Competing with the Clock
August 1, 2010

The hands on the clock fly around, the next competition looms, yet the numbers need more polishing. Team kids already spend endless hours at the studio in regular classes. How do you fit in enough rehearsal time?

The secret isn’t to schedule last-minute rehearsals or to eat up dancers’ entire weekends, but to have a well-thought out plan for the whole year that incorporates competition group time into your weekly class schedule. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Take the pressure off weekends.

That’s what Stina Smith of Jersey Cape Dance and Gymnastics Academy in Cape May, New Jersey, did this year. Since many of her school’s 34 team members already take technique classes between three and six days a week—even the 6-year-olds—she used to teach team choreography in marathon 9-to-5 sessions on Saturdays. When that wasn’t getting the job done, Smith began bringing in soloists on Sundays. She quickly realized that enough was enough.

“Before we demanded any more of the kids, this year we tried something different. We added a choreography class every week,” she says. Each of the studio’s four teams has its own class on a weeknight, during which members learn and perfect their competition routines, greatly reducing the Saturday commitments. Smith also gave students every other Saturday off at the beginning of the season. “So far, it seems to be working out well,” she says.

Adding a choreography class to the weekly schedule can also prevent rehearsals from encroaching on technique classes. This is the first year Smith hasn’t felt pressured to take time out of class to focus on her competition team—a practice that was unfair to her recreational dancers. “Our recreational students would be sitting around, because they didn’t choose to compete,” she says, “but I felt I had to put that time into the team.”

Limit individual time commitments.

Using regular class time for team rehearsals is a “disaster,” says 21-year veteran studio owner Steve Sirico of D’Valda and Sirico’s Dance and Music Centre in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Parents will have a fit over that.” Sirico’s performance group members attend specific weekly classes to learn competition material, plus a Saturday practice once a month. Rehearsal time varies for each dancer. Auditions are held at the start of the season, and dancers are chosen for numbers based on set skills. A preteen tapper, for example, might be in only one tap number, while a more advanced dancer appears in tap, lyrical, jazz and hip-hop routines. This set-up allows for greater flexibility.

“We try and get the best out of each group,” Sirico says. “It doesn’t overwhelm them and they can compete if they dance for as little as five hours a week, between rehearsals and technique classes.”

The system is a result of “banging our heads against the wall trying to get kids to commit” to the traditional team approach, he says. This year, the performance group numbers 70 dancers, 50 of whom are handling multiple routines. Truly serious dancers can strive for the more elite 25-member studio company, which requires a higher commitment of technique class and rehearsal time.

“The parents love it. Before, the number of hours required would scare them away,” Sirico says. “This gives more kids a chance to be part of the team. If they desire more, they can take those additional classes and work on that particular technique.”

Save time with advance planning.

At Retter’s Academy of Dance in Agoura Hills, California, many parents juggle their kids’ schedules along with their own jobs and family lives. This realization is what prompted Co-owner and Co-director Linda Bernabei-Retter to organize a team calendar that lists all classes, rehearsals and competition dates at the beginning of the season. Sticking to it has become imperative, Bernabei-Retter says.

“It’s all on the calendar, so they can see if they can commit,” she says. “About 10 years ago we realized we were not meeting the needs of these parents, and for us, this has been the way to go.”

The 53 dancers in her mini, junior, teen and senior teams all attend company choreography classes on Thursdays. In October and November, when dances are being set, the team also rehearses on Sundays from 11 am to 2:30 pm. As choreography is mastered, fewer Sundays are required.

Make the most of rehearsals and classes.

Good time management means getting the maximum from dancers in rehearsal and class. If a dancer has a test the next day and can’t concentrate, Sirico will allow a day off from rehearsal with the understanding that the material has to be made up in a half-hour private lesson.
“We try to give them a balance. If you come in and you’re fried, tired and distracted, you’re no good to us. Stay home, do your homework,” he says. “Then come back refreshed and ready to go.”

Bernabei-Retter’s husband and business partner, Darryl, grew up spending endless days and nights at his mother’s dance studio. Neither of them wants that for their own daughter, or their students. That’s why they are careful to start and end rehearsals on time, and keep the dancers dancing fully. Every minute is put to good use, and the dancers themselves know their time will not be wasted. Understudies are set for all pieces, allowing for rehearsals to continue productively if a dancer is injured or absent. Because time is wasted when material must be repeated for absent dancers, rehearsals are mandatory when choreography is being taught.

In addition, all of the Retters’ teachers must arrive for team rehearsals with choreography worked out in advance. “With limited time, those days when we could set choreography on the students are gone. For me, it can take up to 17 hours to pre-produce a number before the kids see any of it,” she says. “It’s difficult, but I insist.”

Remember that time flies when you’re having fun!



With so much repetition required for performance perfection, the fun of competing often gets lost. To keep the experience fresh and exciting, Sirico’s group members attend only two or three events a season. Performance group members hone their routines in front of the recreational students—who, in turn, are happy to show off their own recital routines.



To mix things up, Bernabei-Retter invites master teachers to teach team classes. Sometimes she might run a mock audition. When the tension is thick, she’ll remind the dancers to “check your ego at the door and keep your sense of humor.”



If a rehearsal is lagging, Jersey Cape team dancers will “circle up” and do a motivational exercise, such as saying one nice thing about each other. On “clean-up days,” Smith and her faculty play “good cop, bad cop,” just to make sure the dancers hear some praise along with the technical comments. She also designates one rehearsal as the annual “trophy smash,” where dancers work out their frustrations and anxieties by beating on last year’s trophies with large rubber hammers. “After all, the team is not about trophies, but about reaching personal goals,” Smith explains.



All teachers should watch for the warning signs of burnout: exhaustion, crankiness and zoning out. Usually the culprit isn’t dance alone, but a mix of schoolwork and extra-curricular activities—such as school plays, cheerleading, etc.—weighing heavily on a student. Then, it’s time to sit down with the dancer and his or her parents for a chat about commitment and making choices.



In the end, there’s no one surefire way to beat the clock. “We could always hold another rehearsal, but at some point you have to let it go,” Bernabei-Retter says. “There are other lessons to be learned, such as how to work in a more focused manner in the time the company does have.” DT


Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

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