When Kelly Berick began teaching high school students at Ohio’s Firestone Community Learning Center within Akron Public Schools 21 years ago, she was newly engaged, newly licensed to teach K–12 dance and thrilled to land what she considered the perfect job. Her enthusiasm quickly soured, however, when after two weeks of teaching she called a local studio to introduce herself. “The owner told me her students didn’t like me, didn’t like what I was doing and were going to quit my program,” she says. Her class of seven became a class of three.
It was a wake-up call, and one that convinced the North Carolina native to rethink her approach. Since then, Berick has grown not only the Akron School’s dance program, which has placed graduates in BFA programs across the country, but she’s also built a positive relationship with the dance studios in her community. In an industry where students often feel forced to declare their loyalty to one program over another (and studio owners fear anyone encroaching on their hard-earned turf), this was no easy feat.
“When I came to Akron, there were five or six studios in the area,” she explains. Today, that number has grown to about 30. “I knew I couldn’t walk into my classroom and try to prove that I was the best, because there were too many wonderful teachers already in the area.”
Berick, who holds a master’s in education in dance from Temple University, realized she needed to differentiate her curriculum from what was already being offered to her students at their local studios. “If I was going to develop a four-year, eight-credit collegiate model program for students who may look to major in dance in a university, I had to build on their strengths. They were already getting technique, performance opportunities, vocabulary and the basics of how to do a pirouette, but what about proper alignment and injury prevention? What about improvisation? How do you make a study on level or tempo, and how do you build these studies to make your own work?” she says.
Composition became the focus of Berick’s program, which has also come to include dance history, anatomy, additional vocabulary (“What’s that thing you’re calling a plié, and how do you spell it?”), dance criticism and arts advocacy.
Student choreography rehearsals for juniors and seniors take place during class time, and students must submit both a lesson plan and a journal reflecting on their previous rehearsal. Coursework also includes teaching strategies, because Berick knows that many of her students will go into arts education.
“Our mission is to make sure that they don’t go off to a university dance program, land in their first dance theory class and quit because they have no clue what’s going on,” says Berick.
In addition to retooling her initial curriculum, Berick has learned to be very mindful of scheduling to avoid competing with her students’ studio classes. “They’re already dancing from 4 to 10 pm, so when the bell rings at 3:30, that’s it. School is dismissed. We don’t keep them here,” she says.
The only required after-school activity is the tech rehearsal for the annual spring concert, and it didn’t take long for Berick to figure out that she could limit schedule conflicts by holding her concert in March as opposed to May, when most of the local studios have their recitals.
To support her students and gain the trust of their studio owners, Berick used to go to all of their recitals. “But now there are just too many, and I had babies,” she says with a laugh. Still, the relationships she has worked to build remain strong.
“The studio community is very supportive. They come to our concerts, and we try to make sure they know we appreciate them being there.” Each student choreographer gets a bio line in the program that notes which studio they attend, and Berick uses social media to share videos praising the local studio community for NDEO’s Thank a Dance Teacher Day.
To show her support even further, Berick requires her students to be enrolled in a studio program and to sign a contract to prove it. “They need to be enrolled in a studio of their choice,” she says. “I don’t care what they take—it can be anything from hula to hip hop—but I wanted to get the message out there that they have to be enrolled in something, and they have to get their studio owner to sign the contract and confirm that they are taking class.” It also works to Berick’s advantage, because it guarantees that her students continue developing their technique outside of her classroom.
Relaying an anecdote of which she’s particularly proud, Berick explains that Akron is home to a number of very serious pre-professional ballet programs: “They used to make their dancers sign a contract stating that they wouldn’t take dance anywhere else, but they are letting that slide now and allowing their students to dance for me.”
As for that original studio owner who tried to send Berick packing? Berick is looking forward to welcoming one of her former students as a ninth-grader this fall.