There has been some talk in the “Teachers’ Groups” again about students being moved up a level before they are ready. I have written about class levels in a previous post (https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2016/12/06/class-levels/) but I recently heard about a colleague’s experience that is making me look at the situation from a very different point of view.
This colleague owns a beautifully run recreational dance studio. The school provides three levels of ballet, and they are structured as follows:
Ballet I – ages 7, 8, 9
Ballet II – ages 10,11,12
Ballet III – ages 13, 14, 15
These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Exceptions are often made (in both directions) for children who advance very rapidly, for children who start late or for many other reasons. But it is typically expected that a child will stay in each level for three years.
I would now like to relate to you what happened this year, at this beautiful studio, when a student was moved up to the next level before she was ready. Every word of this story is true.
This student (we can call her Laura) begin studying ballet at the studio in September 2015. She was almost 8 years old, had no previous ballet experience, and was placed in Ballet 1, where she belonged. Laura was in no way a remarkable talent, and most definitely had behavior issues. But she came to class, did the best that she could, learned a little bit of technique, learned some choreography and performed in the year-end recital. This past September (September 2016), Laura returned to the studio to continue studying ballet. She was again placed in Ballet 1, where she belonged. After the first class of the season, the studio owner received a phone call. Laura’s mother would like her to be moved up to Ballet 2. It was explained to the mom that Laura was in no way ready to be moved up. The studio owner explained that if a student trains in a class that is too advanced for them, what ends up happening is the student learns next to nothing. The student will learn steps; not how to dance. It was explained that building a dance technique requires rigorous training in a methodical way. One has to build the foundation in order for the house to stand. Laura’s mom responded as so many moms in the past have in this situation: “I know my child, and I know that my child will thrive when she is challenged. Besides, she is very mature for her age and she always does better with older children. If you aren’t going to move her up I am going to have to rethink idea of her taking ballet classes.”
In previous years the studio owner would have allowed this mom to walk out of the studio… But this has been a difficult year and she was in a situation where every student counted. So against her better judgment she agreed to move her up.
One week later She receives a call from “Susan’s” mom. Susan’s mom said that if Laura has been moved up to Ballet 2 she wants Susan to be moved up as well.” Like Laura, Susan has only completed One year of ballet. With Susan and Laura being moved up to the second level, there were only two students left in Level 1 who were not seven-year-old absolute beginners. So the studio owner decided to move them up as well. She also decided to not lower the level of the work presented in Ballet 2, simply because these four dancers were moved up.
And here is how it all played out: This very fine teacher is now attempting to teach a class that ranges in age from 8 years old to 12 years old. She has dancers who are in their second year of training, and dancers who are in their sixth year of training. This is a class that is impossible to teach effectively. Now some of the older students started dropping out. They didn’t want to take class with students who were four years younger than they were, and felt that these younger students were holding them back. Each time a student left, an enormous amount of time was spent reconfiguring choreographic formations to accommodate the fewer number of students. Countless hours of classroom time was lost to re-setting recital choreography. And now as she approaches the recital, she has a group of dancers with a wide range of ages, who have learned very little this year, and are about to perform in a recital for which they are not ready, a piece of choreography that simply looks like a mess.
As an experienced teacher she knew it was a mistake to move Laura up to the next level. What she never could have imagined was the impact it would have on the so many other children in the class, causing several others to drop out, and pretty much ruining the educational experience of the dancers that remained. A lesson was learned here. A really big lesson…and it wasn’t the students who did the learning this time.
I receive emails regularly from studio owners asking about how to deal with this very situation. None of us are perfect; we all make mistakes. Laura’s mother’s insistence that her daughter was special, and needed to be moved up, lead a wonderful teacher to make this mistake; a mistake that impacted many many children.
I received a phone call from a student’s father a few days ago, asking if his daughter would be moved up to the next level next year. Without missing a beat I said “NO”.