Monday, May 31, 2010

"100% Pure Love"

I know it's late here in Toronto, but I needed to share some pure awesomeness as quickly as I could!

Our Company photographer Greg Tjepkema just emailed me some rough copies of 2 pictures to wet my taste buds tonight...

Above is one of our Lyrical Groups entitled "Bird Girl", and the other picture is of 13 year old Savanah in her Jazz Solo costume! I mean, I loved both of these numbers regardless of what the pictures would have turned out like... but I think I just found a whole new appreciation for my work!

I'm going to need to find a mop quickly to clean up my drool off the floor!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"We Belong Together"

So yesterday was insane... which for those of you who don't follow cool lingo, means really great!
We had an unbelievable photo shoot downtown for our Company students with Greg Tjepkema and I can't wait to share the photos with everyone. I really tried to push the envelope this year, so I can stay a step ahead of everyone following in my footsteps! We used a gorgeous row house as a backdrop, an abandon train, the hood of my car and pretty much any cool place we could find to create magic. We did head shots for all the kids, and decided to get a 'dance shot' of each of them in all black on a white brick background. We got all of our group shots done in all various places and then we finished up at the beach in water with balloons and climbing trees. It was a lot work, but it was worth it!

Then we decided that after the Photo Shoot would be a perfect time to have our annual Company end of year BBQ Pool Party. We always have several get togethers a year for our Companies, including a Christmas Party, but everyones favorite is always at the end of the year. We are all done our competition season and everyone can really let loose and have fun. Were lucky enough to have a great family in the Bellchambers at our studio who lets us use their house every year. They have a big backyard with a heated pool, a hot tub and a fire pit, so the kids are amused for hours. The dads BBQ, the kids run around and the moms work on their contemporary dancing while all the staff enjoy the show!

Now in the past when we have had Company parties with everyone included it has always seemed a bit disjointed. The older kids would always hang out together in a separate area of the backyard then the younger kids. They would hide up in small groups in bedrooms upstairs and it just didn't seem like a big group atmosphere. And to be honest, I never really noticed it was like that until I experienced how different our party was yesterday!

There was one point in the evening when every kid from our studio was there and every parent was as well, including my own parents. Everyone was gathered out on the deck while every kid was in the pool together, from age 5 to 18. The moms were doing a Rockette line and the kids this time were cheering on their parents instead of being totally embarrassed by them. We started a fire and all the kids gathered to roast marshmallows and make smores. I went down to help them out only to find the Senior girls handing out the supplies and making the smores for the younger kids. The Inter kids were all roasting marshmallows for the Juniors and everyone was sitting in each other's laps around the fire.

I went back up to the deck and sat down with a group of parents spanning all the Companies and commented on how nice this was... they all quickly agreed. A parent who has been with my studio for many years commented on how great the atmosphere was and how happy she could see her daughter was. I guess sometimes you forget how much an 8 year old at your studio really idolizes a 13 year old. Just being able to ride on their back in the pool or to share a marshmallow with them around a fire really makes them feel included and special. I'm sure you can all understand how a younger student can look up to an older student as a dancer, but can you say the same about them as people? Yesterday I could say that I had 32 kids who all felt special and included, as well as about 50 parents who could not have been happier with that reality.

We leave for our Nationals trip in about 4 weeks and now I could not be more excited. The parents planned an evening out in Rhode Island, while the older kids agreed to babysit for the night. We also decided to have a bonfire at the beach the night before we all leave and I know that every family will be happy to participate. Nationals would have been exciting regardless, but now that everybody is more familiar with each other, it will bring an entirely new element of fun to the trip.

Maybe it's the combination of people at your studio in a year, or the group of kids you have at one point, but I feel it all kind of coming together for us right now. It won't necessarily effect the way the kids dance at Nationals, but I don't think how they perform will necessarily be what they remember most about our trip. They're going to remember the sleepover party they all had crammed in one room, swimming all together in the pool, and improv dancing on the beach at night. I like having meals out with the parents and I enjoy sitting by the pool having a Mojito with whomever is around. I'm glad that I can enjoy studio activities with all the families instead of just encouraging them all to do things together and not being included. It's also nice that I can be involved in all the fun and still be shown respect. After all, you can't really respect somebody that you don't really know!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Picture Perfect"

So tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the entire year... Company Picture Day!

Now, normally I detest picture day at the studio. Every student in our entire studio in and out of the building at least once, including the entire entourage they show up with. Loose sparkles from one end of my studio to the next, bobby pins everywhere that clog my vacuum, and of course parents think it's the day to address every other issue they have. I loathe the forth coming of Picture Day every year... which is why this year I have opted out of it!

Instead, we are offering a professional photographer on site at our Recitals with a photo booth set up in the lobby area. Students can then have individual pictures done there at their leisure and parents can preview and order everything right there on the computer screens. We are also offering stage shots of every one of our classes, just like they do at competitions. That way were helping people to preserve those really special moments on stage that you can't duplicate. I feel as though it's a really great compromise to having Picture Day, which I know a lot of parents don't enjoy either, especially while the weather is so nice on the weekends.

However, I do like the pictures that come out of all of this, so I have found a suitable compromise to satisfy my needs!

Last year I hired a friend of mine, photographer Greg Tjepkema to do some more professional like photographs for the Competitive Team. I was tired of the same old poses in lines, in front of a grey cloud background in the studio... and I'm sure the kids and parents were as well. So, we rented out Berkley Church in downtown Toronto instead for an evening and decided to take advantage of the natural settings and the beautiful architecture. It ended up turning out better than I could have ever imagined!

We only took a bunch of our Intermediate & Senior student last year to try it out and see what would happen. We did a quick sitting for all of the kids to have some head shots done, instead of doing a solo picture in every group costume. We did all of our group pictures in various locations around the building and we tried to get some really special shots that took a lot longer to process, but turned out beautifully. I tried to make the pictures more like art, so people could be proud to show them off to their friends, and frame them on their walls as more than just another dance routine photo.

One of the great things about it was that a bunch of the kids actually needed head shots done to send to the National competition we were attending for the Title Competition. So it was kind of like killing two birds with one stone. They got a few shots taken, then Greg touched them up and we sent in what looked like head shots worth hundreds of dollars. We are doing the same again this year with the head shots, as about 7 of the kids need them for the Title Competition again this summer at our Nationals, so I make a lot of parents happy by taking care of that for them!

We have planned to do this again this year with Greg, but with our entire Competitive Team now, and we have moved to a different location. We've rented out a loft downtown for the day, where we have access to a great indoor space, but there are also a lot of outdoor areas to take advantage of around it. A really extraordinary picture day like this requires a lot of planning so we have already organized a lot of group shots before we get there. However, some of the greatest pictures last year came from the kids doing some improv around the space and Greg just snapping shots of them as they went. We'll do quite a bit of this on the fly, but I do have a concrete idea in my head of what I'm looking to accomplish before I get there.

Check out some of our pictures from our 2009 Company Photo shoot!

I have recently noticed online that a lot of my dance teacher friends have also started to get creative with their studio pictures and are having them professionally done. I'm glad that I may have inspired people to take another approach to something that might seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of the year, but these pictures do represent an entire year of work and growth in the kids. I take a lot of pride in showing off these pictures as a representation of my studio and how creative I can be with all aspects of what I offer. Sometimes it's the little things that you can do differently in your own studio that really shows people that you care and can set you apart.

When I look back at these pictures years from now I will be reminded of the great routines I choreographed and the wonderful kids I worked with. And even if the routine wasn't that great, at least I have a really nice picture to convince myself otherwise!

Monday, May 17, 2010

"The Moment I Said It"

I guess I was writing my blog about the "Single Ladies" jazz group as the entire world was watching them on tv! Well this video has clearly stirred up more controversy in the dance world than I have ever seen, and the only practical conversation I've heard about it is regarding who to blame here.

I saw this blog posted on Twitter about the controversy and I actually have to say that I think this writer hits the nail pretty close to the head. It really isn't the fault of the kids, the parents, the teachers or the competition. Everyone is just doing what they were told to do in order to be successful in the dance industry. She than goes on to blame dance on television, which I think is a bit of a stretch here, but she's heading in the right direction. She's saying it is the fault of mainstream dance... but honestly, who really is mainstream dance?

It got me thinking about a conversation I seem to be having a lot lately with parents in my studio regarding who is making decisions for the dance industry? Well hold on to your hats here people... but nobody is the ruler of all things when it comes to dance!

I'm not trying to start up a discussion about whether or not I think dance is a sport versus art, but when I am talking about dance competitions I approach it with a sport mentality. We train the kids and then they compete against other kids, which mimics the sports of soccer or hockey. However, in all other sports, and even some fields of art, there is a "governing body" or an association that is in charge per say. For instance, in hockey the NHL is of course the ultimate goal for hockey players, but there are sanctioned leagues run by the hockey association that determines teams based on ages and abilities. They are all accustom to the same standards and rules across the board, to keep some sort of flow and consistency. In figure skating, they have Skate Canada, which is organization that all skating rinks pay dues to in order to coach by their standards, etc, etc. Even in piano lessons, they have a standard set of levels, books and testing to go by. You don't have to learn/teach piano lessons by the grade levels, but it is how you can achieve the same certificate for a level as a fellow piano player on the other side of the country would.

It has become painfully obvious that in the dance industry there are actually no rules, no standards and no one telling anybody else that what they can or cannot do. A lot of dance parents actually don't seem to know these kinds of facts... so here they are! Every competition (like every dance studio) is individually owned and therefore, comes up with their own set of rules and standards. So if this dance in question is deemed inappropriate by one competition and thus is disqualified, that same group can still go and win Overall High Score at another competition. Let's just call a spade a spade here - the dance industry is open for anybody to make money in, and what it boils down to at the end of the day is money. Anybody can make a buck in this industry, but the successful ones can make a lot more.

Enter John Smith, a 30-something fresh out of dental school who opens up a dance studio because he sees an opportunity to make money, even though he has no previous dance experience. He advertises some fun classes in a really fancy building with large studios and a "state-of-the-art" sound systems. He puts some funky letters beside his name denoting that he obviously know what he's doing and then parents will think he does so they pay money to send their kids there. They will pay for lessons for ten years or so and then their kid will go audition for SYTYCD and will be one of the people Nigel politely tells on tv to "go ask your teacher for a refund!"

I had a new parent once come into my studio during Registration and ask to see the credentials of all of my staff that would be working with their daughter. I looked at him and asked in return, "sure, what kind of credentials are you looking for?" Well he wanted dance teaching credentials obviously... so I elaborated, "what sort of credentials do you think it takes to teach dance?" I don't think he appreciated my sarcasm, but the truth of the matter is that they came from another dance studio where they were told that their exam syllabus association were the people who had to give me a piece of my paper saying that I am able to teach dance. Or maybe this other dance studio truly believes that themselves!

So, I'm going to say something now that will shock a lot of parents... the whatever Association of Dance that you pay money to every year to examine your kid, is run by a group people just making money off the dance industry, similar to everybody else. They are not the knowers-of-all-things-dance-teacher related and nor do they distinguish who is a successful dance teacher or choreographer. They are people who set up a syllabus of exercises, sold it to studios to train their kids with, and then charge studios and parents alike to basically be judged on the work, kind of like a dance competition would. The idea works in theory, as it does in a lot of other sports, but there are more than 6 dance exam associations that I could name you off the top of my head with opposing dance ideals... so their goes that theory!

We are all entrepreneurs in the dance industry, which I have no problem with, but I don't like that we can't be honest about it. We cannot just hide behind titles or certificates if we really want to make a change in this industry and set some standards. It has to come from everyone, and unfortunately when were dealing with millions of entrepreneurs, it probably won't happen. Someone will always be selling what you won't, or be doing what you don't agree with, and thus someone will always be willing to pay them for that. I'm not saying it won't happen, but it's going to take something catastrophic to bring an industry so vastly large together when it comes to standards.

Now, I am not pro or against this young group of dancers making headlines, as maybe the dance industry has made me so desensitized when it comes to appropriateness. Much like in life, we all have a different set of standards that we live our lives by. What one parents might deem as too young to wear half tops on stage, is not a common consensus. What one dance studio is telling their parents will win a dance competition, might disgust another dance studio. But, that's also beauty about it all... you get to decide. Not the people producing So You Think You Can Dance, or America's Best Dance Crew, or not even the people responsible for all those music videos supposedly inspiring these types of dances. They are all allowed to put dancers on television in whatever costumes they want, and do whatever kind of sexy moves they want, but you don't have to! No one said that was the all aspiring highest achievement of dance you want your kids to mimic, or do we just assume it is since it's on tv?

I really do think it's great that the small world of dance competitions is getting such media attention, but I just wish it wasn't for this one controversial episode. A lot of people unfamiliar to the dance industry only know about it what they do see on television, and now we might have completely deterred any of them away from ever letting their kids take dance classes at a local studio. I'm not saying that I have all of the answers here, but because this industry is so open and seemingly accepting, I am able to write a blog pretending that I do!

What I do know for certain about this entire situation, is that this studio that has come under so much heat lately is probably laughing all the way to the bank from all this publicity... and I'm sitting at home with a glass of wine wondering why that 7 year old in my tap class still can't do buffalos after an entire year of classes. Guess I better return my 'can be a dance teacher' certificate!

Thursday, May 13, 2010


If I showed you this YouTube video of these young dancers, what would be your first reaction? "Single Ladies" - Jazz Group

I had seen this video posted on Facebook by a friend about a month ago and I was the first to comment in return that I wanted to be in this dance! As a dance teacher and choreographer I was in shock of the skill level of these 7 & 8 year old kids. I know a lot of my 'dance teacher friends' might disagree with me on this one... but that's the beauty of this topic!

This morning I read a tweet by Gayle King (who is better known as Oprah's BFF!) posting this article about the same group and asking if it was too much? I'm going to assume this is a topic of interest on Oprah Radio and it seems to be getting a lot of web attention from many sources. I can't say that I'm really shocked that people may find this dance offensive, but I'm surprised that this video is the one to really threw everyone over the edge about appropriateness at dance competitions. So, I figured if Gayle King was talking about this dance, than I should be too!

Over the years I have seen countless routines at dance competitions where 'age appropriateness' should be in question. As much as people might be disgusted by a young group of kids "gyrating" on stage, so they call it, I am equally offended by a 13 year old dancer performing a "rape" lyrical solo in a black bra and underwear. I think it's literally the same thing! Disagree with me all you want, but it's not my choice if this group of kids performs to "Single Ladies" in bra tops and knee highs and wins at a competition. My students don't have routines like this, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it for what it is!

As a dance studio owner I spend a lot of time worrying about what I think is 'appropriate' in terms of routines, costumes and music at my studio in general. But the same part of me is also applauding the choreographer of this routine, as I don't know how she got this group of young dancers to perform like that. Now, whether or not it would be acceptable to the parents at my studio is another story... but I can't worry about that! How parents at any other studio feel about this dance is really only relative to what you're doing as a studio owner. If your parents feel strongly about the in-appropriateness of this routine then you should feel satisfied as a studio owner knowing that your parents are happy with what you are doing with their children and leave it at that. I know for a fact that this isn't the first time this studio has been in some YouTube controversy over age-appropriateness of one of their dances, but the reality is that their students keep coming back, they keep improving, and they keep producing really great routines year after year. Are the teachers at this studio just pushing the envelope? Or are they trying to be shocking? Either way, everything about this dance was the choice of the teacher/studio, who are probably loving all this attention!

Now if you attend a dance competition where they don't have rules about age-appropriateness or enforce their rules about it than that's your perogative. However, I know as an adjudicator I would not necessarily put up a stink about disqualifying this group for shaking their hips, but that is just my opinion. I would say that this routine would be a welcome change at a competition to the multiple jazz solos to "Paper Moon" that probably preceded it. Aren't we all just trying to make our kids stand out at competitions so that the judges are entertained and remember them? Maybe they went a bit too far in trying to do that, but they did try. If you are a studio owner or teacher who is completely put off by this routine winning at a competition... find a new competition to go to!

I know that my group of Mini competitive dancers will not be doing a routine like this on stage next year, neither will my Intermediate students for that matter, but it doesn't mean I look down on anybody who does. I think Dance Precision is an amazing studio, producing very talented dancers and thus I have a lot of respect for the teachers and choreographers at their studio. Sure, these costumes are a bit revealing, but I see kids this age in costumes just like this at competitions every weekend. The only difference normally being that the kids are doing skips and hitchy-coo ball changes, which I guess in turn makes leather bra tops and shorts more appropriate!