Friday, February 26, 2010

"Let It Go"

So tomorrow is our first competition of the year... and I am surprisingly relaxed about it. It is just a solo/duet/trio competition that not my entire studio is participating in, but it is still the first time someone will judge my work this year.

I think I might actually be a bit more concerned this year about how the parent's at my studio will react to the routines. I want them to be impressed with the improvement and the uniqueness of all of our numbers and not just love them because it's their kids! I like that the parents are always moved by my work, even if the judges aren't sometimes.

I'd like to think that I educate my competitive parents enough to be able to appreciate good work from other studios, and some are really able to tell where their kids stack up in comparison. I don't like that "my kid should have won" attitude if they don't, because generally it is not warranted. We are all biased to our work, and parents to their kids, so I do understand that it can be hard to distinguish the subjectivity sometimes.

I will be the first one to admit if one of my student's deserved to win a category that they didn't... but I am also the first one to admit when one of my student's wins a category over somebody else who should have! I even jumped at a competition director last year when they awarded one of my student's 1st Overall Novice for her solo, when there was a student from another studio who had a higher score. They insisted I let the student keep the cheque and the trophy as it was their mistake, but I insisted that my student go award it to the other dancer. Sure that didn't make her parents very happy, but then really what were her parents happy about in the first place?

I want to be fair as a teacher, and as a fellow competitor with other studios, and I want my studio parent's to also be fair in their judgement of what is going on at a competition. Sure, there are times when they think someone was way over scored for their performance and will let me know, but I am quick to remember that someone from another studio might be saying that about one of my dances at the same time.

Dance competitions walk a very fine line of making everyone feel like a winner, but also truly rewarding the winners. That's why I am going to keep my perspective this weekend when watching my kids compete. What is doing "their best" for one student, is not necessarily matched by another's "best". I really appreciate when a competition spreads out the marks enough to note such differences in performances. That makes my job, as a teacher and the voice of reason, a lot easier when dealing with the students and their parents in regards to the outcome.

I will tell you one thing, that I do not do tears at competitions! Meaning, my students will not cry over results, or at least not that I will ever see. I want them to respect the judgement they receive and also be respectful to all their fellow competitors. Then if a kid cries over not "winning", their parents will then go in to a mad frenzy and proceed to go buy them a trophy in the lobby to make them feel better... which is rule #2 at my studio... no buying your kids trophies from the program table!

Honestly, the minute we walk out of a competition and all go for dinner together, it doesn't matter who won the bigger trophy out of the bunch. In fact, last year one of my Senior students won an award at a competition that was a gift of some sort that she already owned. She turned around and found a younger student from another studio, who was not carrying a trophy, handed it to her and told her she did a really great job on her solo. Now, going and announcing to our entire studio that she had done this would have defeated the entire purpose of helping to make someone else feel great about themselves as she did. There are only a few of us who know abut this, as there was no need to award her for doing such a nice gesture... I'm sure she felt rewarded enough inside. I never even mentioned it to her mom, but it sure does speak volumes about this mom's attitude that she has projected on her daughter about dance competitions!

So my goals for this weekend. 1. Let the kids enjoy spending the time together to watch each other's new numbers for the year. 2. Appreciate the performances of those students who have worked so hard to do their 'best'. 3. Appreciate the performances of those students who don't do their 'best' so that I can help them improve for next time.

Sounds easy enough right! And goal #4 - keep those "stage-parents" away from their kids so that my first 3 goals can be achieved!

Come on, every studio has them... it's just learning to deal with them that makes you the real "winner" that weekend!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Golden Train"

I love to say 'I told you so'!

Not only did Tessa & Scott just rock last night, they helped to prove that less is always more!

From the costumes, to the music choice, right down to the simplest choreographed head turn, they were understated elegance.

All of the European teams last night of course donned the dramatic fru-fru costumes that they are known for. Three of the teams actually even used the same piece of music, which isn't even that good of a selection of music. They should take a note out of the book of simplicity, and just let their skating speak for themselves.

Maybe all of the over-the-top music, costumes and choreography these teams had are all just to hide the fact that their basic skating skills aren't as strong. This new judging system seems to really be working in ice-dance in helping to award the real winners. The skating skills are judged, musicality, choreography, and plain greatness! I don't like how in the other disciplines people can still win with falls or mistakes, based on the fact that they just load their programs with technical elements. Last night the two top dance teams both proved that skating has redeemed itself.

The same is true to me in dance... as really great dancing just speaks for itself. Put away all the big props, the 3-dimensional amazon costumes and just dance. There is of course a degree of creativity that is involved in making your students stand out, and that's where teachers tend to turn to elaborate costumes and set pieces. However, I think we all need to make sure that if we took away the props, and the kids performed in plain black costumes, that the dance would still stand on it's own as a piece of creative and strong work that you are proud of.

I'm sure there are thousands of little girls and boys alike today signing up for ice dance lessons at their local arenas. As a business person I see great opportunity here that cannot be ignored... I'm going to send the Russian Federation my resume so they will hire me to design their costumes for next year!

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Now Or Never"

A few people who know me might tell you that I'm anti-Olympics... which, for the record, is not true. I'm just anti-spending this much money on the Olympics, or on a 20 meter LED Polar Bear puppet for the Opening ceremonies!

I think the idea of bringing countries and athletes together to celebrate sports is a really great thing, I just feel bad for a lot of these "kids". I've been pretty much watching the Olympics non-stop now for a week, which is mostly due to the fact that all of my regular weekly television shows have been put on hold. And as exciting as I think it must be for these athletes, I can see a huge sense of fear in most of their eyes. They train for countless years for only a few seconds or minutes to win an Olympic medal... that's a lot of pressure!

I've been very impressed with the amount of coverage the Canadian channels are doing for these games, but I just have not been impressed with the amount of medals my country is winning. So my anti-Olympic spirit kind of kicks in there when our government spends as much money as they did to help our athletes "own the podium", and they just don't. A lot of these athletes are apologizing in their press conferences for letting down the entire country? I feel like saying to them, "don't worry, my life will go on, you didn't disappoint me that much!"

It helps me to put things into perspective when it comes to preparing kids for dance competitions. It might not be on the same scale as the Olympics, but to a 10 year a local dance competition is! Our first competition is now less than a week away and my kids are all exuding signs of excitement mixed with anticipation and fear. They're nervous, which I think is a natural response to performing, but I want to be careful that they don't internalize that pressure too much. That way if they don't perform up to their expectations, they can still be happy and proud of what they did do.

I think for every studio the level of expectation for a performance will vary, and for good reason. It's like any athlete, you can't just announce to everyone that they're a gold medal threat if they've never won an event before. You have to be realistic with your expectations. There is only one gold medal at the Olympics... which is not true with dance competitions, but I don't think Gold is good anymore? I think it's like the Double Platinum-Diamond Excellency Award now you are aiming for?!?!?! Not every student is going to win a Diamond award every time, and they need to know that it may be what they're aiming for, but it might not be what they win... and if they don't, life will go on for them!

On a really great note, a personal friend of mine actually is in Gold Medal contention tonight at the Olympics. Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are sitting in 1st position after two rounds, out of three, in Ice Dancing. They skated brilliantly last night, and I just have this feeling that their beautiful romantic Free Dance tonight will be a winner. Luckily I don't teach tonight, so I will be able to leave the studio early to go home and watch them compete live. I get that they have dreamed about winning the Olympic Gold medal for many years now, and will be devastated if they don't, but I hope that's not weighing on their minds all day. There is something really magical about Olympic athletes who perform in that position as though they really do just love what they are doing, versus those who look like their defending winning.

It makes me kind of glad that dance is not, and will never be an Olympic sport. I don't even know how you'd judge dance on that kind of level, so let's just leave the controversial judging to figure skating. And in case you thought dance costumes were bad, you clearly missed the Russian Ice Dance team skate their aboriginal folk dance last night in these...

I bet they didn't order this out of a costume catalogue... but I'm sure I could find something pretty close in one that I've received! Who says all athletes take competing seriously!!!

Friday, February 19, 2010

"A B C"

So I have been out sick the majority of the past week, so my blogging has been minimal... or non existent for that matter!

I found the article posted on Twitter today that really made sense to me. It kind of goes along with my dance studio marketing blog from about a month ago. It addresses the necessities of good studio marketing and offers a lot of great tips.

It is called Marketing from A-Z, and I think it is very concise and effective. More people should write like this! Good job Mike Collins!

I've also read a lot of completely useless dance studio articles today... but what else am I supposed to do while recovering at home?

I think this one article even has a lot of points that are great for general studio business needs. Asking the right questions, being involved at your studio in the most effective way, getting feedback, listening to clients and being positive.

Well I guess that's just good life points in general!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Sunday Bloody Sunday"

So this upcoming Sunday is Valentine's Day... please note my lack of enthusiasm!

A day every year where we buy cards, candies and flowers for people to tell them we love them... because we have to! It might be the part of me that hates being told what to do that dislikes Valentine's day, but the tacky little cupid dolls don't help any.

This Sunday I am spending the day with my friends and having some girly fun to help celebrate. Sleepover party Saturday night, and then doing costume organizing on Sunday before heading out to Grace O'Malley's downtown Toronto to watch Driver perform and eat some good food. I know not everyone considers costume organizing a good time with their friends, but dance teachers are not your 'normal' friends!

So in honor of this loving occasion I got myself a very special Valentines Tee from Peace Love World. They sell amazing clothes for dance teachers, and other people alike... all baggy clothes that are ubber comfy and in nice normal colors! They also sell clothes to support a great cause, so all the more reason to love their company.

Okay, so I ordered a lot more than just that one tee, but you can't just have one thing shipped here from Miami.

And now Peace Love World has sent me a Valentines Day coupon for my next order... so I can buy a fabulous tee to represent my feelings at every major holiday for 2010. At least somebody got me something useful!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"The Luckiest"

I say it a lot... but not enough. I love my job!

There are a lot of great things about owning your own business, which for me is a dance studio, but at the same time their are a lot of things that can get you down about it. However, the good definitely outweighs the bad!

No question, I have a really great life. I get to do what I love day in and day out. I am a self proclaimed dance-aholic, I eat, sleep and breathe everything about this industry and I couldn't imagine not having dance in my everyday life. I could never have imagined myself going to an "office" job for 8 hours a day and then going home at night only to repeat the next day. I am happy to say that I have never worked in retail, or waitressed, or worked in an office in order to help myself earn a living. I have managed to support myself independently through dancing and teaching.

Sometimes I have rough days, but nothing is ever going to be perfect, so you have to learn to deal with the occasional complaint. Then one night when you get home from teaching, alone, to a quiet house, you find this on your computer...

It probably wasn't meant for sharing on the internet... but I get to gush once in a while!

From very early on in my teaching career I remember all the times that students would bring in drawings or cards they'd made for you at home. As dance teachers we do get a lot of these, and most of them probably get posted in your office for a few days to only then be covered by a bill to address, or even end up in the recycling bin. But what if you saved all of them in a special box, for one of those really bad evenings where you need a little reminder of why you love your job. Then you could go through them and know that these students took the time to think of you outside the studio and made something to let you know that they care. They're grateful for your dedication to them and that you share your love of dance.

I even keep nice cards and notes that parents write to me at the end of the year or just to say thank you. That way when that particular parent complains about something I have a reminder of the time when they were sincerely happy.

I am the luckiest person I know... I love my job! Not very many people I know can say that at the end of the day. It's not about having a job that buys you everything you want... it's about having a job that satisfies you on every level. So maybe I don't take home a 6 figure salary every year, or I don't drive a fancy gas guzzling car, but what do you sacrifice in terms of happiness at your job to achieve these things?

And in case you needed a little more convincing about how great my job is... think about the last time you got a loving video message from your clients!!!

"Glitter In The Air"

Did you see Pink perform last weekend at the Grammy's? How long until some dance teacher figures out how to hang a dancer from the ceiling at a competition and spin them around?!?!?!

So we are in the midst of costume chaos at our studio in preparation for our first competition in March. They're all starting to come in and they need altering and so on, so my mind is spinning. I'm so glad I finally got out of that stage of rhinestoning every costume until I could no longer see the original fabric! I used to be that teacher. I even used to have a rhinestoning party for the parents/students at the studio in order to get it all done. I'm pretty sure I doubled costume prices with all that glitter! Then we're talking rhinestone chokers, earrings, hair clips... oh and this new trend of rhinestones on the face and red glitter on top of lipstick! What studio decided dipping a child's lips in to glitter to make them sparkle was a great idea? I'd like to talk to them!

So, I have officially given up on the "glitz" portion of dance competitions. We have rid of most of our rhinestone jewelry and fake eyelashes this year and gone in a more organic direction, which pretty much parallels my teaching/choreographic style. We used to spend hundreds of dollars on all matching accessories, that by the end of the year were all broken or lost. I've decided that is not what I am trying to win with... even though they do give out special awards at competitions for who's costume sparkles the most! It's not the image I want to project with my choreography, so we won't follow suit and try to out "shine" other studios with our jewelry... we'll try do it with our dancing instead!

I once had a dance make-up company try to sell me these big expensive make-up kits for our competitive team, that included 12 different shades of eyeshadows, one to match every costume. Their main approach to me was that after we had spent all this time/money on dancing and their costumes, the make-up and accessories were just the final touch to complete the look. I do agree with that statement to a degree... but what if you're costume has no rhinestones on it? What if it's a tank top and black shorts?

At my studio we do have a small make-up kit for our Competitive team, that we put together ourselves and purchased from Mary Kay. It includes 3 jewel toned eyeshadows, a neutral blush and a berry toned lipstick. It all comes complete in this neat little compact, and then they just have to provide their own foundation and mascara. Honestly, I cannot tell the difference when a dancer is wearing fake eyelashes on stage or just mascara and eyeliner... so let's stop dramatizing about the eyelash glue for an 8 year old and move on!

I do appreciate a beautiful rhinestoned costume at a competition, when it's used in the right context. I have several really beautiful, and expensive, costumes at my studio for that glitzy lyrical solo, or that 9 year old jazz solo. These types of costumes do look stunning on stage, but I generally might get more excited about the costume than about the actual dance. However, there is something about that understated plain black bodysuit on stage that makes me focus on the dancer/choreography instead. Of course, you do have to have that type of dancer to pull that off, so be careful. Don't try to understate a routine if the dancers have weaker technique... it's not effective.

I guess you have to decide what kind of competitive studio you are. Are your numbers really upbeat and vibrant, so they require lots of rhinestones to help accentuate that "look" on stage. If so, great! Whip out those rhinestones, and use them in an effective way that suits the costume/students. But don't go overboard -it's really easy to spot those dances where the most exciting thing that happened is the hair piece that fell out of that kid's hair! Spend more time focusing on cleaning up that routine then you spend rhinestoning their costumes.

If you are a more contemporary studio, whose costumes are less glitzy, then accessorize accordingly. Maybe you just have some hair clips for a few routines, and the rest you go with less of a dramatic look for all the others. The details of your choreography will then be more apparent on stage, but be aware of that in preparation.

I don't think there is anything wrong with either type of studio, so why don't you try a bit of both! As a seasoned adjudicator myself I know that after the first session at a competition I already know which studio is which by the accessories they wear. Everyone at a studio has the same hair-do with the same 2 clips over the left sided part, and they all have matching rhinestone bracelets. It sets a precedent for your studio that you need to be aware of. Maybe you had a really strong group perform, then when your next group steps on stage that I recognize from your studio accessories, they have to live up to that last group you had on.

I even remember seeing a studio last year who had rhinestoned all of their foot undies to match each of their costumes. Maybe they were trying to set a new trend, but on the other hand I don't remember these kids pointing their feet too often either, so maybe that wasn't the greatest idea for them!

Diamonds are definitely a girls best friend... I just like my kids to win a Diamond award, rather than wear them all over their faces!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"The Book Of Love"

Today's blog is inspired by a question I saw a colleague post on Twitter... how do you write down your choreography?

I am the kind of teacher that listens to a song over and over again until I have memorized every nuance and every note before I can choreograph to it.  I feel that the music directly drives every piece that I do... but I've started to find that I have so many routines to do that memorizing music just isn't enough anymore!

So this year I bought myself a fancy notebook at Staples before September rolled around and I wrote in big bold permanent marker on the front cover Robin's Choreography Bible!  I bought post-it note tabs to mark off pages and a soft gel pen that fit neatly down the spiral binding.  Now I am a novelty kind of person, so I took very good care of this book for the first month.  I didn't want any scribbles in it, or dented corners on pages so I never let it out of my sight.

I had never written down my choreography in previous years, as I believe in a very organic process of working through my routines... but I really wanted to make an effort this year to choreograph 40 completely different routines for competition that differed vastly from one another.  Jotting down ideas, or noting tricks/lifts for specific dances in this book really helped me to keep track of inspired moments that I might have forgotten otherwise.  I don't write down step-by-step for every routine, as that's not always effective when you're sitting on the couch, but general ideas of where the routine is going.

I even started using this book for keeping track of combos I would do for my older classes.  That way I could keep track of the details that were important to me in terms of the choreography and helpful notes that I could pass along.  It isn't unusual for me to be reaching for this book in the middle of teaching a combo to the Senior class, because honestly at the end of a long night of teaching I just can't remember everything any more!  What I also found great about keeping track of my combos in my Choreography book is that I could easily pull from them for competitive routines.  I could grab a few 8's of a combo that really worked for a student and put it in their solo if applicable.  The kids even know what the book is for and have referenced to it themselves in times of desperation of forgetting what I did in the last class on their solo!  They won't find scripted out counts of 8 in vast detail, but they're familiar enough with my language of dance and how I work in the studio do understand what the majority of it means.

I never used to understand why teachers wrote things down, as my brain just functioned as a dancer, so I found it easier to work organically and had no problems remembering details.  Now as I get older, and just more busy at the studio, that little book, now complete with dented corners, has become one of the most useful tool in my classes.  I even started making a game for myself of moving the tabs of finished routines to the opposite side of the page, so I could keep track of what was completed and what still needed work.  Maybe I'm just too easily amused by those little florescent re-stickable pieces of shiny paper!

Recently, I purchased a sister book that is coincidentally titled Robin's Choreography Bible #2!  I have already started keeping track of brilliant ideas for picture day and the Recital in it... and maybe I'm jinxing myself, but there are already several pages dedicated to insane ideas for competitive routines for next year... and no you can't borrow my book for a sneak peak!

I have even created a systematic language for myself in the book to remind myself to warn the kids that what's coming up will hurt!  There is an almost vicious excitement I get when I am nearing that starred section on the page.  It's the "I know you won't get this right away, and you will have bruises tomorrow, but trust me it will be amazing when it works"!  That's probably too long to be a subtitle in my Choreography book, but it will definitely be the title of a Chapter in my autobiography one day!

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Make Me Whole"

So I finally did it... get your minds out of the gutter!  I officially went off processed foods... well I became a pseudo-vegan!

Last week I watched this movie about where the food in our grocery stores comes from, and that was enough to turn me off 90% of what they sell there forever.  This probably seems dramatic, but if you watched the movie you'd be disgusted as well.

Most of the food we buy in the grocery store is not even 'real' food.  By that I mean, that most of what we buy there is processed, or so filled with chemicals and hormones that you might not even know what it really tastes like.  So when I say I'm a pseudo-vegan, I'm officially off meats and dairy but I'm still going to eat fish.  Just not fish sticks... real fish!  Now I don't mean that I will never eat meat ever, but only if it's 100% organic.  I am not buying any more pre-packaged/processed foods in the store, but I will attempt to cook a lot more and make healthier choices when it comes to convenience options.

Now I have always been health conscious, mostly so that I can practise what I preach.  I want to feed my body good food so that I can get everything I demand out of it.  I always avoided fast food, and I am that person who never gets cheese on my sub at Subway, but I never realized how much other "crap" I was eating.

Tonight I went and familiarized myself with the Organic & Vegan section of my local grocery store.  I bought organic Yogurt, several pounds of vegan meats, and soy cheeses.  I'm not giving up the foods I love, just finding healthier options.  I raided the fruits and vegetable section, and also found whole grain options of all the starchy foods that I love.  I do realize that this kind of shopping/eating is going to be expensive, but I will probably become a less wasteful person in the process.  This food will all go bad faster than chemical filled foods, but that's the trade-off.  I'm not going to be one of those die-hard vegans, but I am vouching to only eat real whole foods.

So what does this have to do with my studio you ask... well the very first parent in my doors tonight brought with them 2 dozen donuts from Tim Hortons to celebrate her son's birthday.  Normally I would indulge myself with one, as they are sitting on my desk, but instead I restrained myself the entire evening.  I can't make a rule that says "no crappy food allowed" in the studio, but I probably will write up a newsletter to all my parents letting them know about the benefits of feeding their kids good food before dance class, and in general.  It's not to scare people about what they're eating, but just to realize that as dancers we demand a lot out of our bodies and as parents and teacher we should be encouraging kids to make better choices when it comes to food.

I discovered there is a Vegan restaurant near my house, which I will visit this week at some point to familiarize myself with their menu.   Some of my friends and me even went to our favorite little Mexican Restaurant on Friday and I ordered a vegetarian burrito dinner with no cheese or sour cream.  I had fresh salad, rice and tons of vegetables all without the guilt.  I think there are many ways I can eat well even within my lifestyle of not eating at home all the time.

My vegan chocolate cupcakes are in the oven, and I'm about to get some potatoes cooking for my Vegan Shepherd's Pie for tomorrow.  My mother will probably fall out of her chair when she reads that I am cooking!

There is just something really satisfying about cooking things from scratch with healthy ingredients and then enjoying them afterwards.  It's the same feeling that I get after a great night of contemporary classes.  I am tired, sweaty and cannot feel most of my major muscle groups... but it is so satisfying!