Dance https://www.oneyouthdance.com/
Tabanka (Oslo) https://tabankadance.com/
How not to dress your children? https://dancetog.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/made-up/
Step Live; a childrens’ dance event (review) https://dancetog.wordpress.com/2016/07/10/step-live-at-sadlers-wells/