The Cream of the Crop
October 15, 2008

Some might call it a high-class problem, but how do you make your best students, well, even better? As dancers approach their technical peak, teachers are tasked with finding new ways to challenge and empower them to grow. “The hardest part is helping advanced dancers make the leap to extraordinary,” says Michelle Latimer, owner of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

On the competition circuit, this challenge exists on an individual as well as a group level, as many dance teams must outshine their own past performances, while avoiding burnout and continuing to grow as dancers. For both teachers and students, this pressure can add up to considerable stress. “I’ve found that the more talented the kids, the harder they are on themselves, and the more insecure they become,” says Michele Larkin of Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio. “If they win first overall, the next year it’s double the pressure because they have to be just as good, if not better.”

So how can dance teachers enable top-notch students to excel and evolve in a healthy manner? Find out with these six tips:

1. Branch out into other genres.

Many technically advanced dancers may be interested in pursuing professional careers. Yet even those at the top of their game in a particular genre may not succeed without a broad skill base. “It’s not just about technique,” says Latimer. “What makes the difference is versatility. Our job is to ensure that dancers are proficient in all styles and forms of movement. If they’re only good at one thing, it will be the death sentence if they want to go out and work.”

Derryl Yeager, artistic director of Utah’s Odyssey Dance Theatre, agrees: “There are a lot of dancers out there who are good at one or two things, but very few excel at all different styles.” With that in mind, Yeager requires the 24 members of the Odyssey company to gain fluency in ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap and contemporary, as well as tumbling. It’s this well-rounded approach that landed two Odyssey dancers, Thayne Jasperson and Matt Dorame, among the top 20 finalists of the most recent season of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Encouraging students to explore other dance forms, from ballroom to breaking to bellydance, can truly help them reach the next level.

2. Transform dancers into teachers.

In mixed-level classes, it can be especially challenging to keep the most advanced dancers engaged. To combat this problem, Larkin often enlists her top dancers to demonstrate skills for the rest of the students.

Latimer chooses to pass the choreography baton to her class. “When I feel students are just going through the motions, I’ll say, ‘OK, now it’s your turn to set and teach eight 8-counts,” she notes. “Instead of being in student mode, they are suddenly the teachers, and it can spark all kinds of growth. When you let dancers become the creators, it changes the way they think, and suddenly they’re engaged again.”

Prompting dancers to seek outside teaching jobs can also foster growth. At Odyssey Dance Theatre, rehearsals stop at 3 pm every day so that company members can report to their studio teaching gigs. Yeager says he has seen great benefits: “Being teachers helps them understand what they are trying to accomplish in their own dancing.”

3. Focus on improv.

While achieving technical excellence is admirable, it’s also crucial that dancers develop a personal style. By learning to flex the freestyle muscle, high-level dancers can kick their game up a notch. “A lot of kids are really good at choreography inside the set structure of a class, but then they go into an audition or solo with no sense of self,” says Latimer. “Improv is key to helping dancers develop their own signature; it allows them to move without rules.”

Latimer often challenges students to freestyle at the end of a combination, asking them to change the tempo or incorporate partnering. “We try to give them different ways to approach the movement in their own style, to trust their own way of hearing and using the music,” she says. “A lot of dancers are uncomfortable at first, but it’s such a great skill to get over the insecurity.”

Sam Renzetti, founder of XTreme Dance Force, a hip-hop/jazz troupe based in Chicago, also is a big believer in improvisation, which often makes up at least one-third of the group’s competition numbers. “We see so many amazing dancers come in to audition, but they freeze when you ask them to freestyle,” says Renzetti. “We do a lot of freestyle circles in rehearsal so that it starts to come naturally.”

4. Work on inner and outer strength.

Even with an intense schedule of classes and rehearsals, it’s important for dancers to work on basic physical strength and endurance. At Xtreme Dance Force, dancers go through a training regimen that includes sit-ups, pushups, battements from the floor and other strength-training drills. “We’ll do a routine three times in a row, with 50 pushups in between,” says Renzetti. “As a hip-hop dancer, you can’t be weak when you hit your movements. The body must be like a machine in that way.”

It’s just as vital to nurture students’ inner strength. For Larkin, even flawless technique is worth little if not accompanied by self-belief, so she remains very aware of dancers’ mental state as they approach competition. “Competition can be a big mind game, and dancers can really psyche themselves out,” she says. “It’s important to focus on mental preparation and confidence-building; in this day and age, our job is not only to be teachers, but also professional motivators.”

To help dancers believe in themselves, Larkin teaches them to fully use their emotions in performance. “We’ll work on different ways of being in character, listening to the music and letting the body be the instrument,” says Larkin. She also suggests incorporating a storyline into competition routines to give dancers something else to focus on besides the pressure of winning.

5. Expose dancers to other choreographers and instructors.

“As teachers, we need to be willing to let dancers go,” says Yeager. “Sometimes studios hold on to their students with an iron grip and don’t let them experience other things because they view it as a threat. Teachers need to be able to realize when a student has learned all they can from them and encourage them to take the next step.”

Sometimes, “letting go” can be as simple as bringing in outside choreographers to set competition routines or teach master classes, as both Renzetti and Latimer have done. Students at MLDA have worked with such choreographers as Mia Michaels, Travis Wall and Jason Parsons, while XTreme Dance Force has enlisted notables like Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Dave Scott and Brian Friedman. “Any time your dancers can be exposed to outside instruction from guest artists, it adds more layers to what they already can do,” says Latimer.


6. Get back to basics.

As dancers become increasingly fluent in their selected genres, they sometimes lose sight of the basic foundation of dance: ballet. Encouraging students to continue their ballet training will help them stay sharp as they explore other styles of movement. “Teachers have to make sure they really understand the importance of ballet as the base of technique,” says Yeager. “Many dancers can do all these tricks but aren’t using their muscles correctly; you start to see the holes in their training.”

Yeager believes it’s also essential to familiarize dancers with dance history. He is “astounded” when he meets young students who have never heard of Mikhail Baryshnikov or the Nicholas Brothers. “Without knowing what has come before them, there is no sense of where they’re going and how they fit into the big picture,” says Yeager. “Being unknowledgeable creates a huge vacuum in dancers’ ability to learn and grow; if they don’t know dance history, they think the whole dance world revolves around them and their 10 fouettés.” Take the time to show dancers old footage and educate them about the dance greats who’ve preceded them: “Education is about more than just steps, and teachers who approach it that way can create a beautiful legacy,” he says.

Even the most talented students can always improve. Bring these ideas into play, and they will be bringing their “A+” game to competition! DT


Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is


Photo courtesy of Dance Teacher archives.

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