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.
Case in point, a few months ago, my school performed its annual recital. We are not one of those schools that spend an entire year on our recital dance. We prefer instead to focus on barre work, technique, muscle development and proper vocabulary. That being said, all dances were finished in a timely manner utilizing the last few minutes of each class and the students were encouraged to practice at home and were given tools to do so.
Dress rehearsal at the theater is always a stressful thing, especially for the younger dancers with little or no performance experience. There are costumes, lights, the stage, an audience…it’s very overwhelming. Well, one of my beginning ballet classes had a complete melt down and forgot most of their dance, which is not an uncommon occurrence. I automatically put it on the schedule to be run the next day several times before the performance so the students would be more comfortable.
A few minutes later, one of my colleagues came running backstage to tell me that there had been an irate parent screaming in the lobby that she wasn’t sure what she paid for all year when her daughter couldn’t even remember a dance, let alone look graceful doing it. My colleague told me that she had tried to calm the mother down and tell her that this was common which is why we have dress rehearsal, that we would work on it before the show the next day and they were, after all, only six years old. It floored me that a mother truly thought that her six year old, with only a one hour class per week, was going to turn into Anna Pavlova and do her dance perfectly the first time she was ever on stage. Can you imagine how this child felt when she heard what her mother said?
The sad thing is that her daughter is very talented. She knows how to engage her stomach muscles and align her spine, knows the English definition of all her French ballet terms, knows her knees and toes are supposed to point sideways and her feet are supposed to point every time they leave floor even if she cannot physically do those things consistently yet. These are all amazing things at six and way more important to her success in the world of ballet than a beginning recital dance.
When I have a mother or father come in concerned about casting or the level in which their child is placed, I go through my explanation to them that our school only has so many levels which means they will inevitably spend several years in several different levels, that everyone has their own skill set and that everyone develops at their own rate. They ask me why their child’s friend got moved up and their child didn’t. With questions like this which usually happen right in front of the dancer, you watch the child’s self-esteem and joy of dance diminish as if they did something wrong.
The truth is that if your child has flat feet or if they naturally sickle or he or she has limited rotation from the hip socket, he or she has physical issues to overcome that other children may not. Sometimes certain children take a lot longer to develop large motor skills, musicality, coordination, or have problems picking up and retaining choreography and corrections when compared to their peers. Does this mean they won’t overcome these things and maybe even eventually surpass their counterparts? Absolutely not. It can be a matter of hard work and practice, sure, but it can also be the fact that their brain or body just hasn’t developed in those areas yet. Sadly, sometimes it never will no matter what they do or how hard they work at it, but it doesn’t mean the child still can’t love dancing.
I have found most young dancers know where they are in the scheme of things even if their parent might not. This can make the young dancer take their parent’s disappointment very personally and can lead to feelings of inadequacy which ultimately stunts their improvement. I was in the room one day when a child timidly came up to another teacher and told the teacher that her mother thought it was time for her to move up a level. The teacher kindly asked the little girl who was about ten, ‘Do you think you’re the best in the class?’ The child looked at the floor and relied ‘No.’ The teacher then asked the child who she thought the best in class was. The child replied, ‘Susie.’ The teacher smiled and said, ‘That’s right.’ She then asked the child, ‘Where do you think you are in the class?’ The child answered, ‘I’m probably third best.’ The teacher smiled and answered, ‘That’s right again! You are so smart to know that. You have been working very hard and I love that, but you still have some work to do, don’t you? Right now, those other girls are in line ahead of you to get moved up, but that doesn’t mean that can’t change. You know the corrections you’re given in class, keep working on those things.’ Was this a bit harsh? Maybe, but the parent ultimately put their child and the teacher in this situation.
Someone has to be at the top of the class and someone has to be at the bottom, that’s the cold reality. Furthermore, your child might not feel comfortable explaining to you that she’s not the best in the class. What if she’s working as hard as she can, she loves to dance, but the other kids are simply better than her at this time? Perhaps it’s not the teacher’s actions and words that are stealing your child’s joy for dance and crushing her spirit? Just some food for thought.
The truth of the matter is very simple. If I, as a teacher don’t give a dancer a role, it is because others are more capable of doing it at this time. Would it be a kindness to give a dancer a role at which I know they cannot possibly succeed just because they want it? Of course not! If I withhold pointe shoes, it is for safety reasons only. It is an honor for me as a teacher to tell a child that they are ready to take that next step in their training, but it is also a great responsibility and I take it very seriously, as should every teacher. If I do not move your child up a level, it is because other dancers are ahead of her technically and/or there are things that need to be accomplished that haven’t yet, period.
All parents want to have the next Misty Copeland or Mikhail Baryshnikov, but the truth is very few young dancers will make an impact on the dance world at large. Remember, your child is still learning many things that will help them through life even if dance is only ever an extracurricular and they are physically unable or disinclined to pursue it professionally. However, there are some proactive things you as a parent can do to up your child’s success rate:
Have your dancer take as many classes a week as possible as long as your child isn’t overwhelmed or uninterested.
Have them pursue summer study, preferably away from their home studio when they get older.
Encourage them to try classes in different genres of dance to help develop skills that are lacking. For instance, tap is great for developing musicality, jazz and modern are great if your child lacks physical strength or attack, and ballet is best for developing overall technique.
Ask the teacher for exercises to address your child’s physical weaknesses and do them with them a few times a week.
Encourage your child to practice things that are challenging for them at home including their choreography.
Buy your child a notebook where they can write down choreography and corrections for later review.
Cross train with Pilates, yoga and swimming if they lack core strength, flexibility or stamina prospectively.
Do not expect your child to get Sugar Plum just because she’s a senior. Do not expect that your son will always be the best in class just because he is right now. Do not expect that if she had a solo last year, she will automatically get one this year. Do not expect him to be in the same level with friends his age. Do not expect all twelve year old girls will automatically get pointe shoes.
Think before you react to a situation in a negative way and, as difficult as it may seem, try to find the positives in a disappointing situation. Many times, your child will follow your lead. Praise your child’s accomplishments, but also try and see your child objectively so you can realistically manage your child’s expectations as well as your own.