Grades in Dance

Abby Leithart

Dancer: Abby Leithart
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

A student just tagged me in an article from dance magazine and I just read through it and found it very much worth the reading.  http://dancemagazine.com/inside-dm/magazine/why-grade-dance/  My student asked for my opinion about what I read.  It is funny for this article to come out at this time considering I’m in the process of reviewing and altering my syllabi for my college performance classes for the new year and am thinking about very similar things.

I like to think of a syllabus as a contract between my dancers and myself as the instructor.  I try to be very clear about my expectations as well as how I’m going to figure out their final grade.  Attendance is a huge part of it as is following the dress code, the etiquette, the artistry, concentration, interest in learning, having a good attitude and completion of the papers and tests.  What do I really look to on determining final grades though?  One answer and that’s improvement.

I really analyze the dancers during their first classes of a semester.  Where are they technically and artistically?  At the end of the semester, I look for progress.  Has the dancer fixed the corrections that I have given her?  Is his alignment better?  What about her muscle control?  Are her in-between steps cleaner?  Is he picking up combinations more quickly and accurately?  Does she have more stamina? Is he continuing to push himself and ask more and more of his body?

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Dancing with Joy and Inspiration

Dancer: Maggie Carey Photo by: Geek With a Lens

Dancer: Maggie Carey
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

I don’t know about everyone else, but lately it seems like I have been surrounded by negativity.  It’s coming from everywhere: parents, colleagues, students, and the world in general. One day a younger colleague and I were discussing this latest disturbing trend that seemed to be making its way into our classrooms at an alarming rate.  When I asked her where she felt it was coming from, her answer was social media.  She laughed and told me,

‘I guess before Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, we knew we had opinions, but we were certain no one cared about what they were.  Now, everyone has all these outlets and it makes them feel overly self-important, entitled and that everyone wants to know what they are thinking and feeling when really the opposite is true.  Negativity is like a cancer; it’s contagious and it grows and it steals their joy as well as those around them. I was very negative when I was a teenager and one day I woke up and realized, I was miserable and I was the one making myself that way.  I made a decision to change and I wish my students could learn from my experience.’

Pretty astute observation from such an inspiring young colleague.

Her answer really gave me a wakeup call that was long overdue.  It’s funny, but I guess I have gotten too used to this glass half empty mentality to the point where I have become anesthetized to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t let grumpy students have their way, quite the opposite, but I realized I had given up on trying to change their attitudes and just told myself this was now the new norm.  In this way, I’m failing my students. It doesn’t have to be this way and it shouldn’t be this way.  Something has to change and it starts with me. As a teacher, it’s my job to help them to break this cycle and focus on the positives and it starts now.  I’m turning over a new leaf and here are some of my thoughts of what I’m going to do to accomplish it.

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Understanding Understudying

Amy Holihan-061-Edit

Dancer : Amy Holihan
Photo by : Geek With a Lens

I remember the thrill of being asked to understudy Snowflakes in The Nutcracker at the age of twelve in the small, pre-professional company in which I grew up.   I also remember the terror of realizing that one doesn’t have to just know the steps, but the floor patterns as well.  The first time I went in, I almost took out three older dancers because I wasn’t sure of the paths to take.  Lesson learned.   I was also asked at thirteen to understudy the lead in one of our major ballets because the choreographer wanted a ‘little girl’ that the guest male dancer could practice lifts with easily.  I was on cloud nine being able to understudy such a role and under a dancer I really admired.  Three years later when we danced the ballet again, I got the opportunity to perform that lead role.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I remembered how technically difficult it had been for me just three years earlier and now how much fun I could have with developing the character instead of just worrying about the steps. It showed me how far I had come, not only in my technique, but as an artist.

As I got older, the definition and role of understudy didn’t change, but the connotation did.  Being told that I was an understudy as I aged suddenly stopped meaning, ‘I believe in you and so I’m going to give you this opportunity,’ but rather, ‘you’re good, but still not good enough.’  I remember the frustration that came with this change.  I know my teachers felt this and tried to bolster us with stories of how understudying is really just an opportunity in disguise.  I specifically remember two stories, one from Melinda Jones Howe about Tina LeBlanc, a former student of hers that ended her professional career as a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and still works there on staff, and Jeri Mcburney-Rodgers about Paul Gibson, an alumni of our school who ended his professional career as principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet and who is still working as their Ballet Master today.    The stories were basically the same.  As young dancers in professional companies, they would watch the rehearsals of the more advanced dancers in the company instead of going home early or taking a break.  When those advanced dancers got injured, the artistic director asked who knew their roles and felt sure they could perform them.  Both of them knew the roles even though they weren’t official understudies for them and it helped to launch their careers.  Because I knew these people and admired them, it helped and I stopped getting that hopeless feeling when I’d see a cast list posted with my name in the understudy column.   It also inspired me to ask to understudy roles that I wanted and to learn solos of every work I was in even if I wasn’t chosen as the official understudy.   

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When Your Child’s Abilities Don’t Meet Your Expectations

When Your Child’s Abilities Don’t Meet Your Expectations
(And What You Can Do About It)


Every year at about this time, I find myself having the same discussion with many parents.  Every time casting goes up, every time certain dancers get pointe shoes and others do not, every time level placements come out, I receive the same phone calls from distraught and disgruntled parents.  Their child is mortified and so disappointed.  All his or her friends got better roles, got moved up or got pointe shoes and now he or she is feeling left behind and left out.  Everyone has experienced disappointment and everyone has wanted something very much that they couldn’t yet achieve and it never gets any easier.  What I find after talking more than five minutes with some of these parents is that yes, their child is disappointed, but the parents themselves are sometimes even more so.

I find myself using a line from a dear friend of mine, Diane Cypher, who also owns a studio, ‘I am so sorry your child’s abilities don’t meet your expectations.’  The point being, it is important to celebrate your child’s strengths, but to also be aware of their weaknesses and be realistic with your expectations so your child can be realistic with his or hers.

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Lessons Learned From Injury


Dancer : Alexis Krueger
Photo by : Geek With a Lens

It always amazes me to say this, but I’ve been dancing and teaching for over 30 years now.  I teach 24 classes a week.  I teach 9 classes at the University, 4 classes at the Community College, once a week for the local professional modern company and 10 classes a week for the studio I co-own as well as help run the rehearsals and choreograph for our many productions; we just finished mounting our Nutcracker production.  Through all of it, I have never had a major injury.  That is, until about a month and a half ago.

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