Growing up as a dancer, I never noticed a division between the recreational and competitive dancers within studios—two labels that I have grown to dislike. Instead, there were the dancers that competed and the dancers that chose not to compete; however, everyone received respectable training. Somewhere along the way, the paradigm made an obvious shift, and I am not sure that it was for the betterment of the studio environment or the overall reputation of the dance industry.
The first time I noticed the recreational/competitive dancer situation was around 2004-2005. I was in college and was teaching at varying studios. At some studios, I noticed a divisive line between recreational and competitive students. Recreational students were literally treated like second-class citizens (even the term “recreational”, as it is often used, is somewhat degrading and insinuative of “less than”). From class curriculum to performance opportunities to overall amount of attention given, it was obvious the students were not receiving an appropriate “bang for their buck”. The more I thought about the issue, the more ridiculous it seemed and the more it bothered me. If parents are paying for dance training and dance education, should it not be of equal caliber? Granted, some students may dance less or more, some students may take dance more seriously than others, and students that fully commit themselves may advance faster and will likely find themselves at an accelerated placement. But, if you choose not to compete, you should have the opportunity to advance and achieve the highest level of technical training alongside your competitive peers.
I think this divisiveness is one of the primary points of contention when discussing “competitive dance schools”. We all know that people hold very strong opinions about whether or not competition is the appropriate way to train a dancer. I think there are incredible benefits to having students compete; however, competing is a serious commitment, and if a family is not ready to make that commitment (financially, time-wise, or for a myriad of other reasons), then they should still be able to receive proficient dance training without being categorized as “just a recreational student”.
Think about it using these perspectives. If a student signs up to take swim lessons, the students are not separated into “competitive” swim lessons (learning strokes, practicing laps) or “recreational” swim lessons (splashing around in the water). Or, when students join the third grade, they are not split into the “competitive” and “recreational” students. Rather, when students sign up to swim, they are taught to swim, and when they attend school, they are taught different subjects. When students sign up for dance, they should be taught to dance. Granted, within any of these scenarios, students will likely be split into cohorts based on level, commitment, interest, etc., but to classify and categorize students prior to the initiation of their training seems unnecessary.
When I decided to open my own studio, I knew, wholeheartedly, that I wanted to be an “equal opportunity training center”. At my studio, the competition students take technique class with our non-competition students (based on age, level, and placement), and at year’s end, they all perform together. It is imperative to our culture to give every student that walks through our front door the opportunity to excel and to feel welcome. By implementing this philosophy, I have seen more passions ignited, interests sparked, and, overall, more appreciative students and parents.
At the end of the day, a student’s technical/performance prowess stems from a combination of great teaching, excellent listening, extensive practicing and polishing, and personal passion. I know that our studio is giving every child the chance to tap into his/her fullest potential. That’s what matters most to me, and I challenge other studios to re-evaluate their programming and strive to do the same. As teachers and studio owners, we have an incredible opportunity and commitment to inspire children, and we should strive to reach as many students in the most equally inclusive way possible. After all, it will only improve, your studio, your brand, and the overall reputation and perception of the dance industry. Plus, you have the chance to positively influence the artists of the future. What could be much better than that?