Teaching Tips

Keep Drama to a Minimum With These Level Placement Strategies

Carla Camargo, courtesy Dance Institute of Washington

Of all the decisions teachers make, assigning students' class levels is one of the trickiest. Even when you feel sure about where a student should be, they (or their parents) may not agree. Determining when to advance your dancers—and knowing how to talk to them about it with transparency and accountability—is important for students' progress, but disappointments and bruised egos are hard to avoid. Here's how some experienced teachers navigate the key elements of level placement.


Placing Incoming Students

A placement class is typically the simplest way to assess an incoming student. The Dance Institute of Washington in Washington, DC, holds group auditions each June to evaluate prospective students and place them in the appropriate levels, says school manager Ashanté Green. When students apply midyear, Green talks with the parent before suggesting a trial class in a certain level, emphasizing that their child's placement could change. For the next week, "we observe them and I check in with the faculty to make sure we've placed them correctly. If we notice something is a little off, we have a conversation and maybe adjust their level," she says.

For most new students at The Lynch Dance Institute in San Diego, co-director Alexandra Dickson Lynch simply considers age and years of experience before making a placement decision. "We can get a good sense from where they've previously trained as to what their level might be, but we always have them do a placement class with their age group first," says Lynch. "After that, we make adjustments."

Green says it's OK to have a small range of abilities in a class: "As long as they're working extremely hard and grasping the information, we can have a couple of weaker students. What doesn't work is having a student so far behind they can't receive or apply corrections." Similarly, she might have a stronger student try a more advanced class for a couple of days to see if it's a better fit.

Alexandra Lynch coaches a teen student who is in first arabesque en pointe. Lynch holds her outstretched hand and smiles

Angela Sterling, courtesy LDI

Advancing Levels

Promotions can be a source of anxiety, disappointment or delight for both students and teachers. Transparency, accountability and communication are key for helping everyone understand and accept decisions about who gets moved up and when.

At DIW, students take a final ballet class exam each semester, during which they're assessed against a list of criteria, including technical, artistic and developmental elements, such as behavior. Upper-division students also perform a variation and a modern combination. "The exams really help us because we're able to look at each individual and see what they have achieved over the year," says Green. "If it looks like they might need to spend another year in that level, we have something tangible we can go back to and review."

Class-specific criteria and a structured process for advancement can help teachers maintain transparency—and handle pushback should complaints arise. North Alabama Dance Center doesn't hold official assessments, but artistic director Barbara Ellen Smartt still evaluates students individually. "I ask the teachers, beginning in March, to keep a list of anyone they feel is struggling or who needs to be pushed more," says Smartt. "With that information, "I go through each class and consider not only each student's technical prowess and if they're meeting the syllabus criteria, but also their learning style, if they have the potential to push more."

While most NADC students advance with their full class, a formal audition is required to enter the school's three highest levels. Smartt says parents and students recognize the time and effort she puts into the evaluation and audition processes, and her accountability for decisions has nearly eliminated conflicts.

A group of teenage girls leaps in a dance studio

Kathryn Korotky, courtesy NADC

Choose the Right Words

When a dancer doesn't move up with their peers, or when one classmate is plucked for early advancement, jealousies easily arise. Communicate early and be transparent, says Green, but also be diplomatic. "We're really honest, but we shift it into something more powerful," she says. "We tell them to watch those who are moving up—in a loving way—and to notice the 'why' instead of just being envious. Shifting into that type of coaching mindset really helps."

Smartt also chooses her words carefully when interacting with NADC students and their families. "We don't say 'held back,'" Smartt says. "We tell them that if they continue to work at their current level, we feel they'll be successful and end next year a leader in their class. When you frame it this way, it helps them see it as a positive thing."

Ensure that the discussion sets your students up for success. "I think most kids thrive on being pushed," says Lynch. "If you give them clear knowledge of what they need to do to advance and they're willing to put the energy in, they will take ownership and excel."

Teachers Trending
Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy. Photo courtesy Dance With Me

Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.

Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.

Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis

In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.

"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."

As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.