Monday, March 22, 2010

"Ain't No Sunshine"

I have a riddle for you...

When is there actually no sunshine?

When I have to get up for a 7:00am call time for competition!

I think my largest complaint about dance competitions in recent years is that they schedule us to have 14-16 hour days at them!

The competition we are attending this weekend starts at 8:00am everyday (Friday-Sunday) and the last awards are at around 9:30pm each night. So let me translate that for you... it means I have to be there by 7:00am for our first number, which equals getting up before 6:00am to be able to get ready and drive there in time. Then the final awards each day won't be done until at least 10:00pm, and then I have to drive home and wind down for bed.

And is it me or are competitions not scheduling in lunch and dinner breaks anymore? They just do an awards session with a 15 minute delay afterwards and get right back into it. I know that the students can leave and go eat as they have breaks all day, but where does that leave us teachers? Dance competition directors expect dance teachers and studio owners to spend all day in the Theatre, without proper nutrition and breaks, and they wonder why we complain so much about everything to them!

I know here in Canada that there has been a surge in the past few years of competitions being started by dance parents. I don't think there is anything wrong with it as I think that parents see a great opportunity to turn their experience at dance competitions into some cash, but I feel that they overlook the most important aspect. The dance teachers/studios owners are your most important clients! They are the ones that choose to come to your competitions. They are the ones that spend all day there taking care of every routine from their studio. They have to deal with all of the parents from their own studio who might have a complaint, because god forbid they can come complain to you about something they don't like! They are the ones that will make the overall decision about what they thought about your competition and thus decide whether or not they want to give you their business in the future.

So why don't you take care of us???

Competitions that are run by former teachers, studio owners or even dance professionals seem to have a better grasp on this concept. They might still start their competitions at 8:00am, but they might have some breakfast snacks backstage at the music table for teachers to grab on the go. Even something as small as providing bottled water, or drinks and candy for teachers in a little room would not break the bank at the end of the weekend.

Competition directors seem to be forgetting all of the little details that make a competition enjoyable for everyone, and instead are handing out bigger trophies, having dancing mascots at awards, and they may have even gone way out there and put some balloons up in the lobby for decorations! You're not fooling me at 7:00am with your glitzy decorations... I'm just looking for caffeine and a pen to mark up my program with!

Most people who know me are aware that I used to own a dance competition up until a few years ago. It was too much to run a competition and a studio and thus I had to choose to dedicate myself to one. I used to organize the competition with a lot of careful thought as a fellow studio owner. I made a rule about not starting any earlier than 9:00am ever, we had an unlimited supply of pens and highlighters available backstage and we never compromised about lunch and dinner breaks. We even offered 3 fully catered meals to studio owners and teachers all weekend. Yes, you heard me correctly! It was an expense we chose to take over other little things, like laminating the front covers of our programs. We set up a lounge for teachers at every competition where we had beverages and snacks all day, along with 3 hot meals, which you could either sit down and enjoy or grab and run. It seems like something so simple, and it was. Sure, we might not have done everything right, but I'd like to think that I took care of the studio owners and teachers the same way that I would like to be treated.

Last year I received a schedule from a competition my studio was attending that had one of my Intermediate dancers performing one of her groups at 10:30pm on Saturday night, only to be the first soloist to perform at 8:00m on Sunday morning. I know competition directors might not be looking out for the best interest of my students, but I am. I sent out a big red flag to the competition director about this issue and told them I was not happy. I feel I have a right to tell them I'm not happy... I sent them a big cheque on behalf of my clients.

I completely understand that dance competitions are a business, and taking 50 extra entries at a competition may extend your days by a few hours, but it's also hard to turn down that $7000 entry fee cheque that goes along with it. So they fill up three entire days with dancing, which in turn leaves very little time for anything else.

Maybe competitions should go back to being a lot smaller and focusing more on doing an exceptional job for everyone. Take 1 or 2 less studios per weekend, and then start your competition an hour later each day. You can then allow for a nice dinner break and end at a decent time of night for all the kids who have stuck around to support their fellow dancers, but who have to be there by 7:00am the next morning.

Sure, competitions are going to be long and stressful regardless, so why can't competition directors try to help alleviate some of that? Don't you want the kids to be happy, dance their best and thoroughly enjoy your competition? They can't do that on 5 hours or sleep and lack of food... and neither can their teachers!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Slow Me Down"

You're probably all wondering how I am able to write a blog in the middle of a Wednesday night, when I should be at the studio teaching right???
Well I have officially taken the evening off, and with good reason! I have a new approach to my competitive season... and of course I will share it with all of you!

During the Olympics I was really intrigued by a lot of these short little fillers they showed during telecasts where sports doctors would explain how athletes reach their peak performance levels. In the back of my mind I was thinking, well I'm sure they've been working 24/7 for the past month in preparation for the Olympics, no? WRONG... they're working the least they have all year in preparation for the biggest performance of their careers! I actually sort of already knew that information, but it's taken me a few weeks to really let that sink in and figure out how to utilize all of that with my students.

As a dance teacher our usual perspective when we are approaching the competitive season is to drill routines. We spend a lot of regular class time rehearsing the same routine over and over again. I understand and agree that we are training the muscle memory of our students for each specific routine, but when is it enough? This is generally the time of year when we are having extra nights of rehearsals for all our numbers, and getting the kids to come in on Sundays to run through their solos 17 more times just to make sure they know it before next weekend... come on, we've all done it! So now with all of this newly shared information about Olympic athletes, I'm going to try it out on my students this year... then you can all use my idea next year!

I don't teach regular classes on Wednesday nights, as I usually spend them doing choreography for solos or small groups as I need to. Well, since all my numbers are finished and I have cleaned them all up, I'm going to give the kids a break! They still have to come to their regular Company classes all week, but even then I'm using my time differently. I'm focusing their regular group classes on a lot of stretching and strengthening, as well as general technique exercises, and some really great new combos. I'm trying to get their minds off of drilling routines and put the focus back on really dancing in class. I will normally run a competitive group at the end of an evening, but I'm not picking them apart any more so that every kid is blinking at the same time. With only one week left until our first competition, the dances are going to be what they're going to be. If I change anything now, chances are it won't be changed on stage next weekend!

I have left my iPod at the studio tonight so that when the kids are in for their other classes they are allowed to go into my room and rehearse a solo or a duet at their will. Normally I will get feedback from my other staff that they ran through all their groups even on their own, just to keep it in their minds. I think that's great, and it shows that the kids do understand that the muscle memory conditioning I have been preaching for years is still important.

As a teacher I feel that I have given my kids all of the right tools to use on their own to be able to decide how much rehearsing they need to do. Most of these kids know the kinds of corrections they need to work on and that is what I can focus class time on. If a lot of my students perform on stage and have issues with pirouettes, I will spend their technique class working on those. If we simply just correct our student's technique within a piece of choreography, we are not helping them learn how to use technique or alignment correctly within dance itself, we are just making our routines look clean.

So at this time of the year, my kids are at the studio the least amount of days in comparison to when they started classes back in September. They don't have half an hour solo practises every week any more, and we might even go an entire week without rehearsing a particular group. You do have to keep all this in perspective, and know that I am not talking about my youngest competitive students here. Our Junior Company at their age still require a ton a muscle memory work, and so drilling routines with them is still essential... but we have stopped with the corrections and changes in choreography. My Intermediate and Senior level students are at an age and a maturity level now that they will still be able to remember their lyrical group, even if I do a brand new combo in class with them instead of drilling their routine.

You can argue with me that I'm taking away an opportunity for my Intermediate and Senior students to work on the performance level of their groups by doing this, but I can assure you that because I have been doing combos weekly in class with them all year, they can turn any piece of choreography into a performance quite quickly. It all goes back to the way you lay out your entire year with your Competitive team. Maybe you like to get your routines choreographed in the summer so that you have 6 months to clean up. Or maybe you're the kind of studio who only starts your choreography in January knowing that your students can pick it up quickly. I think I'm happy to say that I've found the middle ground with this one... and we will see how it all plays out very soon!

So I'm going to enjoy a nice glass of Merlot at home tonight, and I hope that the kids will get home early from the studio tonight and enjoy some of the much deserved time off they have. With competition season comes a lot of stress, for teacher, students and parents a like, so I'm finding it nice that we can all relax a bit before hand.

I know for a fact that drilling a tap group 86 times and late night daily rehearsals on that Production can cause a lot of stress on the kids, and on us teachers. So, I wanted to find a way to make getting ready for a competition a lot more enjoyable... and you can't argue with me that getting in your pyjamas, in front of the fire place, with a tall glass of wine is not enjoyable!


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Wait 'Til You See My Smile"

Don't you wish there was a way you knew in advance what you're getting yourself into when you attend a new competition!

I had a friend, Laurel, from University who opened up her own studio around the same time that I did. We keep in touch via the internet on how were doing, and sometimes even quick problem solving about studio situations. Last year we ended up going to the same competition, but we were both so busy we never really got the chance to catch up in person. Her studio is in Whitby, which is a smaller town outside of the big city of Toronto, so her clientele is probably vastly differently than mine... but we share the same growing pains!

Recently I saw that she had posted about her experience at her first competition of this year. Her kids are fairly new to the competition scene and she was really proud of one of her groups for placing in Overalls for the first time. I remember that feeling as well, and she definitely should feel a great sense of accomplishment.

However, what I think was the greatest part about her taking pride in this accomplishment was that she was very honest about her successes. She was quick to reply to her own post that she has a hard time deciding what competitions to go to every year based on the fact that she wants to keep it in perspective for her students. She likes going to competitions with more seasoned studios so that her students can watch more advanced dancers and learn from them. But in the same breathe, she doesn't want them to feel discouraged competing. She also stated that she doesn't like going to competitions with all studios like her own, as she doesn't want to give her kids a false sense of what their current abilities are.

I think that is really awesome Laurel... not just about your studios successes at competition, but the fact that you have a very clear outlook!

I feel the exact same way, and have always preached that to my students. I like to go to competitions with those "bigger" studios so that my students can see what's out there. But I also want to keep in check the fact that my studio has not been around competing for 20 years yet. I know for a fact that the parents at my studio don't like attending those smaller competitions where there is very little competition for their kids. I appreciate that perspective, but I also don't want my students to be discouraged about going to bigger competitions with studios three times as big as ours. It is a really hard balance to maintain, especially when you have no idea who is going to any competition before registering for it.

This year we are attending an American National Competition that we have never previously done. I was very hesitant about switching our National event this year, because if we attend Regionals and dislike the competition, we are committed to going to their Nationals regardless. I called the competition director in the summer to discuss all of my concerns and I quickly decided that it was worth taking a chance. One of my major concerns was that they had quality studios attending their event, or more important that they catered to all sizes of studios. To me, it shouldn't matter how much your entry fees equal, it should matter about the performance. I expressed my same concern about the adjudicators they hire, but she was quick to assure me that I would be pleased with their Competition. So we'll see!

Forrest Gump would be accurate in describing dance competitions as a box of chocolates... you never quite know what you're going to get, even if you've eaten them before! Just because they ran a great competition one year, does not guarantee that the next year will be as enjoyable. Is the event only great based on which studios show up? Some might argue that it is. Some would disagree and say that the adjudicators are the ones that really set the tone of a competition and therefore, are the most important part of its success.

What types of studios are you trying to attract if you're a competition director? Do you want only a handful of studios with hundreds of entries each? Maybe they have egos to match! Or do you want 40 smaller studios to come to your competition? Maybe that's too many people to try and make happy! Where does my studio fit in with your type of competition?

I don't really have all the answers, but maybe studio directors should be more inclined to ask those types of questions to competition directors... especially before you send them a non-refundable cheque for thousands and thousands of dollars on behalf of your clients!

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Any Color You Like"

So I think I got copied on an email recently from a parent that might not have been intended for me to see, but it actually got me thinking!

It wasn't a negative email, but it was from a parent who moved from out of town to our neighbourhood this past summer and her daughter joined our competitive program. She was just sending an email update to all her friends back home and I somehow got on the list, which may or may not have been on purpose!

She was just mentioning to her friends that her daughter was dancing in our Intermediate Company, which she compared to the levels they had at her previous studio. I guess she was in the "Junior" Company, and she assumed this was a promotion to the "Intermediate" Company at our studio. To any objective outsider, this would seem like the case, but prior to this year I had never had an "Intermediate" Company!

Before this dance year began I decided it was time to change the names of all my class levels and Competitive Companies. Previously, I had used letters to identify to Competitive levels, such as Company A, Company B and so on. I actually had never equated such stigmatism to each letter as the parents and students at my studio had. They became obsessed with being 'moved up' into what they deemed a higher level company. Truthfully, they didn't necessarily correspond in order, but it doesn't take the kids long each year to figure out which company they most desire to be in. I decided this year to go with the names Senior, Intermediate, Junior and Mini for the Companies and then divide them into letters accordingly... so for example Intermediate A Company, and Intermediate B Company. I understand there is still a letter attached to it, or a division in general, but at least the association of the familiar letters from previous years had evaporated.

But honestly, regardless of what I call each Company there is always going to be a division based on ages and abilities. Kids are not always going to dance with their friends or the kids they were in a group with in previous years, but that's just the reality of what Competitive dance is, or any sport for that matter. It actually has made a huge difference with my Recreational Program as well. Every year the kids and level of a paticular "Junior Jazz" class might change, and thus a student could end up in that class for several years. However, to a parent, that may appear like their son/daughter has never moved up, when in fact they might be progressing right on track.

It is hard for parents to understand that every studio runs their Programs very differently, and thus the levels at each studio might not correspond. Unlike hockey, dance does not have a governing body that proclaimed what the "Junior" level means for every studio in terms of skill level. Each studio owner has to distinguish a scheme that works for them, and it might only work for that one year.

I want to help all my students feel like they are progressing in terms of levels each year, but also give them something to aim for. When I had a 'Company A', the younger students all realized that this was the oldest and most advanced Company that they should strive to be in. I don't want to diminish the fact that the students all need to have something to work towards in terms of the level they want to be in. However, I have quickly realized that it doesn't matter what I call that elite level Company, it really just matters about the kind of kids in that Company the younger students have to look up to.

I have been to a competition with a studio that uses colors to distinguish their Competitive team. They had the Red Team, the Blue Team and so on. I thought this was a really great idea, as colors are very neutral when it comes to distinguishing levels on the surface. Nobody knows right off the bat if the Green team is more advanced than the Orange team. I'd give my teenage students about 5 minutes to have that all sorted out, but at least then there would be no stigmatism associated with each color for that year. You could easily change the colors every year and thus rid of those associations annually.

My staff was quickly brainstorming before we left the studio tonight about other ideas for the name dilemma. Some of the not so great ideas we had... names of Countries, names of Restaurants, Braille letters, or the name of the teacher who wants to work with that Company! We didn't really come up with any useful ideas, so maybe my fellow dance teachers out there can help me out!

But regardless of what color, letter, or animal I name them, I want them to all know that they're part of the Dance Fusion Company... which is the only team name they all wear on the back of their studio jackets!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Closer To Fine"

Here we go. I'm following in the footsteps of my friend Alison and creating my own 30 Before 30 list!

These are 30 simple things I want to accomplish before I'm 30, which gives me officially a year and a half to complete... so hold me to it! A lot of things will relate to dance and my business, as almost everything in my life does!

1. Make a concrete business plan on paper and learn my business net worth. Making things up in my head doesn't work for accountants!

2. Meet one of my neighbours. After living in my new house for nearly 2 years I couldn't name you one person who lives on my street.

3. Teach a real tap class. I generally shy away from teaching tap, since I'm not that good at explaining any of it, "JUST DO WHAT I DID!".

4. Type up a real resume. I have never had a job resume, and I might actually need it one day!

5. Get new headshots done.

6. Plant flowers in my yard.

7. Plan to take a vacation and actually take it. I deserve a vacation, and I need to just do it.

8. Purge at least 1/3 of my wardrobe.

9. Host a family holiday dinner at my house.

10. Have a part-time dance writing job.

11. Learn how to update my own business' website.

12. Have some sort of payment plan initiated at my studio where I don't have to chase people for money!

13. Restructure the Recreational Program at my studio so that it is more goal orientated for both the teachers and students.

14. Ride on a roller coaster that goes upside down. (I'm a chicken - don't laugh!)

15. Organize more performance opportunities for my competitive students so that trophies are not the only thing they're performing for.

16. Have my choreography on television... in one way or another!

17. Re-paint my entire house. One room at a time!

18. Open up a dance store/costume store affiliated with my studio.

19. Host a dinner party at my house for my friends.

20. Start reading a book and finish it before starting another one. Or just finish a book in general!

21. Learn how to really use Photoshop, so that I can edit my own marketing/ad prints.

22. Watch all of the Oscar nominated films for that year. This year is a failure, so next year is the year!

23. Learn how to use a sewing machine.

24. Take my dad to an NHL hockey game.

25. Surprise my grandparents by just showing up at their house one day and taking them to lunch. Just to make their day!

26. Take a ballroom dance class.

27. Take a road trip with my sister.

28. Get laser eye surgery. This contacts and glasses deal does not work for me anymore!

29. Choreograph a group for another dance studio for competition... and have their teacher choreograph one for my studio.

30. Throw a huge 30th birthday bash to celebrate completing this list with all the people I care about!

So it's no bucket list but at least it's concrete goals!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


A few weeks ago I did an interview for Dance Studio and to be honest I had completely forgotten that it was going to be published... that is until today!

I went on the website to print off some dance class coloring pages, and instead I discovered my face on the home page! I started reading it like I didn't know it was me, and then I quickly realized it was the beginning of my bio. I clicked on the header and then proceeded to see the entire 45 minute interview I had done with Suzanne Gerety over the phone in print. I actually can't believe that she typed out every word, mostly because I think we both talk a lot, but maybe the reality is that she didn't actually personally type it out!

Suzanne is the mastermind behind this incredible resource website for dance studio owners, and is also a dance studio owner herself. We were connected in the Fall via the internet and she asked me if I would be interested in doing this feature on studio ownership and advice. I agreed without hesitation, but then I was actually a bit nervous right before the interview. I think I was worried about sharing advice with people who have probably been doing this for years longer than me and then trying not to sound like I knew all the answers for everyone's problems! But now I've realized that this is what makes this website so great, or any forum for that matter, that let's dance studio owners share their experiences and advice.

I am still a 'Novice' at this studio ownership thing, but it does not make my experiences or ideas about things any less meaningful than someone who has been doing it much longer. What works for me might not work for someone else in their situation, but at least it's something to try you might have not thought of. I personally love going to dance teacher conferences and meeting other studio owners, not to compare competition results, but to address major concerns about our industry and get advice. Being all about your own studio and not thinking anyone can help you do any better is probably a fairly common trait in the dance world that I guarantee will backfire on you eventually.

Truth be told, in this new age world of dance, maybe someone young and up-and-coming like myself may have useful advice for someone with an older studio looking to reinvent themselves or keep up with the times. And in the same breathe, I want to learn how to keep my studio in business long enough to see a new era in dance, and for that reason I need help from my peers who have that experience. It's nice to be able to put aside the competitive factors about dance and just realize that were all in the same boat at the end of the day... and were all up late on the same night revising that Recital Program to make sure every kid's name is spelled correctly!

So don't read it and make a quick judgement, let me know what you think and we can have a discussion about it. Despite what you might have heard, I actually am a good listener!

I have proof...

At the bottom of the article is the audio version of the interview posted in it's entirety!

Thanks Suzanne for helping all of us share our passion for dance with each other. You're an incredibly talented member of the dance community that I am honored to know!