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.”
Would you rather have an over-involved parent like the ones on “Dance Moms,” or a parent who doesn’t acknowledge your love for dance? Finding a happy medium can be tough for both parties, but it’s possible. (Photos by Scott Gries)
Fourteen-year-old Lauren* dreams of dancing professionally and opening her own studio. Unfortunately, Lauren’s dad sees her future differently: “My father supports my dancing as a hobby, but not as a career,” says Lauren, who has been dancing for 10 years and studies ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, modern, contemporary and hip hop. “He’d like me to have a job where I won’t have to worry about how much money is in the bank. Even going to college for dance is completely out of the question for him. I’ve told him dance is the only thing I can picture myself pursuing, but he just doesn’t understand.”
Lauren’s certainly not alone. Maybe your parents don’t see dance as anything more than a hobby. Maybe they’d rather you studied to be a doctor or a lawyer, or maybe they just aren’t interested in the arts.
“Studies show there are repercussions when people in the arts don’t have parental support,” says Dr. Linda Hamilton, a psychologist who works with dancers. “Mainly, there’s a lot of self-doubt. If parents show no interest, they’re basically saying what you care about isn’t important.” That disinterest can feel devastating, but it doesn’t have to end your dance dreams. You can take steps to change your parents’ minds while building a network of people who will provide the encouragement you need.
Accentuate the Positives
You love dance—but sheer enjoyment isn’t the only perk. Emphasize to doubting parents how dance teaches you skills that you can take into any career. “Dance training can improve focus and concentration,” Hamilton says. “You’re developing a good work ethic and an openness to feedback. Dancers are people who want to be their best, and thus dance is a good training ground for any future profession. Plus, it’s healthy!”
Despite these benefits, many parents worry that dance will interfere with academics—which means that even if school isn’t your favorite thing, you need to show your parents you can keep your grades up. “The more you can do well in school and be focused, the more your parents can see the discipline and character you get from participating in the arts,” says L.A.-based dance teacher Kim Hale.
If you’re serious about dancing after high school, discuss with your parents the option of getting a college degree—either with a dance focus or in an academic discipline—while dancing. If your parents see that dancing doesn’t mean being unprepared for the “real world,” they might be more likely to support you now.
Chloe and her mom, Christi, spend time together backstage at a competition on “Dance Moms.” It’s OK if your parents can’t be at each of your performances, but it’s important that they support your passion—without being overbearing.
Educate Your Parents
Your parents might act unsupportive of your dancing simply because they don’t “get” dance. The first thing to consider in this case is that your mom or dad might not even realize that this disinterest hurts you. If you haven’t already, gently remind them how much it means to you to have them attend your performances and competitions. Then, spend some time educating them about what they’ll see.
“There’s so much dance in pop culture now,” Hale says, “and you can show them examples of that and talk about how it relates to what you do.” Find videos of dancers and companies that inspire you and share them with your parents. A little knowledge might be the key to taking them from disinterested to intrigued.
You might also have to show your parents the variety of dance education options and careers out there. “Parents don’t always see dance as something that can take you places,” Hale explains. To prove otherwise, research dance companies and jobs and present them to your parents, stressing the array of opportunities—from travel to grad school to community service—that dance can bring.
Find Support Elsewhere
Unfortunately, some parents won’t change their minds about dance no matter how persuasive your arguments. Hale encountered this challenge in her own life—her parents removed her from dance classes in 8th grade, just as she was becoming serious about her training. “I’d never gotten a lot of support from them,” she says. “But when I started having some problems in school, they took away dance as punishment.” One of Hale’s teachers stepped in, saying Hale was talented enough to be training at a more serious school, but Hale’s mother was adamant: No more dance.
After high school, Hale reentered the dance world—entirely on her own. “I had to fight my way back,” she says. “I applied for scholarship programs and cleaned toilets to get free classes. It was hard, but I knew that dance was what I was supposed to do.” And even though her parents never came around to supporting dance, Hale wasn’t alone: “I found my way to teachers who could encourage me,” she says. “If you’re in that situation, ask for guidance.” Now, as a faculty member at Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, EDGE Performing Arts Center and others, Hale strives to be a voice of encouragement in her students’ lives.
Hamilton agrees that having someone to support your artistic life is vital. “You need emotional backup from different areas if your parents aren’t providing it,” she says. “Surround yourself with people—adults and friends—who validate your love for dance.”
Every parent/child relationship is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach
to dealing with an unsupportive parent. Approach the situation with respect for your parents’ point of view. Most likely, they only want the best for you and just don’t understand when dance is what’s best.
“It’s hard to decide whether I should do what will make my father happy, or what will make me happy,” Lauren says. “But dance is how I express myself, and I can’t imagine not doing it. Dance has been and will always be my passion.”
If you’re like any of us, you’ve probably had a blowout with your mom in the dressing room over a ripped costume, or you’ve yelled at your dad for arriving late to a competition and missing your solo. Your teen years are tough enough—the last thing you need is a pesky parent to add to the stress. “My mom always complains about having to help at competitions and about the other studio moms,” says Bri, 13, from Sayreville, NJ. “My parents make remarks about extra classes and summer intensives. They don’t like paying for them or taking me there.” Whether your parents are totally overbearing or just don’t care about your dance career, we’ve got some feud-free solutions.
“I don’t care how tired you are, get onstage. Do you really want to blow this? This trophy is important to us…er…you.” —The Pushy Parent
The problem: You adore dancing but worry that your parents love it (and the medals) more. Remember Maureen’s overbearing mother in Center Stage? She was constantly harassing her daughter about why her leaps weren’t high enough and telling her who she should be partnered with. Maureen finally grew so exhausted from the pressure that she developed an eating disorder and quit dancing.
How to deal: Talk to—don’t yell at—your parents. “Tell your mom and dad, ‘I appreciate your involvement. You obviously care a lot about this, but I’m getting to the age where I need to figure this stuff out by myself. You have to trust me now,’” advises sports and dance psychologist Dr. Harlene Goldschmidt, PhD. Thank your parents for their support, but ask them gently to back off.
“I can’t believe Cindy’s kid got the lead; did you see how awful she looks? Those pirouettes are pathetic! And I heard Debbie’s daughter gained 12 pounds over the summer!” —The Gossiper
The problem: Your mom (or dad) drops you off at the studio for class but instead of leaving, she sticks around—to gossip. So while you’re sweating your way through across-the-floor combinations, she’s giving other studio moms the rundown on who doesn’t look so hot and who isn’t solo-worthy. Not only is she running her mouth about trivial matters that don’t affect either of you, it’s embarrassing and makes you look bad.
How to deal: Your mom’s gossiping is distracting you from perfecting your port de bras, so let her know that her presence is taking your focus away from your dancing. “Say that you need space to work,” Dr. Goldschmidt explains, “and that her presence and her gossiping are complicating things for you.”
“Good luck at your competition this weekend, sweetie. Can you get a ride with Chelsea’s dad? I’m busy.” —The Uninvolved Parent
The problem: Your parents have no problem shelling out dough for classes and costumes, but when it comes to showing up for recitals and competitions, their attendance is subpar. Maybe mom and dad are working overtime to pay for additional ballet classes, or you’ve got siblings who need attention as well. Alternately, your parents may show up for the events, but sit in the audience reading the newspaper or talking on their cell phones.
How to deal: There are lots of reasons why your parents may not be 100 percent behind you, so think of some possibilities before approaching them. Are they going through a divorce? Is there a new baby in the family? Do they understand just how meaningful dance is to you? And on a purely logistical level, are you telling them when your performances are, or do you just assume they know?
First, let your parents know how much you appreciate what they are doing for you. Dr. Goldschmidt advises pinpointing a special upcoming event and telling them how important it is to you that they come. “Say, ‘I know you can’t make it to every recital, but this date (write it down!) is when all the parents come and bring flowers. I know you’re stressed, but it would mean the world to me if you came.’” The reality is that sometimes parents just don’t get it. “Explain how important dancing is to you,” Dr. Goldschmidt says. “Instead of talking down to them, educate them.”
“You want to take how many classes this year? And try out for the competition team? No way.” —The Unsupportive Parent
The problem: Whether your parents don’t want to pay for classes or don’t support your dance dreams in general, not having them cheer you on can be a huge blow. Your mom and dad might be against your desire to dance, but it’s also possible that the problem is deeper—they may not have the financial resources to support such an expensive dream ($130 for a costume is a lot!) or may be working multiple jobs, which doesn’t leave them much free time to attend recitals.
How to deal: Don’t yell or give your parents the silent treatment. Instead, put your feelings into words. Explain why you want to try out and how it would better your life if you made the team. You also have to be willing to compromise with mom and dad (groan, we know). If your parents are sick of driving you to class and worry that with additional activities it’ll mean more driving (and more gas!) for them, strike up a deal—if they drive you to class, you’ll get a ride home with a friend. Talk to your studio owner about becoming a teacher’s assistant in exchange for a tuition break and, if you can, get a weekend job so you can help pay for classes.
Dr. Goldschmidt’s Bottom Line: “It takes a while to find the right words to have a mature dialogue with your parents. It’s like choreographing! You find the steps that are right for you, then you make a performance for someone else.”