Do you dread the first day back from summer vacation, when all of your students who studied at other programs return to class? It’s exciting when these dancers are inspired, motivated and improved, but it can be disheartening if they are discouraged or if they sport a new style that doesn’t mesh with your teaching style. Maybe they insist on spotting chainé turns front, though you prefer the corner, or perhaps they have picked up a bad habit.
Attending a summer study program can be an important part of dance education. New teachers, new techniques and new approaches are essential elements in producing well-rounded dancers. But as more (and younger) students attend these programs every year, teachers must develop strategies to support them as they readjust to the routine of their home studio, without undermining or undoing the positive aspects of summer training.
When students return to class in the autumn, expect varied reactions. Some may have had extraordinary experiences, showing drastic technical improvements as a result of taking class every day all summer. Others may be less satisfied if the atmosphere was especially competitive or if they didn’t receive a lot of attention, which can sometimes happen in larger programs. Be prepared to help rebuild confidence, if necessary.
Most likely, they all will be looking for your approval on the first day back. “The main thing to do when [students] return is to acknowledge that you see improvement and praise them for the growth,” says Tanya Durbin of Jimmie DeFore Dance Center in Costa Mesa, California. “Your acknowledgement will give them confidence and make it easier to accept your corrections. During their first class back, I zone in on new developments, whether it is a new way of holding their arms, learning combinations quicker or the way they work through their feet.”
Durbin also recommends taking time to talk to students about their experiences. Ask if they enjoyed the training, what stood out for them as different or similar to their classes at home and which corrections they would like to continue working on. “It gives me a clue as to how I can help them to keep growing,” says Durbin. This will also remind them that the training they receive elsewhere can go hand in hand with the training they receive at home. “I remind them that they have a whole year to keep working and improving,” adds Durbin.
If a student returns with a completely different style of dancing, reintroducing him or her to your method can be an opportunity to compare the artform’s myriad approaches. Speak respectfully about the teachers from the summer program while reminding students how you prefer to see them dance.
“There isn’t a right or wrong choice between schools of technique,” says Durbin. “I tell students that different styles in dance are like different colors and that a dancer or choreographer can use those colors to create many beautiful things. Put that style in your back pocket for now. Hold on to it, because you never know when you’ll need it.”
If a student develops a bad habit, try not to overreact by placing the blame on his or her summer teachers. “[Sometimes students] take a correction too far. They think, ‘Aha! That’s the way professionals dance,’” says Robin Sherertz Morgan, co-director of San Diego Ballet. “You can offend them if you try to change it, so I work on changing bad habits gradually and calmly, almost so [students] aren’t aware of it. Otherwise they can feel attacked for what they consider to be an improvement.”
Help dancers maintain their technique and energy level year-round so that they continue to improve. “It’s my job to constantly encourage and remind them of their summer experience,” says Durbin. “I will come up to them throughout the year and say, ‘Remember when you studied at that company last summer? Remember the correction you received about your shoulder? Keep working on that!’ That way, the intensity of the program and their current training form a connection in their minds.”
Another way to help students transition from summer study to regular classes is by being involved in the selection process from day one. Your dancers will get the most out of their summer experiences if they are matched correctly with a school. Ask students to come talk to you in January if they want to audition for a program, and find out about their interests, financial limitations and professional aspirations. Take into consideration technique level, age and emotional maturity, and evaluate each student individually, not grouped within a class or age bracket.
Talk to parents, too. “Sometimes parents can be lured by a big name, and they underestimate the amount of strength required for a program where students train from 9 am to 4 pm, five days a week,” says Jo Anne Emery, managing director of City Ballet of San Diego. Emery recommends younger students approach summer study as a series of stepping-stones. “Start with a less competitive school,” she says. “Not everyone needs to go to New York City their first time away.”
You can also prepare students emotionally and physically so that new teachers, rigorous technical demands and more competition are less overwhelming. “Before they go, it’s helpful to make them aware of styles they may encounter when they arrive,” says Morgan. “It can be hard since many programs offer a variety, but if they are going to attend SAB, for example, we will start doing straight arms and legs on preparations for pirouettes, work on high arabesques and emphasize turnout. We start preparing a couple of weeks before they leave so that students don’t feel discouraged or, even worse, resistant to the new technique.”
Teach coping mechanisms to help bodies adjust. Victoria Koenig, founder and director of Inland Pacific Ballet Academy in Montclair, CA, advises students to try every correction they receive throughout the summer program, even if they have to take some time on the side or after class to find their center again. She also tells students that if they are asked to push turnout more than they are used to, they should be especially mindful of alignment and get very warmed up before class.
Stress the importance of being open-minded and trying everything. “You can use any experience, bad or good, to grow as a dancer,” says Koenig. “I tell [students] that if a teacher asks you to stand on your head and touch your nose, do it enthusiastically.”
Kathleen Edens is a freelance writer and dancer based in Southern California.