by Kathleen Hebblewaite
Dance classes have always seemed to be the pinnacle of a little girl’s existence. Traditionally, one envisions ten young girls in a row with their legs stretched gracefully on the bar. In many dance classes, however, kids are trading ballet shoes for sneakers. Attracting boys to dance remains a problem for many studios.
Monica Pauro, office manager at Jazz Unlimited in Marlton, NJ, has noticed a surge of interest in hip-hop during the last five years. She attributes this to dance styles kids see on television. “A lot of people come in and say ‘I was watching something on TV,’” Pauro says, “That’s where the interest started.”
Dolores Patrone, the owner and artistic director of Dee’s School of Dancing in Runnemede, NJ isn’t thrilled with the trend. “We do it, but it’s not my favorite type of dance,” she says, “but you gotta stay in business and offer kids what they want.”
Cathy Acerba, owner -director of Dance Xpress in Narberth, PA, is excited to see more students trying out hip-hop at her studio. “Hip-hop gets a bad rep,” she says. “There’s no wrong way to move.” Contrary to appearance, hip-hop is not spontaneous and has to be taught, says Acerba.“Hip-hop is its own form of an art.”
Modern dance has increased in popularity at Acerba’s studio, reflecting what she has seen at her dance classes in New York City. Acerba has not seen an increase in boy participants, though she’d like to. “It’s really frustrating because we had a boys’ hip-hop class with a guy teacher,” she says, “but there were only three kids.”
She blames the stigma of dance as a “girl thing.” She wants that to change. “Why can’t anybody dance?” she exclaims. “I wish the classes were full of boys!”
The Virtues of Ballet
Victor Wesley, the executive director of the Academy of the Dance in Wilmington, DE, has been a ballet dancer most of his life. “There is a preconceived thing that it’s feminine,” he admits. To counteract any potential discomfort, Wesley and Pauro offer boys’ classes.
Wesley stresses the importance of ballet to anyone, regardless of gender, who’s interested in dance for the long run. “It’s an art,” he says, “you don’t just give steps; you have to know the body.”
In his ballet classes Wesley quizzes students on the composers of musical pieces and in the process, teaches his students about the body when giving technical direction. One student in particular, he remembers, didn’t know where the sternum was. When the student guessed incorrectly, Wesley exclaimed, “I said sternum, not steering wheel!”
“Technique and control are a large part of ballet,” says Acerba, although she does not regard it as superior to other dance forms. Modern dance, she says, is especially difficult because it requires the dancer to learn the art of being off center, falling and recovering.
“It’s like you break the rules of ballet and make up new rules,” Acerba says. At first, modern feels very awkward, she says, but in the end it’s very expressive. “It feels so different to do modern, to be able to do something that’s so different but looks beautiful,” she explains.
For a more informal dance form, Connie Majka, co-owner of Aloha Style-Mainline Hula-Polynesian Dance in Narberth, PA, says hula offers a relaxed alternative to the rigors of classical dance. “We think every little girl wants to be a hula girl,” she says.
Wesley, on the other hand, scorns many young dancers for not taking dance as seriously as they should. “It’s become just a superfluous activity,” he says. Although he likes to use a sense of humor when teaching, he knows when the joking has to stop. Sometimes students might dislike his advice, he says, such as if he tells them they need to slim down.
Majka says hula counteracts the body type stigma often found in dance. “In a lot of forms of dance, if you don’t have long legs or the perfect body, you seem out of place,” she says. “There is no body type in hula.”
In fact, not having a stereotypical dancer physique helps in hula. “You don’t have to look like Paris Hilton to dance,” she says. Hula is relaxed about more than body shape. Unlike many dance studios, Majka stresses that her class involves no competition.
“There’s too much dance competition,” Patrone agrees. “All of these competition expenses for the parents and extra lessons are just another money maker.” Wesley says costumes are another extra expense in dance. “You have a whole closet of tacky old costumes you can’t even wear for Halloween,” he says.
Factors in Choosing a Studio
A primary decision when getting your child involved in dance is which studio to attend. “I’m not gonna look in the phone book,” says Acerba, who insists that the best way to find a great studio is by word of mouth.
When it comes to teachers, almost all of them have been students at Acerba’s studio themselves. “It’s important that they love teaching, are supportive, have a thorough knowledge of dance, clear communication skills, musicality and focus beyond technique to teach kids how to perform, not just the steps,” she says.
Patrone also chooses her students to become teachers, saying ex-professional dancers can be distracting. “Performers tend to just show off and don’t know how to break down,” she says.
Unlike Wesley, whose teachers have been professional dancers, Patrone’s teachers have known her since they learned dance and took a five-year dance course with her to learn how to teach dance themselves.
The teacher makes the class, according to Acerba. “You have to treat each child like he or she is the most important child,” she says, “I think it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make the child enjoy the class.”
Regardlesss of the style, dancing is good for kids. “It keeps them fit and it builds their confidence,” says Acerba. Many children, the instructors agree, grow to love dancing, often through adulthood. “It’s a wonderful life,” says Wesley.
Kathleen Hebblewaite is a MetroKids editorial assistant.