Higher Standards in Dance Education

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In order to run a day care or nursery school, one needs to be certified. To teach in the public schools, one needs at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a master’s degree. College dance programs require their faculty to have college degrees in addition to professional experience. So, what do you need to teach at a private dance studio: nothing. Anyone can throw up a shingle that says “Dolly Dinkle’s Studio of Dance” and be in business.

Is there a need for standards in dance education?

Dance is a physically demanding activity. Taught incorrectly, it can lead to injury. Improper training causes long-term damage to the ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. In addition to the damage it can cause physically, poor standards in dance education lead to low expectations and even lower opinions of dance in the eye of the public. Exposed regularly to low quality dance, students and their parents grow to see dance as something trivial and frivolous. This trivializing of dance is dangerously subversive to the profession. After sitting through never-ending recitals of fringe and sequins, parents are unlikely to voluntarily see a live professional dance concert.

Even on the occasion that they do venture to a professional performance, they are often disappointed. After being accustomed to frilly recitals, a professional dance performance can seem mentally challenging, intense, and even dull. Every dance studio, show, or organization that adheres to poor standards diminishes the larger dance community by turning potential audience members, supporters, and emerging dancers away from dance.

So, why not create national standards for private dance schools?

The American psyche is still very much a cowboy (or cowgirl) at heart. We do not want rules and regulations encroaching on our precious freedoms. Many dance studio owners’ and teachers’ jobs would be threatened if they were required to meet national standards. To their credit, they point out outstanding individual teachers who had amazing performance careers, then became excellent teachers, but never received degrees. The fear is that standards would not only regulate poor teachers, but also punish good teachers. While a legitimate concern, I believe that teachers who are truly passionate about dance education would, or already do, embrace standards as a chance for self-improvement and not as an obstacle.

Where the United States fears to regulate itself, a higher percentage of private dance school educators in England and Canada have adopted professional standards and established curriculums in their practices. From my experience working in Canada, I found the dance education in the country to be more consistent from studio to studio than in America. They do not have the plethora of poor quality dance studios that I have found throughout the United States. The acceptance of professional standards and established curriculum has raised the bar of the average small-town dance studio above that currently practiced in America.

However, there is another side. Canada does not have as many exceptional, innovative dance education organizations as the United States. It would seem that standardization runs the risk of stifling creativity. Dance in the United States continues to be the leading innovator for the world. The concept of national standards in dance threatens innovation, our cowboy/cowgirl spirit, and our qualified, yet non-degreed, teachers. These factors lead to a resistance to accept standardization in the United States.

We need standards but we’re too stubborn to accept them…what now?

While the American spirit is unlikely to bend to national standards created by a governing board, there is a group of individuals that already unknowingly sets the standards for dance schools: the parents. Parents drive the level of quality in our market-driven society. However, it is difficult for a parent, uneducated in the field of dance, to make an informed choice.

Unfortunately, many parents view the dance teacher’s role on par with the baseball coach or the cheerleading coach. Most coaches for youth baseball, soccer, and cheerleading were not professionals or professionally educated. And even fewer have been educated in how to teach. This is fine for youth sports. What they are not taking into serious consideration is the fact that the demands of dance training on the body, at even the youngest level, can create great growth or great damage. The seemingly harmless decision of finding a dance studio for your child can be harmful to their young bodies. It takes time and energy to research which dance schools live up to high standards.

If you pick up your local phone book and flip to the dance school section, you will find ads for a number of dance studios. Chances are, the majority of those ads claim to provide “quality” or “professional” instruction. Who is going to be honest enough to admit “below average” or “highly amateur” instruction? The term “professional teachers” is loosely tossed about in these advertisements. The average parent assumes that “professional teachers” are ones who danced professionally or were at least educated at a professional level. But often, the justification for the term is nothing more than claiming that the teacher is paid for teaching. Using that definition of “professional teachers”, I would like to the see the studio with “non-professional teachers” who work for free. I doubt they exist. As a parent searching for a dance school, you want the best for your child. Nevertheless, how can you decipher one school from another when they all claim to be “exceptional?”

What can we do?

I believe the education of the public is the dance community’s top priority. We must teach students and their parents the importance of proper dance education:

1) Teach them about proper fundamentals that ‘do no harm.’ ‘Knees over toes’ is the most fundamental safe practice in dance education, yet many uninformed teachers force turn-out on dancers who are either too young to properly execute it or physically unequipped to handle the demands. If parents know what practices are safe and which are not, they can make better decisions in choosing a dance school

2) Teach them the value of a progressive, structured curriculum. ‘Slow and steady wins the race.’ There is a place and time–a sequence–to learning dance. Rushing children to do pointe work or to try technical tricks before they are ready is detrimental to their education as well as dangerous to their bodies. If parents know how a properly structured curriculum works, they can find a dance school where correct education is the focus.

3) Teach them respect for themselves and for the art of dance. Age-appropriate themes, choreography, and costumes not only teach students self-respect, but also helps them learn the vocabulary of dance in the proper order. Inappropriate choreography applies equally to the jazz teacher showing young students suggestive movements as to the ballet teacher showing professional variations to students who are not prepared. If parents know what is age-appropriate, they can better choose a dance school that adheres to higher standards.

Educating students and parents on what proper standards are in dance education is the only way to ensure a future of healthy dancers, create informed audience members, and promote a new generation of qualified teachers. The responsibility for standards in private dance school education will not fall on some national governing board. Rather, it spreads out from each of us to our students and their parents. The responsibility is ours.

write by Leonard

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