Many dancers find their passion for teaching as they retire from performing. But not every teacher has hung up their bowler hat.
Some dance educators strive to balance teaching eager professionals one day and auditioning alongside those students the next, while others juggle last-minute callbacks while trying to maintain commitments to teaching students in the afternoons.
Living the double life of a teacher and a performer poses a unique set of challenges. Dance Teacher spoke with two dance educators—Lizz Picini and Allison Podolsky—to get their insights and advice for any teacher who still basks in the stage lights.
For active performers, communication before starting a teaching job is imperative. Lizz Picini, who teaches at Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway, and The Institute for American Musical Theater, says that she is up-front from the get-go: “I make it very clear to my bosses that my number-one love and focus is to perform.” She assures her employers that if an audition comes up, she will get coverage for the class, but that ultimately performing is her top priority.
Picini finds that being honest about her intentions not only shows professionalism but also makes her marketable to employers. She is relatable to her students because she is still active in the industry.
Picini has only had to cancel class at the last minute twice. “It feels awful,” she admits, adding, “As a dance educator you affect a lot of people when you change your schedule.” But because she has taken the time to build loyalty, her students are understanding. “There’s this unanimous camaraderie that everyone is rooting for you,” she says.
For Allison Podolsky, who teaches at Riverdale YM-WHA and Manhattan Youth in New York City, planning ahead is crucial. “I’m very organized with my schedule and strategic with my auditions,” Podolsky explains. “If I think there’s a chance of getting a callback and it’s something in my wheelhouse, I will preemptively get a substitute.”
Podolsky only selects reliable substitutes and leaves thorough notes for the classes. This planning puts her in a confident mindset as she then has her work covered and can nail the audition without stress.
However, if the audition doesn’t go as hoped, Podolsky uses her time wisely. “If I don’t get the callback, I go and take class, take a nap, or fill my social cup. I keep it as positive as I can so I am happy and rested,” she explains. But when the audition is a success and she books the performing job, Podolsky, unfortunately, has to leave teaching for a short while.
She tries to give plenty of notice and always offers to find coverage. “It’s not always rainbows and sunshine,” she acknowledges. Luckily, her employers are generally understanding, and she picks up her classes upon her return.
Put Your Performer Hat On
Picini often finds herself in a sticky situation: She not only balances being a teacher and a performer, but she often auditions for the same jobs as her students. Other times, she runs the audition room and may have to cut her own students. “I’ve worked so hard at compartmentalizing and putting on a different hat,” she says.
When auditioning alongside her students, Picini takes herself out of the teacher mindset and focuses on herself instead. “If I walk into an audition and all my students are there and want me to be ‘Teacher Lizz,’ with kindness I say ‘Great! Watch me and learn something.’ ” Then, she unapologetically gives it her all.
Even so, Picini is thrilled to see her students do well. “It’s so exciting. If my students get past me in a cut or a callback, then, work! Because I’m teaching them in the right way or they are the better fit for the role,” she says.
Take Care of Yourself
Between classes and auditions, dance teachers should still find time to take care of their mind and body.
Podolsky has a weekly process where she schedules the classes she plans to take in pencil— allowing herself flexibility if the week doesn’t go as planned. “I don’t take classes to network,” she explains. “I try to [learn] from as many teachers as possible. I try to have fun. I do it for me.”
Picini has discovered that during this season in her life, taking class looks different. “I’m always in pre-production or in an audition. As long as I’m flexing the muscles of pickup skills, retention, and regurgitation, I’m good,” she says. Picini also uses fitness classes as a way to focus on herself and takes dance classes that allow her to work on the skills she struggles with.
Finding balance while being an educator and a performer at the same time means being flexible constantly. “Some days are 20 percent performer and 80 percent educator,” Picini says, adding, “It will always look different every day. But you do have to know what your priority is.”
Picini and Podolsky both emphasize how incredible but draining this lifestyle can be and encourages dance teachers to be careful not to run themselves empty. “Remember you are a human before you are a dancer,” Podolsky says. “Fill up your cup in as many ways as possible to be happy, healthy, and successful in the field you want to be in.”