Saturday, July 21, 2012

Guidance for the Young Dancer 1

This post comes with thanks to a commenter/follower's question about how to develop dancers from a young age. Please keep in mind that I am a college student with 2 months of teaching experience for 9-10 year olds and 2 years of teacher's assisting for 5-7 year olds, and have no children of my own. I only hope to help as much as I can.

Dancers start at all ages. Those crazy awesome kids you see on Dance Moms start the minute they can walk, or even before. My favorite contemporary teacher started in college (and ended up majoring in it too). I started at age 5, but didn't start taking more than 1-2 hours a week until age 15 (and am now majoring in it in college). SYTYCD and internationally famous choreographer Sonya Tayeh (lover her.) started seriously dancing at age 17. It is literally never too late or too early to start. But I'm getting off topic.

Many young girls (and some young boys!) start dancing at a young age, most of them as an after school activity, to meet friends, or just for fun. Some start (like on Dance Moms) training for their Broadway career at age 3, which is okay too. There's many different approaches, but most of them start with a ballet or tap class at a studio.

Let me say this first: I believe that, no matter what style you (or your child) intend(s) to pursue in the future, ballet is a must. Don't believe me? Olivia "Chachi" Gonzales of I.aM.mE crew is ballet/modern/jazz/lyrical trained. My college jazz teacher told me to take another ballet class because my technique and strength was a little weak. Surprised? Don't be. Ballet is the basis of all movement just as the alphabet is the basis of the English language. Professional football players take ballet. Martial artists take ballet. All dancers need it for the strength, discipline, and body alignment that ballet delivers.

This is my opinion on the ages which young dancers should start each style of dance (not including folk dances, ballroom, classical country-specific dances, and other specialty types. Please note that the styles indicated with an * should be continued past the age I have indicated to ensure a well-rounded foundation for college and/or professional careers. These are the bare minimum!):
  1. ballet*: ages 3-9
  2. tap: ages 3 and up (I've never taken a tap class in my life though. Oops.)
  3. jazz*: ages 8-12
  4. modern*: ages 9-15 (please do not confuse Modern with Contemporary. By Modern, I am referring to written techniques, like Graham, Horton, and Limon. Many studios do not offer such styles.)
  5. lyrical and contemporary: ages 10 and up
  6. hip hop and street styles: ages 10 and up
  7. pointe: ages 10-15 (also depends on when the teacher feels the student is ready, whether or not the child's feet are strong enough to handle the training, and the number of years and level of ballet training achieved. Never start pointe on your own.) 
The above ages are loosely based off the way the studio I attend works. I have ballet and tap listed at young ages because ballet training will instill discipline, focus, and begin to introduce concepts such as balance and poise, while tap is both fun for children and easier to pick up. Jazz and modern I introduced a little later because of the maturity level required. I am completely aware that there are 5-6 year olds that are better jazz dancers than I, but I believe that a strong basis in ballet should be established before attempting the wilder, sexualized, demanding form of jazz. Modern techniques were something I never had the chance to study, and I have wished that I did have that chance. Modern is placed a little later as well because it presents a mentally abstract challenge that younger children may not be patient or developed enough to understand, yet it should be introduced at a young enough age that the dancer becomes accustomed to the methods of cognitively processing movement. Lyrical and contemporary are styles that give more freedom of expression and thought. For that reason, I feel that the more structured styles like ballet, modern, and jazz should be introduced first, so that the dancer learns the abilities and limitations of his/her body before taking on styles that seem to have no limitations. Hip hop and street dancing are other categories I never really indulged in, but should also be started later due to maturity levels, body development, and the music that is used. Pointe is completely up to a teacher to decide when a student is ready to advance. Starting pointe too early can cause structural and growth damage to the feet and ankles, and may also result in worse injuries if the dancer's feet are not strong enough.

All in all, there are many approaches. Serious competition studios train young dancers that are more technically accomplished than I am at college age. Other studios, such as the studio I attend, are "family" studios that train for fun. Still others prepare dancers for professional careers without beating down on the children and depriving them of childhood. Look for a studio that fits your needs, but remember that when dance starts becoming work and suffering instead of fun and freedom, it may be time to lighten up or find a different passion.


  1. Just saw this after replying back to your previous reply, lol! Thanks so much for writing this post and for your guidelines and advice offered here. I am relieved to hear of the dancers/choreographers you mentioned who started at a later age. It makes me feel better about not being able to financially support competition dance at the age of 9 to the tune of $10,000-$12,000 a year. As a mom without a dance background it becomes very confusing in navigating the way for my daughter to pursue her dance dreams. When money tightened up I knew if all else fails I must keep her ballet up...but it's good to hear recommendations for the "hierarchical importance" of other forms of dance. I have one more question after reading it possible to have a dance career without ever going on pointe? My daughter may one day want to, and I wouldn't deter her if she did, but as a mom I worry about the structural changes it causes to the feet and the pain she'd experience later in life and just would like to know if it is a necessity in the dance world.

    1. No worries! I plan on writing a second part to this post to elaborate more. Dance is an extremely expensive and time-consuming dream - you don't get any training in normal school (not professional-quality anyway), lessons can cost quite a bit (around $15 per class and more for teams I think!), and lessons are all after school, which takes away from both social and study time. There isn't much payback either, professional dancers are known to hold an average of 4 other jobs to support themselves.

      I'm not only the first dancer in my family, but the first artist as well. Both my parents are engineers, and most of the rest of my family is in some kind of science or math-related industry. I've seen how it can be confusing, and it's hard for parents who are completely new to the sport to guide their children.

      Of course it's possible to have a career without being en pointe! In fact, I'd say that most dancers never use their pointe experience, even if they have been trained. Only professional ballerinas and some other contemporary ballet companies use the skill. If she is already inclined towards lyrical dance, she can have a perfectly sound career without ever having to perform on pointe. Of course, no skill is ever wasted - it could help her at some auditions or help her to get into performing arts middle/high schools and certain colleges if she chooses to do so. My mom was worried about pain and damage as well, for good reason (I weakened and caused the dislocation of a small bone in my foot from pointe). However, I personally feel that my training was worth it, even if I am still not that skilled en pointe. That would be a milestone for her (hopefully) much later in her career that she can discuss both with you and her teachers. Hope this helps!