by Meg Gronau
The tutus. The tiaras. The ballet shoes. The adorable-o-meter goes off the charts in any preschool dance class, and many children – and their families! – are excited to sign up and start dancing.
Dance is a great choice for a child’s first class experience. Dance requires very little special equipment (typically just a pair of shoes, and even that is optional in some cases) and no prior experience or knowledge.
So, how do you know if your child is ready for his or her first dance class?
At Mayer Arts, we start “Dance With Me” class when a child is between 18 months and three years of age. Caregivers stay with their children in this class, singing songs, jumping, stretching, and dancing, taking very simple instruction and learning the general structure of a class.
A parent is a child’s first and best teacher, and toddlers aren’t usually quite ready to be separated from their parents for the length of a class. For one thing, toddlers are usually still toilet-learning. Separation anxiety is a normal part of this stage of development. Also, in “Dance With Me” class, while I encourage children to stay with the group and participate in the activities, the truth is that many toddlers would rather explore the space in their own way. With a parent nearby, this normal toddler business is not disruptive to class. And I’m often surprised by how much the kids are absorbing, even if they don’t seem to be actively joining in.
Now, how do you know if your child is ready for their first dance class without a parent in the room?
At Mayer Arts, our signature class is “Wish Upon a Ballet™,” which is listed to start at age 3, but that is just a guideline. There are some 2-year-olds who do just fine in a class without a parent, and there are some 4- and 5-year-olds who have a difficult time with it. What makes a child “ready” for dance class?
The answer is simpler than you may think: a child needs to be able to answer to his or her name, and follow directions. That’s it! Kids don’t need to be perfect direction-followers – that would be an unreasonable expectation for preschoolers – but in general, if you ask your child to do something, do they understand and comply? If so, they’re probably ready for a class without Mom or Dad in the room.
Remember, one of the reasons for dance class is to begin to prepare the children for school. Like I mentioned in my previous article, in dance class we work on listening, taking turns, speaking, sharing, teamwork, cooperation, following and leading. A three-year-old isn’t expected to be good at any of these things…yet.
One common misconception is that a shy or timid child isn’t ready for dance class. But many of these kids absolutely blossom, particularly when their caregivers help prepare them for class. If there is an open house before the session, attend it so your child can see the room where class will be and meet their teacher. Talk to your child about dance class; look up some children’s dance videos on YouTube. Seek out not only videos of polished performances, but ones taken during class, with the camera angle set low, from a child’s perspective.
On class day, a caregiver should confidently hug his or her child and promise to return after class is over. It is OK for a child to feel a little sad saying goodbye to Mom or Dad. Have confidence in the child’s ability to adapt. Sometimes it can be helpful to give a child some kind of idea about WHEN you will return. Since preschoolers can’t (generally) tell time, parents can say “I will be back right after you get your stamp/sticker at the end of class!”
Sometimes, children in class will “opt out” of participation. I have heard “I don’t feel like dancing today, Ms. Meg,” but frequently children cannot or do not verbalize their feelings, and choose to watch class instead. This is okay! It doesn’t necessarily mean the child isn’t ready for class, or even that they don’t enjoy class. Many times these kids will return the next week, and their parent will tell me that the child did nothing but dance all week long. Victory! Sometimes it takes children an entire 6-week (or longer) session to feel comfortable joining in during class. I encourage them to join, but I also allow them to have their space. As a parent, you can trust that they are learning and growing, even if they are simply watching.
Another question parents ask is, “Can I sit in class and watch?” and, as a parent myself, I totally understand the desire to remain in the room to watch. However, your presence changes your child’s behavior. It can also affect other children’s behavior, when – for better or worse – they see they have an audience. I am happy to let parents into the room to watch class the first day or two, if it makes their child (or them) feel more comfortable, but I do ask parents to please wait outside for the majority of the session. It allows class to flow more naturally (because, in truth, the teacher is also affected by an “audience”) and gives me and the students needed space to be creative. And most of my locations have a window or other area so parents can peek during class.
Five Ways to Make Sure Your Child Is Ready For Today’s Dance Class
Just a few smart choices can help your child get ready for today’s dance class. In Part 2, I mentioned some ideas for the days and weeks leading up to class.
1. The Basics: sleep and eat. Getting a good night’s sleep (and nap, if needed) and making sure the child has eaten well, also do wonders to improve a child’s experience in class. Compare a child’s dance class to an adult workout: hydrate well, eat healthful foods, and be well-rested, and you vastly improve your chances of feeling great and having a good experience!
2. Remember not to overdo it. Stacking a child’s activities, like signing up for gymnastics and dance on the same day, can lead to exhaustion and burnout, making it very difficult for a child to fully participate and enjoy their activities.
3. Make sure your child has the right equipment for class. If it is a tap-dancing class, the child will need tap shoes. Ditto for ballet. Hip hop, jazz, and musical theatre may have different requirements – check with your teacher. Some movement classes are best done in bare feet!
Dance shoes must fit well – ask your child’s teacher to check the fit of your child’s shoes, and consider whether your child will be wearing thin dance tights, thicker winter tights, thin or thick socks, or bare feet inside their shoes. Dancing – even in a class for very young children – requires greater articulation of the foot than everyday activities like walking and running. “Ballet slippers” that are really bedroom slippers can slide right off a kid’s foot and cause them to trip and fall. Too-big tap shoes can fly off kids’ feet. The way dance shoes are tied or fastened can make a difference. Ask your child’s teacher for recommendations or preferences.
4. Take your child to the bathroom before class. Please note that this is different from asking whether your child has to go to the bathroom before class. Make a trip to the bathroom part of your pre-dance-class ritual.
5. Please be on time for class. Young children are particularly sensitive to entering when class has already started. They will have missed something, and they know it. Set your child up for success by arriving at class on time (and don’t forget to hit the bathroom first!).
Now you have more information to help your child succeed! Sometimes you don’t really know if your child is ready for a dance class unless you try it out! Wish Upon a Ballet™ classes are perfect for a child that just wants to give it a try. The session are short so no long term commitment for beginners and we pack in so many fun and creative activities it is hard for children to get distracted! For more information about the Wish Upon a Ballet™ program visit www.mayerarts.com.