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  • Jennifer Milner

Raising Your Young Dancer

Welcome to my first Ask the Experts post! I asked for your questions on ANYTHING related to dance and the questions came - from all the parents! A good 80% of the questions I received revolved around navigating your young pre-professional dancer through the murky waters of adolescence and auditioning. So I threw the questions out to my panel of experts - all moms whose daughters are either at the end of the high school journey; or are in a PD or trainee program; or are now professional dancers themselves. Several parents replied and I’ve organized their answers for you below. So take a read, see what they have to say, and know that you’re not alone!

1. How do you navigate and plan school for a dancer who may or may not end up in a residential training program? I want to have a plan in place if my daughter needs to leave home to reach her dreams.

There is an educational fork in the road:

A. Brick and mortar school- One where work allows a schedule that accommodates the dance schedule. it’s rarely the other way around. There are some local private school programs designed for professional kids; they give that structure and accountability you may be looking for.

B. Online school- It’s natural to assume an online program wouldn’t be good, but there are some good programs out there, maybe even exceeding a public school experience in some cases. Because of the flexibility in the schedule and being able to “do school” at any location this is the most popular choice for serious ballet students. Another advantage is your student may be(I know not yet) training in one state one year and another the next, online school goes with you instead of having to find a brick and mortar all over again and transfer.

Jennifer adds - some online schools and private schools are accredited (such as NCAA accreditation, very useful for knowing which schools have credits that will be accepted by colleges) and some online and private schools are not. That doesn’t mean rule them out completely - just do your homework and see what more would be needed for college and/or your state’s graduation requirements! Talk to moms of older dancers at your school and see what’s available in your area.

2. How do you know when it's time to leave your local school and go to a year-

round ballet school?

Your child will probably tell you first. Like academic schools, ballet schools gear their syllabus towards the majority. So if the majority at your local school are not pre-professionals the training may not eventually be advanced enough, though there are some local schools/academies in major cities that do a good job of offering pre-pro advanced classes. The director will invite the student into those. Most students I have known eventually want to go on to a nationally recognized program.

Another mom adds - look at your current school’s track record! Do they have dancers in nationally recognized ballet companies? Do their dancers consistently get into the better summer programs and get scholarships? Then you’re probably fine. If not, consider sending your daughter away IF she’s emotionally ready and IF she really wants to go and IF she has a serious chance at a career. It’s a fair toll on family and finances to send your daughter away, so it’s not a decision made lightly.

And one more mom says - talk about it with your school director! The director should have your child’s best interests at heart and be able to speak on this subject. If you get the feeling she is pushing for your daughter to stay just so her school looks good, re-think why you’re at the studio in the first place.

3. I worry about pulling my daughter out of public school and giving her more time in ballet - I worry she'll obsess too much. But I worry that not giving her access to a morning dance program will hold her back.

It depends on if your dancer wants to go the pre-pro route. If dancing is more of a hobby, stay in school. If she dreams of being a professional you may need to do an alternate education. The truth is ballet in and of itself is obsessive- if you’re worried about that effect pull her out of ballet.

Adds another mom- pulling your child out of school to dance more is a big step. If she is prone to obsessive behavior, this will definitely encourage that. There’s a bigger picture here you need to be aware of. Ballet can be emotionally manipulative, and it’s up to you to teach her emotional boundaries and how to separate her self-worth from her “job”. If she seems to have these tendencies, a career in dance may not be the healthiest choice.

4. I fear that giving my daughter space to make too many decisions for herself will lead to unhealthy habits, like bad eating habits or an eating disorder or obsessing about turns or whatever. How can I give her space to make choices, when I know the consequence of bad choices might derail a career even at 15?

My feeling on this is to start slow and see how she handles some independent decisions. It’s not all or nothing. With close observation you can always rein in decisions you allow her to make. I approached this like we were partners; beginning with me making 90% of the decisions and daughter 10%- now that she’s 19 it’s me at 10% and her at 90%!

Jennifer adds - you are teaching your child life lessons that will go far beyond ballet. It’s your job as a parent to make decisions for your child when she’s young, and it’s your job as a parent to allow her to fail as she gets older. The mom who commented above has done a fantastic job of raising her daughter to be independent, but not allowing her to make decisions she wasn’t equipped to make at too early of an age. Giving them space to make decisions while letting them know there’s consequences to those decisions is key. For example: give your child control of her diet, but tell her that if she doesn’t consistently make healthy choices you will have to make more of her diet decisions for her. Or that if she doesn’t figure out a school/dance work balance, you will have to restrict the number of rehearsals she goes to until grades get back up. That sort of thing.

5. Can a teacher obsess over a student too much? I worry that a teacher's intense interest in my daughter's dancing is putting a lot of pressure on my daughter to push herself harder so she doesn't let her teacher down. I don't think it's weird (like, inappropriate) but I think the teacher sees my daughter as a way to make the school look good and is pushing her to do too much at YAGP.

That’s a tough one and ultimately your call as a parent to step in and discuss this with the director. If this is having a negative impact on your daughter, damage can be done. Normally, that kind of attention is welcomed if your daughter has high aspirations and is very talented, which it sounds like she is.

Another mom counters - I have been there. I have seen a school director put all his hopes and dreams on my young daughter, counting on her to raise his national profile. She definitely grew as an artist, but the emotional toll on her was too much and she dropped out of ballet; she couldn’t handle having so much riding on her shoulders. So I say go with your mommy gut, and consider moving your child to a healthier environment. It’s your job to protect your child.

6. Can I tell the school director my daughter is injured?

Yes, always disclose injuries. It has a high probability of coming back to haunt if you don’t.

Another mom adds - You should always be able to, but I get where you’re coming from. I’m assuming you’re afraid if you tell them she’s injured they will stop casting her and correcting her in class. It’s a fine line; you don’t want to bring every little ache and ailment to them and have your daughter known as a fragile whiner, but you also want real injuries dealt with proactively. And ultimately you need to teach your daughter to take care of herself.

Jennifer adds - I really hope you can tell your director. A small muscle soreness, no need. But if it’s an ongoing issue - sore Achilles for two months - you need to speak up. Repetitive use injuries often come from either a muscle weakness in the dancer or poor technique which won’t always get caught unless the teacher knows to look for it. By far most schools want what’s best for the child, and think her long-term career health is more important than doing one more Snow in “Nutcracker”. Many schools also have a referral list they can give you of health care professionals who understand a dancer’s unique needs.

7. How do I know if I should let my daughter do YAGP?

Does the director suggest it? Does your daughter seem eager to do it? Can she handle the extra time and rehearsing involved while keeping up at school? Can you afford the extra time and expense. YAGP can be a great opportunity.

A second mom says - Yikes, this is a hard one. The competition pressure can be hard on a young ego, and the extra rehearsals will add a significant load to the body. It’s also expensive. And realistically, most dancers won’t see any career enhancement from doing YAGP. On the other hand, if your daughter is in the top tier of dancers in her city, it could provide good exposure for her to companies and directors, as well as start to build a resume. Honestly, though, I think the best thing about YAGP for most dancers is the extra attention they get one-on-one as they work their variations. Private coaching will help take any dancer’s technique to the next level, and so for that alone it can be worth it. I’d just see if your daughter’s body and temperament can handle it, and take a realistic look at the cost, before you say yes!

8. How do I choose between a competition school and a ballet school? My daughter is 10 at a ballet school and her friends at competition schools are doing way more interesting stuff - but my daughter wants to do ballet. And competition schools seem so expensive!

Interesting to whom? Does your daughter say this? It was the same for my daughter and her friends, but she would no more go to a competition studio than take up bull riding! They are two different animals and your dancer will be happiest where she fits.

9. My daughter is 8 and obsessed with ballet. I know nothing about the world and want to encourage and support her, but worry I won’t know if it’s hopeless in her case (and should encourage her to try something else). Are there any milestones she should be hitting over the next several years?

Jennifer says - this is a question I was asked recently and it’s an understandable worry. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for a dancer needing to have her splits by a certain age, her triple turns by another, that sort of thing. But I do think there are a couple general milestones that you will find useful if you are completely new to the ballet world.

First, the age at which your daughter goes on pointe. Most creditable schools put girls on pointe around age 11 or 12. If your school puts most people in your daughter’s class on pointe but not her, then you should a) thank the school for being honest and having her safety and health in mind; and b) ask what she needs to do to be ready next year. If she still isn’t strong enough to go on pointe a year after most of her peers have donned their satin slippers, odds are she won’t be able to make a career out of classical ballet.

Second, the types of schools your daughter gets into for summer intensives. I personally think there’s not often a lot to be gained by going away for a summer intensive when you’re 10 or 11, but by age 14 a dancer should be getting into nationally acclaimed summer programs. If she’s not having luck with any place she auditions by that age, I’d sit down and talk to the studio director and ask what she thinks about where your daughter is and what her realistic chances are. Dancers have been hired for companies like New York City Ballet as young as 15 and 16, so the career is just around the corner for the 14-year-old!

What do you think? Did the experts answer all your questions? Or just make you think of new ones? Feel free to post any additional questions below. And if you've got wisdom you'd like to share, we'd love to hear that too!

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