Kim DelGross coaching her daughter (photo by Naomi Masina)
Is the person leading technique class also—gulp—your mother? Here’s the good news: Having a parent as a dance teacher comes with many advantages. “From a young age, I had a built-in manager who knew the ins and outs of the business,” says tapper Donovan Helma, who grew up dancing with his mom in Denver before performing in Tap Dogs on and off for 10 years. However, finding a balance between “home mom” and “dance mom” is difficult, and you might feel singled out by classmates for being the teacher’s child(/pet). Here’s how to deal with the difficult issues that can arise when your parent’s also your instructor.
Establish Respect in the Studio
Developing a healthy teacher–student relationship with your mom is crucial to maintaining a supportive studio environment. Start by agreeing that the rules of the classroom apply to all students—you included. “My mom worked hard to treat me just like the other kids,” Helma explains. “If I missed a certain number of ballet classes, I was kicked out of the company. If I goofed off, I was punished the same way the other kids were.” Sometimes your mom might actually be tougher on you to prove she’s not playing favorites, which can feel demoralizing. “It’ll be common to have miscommunications between you and your mom about how you want to operate in the classroom,” says Dr. Kate Hays, a sports and performance psychologist. Keep the lines of communication open, so that you can tell your mom when you feel uncomfortable—and she can tell you when you’re truly out of line. Hays even suggests developing subtle, nonverbal signals (a head nod for “nice work,” a finger by the ear for “pay attention”) that’ll allow you to check in with each other during class.
Plan Conversations Outside the Studio
Are things getting really frustrating in the studio? Don’t try to hash out larger problems immediately after class, when emotions are high. Instead, set aside time to talk to your mom at home. In fact, scheduling regular meetings to discuss your technique, your goals and your feelings about dance is a great way to keep your relationship on track. “On our drives home from the studio, my mom and I often discussed corrections or compliments I’d received in class,” says Elisabeth Champion, a principal at Central West Ballet who studied at her mom’s studio in Kentucky. “She’d always lead with ‘I’m saying this from a teacher’s perspective,’ so I’d understand she wasn’t being Mom in that moment.”
As you get older, you may decide that you want to branch out and study with a different instructor, or start to feel less enthusiastic about dance—subjects that can be difficult to
Elisabeth Champion with her mom—and former dance teacher (photo by Adelina Milano/Milano Photography, courtesy Milano)
broach with your teacher mom. “It’s common to feel like you’re not your own person when your parents’ feelings are at stake,” Hays says. She recommends preparing for fraught conversations by creating pro-and-con lists or specific written notes, to show that you’ve put thought and care into your decisions. Sometimes it’ll be your mom who initiates those difficult conversations. Be open to what she has to say. When Champion was 12, for example, her mother suggested that she audition for the Cincinnati Ballet’s Otto M. Budig Academy. “I was pretty nervous to go to a different school because I had only ever had my mom,” Champion says. But the discomfort was worth it. “To have another teacher offer me corrections and give me praise was eye-opening,” Champion says. “Ultimately my mom gave me the freedom to decide whether or not I wanted to attend. It was an important step on my career path.”
Cultivate Mom-Free Friendships
Making friends at your parent’s studio can be difficult, especially if your classmates feel like you’re being favored. “Sometimes, the other students would be bitter when I’d get a role, or they’d gripe at me about casting,” Helma says. The key here is a change of scenery: Let the other dancers get to know you outside the studio (and outside your home), where your mom isn’t part of the picture. Choose another activity—bowling, going to the movies, shopping—that gives you a chance to hang out without the pressure of having mom there.
And if you’re not getting along with the other students, you can always—counterintuitive as it may seem—bring up the subject with Mom. “This is one of the advantages of having a mother who is a dancer: Odds are good she’s been in similar circumstances,” Hays says. “She might have really helpful advice.”
It’s summer-intensive audition season, and you’re ready to go. You’ve got your head shots, your dance shots and your resumé prepped and polished. You’re in the best physical shape of your life—you’ve been nailing your turns, and your leaps have never been higher. You’re cool, confident and totally collected.
But once you get to the audition room, odds are you’ll be surrounded by fellow summer-study hopefuls who are, frankly, a little obnoxious—and even downright distracting. Here’s who to look out for and how to maintain your A-game.
1. The girl fighting for the front-and-center spot:
How to spot her: She’s got her elbows out, and she’s gunning for the prime location in the room.
Why she can knock you off your game: You fear all eyes will be on her throughout the audition, since she’s taking up all the “good space.”
How not to let her get under your skin: Maybe she’s taking up quality real estate, but the teachers and judges know to observe the entire room and check out every dancer. Be sure to stay far away from this one—otherwise you risk getting an elbow to your gut during petit allégro. “Stake out a spot in the front, but to the side,” suggests Broadway veteran Amanda LaVergne. “You get the perks of being in the front row with coveted mirror space, but you’ll have more wiggle room.”
2. The intimidation stretcher:
How to spot her: Before the audition even starts, she’s practicing her latest contortion tricks with that oh-so-casual look that says, “Yup, I do this before every class.”
Why she can knock you off your game: She’s flexible, and she’s giving herself one heck of a warm-up—making you question your own bendiness and whether you’ve prepped your body enough for what’s ahead.
How not to let her get under your skin: No one is going to get admitted to a summer intensive based on flexibility alone. “Everyone has strengths,” LaVergne says. “You don’t know what the girl with the elastic legs can do besides stretch, so refocus on yourself. Are you a fierce turner? Can you leap over the width of Broadway? Let them see what you’re working with.”
3. The girl in the know:
How to spot her: The teachers greet her by her first name, and she constantly name-drops during casual conversations with fellow auditionees.
Why she can knock you off your game: The important people already know her! Obviously being besties with the faculty gives her a leg up on the competition.
How not to let her get under your skin: You know what’s even more fun than showing off for someone you already know? Showing off for someone you’ve never met—and blowing them away. Go do that. And remember that all relationships have a starting point, so make this yours: “Say hello, lay the groundwork and leave a lasting impression,” LaVergne advises.
4. The one with the dance mom:
How to spot her: Just listen. You’ll hear them.
Why she can knock you off your game: You came alone and this girl has a built-in, if overbearing, support system. Her mom is giving her all kinds of direction, but you’re flying solo, suddenly feeling lonely and insecure.
How not to let her get under your skin: Her mom can’t audition for her. If anything, having an overly pushy dance mom will probably hurt an auditionee. The people running the intensive don’t want to have to deal with mom all summer! Plus, showing up solo demonstrates maturity and responsibility. “Put in your headphones and breathe deeply,” LaVergne says. “You don’t need an entourage to shine.”
5. The screwer-upper:
How to spot her: You can’t not spot her—she’s the one who’s constantly off the beat or making mistakes.
Why she can knock you off your game: You’re trying to do everything correctly, and she’s distracting you. Plus, she’s making you question your own timing and ability to pick up the choreography.
How not to let her get under your skin: It’s all about mental focus. “It’s your audition,” LaVergne says. “Move around the room, find a new spot and regroup. Have a mantra to pull yourself out of the funk this girl may have put you in. My favorite is ‘I’m worth it.’ ” Concentrate on the moves you’re doing, keep counting in your head and try not to get thrown off by your peripheral vision or what you’re seeing in the mirror.
6. The over-emoter:
How to spot her: She’s breathing and sighing loudly and hamming it up big-time for her
audience. Her every movement comes with a full-bodied exhale and a general outpouring of her soul.
Why she can knock you off your game: You remember teachers telling you to “use your breath” and emote, and this girl’s over-the-top take makes you question whether you’re doing enough. Plus, the heavy sighing can get in the way when you’re trying to listen to the music.
How not to let her get under your skin: Excessive emotion is often used as a cover-up for bad dancing, and teachers and judges know that. Don’t feel pressured to amp up your performance to match this girl’s. Stick with what feels good to you, and remember that being yourself—being natural!—is much more important.