Class Rivalries
July 2, 2010

Whispers at the barre. Glares across the studio. Sour attitudes. When jealousy invades your dance class, it quickly begins to affect your students’ behavior—and their performance.

Ballet class can be especially competitive. Here, Boston Ballet School students take the barre.


Classroom rivalries are an inevitable, and unpleasant, aspect of teaching. “No matter how fair you are, the issue is going to come up somehow,” says Shely Pack-Manning, artistic director of Shely Pack Dancers in Half Moon Bay, California. “And you have to be very careful dealing with jealousy issues—because they can get ugly, fast.”


So what should you do when rivalries begin to interfere with your teaching? Here are some suggestions.


Check in with the Parents


Pack-Manning—whose pupils have included numerous competition winners and one of the current Billy Elliot Billys (from the touring cast)—once had a student who was gossiping about another dancer, and the situation got progressively worse. She had conversations with both young dancers and learned that the source of the problem was actually a parent: The gossiper’s mother was fueling the daughter’s jealousy.


Dr. Brian Goonan, PhD, a sports psychologist and consultant at the Ben Stevenson Academy at Houston Ballet, says children tend to have greater issues with jealousy if their families worry more about the outcome of a performance than the effort that was put into it—or if the family’s hopes of stardom are resting on the child’s shoulders. Parents can spark jealousy by asking questions like: “Why can’t you be like so-and-so?” or “Why did she get the part?”


“The child now has someone who is their competitor, and they are at a developmental level where all they know is that another child is getting them in trouble,” Goonan says.


If initial inquiries prove that parents are involved, teachers should tread carefully. “Some parents are fiercely protective of their ‘prodigy,’ and for those parents, any teacher who mentions flaws is not going to be allowed to intervene,” Goonan says. “Not until the family matures will the child be able to get past it.” But if parental involvement appears to be relatively minimal, a conversation with the child and her parents can help ease tension in the classroom.


Reconsider Your Class Structure


Sometimes the way a dance studio is organized can contribute to jealousy and rivalry issues. Teachers at studios with many class levels, for example, might find that students become jealous of peers who are placed in more advanced classes.


Elaine Gail Gardner directs the Nichols Dance Ensemble, an after-school program at a private school for grades 5–12, in Buffalo, New York. The program doesn’t have the hierarchical class structure one sees in traditional studios. Instead, it is designed like a modern dance company: If you are in class, you are in the company and in the show. There are no auditions for parts, and peer practice and interaction is encouraged. “As the students grow in experience, they begin to help each other more,” Gardner says. “Those with greater abilities take on more leadership roles, such as leading group rehearsals to recap a new repertory or filling in missed information to kids who were sick at the last class or rehearsal.”


While the Nichols Dance Ensemble might not be a feasible model for private studios, certain elements of the program—eliminating auditions for parts in the end-of-the-year recital, for example—can ease rivalry issues at studios of any type and size.


Prevention with Young Dancers


Encouraging an everyone-is-equal attitude from the very beginning of training is one of the best ways to prevent rivalries from developing. With her younger students (ages 5–11), Pack-Manning chooses one dancer each class who becomes “star of the day,” and the rest of the students applaud this classmate. “You have to work to be the star, and I don’t give it to them for being the best dancer,” Pack-Manning says. “I give it to them for being the best listener, or if they remember something I said the class before.” She keeps track of who’s been recognized so everyone gets a chance.


She never has in-class competitions or compares one student to another. “It works. When they get to the level of junior and senior company, they really do support each other completely,” Pack-Manning says. “It’s instilled in them.”


At this age, it’s also important for teachers to communicate to children that dancing is about more than just being the best. Goonan says, “Students should be encouraged to enjoy the artistic outlet and to appreciate the efforts of everyone in the class or on the team.”


Working with Older Students

The Nichols Dance Ensemble, directed by Elaine Gardner


While more advanced students might have outgrown the “star of the day” approach, teachers can still create a sense of equality in class. Evelyn Cisneros-Legate, a former star of San Francisco Ballet and now principal of Boston Ballet School in Marblehead, Massachusetts, aims to recognize each student whenever possible, whether with a smile or a correction. “I try to create a team feeling in the class by saying something like, ‘Look at your friend and watch what they are doing,’ or by pointing out how a student has a special gift that we can all appreciate,” she says.


Goonan adds that it can be helpful for adolescents—ages 12 to 22—to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their role models. He suggests picking a professional dancer everyone knows and discussing why she might be a good fit for some companies or roles and not others. “It’s not because they’re not good, but because everyone has different talents,” Goonan says. “This helps students see that it’s more important to parlay their strengths than to be someone who has no weaknesses.”


Older students are ready for a discussion about how subjective dance can be, especially with regard to level placement or casting. “It might be hard and it may hurt feelings,” Cisneros-Legate says, “but it’s a life lesson that’s going to have to be learned, and what a benefit it is to learn it in an environment that’s not hurtful.” DT


Hannah Maria Hayes is a freelance writer with an MA in dance education from New York University.


Photos from top: by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet School; by Jon Anderson, courtesy of Wayne State University

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